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+

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