Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Director John Shooter on The Pitchfork Disney

I recently had the opportunity to see The Pitchfork Disney, directed by John Shooter. The play centres around a pair of siblings (Hayley and Presley Stray), living in a squalid East London flat, reminiscing about their dead parents while consisting on a diet of chocolate, mystery meds, and fear. To pass the time the siblings invent stories that are fantastical and nightmarish. Intruding on the Hansel and Gretel pair is Cosmo Disney, a circus-like character who possesses a twisted charisma that charms yet frightens Presley, and, later, Cosmo's sidekick, Pitchfork Cavalier.

donna g: The Pitchfork Disney is such a departure from Abigail's Party and Talking Heads. What precipitated the move in Precisely Peter Productions selecting Philip Ridley's play as its next theatrical offering?

John Shooter: When thinking of our mandate, l didn't want to be pigeonholed into doing specific types of plays, from a certain country, about a particular theme. I wanted to stage a diverse range of plays which interest me. The thing is, l don't really find them so different. In fact, one common theme between all five productions l've brought to Toronto so far do, l feel, have a common thread. They all give a voice to those in society who are usually discarded and are never listened to in normal circumstances. They are about human frailties and talk about the struggles and anxieties of living in a modern society. All the plays were written at least fifteen years ago but they are still bang up to date with their themes; and, of course, they are all laced with sharp witted humour which l love.

donna g: This play and the whole "in yer face" genre had a significant impact on British theatre in the 1990's. Did this movement effect you at all? What impact do you think this play will have on Toronto audiences in 2016?

Nikki Duval and Justin Miller
John Shooter: I would say that the explosion of "in-yer-face" theatre was a changing and exciting time in British theatre. I was a young drama school student at the time and we all loved this wave of plays as they were exciting and invigorating and spoke to our generation. We could relate to them. Philip Ridley is considered the most innovative living playwright. I would certainly agree with that. It is a gift to work on this rare gem of a play. As one audience member commented, it is both disgusting and beautiful.

donna g: For the most part this is a three hander with a fourth character making an entrance very late on the play. Could you please share your selection process for the cast? This is not an easy piece of theatre for any of your cast members.

John Shooter: To be honest, although the play is weighted (in terms of dialogue) on three characters, I see it very much as a four handed as the character who arrives last is crucial to the play and the whole experience. In fact, it was that character, Pitchfork Cavalier (Yehuda Fisher) that I cast first. I'd met Yehuda last year when he helped out on Brimstone and Treacle. I knew that I wanted an actor with excellent physical and vocal comedy skills and knew that Yehuda would be perfect. And perfect he is in every way.

I had met Nikki Duval last year (when l stalked her) through her agent, Kish Iqbal of Gary Goddard!  She's a very special actor and l had this urge to work with her. As soon as l heard her read, l knew that she was the one. She's so wonderful and has me in stitches.  I then cast Ayinde Blake. Again, he walked through the door, said three words and l knew he was exactly what l was looking for. He's a superb, lovely guy.

Ayinde Blake (left ) & Justin Miller
So, believe it or not, l had cast the roles of Hayley, Pitchfork and Cosmo before l'd found our Presley. The reason being that, l knew that these three actors would be snapped up quickly and l didn't want to risk losing them! Then I came across  Justin Miller. I'd seen Justin in Tom Arthur Davis' production of Birth (for which he was nominated for a DORA award). We read together (with me reading Hayley and Cosmo) and as soon as l heard him, l thought immediately, he's the one l'd been looking for. What a wonderful and lovely guy he is.

donna g: You've staged plays at the historic Campbell House and Theatre Passe Muraille? What lead you to an obscure location in Kensington Market?

John Shooter: I was looking for a venue which suited the play. I wanted to find an area which was alive with a creative buzz but laid back and accessible at the same time. As soon as l walked into Double Double Land, l knew that this would be the perfect venue. Daniel Vila and the other guys who work there have been amazing. They've really made us welcome and have allowed us to make the place our own for the duration of the run. I love this venue.

donna g: Could you please talk about your collaboration on the production design.

Nikki Duvall
John Shooter: I first met set and lighting designer George Quan over two years ago and we worked on Abigail's Party together. We knew that we wanted to create a world which was both real and surreal at the same time and to create the feeling of a grotty, decaying slum where the Stray twins had been festering for ten years before the audience meets them. George has done a phenomenal job. I love his use of colours and textures and how wonderfully he's complimented the set with his imaginative lighting design. He's an amazing guy.

The sound designer is Thomas Ryder Payne. He's one of my favourite sound designers and l love all his work. We chatted about the play, he came up with some sounds. I suggested some slight changes using only three (very basic) adjectives and from that he was able to come up with the perfect sound design for the whole show. A true professional.

Sandra Mandich made the dazzling red jacket. She's a York University graduate and was recommended to me by a leading film and TV costume designer. She did such a wonderful job and was totally committed to our project.

l had to find a good, reliable, committed and talented stage manager. You may think that's easy but it certainly wasn't. Until of course, l met Stephanie Simonetta. She's a York University student and what an asset she's been. I love working with her. She's the perfect stage manager and keeps us all in line!

Honestly, even if no one ever comes to see this play, l will always remember this show as a wonderful collaboration between a group of the most talented, humble and committed artists and technicians around.

donna g: Why did you decide to flip things so that the audience and not the characters is on the stage?

Nikki Duval & Justin Miller
John Shooter: The venue is set up with a raised stage at the far end and the audience are supposed to be seated at ground level. I didn't like that for this play. It would have felt too much like a "play" and that's not what l wanted at all. I, therefore, turned it around and made the little cupboards and extra rooms as part of the flat. Also, as the exit door is part of the set, the audience can't escape. Well, they could, but they would be attacked by Hayley Stray or even by Pitchfork Cavalier!

donna g: The play has no intermission? Was this as the playwright intended or was that your decision to encapsulate the audience in this nightmarish world for the length of the play?

John Shooter: The playwright prefers no intermission but if necessary, he indicates where the interval should be. I can't imagine this play with an interval. It's an experience in which you need to get on the track at the beginning and continue the journey until the very end. I know in this new world of flashy social media people's attention span has decreased. But, with The Pitchfork Disney, our audiences have been riveted. That's all thanks to the excellent writing and superb cast and designers.

donna g: The play has been on for a few days now. Has there been any surprises in the audience feedback?

John Shooter: The audience feedback has been amazing. One lady wants us to take it to Vancouver and it always generates lively debates about the different interpretations of its meaning. I think people are also amazed by how engrossed they are throughout the whole play. How many plays can hold your attention for two hours these days...with no intermission!

Hope to see you all there. Everyone deserves to experience the dark genius of Philip Ridley.

The Pitchfork Disney
On now until May 22, 2016
Double Double Land
209 Augusta Avenue (Kensington Market)
Toronto, ON M5T 2L4
Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com
General Admission $25 (ages 17+); Seniors/Arts Workers $20
2 hours, NO intermission, NO latecomers
Access involves climbing stairs, no wheelchair access, No washroom
Recommended 17+

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Hot Docs 2016 Interview: Katja Gauriloff on KAISA'S ENCHANTED FOREST

Kaisa's Enchanted Forest is a very personal documentary for filmmaker, Katja Gauriloff', as it relates the Skokt Sámi culture and history of her great-grandmother, Kaisa (pictured left). Kaisa's story is inextricably linked to Swiss writer, Robert Crottet, whose dreams/hallucinations while suffering from tuberculosis, direct him to seek out the magical creatures and stories of northern Finland write about and film his experiences there. Below is my brief interview with the director of this fantastical documentary.

donna g: Most of us never have the opportunity to know our great-grandparents, but you knew your great-grandmother, Kaisa. She died when you were a child, but do you recall some of the stories she told you or is your knowledge based on the archival footage?

Katja Gauriloff: When I was a kid as I can recall things, our granny was already very old and lost her memory. I can remember some moments with her but she was already living in her past.

In that time she didn't tell stories anymore. When my mother was a child, she and her siblings always listened to her stories in the evenings, so I have heard about the stories told by my mom, aunties and uncles. It was mainly atmosphere and tones, but the real information I got by researching the archival footage and the sound recordings from the 1950’s.

donna g: What was it like to see your great-grandmother on screen? 

Katja: Wonderful! magical! I also saw my other family in the footage, aunties and uncles as kids so it was a true treasure for me.  I was also a bit worried to make a film in the beginning because I read that Kaisa never understood "why to put people walking on the sheet on a wall.” And that was my plan: to put her on a white sheet on a  wall.

donna g: Kaisa's friendship with Robert Crottet is extraordinary! Did you ever meet him? Were you aware of his fundraising initiatives that helped postwar Skolt Sámi move off reservations?

Katja: I never had a change to meet him but I always knew about him. He was like an extended family member. I always used to hear stories about him! I didn't know about the effort he put into helping my people. I knew about the books but didn't know about the fundraising. That was something I learned while researching the film.

donna g: Your documentary is almost like a dreamscape in the way it depicts Kaisa's life and her stories. Fantasy and reality blend in such a way that I feel as captivated by the land and culture as Robert did when he visited the Skolt Sámi community. Could you share how you determined the colour scheme as well as your choice of animation?

Katja: The original idea was to mix reality with fantasy, archive footage with fiction and animation. I’m happy we succeeded so well. Everything is based on Robert’s texts from Enchanted Forest and the footage they shot with my family. But I also wanted to bring one original legend of Kaisha's onto the screen. I found this amazing genuine recordings from the 50’s. To animate the legend was crazy because the stories have always been only oral heritage. Unfortunately, Kaisa was the last person to tell these stories in our family. I don't know if there is anyone left who can tell these legends.  I tried to do it in a respectful way, so the animation is, of course,  my own vision and perception of the legend.  I wanted this animation to be as close to "handicraft ” as possible-- that’s why it’s hand drawn by one artist.

donna g: The hard framed edges of the archival wartime footage is in contrast to Kaisa's world and reinforce the harshness of that time period. Was it difficult to find the British audio of people expressing their positive and negative views about helping the Sámi people?

Katja: All that audio is remade with actors and all the text we used was from Robert Crottets’ memoirs. From Britain, it was impossible to find any of the archive sound material from that time concerning to our people. We used a lot of time researching, but didn't succeed. But blending reality with fiction material was my original idea so it wasn’t a problem.
donna g: What has been the most rewarding thing about making this film?

Katja: That moment when we got the first rough cut of the film done. That was the moment I really believed we can make this. The story was very complicated and to find the right material was hard. But I really hope the most rewarding thing is still coming. I still haven't shown the film to my people. Their opinion about the film is everything to me. -END-

Tuesday, May 3, 7pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Thursday, May 5, 4:15pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3
Sunday, May 8, 5:45pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Click here for details/buy tickets
Box Office 416.637.5150
All photos courtesy of Hot Docs

Friday, 29 April 2016

Hot Docs Interview: Maria Armalovsky on Future Baby

Maria Armalovsky, director of Future Baby 
Austria's Maria Armalovsky's documentary Future Baby raises some interesting questions about the ways in which people will be able to select their version of family. We are far from the days of "test tube baby" Louise Brown, but in years ahead, the question of "where do babies come from?" will be answered in a more ways than we ever anticipated. Future Baby screens at Hot Docs 2016 on April 30, May 2 and May 8th. Click here for show times/venue and to buy tickets.

donna g: I thought I knew what to expect from your film, after all, it's called Future Baby; however, you ventured into territory that I didn't even think about. As a woman who has decided to remain child free, your film made me realize that reproductive biotechnology raises issue that are societal as well as individual. 

Maria Armalovsky: Yes, you are right, emerging reproduction technologies combined with the relatively new knowledge of genetics is an issue that goes far above the topic of how to get babies. We are starting to understand, that we really could change and design the evolution of our species. Which is a huge topic. With FUTURE BABY I wanted to make people understand, that the craving or urge to have a baby gets things rolling. Scientist and doctors are triggered to offer solutions that become more and more sophisticated. You can earn a lot with new ideas. The marketplace to create a "perfect child" is huge. I suppose that is something very human to want the best for your child – so if you get the chance to look out for the "best" options, future parents will be tempted. But as you say, it is not only about parents, or children 2.0, it is about society that will change when some people use those technologies while others can't afford it.

donna g: How long did you spend researching the topic?

Maria: We have been researching for 2 years and the production took 3 years – but to be honest, since I started to research, I never stopped  being driven to learn more about it.

donna g: Your film takes us to several countries, and while it wasn't a surprise to see a Mexican city in your film, I didn't expect to see Villahermosa. Why that city?

Maria: Fertility tourism, makes it possible to undermine the national laws of the country you are living in, and also it offers cheaper opportunities to make affordable choices for intended parents. This means, if you have a state that offers cheap surrogacy with relatively good medical standards plus laws that make it seemingly easy for IPs to bring the children home – you will have a market place that will raise steadily. The need and the offer combined with women in very bad economic conditions makes a combination that is bringing in business to countries and nations that have a strong urge to make better business. When we started the research, India was the biggest player for affordable surrogacy for hetero and homosexual couples. After some scandals and work from NGOs that tried to protect the surrogates it shut down. So everybody fell for Thailand, more and more clinics where offering packages for the "West". Then again: scandals, irritations about men having babies and Thailand was shut down. When we had to shoot the surrogate story Villahermosa was the place to go, it was just opened to a wider international fertility audience. The law allowed you to have a baby with a surrogate if she gave birth to the child in the state of Tabasco. Villahermosa as the capital of Tabasco was the place with the best hospitals, airport, hotels, advocates etc.

Noa (right) and her mother, Ruth

donna g: Could you share how you met the family from Israel--the single mother and her daughter? They really brought home to me the similarity between children of sperm donation and adoption.

Maria: Yes exactly, everything adopted children had been fighting for, namely to have a right to get more information about their biological parents – is the same with children of 3rd party reproduction. But all the struggles adopted adults have  had (they don't stay children) to change the law and to change the perspective of adults involved in the business, are somehow useless, if society does not make that connection with 3rd party reproduction. Noa – the young woman from Israel- is raising her voice because she is desperate that the state and doctors make the change for her to know more about her heritage. This means not that she needs a father figure but that she wants, like every child, to know for example, why her nose looks the way it does, why she is the only one in her family liking Sauerkraut, why she has migraines very often. Noa wants to know, if she has half siblings, she would like to connect with them since they share perhaps similar ways to be in the world. She is also afraid of incest since she is not able to know with whom she shares a bloodline. Her mother Ruth, understood that depriving Noa of such essential information does not help in building good mother-daughter bonds, so she tried to help Noa and started a blog in Israel, to get more information out: why it is important for children of 3rd party reproduction to ban anonymity in the process. This is how we found them.

donna g: The concept of artificial wombs sounds like something from a Philip K Dick story. I know we're not there yet, but did  talk of this surprise?

Maria: The concept of an artificial womb is a good opportunity to start thinking. It is somehow shocking as an idea – at least for me it was shocking – but I suppose at some point in the future it could be possible. It would be the natural next step after the embryoskope where you see the blastocyst cells grow and the neonatal care units where parents can monitor their premies on the app at home. It could solve the problem of needing surrogates in the process. Anna Smajdor is perfectly right when she says that we have to start thinking in advance of changing technologies. Otherwise society will lack the possibility to build opinions, to make sure politics follow.

A biotechnician examines eggs in Future Baby

donna g: Babies are cute, but behind this I see a lot of money being made by others from fertility tourism. Do you think most people in the countries you visited are even aware of this?

Maria: The fertility industry (and I don't even want to mark industry as something generally bad) is a market place where you can make money if you are clever. But this cleverness always includes the need for women as egg cell donors and surrogates in economically harsh situations, and this kind of general taboo helps in keeping the fertility marketplace invisible. The storytelling of the industry is more about the altruistic, generous side of donors and the wish to help of surrogates.

donna g: It must have been very difficult to edit your film down to 90 minutes or so. Can you tell us about a scene that you had to cut, even though it broke your heart to do so?

Maria: I had Yuval Harari, an Israeli historian and Julian Savulescu, from Oxford a philosopher, talking about Transhumanism - how Transhumanism plays into the repro-tech business and how it will change our world as we know it. It was too much and going too far. It was hard for me to let go. So I will have to wait for my next opportunity to make a documentary film.

donna g: What does it mean to you, personally and/or professionally, to have your film screen at Hot Docs?

Maria: I am so looking forward to getting feed back from an international audience. -END-

All photos courtesy of Hot Docs