by: Caleigh Crow
It’s lunch time. Cast and crew members are slowly trickling out of the rehearsal hall with their bagged meals in tow, settling on the high stools or low couches that surround the piano in the ArtLounge at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts. The piano sits with its cover closed, but I overhear one lunch-eater dare another to go play a few notes. There’s a lot of polite “Is this seat taken?” chatter with an equal amount of good-natured “No, go ahead, how’s it going?” responses. A woman with headphones makes a beeline for a corner of one of the couches, pulls up her hood, folds her arms and leans her head against the wall, facing into the corner. Sometimes nourishment comes in the form of a piping hot bowl of ramen, sometimes it comes as a 15-minute powernap. It takes all kinds.
I’m here to meet with Mike Payette, director of Angélique, a co-production between Tableau D’Hôte Theatre and Black Theatre Workshop. The play, written by Lorena Gale, incorporates many different performing arts disciplines to tell the true story of Angélique, a slave in Nouvelle-France who was accused of starting a fire that saw 45 buildings in Montreal burned.
Lunch splits the day up perfectly: it’s a break, a breath, but there’s still half a rehearsal to get to, so there’s a need to stay focused. People are happily eating away, satisfied with a good morning’s work and thinking ahead to the rest of the day. The ideal atmosphere for an interview.
Mike and I choose a soft looking couch under a window and the sunlight is shining on top of our heads lazily, hazily. It’s March sunshine, it can’t be expected to jolt the room alive with energy. Still, it’s peaceful and Mike answers my questions with the same serenity emanating from the other diners.
Mike has had a yen to produce this script for several years, ever since they used Angélique as part of a training program at Black Theatre Workshop many years ago. What stuck out to Mike about the play was “Lorena Gale’s use of poetry, prose, docudrama, and heightened drama in the creation of a really unapologetic, raw, interpretation of the story of Angélique as a historical figure but also within a contemporary context,” He explains, “to see how far we’ve come as a society, what it means to have a timeless systemic racist environment in north America and the acknowledgement of Quebec having roots in slavery as well.”
Slavery is a weighty subject for any artist to tackle, but Mike emphasizes that the playwright has provided an extremely artful way to address the topic. “I just saw the opportunity for it to be an incredibly theatrical piece that also invited various cultural practices into the mix as well, to bring other disciplines like choreography and music as well.”
All writing is done by people; humans with all their quirks, foibles, and biases that vary from writer to writer. This includes plays, and it includes history, and we like to think of history as a series of categorical facts told to us as a story. The truth is a lot muddier than at first glance, and the same is true of the story of Angélique. Mike believes the playwright is aware of the nuances of Angélique’s story. “I don’t think Lorena’s trying to say this is how it actually happened,” Mike explains, “What she’s presenting is a proposal for us to consider how one person could be the cause of all this destruction and why. At the end of the day we don’t know if she started the fire, but what is really interesting is why we assume that she did.”
In terms of the performance of the play, Mike has seemingly endless vision. He’s a director who exudes professionalism, and I’m not surprised to hear him describe in very clear terms the way Mike intends to communicate with the audience beyond the text itself. He explains, “We decided to embrace the character of Angélique as a ‘mover’. What this means is the play calls for her to move. That movement becomes an expression of dialogue as well, and the thing that is really compelling is that when we have various cultures and practices in various forms presented in front of us, so regardless of where you come from or how you speak or communicate, this becomes a universal language.” In this way, Mike uses the play’s embrace of different theatrical forms to bring together many performing arts disciplines to transform the play into an artistic experience where there’s something for everyone. “Lorena’s suggesting that regardless of where you’re coming from there is a universal language we can all agree on that is speech, but that’s also movement, that’s also the body, and that’s where the discourse between culture and politics and gender, can really collide.”
Every time Mike answers one of my questions it takes me a moment to decide where to take the conversation next. His answers are nuanced but clear, and he manages to say a lot without drilling me with a string of definite statements. Yet the lunchtime mood permeates our talk so that the momentary down time is welcome for me and even tranquil. Imagine us as Zen monks contemplating a ripple in a pond while all the other monks nosh on sandwiches from home and ask each other about their weekend hangovers.
“I’m not interested in telling a slave story, that’s not what makes this piece unique,” Mike says, and I lean in to hear better, “What makes this piece unique is that it’s really about power and who has that power and when, and what people do when they have that power or when they have no chance of getting it.” Mike is deftly steering us into political territory, and certainly there are political stakes in performing this play in our current political climate. But, as Mike points out, history doesn’t really end. “There’s this thought that this production is quite timely because of everything that’s happening and rather than going into that mind we’re embracing the fact that it’s timeless.”
Mike has another interview scheduled for this busy lunch break so I conclude the interview and thank him for speaking with me. As I walk out of theatre the sunlight seems just as dim, and there’s a fine layer of salt and gravel on everything I lay my eyes on. Still, I feel lifted and excited after talking with Mike. This is a man with a plan, and he’s creating an experience that covers such a large artistic territory, and he sold it to me very convincingly. I’ll leave you with his final thoughts on the project:
“So, what are our responsibilities, as artists at this particular point in time? Let’s use the art to protest. Let’s be overt. Let’s use theatre as the tool to talk about these really present issues and let’s be creative and artistic about it and put on a really hot show.”