The crux of my identity as a theatre person is very wrapped up in who my production partner is, and the way we collaborate and dialogue. Martha Ross and I both spent two years in L'Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She was one year ahead of me and when I came back we met up again and said, "Why don't we do a show together?" And we did, and we just got going in the way that that sort of thing happens.
Inspiration is project-specific. Often it begins with something personal, something that we've been thinking about, or living through or experiencing, and trying to translate it into a language that hopefully opens up to a broader audience.
With Lonely Nights & Other Stories, I remembered experiencing a sense of loneliness in the city. So many people are intensely lonely, and I think we are at a time in our culture where loneliness isn't on the surface, but it is pulsating underneath.
So inspiration comes from these kinds of observations, but it can also come from things like a picture. A long time ago, we did a show called Melancholia -- Martha had this infatuation with a Durer print called Melancholia of a slumped angel surrounded by all these scientific instruments.
We mostly create our own work, but we also love to work on classical pieces. We spend some time every year reading classics, and ask people for suggestions, and then we'll choose six or seven plays. And then we get actors to get in and spend a glorious week just reading and talking about these wonderful plays, and that's a very satisfying and inspiring time.
We read Peer Gynt about seven years ago, and we did a workshop of it about five years ago, where we spent three weeks with 10 actors and actually presented a piece to an audience. But we let it go because we couldn't figure out why we should do it, and what the attraction was. And also, how to do it -- it's a huge play, an epic, with 50 characters.
But the play kept coming up, and we kept struggling with it, and finally it was time, and we found a translation that appealed to us. Our invention of this is mostly in this production style. We have five actors doing it, and it's performed as if it's the recording of a radio play -- the time period is "neo-today." But it also has this thirties and forties feel, a feeling of when radio was really strong.
We don't do this to its fullest extent, but we often work from a physical starting point as opposed to an intellectual one. What this means is we have an actor approach a character from a physical way, talking about the character for a long time and finding out where that character sits in the body. If they were going to cross the floor, how would they move? We look for information from the physical place about the character, and about the play.
The body can tell us a lot, if not more than what goes on in our minds. There really is an accuracy to trying to embody who a person is physically. It can give you information that is unique and interesting and true. To me that is exciting. That said, Gynty was an incredibly intellectual process -- which is also wonderful.
We don't do more than two projects a year at the moment. We used to do more, but now we usually do one major project and one less major and we're always in the process of developing something. What I love about the kind of theatre that Martha and I do is that it is a process of questioning and requestioning, so that you rarely come up with the answers. But that keeps you young and forever moving forward.
My day-to-day work is multifocused. We are the artistic directors of a theatre company, and that requires some vision. I taught clown for 15 years at the National Theatre School, and now I am teaching at Ryerson [Polytechnic University in Toronto] It helps subsidize my directing life, but also lets you tap into another world. I have a daughter, and it can be difficult balancing being a mother and a director. The reality of my life is fractured, so my coping strategy is to be where I am, as fully as I am. I'll finish a rehearsal, and have 20 minutes to shift to the exuberant energy of my daughter. And when she goes to bed, if I have the energy, I'll go back to the work and centre myself there.
It's a tough world, directing, teaching and being a mother. You're always in this position of nurturing. Being a good director is close to being a good parent. I'm a collaborator from way back, and with actors, I desperately want their input, but at the same time you have to give a certain amount of restriction and controls and direction to keep the thing in order. Co-founder and co-artistic director of the Dora and Chalmers award-winning Theatre Columbus, Leah Cherniak directs Gynty at the Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto, March 13-31. Call 416-504-9971. She spoke to .