Hello theatre creators, educators, scholars and everything in between! I hope you’re having a productive-yet-restful summer. Ever wonder what it’s like...
5 February 2014: The DARTcritics attended the matinee performance on 25th January of London Road at Canadian Stage. Here are some of their review responses:
Sarah Mason writes: I remember once having a conversation with my father which involved him questioning the way in which playtexts are usually delivered. He said that despite theatre being a representation of life, lines in a play tend not to be an accurate representation of everyday speech which is full of flubs and stutters. If you agree with my father, then you’ll probably be very interested in verbatim theatre – the mode in which English writer Alecky Blythe composed London Road. Even if you don’t, you may want to take a stroll down London Road at Canadian Stage anyway.
Nearing the end of 2006, the English town of Ipswich was wracked with the serial murders of five prostitutes by Steve Wright, who lived on London Road. Blythe conducted extensive interviews with residents about their response to the murders and their resulting effects on the town. These interviews were then turned into a script – word for word. Every stutter, every fumble, every pause is recreated in this play. This was my first time viewing verbatim theatre, and it took me a bit of time to catch on. But I was happy to find that instead of being off-put by the speech patterns, I instead found it made the production more relatable. Rather than a recounting of the murders, the show makes you feel as if you are placed right in the middle of the events as the actors play out several different roles where their point of view is portrayed through residents’ conversations, newscasts, etc.
The versatility shown by the actors is a marvel. Each cast member played several different roles, and it is a small cast of eleven people so you are greeted with a familiar face often. It would be worth seeing the production for the actors’ abilities alone, dealing with verbatim, multiple roles and music. And speaking of music, if you are expecting a Broadway-like soundtrack, then you may be disappointed. Composer Adam Cork instead aims for a musical style that matches the speech. It’s a different approach and luckily at times still sounds pleasant. The lyrics at times seemed to drag on for longer than needed. While I respect that that songs were created out of real interviews, Blythe and Cork had the power to shape the interviews, and the repetitive nature of the lyrics were off-putting at times as I tried to wait patiently for the next bit of action to start.
The set is full of projections of typical English row houses to give the illusion of really being on London Road; there are rotating walls and a very memorable moment where flower baskets descend from the ceiling. The set is just another way that London Road plunges you into the role of an empathetic observer during a travesty in a small town that could have happened anywhere. Jackie Maxwell’s production is a interesting and well directed contribution to the Canadian Stage line up. Should my father ever argue about play-text again, I will not hesitate to take him to see this show.
Hayley Malouin writes: Welcome to London Road, where nothing is made up and the prostitutes don’t matter. Onstage at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre for its North American premiere, Alecky Bythe and Adam Cork’s smash hit verbatim musical is a shockingly conservative depiction of British country life, which perpetuates the alienation of sex workers.
An idyllic Suffolk town is cast into fear and paranoia after the murders of five local prostitutes. The citizens, in an effort to stop the branding of their street as a “red-light district”, form a neighbourhood council determined to brighten up their bleak surroundings. Through the word-for-word staging of Blythe’s original interviews, and accompanied by Cork’s truly impressive musical score, London Road paints an unsettling, one-sided picture of a community more preoccupied with its own inconvenience than with the loss of innocent life.
I found myself eagerly waiting for the other shoe to drop; for some remark to be challenged or contrasted; to see the other side of London Road. But to no avail. The conservative, morally righteous neighbourhood council members became the show’s clear protagonists, unchallenged and unchecked. The few sex workers whose interviews Blythe did include were absent from the stage until the latter half of the second act, where they spoke for a total of five minutes.
There was enough time for two songs about gardens filled with begonias, petunias, and impatiens. Teenagers gabbed at length about their fear of (“um, well, like”) everyone being a suspect, and even the news reporters at court had a grand musical number. The prostitutes, despite being the main point of contention throughout the production, were not there. Two and a half hours were spent talking about the effects on the citizens of Ipswich, but the women who truly faced obstacles from all sides – dehumanized by the killer and villainized by the town – were barely present. Hanging garden baskets got more stage time than them.
Ultimately, London Road’s crime is not maliciousness, but a seeming lack of awareness about its alienating standpoint. Blythe and Cork do not seem to be conscious they are even offering a standpoint, and that this standpoint dehumanizes women already feared and loathed by their community, and indeed by Western society. Painfully traditional and disturbingly self-righteous in nature, London Road’s conservative assumptions dehumanize the women afflicted by these murders, onstage and off.
Emily Ferrier writes: What were my first thoughts stepping out of the Canadian Stage doors and into the bitter Canadian weather to ponder London Road? Well that was certainly the most… different musical I’ve ever seen.
Um. Yeah. It was different.
A verbatim. Musical. With verbatim music. Yeah.
A grim topic for a musical – murder and prostitutes that is – and so, yeah I wasn’t sure how exactly it would work. And it didn’t, really in the traditional sense. But Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork weren’t going for tradition when they wrote London Road. They adapt the verbatim technique, in which words spoken are taken word for word from interviews with real people, to their own unique material, about the murders of five prostitutes in the small town of Ipswich, England in 2006, and make it into a musical. It was, actually quite refreshing and different. I have to admit, I was sceptical when the first scene of a town meeting was entirely done in song, awkward song where the words did not fit quite, er, quite fit into the music properly. But after growing to know the characters, I found it quite endearing.
The verbatim technique gave these characters, depth and reality. And It was refreshing, you know, to see people onstage, being… real. No jazz hands, heavy choreography or sparkling dresses. It almost felt like, a dream, you know because of the music. Like having a dream that everyone just sang. All the time. Well not all the time but, enough of the time that it was out of the ordinary.
A few of the songs, however, felt extremely awkward – especially the closing number about how the beauty of flowers and people coming together helped rebuild a town torn apart by tragedy. It was hard to hear, what was actually being said, you know. Because multiple layers of text you know, on top of each other like that. Well I lost a lot of the story, like, essential parts like, the arrest of the murderer and then, his trial verdict.
But what we never really, found out, what could have been the most important, aspect of the story: how this affected the prostitutes. The ones that were still alive, that is. We heard plenty of testimonies from those affected by their down getting a bad rep, but what about those women terrified for their lives and livelihoods? I don’t really understand, why we barely got that side other than one short number right near the end.
So, in short, I suppose, this was an odd way to learn about a real-life tragedy and how it affected the people who had to, and still have to deal with it being a part of their lives. Odd. Yeah.
Michael Caccamo writes: Canadian Stage’s London Road alters definitions of the term “musical” and “narrative” in more ways than one.
Staged in the luxurious Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s musical play takes place in the English town of Ipswich, where the killer of five prostitutes is put to trial. The play (based on real-life incidents in 2006), tells the story from the neighbouring residents’ points of view. We see and hear how the local and international media has invaded their private lives, and how they view their “disturbed” neighbour, Steve Wright – the man who was eventually convicted of the murders.
The characters alternatively communicate fear, innocence, and the paranoid view that any man in the community could be the serial killer. Director Jackie Maxwell delivers a piece of theatre that is fast-paced and engaging despite the grim circumstances in which the characters find themselves.
The text and music, concocted from interviews with the actual residents of Ipswich, bring pleasure to the ears, especially when the whole cast is onstage singing together (the piece sounds more like a shining example of a modern opera than a traditional musical).
The talented cast of eleven each have one major role and also play as many fifty different other characters. They do an amazing job transitioning between roles. As an ensemble they don’t miss a beat. The synergy amongst the performers enhances the impression that the characters they’re playing are a community.
Two who shine in particular are Damien Atkins and Deborah Hay. While they both are adults, their ability to transition into teenagers is flawless. One minor gripe lies in Fiona Reid’s accent; at times, it is hard to understand her dialogue.
Scenic designer Judith Bowden creates interchangeable sets that are intimate, conjuring up the feeling of a working-class neighbourhood whether the characters are outside in the garden or all together in a living room. Adding to the spectacle is how the actors engage with the space which make it an even more visual pleasure.
The unlikely lyricism of the verbatim text is the backbone of the show. Word usage such as “um”, “ah”, and “yeah” might throw you off at first but this is what makes the icing on the cake of this show (despite the bleak subject matter).
If you want to go on a theatrical journey that will excite as well as enlighten you, then I suggest a trip down London Road.
Kendra Neaves writes: This verbatim musical set in the English town of Ipswich starts off like no other. Muffled voice recordings of interviews with people sporting dense accents almost alienate the audience before the first note is ever sung. Yet if you can reprogram your brain quickly enough London Road, directed by Jackie Maxwell, offers a compelling stroll through Ipswich’s unfortunate recent past.
Based on interviews about five murders in the town in 2006, London Road, written by Alecky Blythe and composed by Adam Cork, is simultaneously charming and jarring.The quirky, almost off-putting style, which includes every umm and ahh from the original interviews, reminds the audience constantly that they are hearing words really spoken by the town’s residents.
After the recorded prologue, the opening number throws the audience into a Neighbourhood Watch meeting where residents discuss how to recover the area’s reputation after the murders. How, you might ask, would this be accomplished? But covering up troubling secrets with flowers and garden parties. The Neighbourhood Watch is so concerned with their own image that at times they come off as snide and unfeeling.
A concern about the material is that, by focusing on the residents and their view of the murders, they play almost completely avoids the issue of prostitution. When several of the town’s surviving prostitutes finally do appear it is only for a brief scene about how they have retired from the streets. It’s hard not to wonder if the point of the show is to villainize the profession, to show that with a few murders you can get rid of your town’s “red light district”.
Through the entire production the eleven ensemble members play 52 characters ranging from prostitutes to schoolgirls. The actors switch characters as quickly as changing a hat: be warned – if you aren’t watching closely enough, you might miss a change or two. Given how many characters there are, I clung to the characters I recognised. Deborah Hay and Damien Atkins steal the show with their comedic timing and vocal variety. One moment in particular, involving a newscaster’s attempt to convey the story on camera without saying “semen” really got the crowd howling.
The concept of a verbatim musical is ingenious, and while some of the songs are extremely catchy, there are a few hitches with Maxwell’s production. One is the stagnant stage picture; there is so little movement in this production that I was shocked to read in the programme that there was a movement director (Valerie Moore) at all. Most of the production is staged in tableau, which only works because of set and costume designer Judith Bowden’s attention to detail: sometimes it was a difference in hairstyle that allowed us to tell characters apart.
Overall London Road is an innovation in the musical world, that always keeps the audience questioning what’s going to happen next. But though clever and unique, it lacks the viewpoint of the one group of people we most needed to hear from.
Sean Cottrell, Chloe Coyle, Kate Croome, and Tara Johnston write: On Saturday, January 18th, four #DARTcritics attended the dress rehearsal of London Road at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel theatre. Some of us had been at the tech run the previous night; however, this would be the first time that all of us would see the show in its entirety, only three and a half weeks after the initial rehearsal had taken place. Jackie Maxwell, notepad in hand, along with her production team and several recent graduates of the National Theatre School were also among the audience members that night.
The show starts off with a single illuminated chair at edge of the stage to represent the interviewer, Alecky Blythe’s, presence. As the production involves direct address to the audience, Maxwell wanted to establish the audience as the interviewer, as opposed to simply an outside observer. We believe this use of the chair worked to generate thought among the audience, leading them to question what the chair represents in semiotic terms. This worked to create a sense of intimacy between the audience and the onstage action.
Overall, we agreed with Maxwell’s initial concern that the show wouldn’t “sit in the space” and feel that intimacy was not always fully achieved. The 876-seat theatre seemed too large for this production and fell short in portraying a small town community. While the show did its best to fill the large space, with illusions of police tape and a number of large monitors, ultimately we agree that it would have been more effective in a smaller space so as to reduce the physical space between the audience and the performers. This would also assist in conveying the overwhelming presence of the media in Ipswich as the events unfolded. That being said, the production was still quite effective in getting this message across.
In terms of costuming, we believe that Judith Bowden successfully achieved her vision, by not making the people seem presented as types rather than as individuals. This was achieved in the use of subtle colors and simple and casual contemporary clothing. This avoided stereotyping the people and also succeeded to make them seem as though they were an extension of the audience, naturally sharing their story with the rest of us.
At our initial meeting with Maxwell, another challenge she raised was that the verbatim style requires being true to the original material, while at the same time communicating clearly to a Canadian audience despite heavy accents. She said then that she might decide to alter a few of the phrases so that the story as a whole was not negatively affected by comprehension issues. At the dress rehearsal she told us that in the end they did not have to alter any of the dialogue. We were very impressed by the level of authenticity in the actors’ speech, guided by dialect coach Jane Gooderham; their accents sounded very similar to the original interview tapes Maxwell played us in our first interview meeting. Nonetheless we, among other members of the audience, found it difficult to make out some of the phrases and character changes during the matinee performance we attended. Given this, choreographer Valerie Moore’s work in helping performers convey habitual movements, changes in posture, and carriage were particularly helpful in differentiating between characters.
After the dress rehearsal, Maxwell announced, “there you have it, in its entirety”. We asked whether she was happy, knowing that she is meticulous and disciplined in her craft. She said that at that point, they “still [had] a lot to do”, but that the “heart, soul and bones are all there”. She was particularly content as “the base is there, and there is balance with the band” after their first full run of the show. Her exhaustion showed when she further joked that “the one thing about verbatim is that you can ad-lib and nobody fucking knows.” Given Maxwell’s commitment to being as true as possible to the original script, we felt it highly unlikely that any of her performers would resort to improvising dialogue!
The best advice we would give to audiences planning on seeing Canadian Stage’s production of London Road is what Canadian Stage’s education director Erin Schachter said to our whole group right before we saw the matinee: “I’m not going to say enjoy the show – but embrace it”. London Road challenges audiences to suspend their understanding of a conventional musical, to see a new side of storytelling that goes beyond catchy lighthearted songs and flashy dance moves, and gets to the heart of the human condition.
25 January 2014: Four DARTcritics are embedded behind the scenes in Canadian Stage’s production of London Road – a verbatim musical about the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England in 2006, which recently played to great acclaim at London’s National Theatre. Three of the group attended the technical rehearsal on 17th January. Here’s what it was like:
Chloe Coyle writes: We arrived at the Bluma Appel Theatre at about 6:15 pm on Friday 17 January after the taxi ride of our lives. Though getting sung at by an eccentric cabbie was entertaining, observing the technical rehearsal of the verbatim musical London Road at Canadian Stage was what this evening was all about. I was wondering whether the production team had been able to achieve everything they wanted, on the technical spectrum, for the show.
As the actors warmed up I focused on their costumes. Costume designer Judith Bowden had expressed at the first rehearsal that she wanted to avoid stereotypes when costuming. The characters looked everyday, in jeans and sweaters, much the same as my aunt or uncle might wear. Dodge, played by Steve Ross was dressed in work boots, faded jeans and a dark sweater for much of the production. In my view Bowden successfully managed to personify people, and not ideas.
Only twenty seconds in, there is a technical problem with the music, and director Jackie Maxwell calls out that they need to take it from the beginning. Round two began within a minute, and there was no stopping the old man who shuffles on stage with a cane, or any other actor for that matter: high energy was in the air.
Shuffle… shuffle… shuffle…
Music director Reza Jacobs, playing piano in the orchestra pit, led the actors through a song which if heard just instrumentally, would be enjoyed as tasteful and tuneful, but with dialogue added, displays the particular qualities of the verbatim music genre: it is filled with the idiosyncracies of speaking voices, chiming with many “um” and “ahs”. Jacobs and the actors communicated efficiently, identifying concerns together and then speaking with the sound operators. Throughout the tech run, issues arose about the actors being able to hear themselves and each other, and lower harmonies were often lost in the mix. However, the following day at the dress rehearsal (which we also attended) every crescendo was clear. It seemed like the audio glitches were resolved.
Distinction between the actors’ voices and the piano blended beautifully and it became hard to tell which directed the other. The voice and the music became one.
During intermission, Maxwell told us it had been seven years since the Orchestra pit has been opened up at the Bluma for a Canadian Stage production. This was surprising, seeing as how the company in its earlier days was famous for producing musicals. The company is resorting to old habits – with progressive intentions!
“Begonias and petunias and… “: seventeen large baskets full of flowers drop down from the flies over the stage. Kate, Sean and I had the delight of speaking to technician Greg Granger, who is a proud Brock Dramatic Arts graduate of nearly 50 years ago. His part in the production is to drop props from the sky loft forty feet in the air. Flower baskets and panel of five screens, reminiscent of a film strip, are rigged for this production and controlled by Granger.
So…. things seemed to be running smoothly on London Road. It will be interesting to see what has changed on Saturday when Sean, Kate, Tara and I, along with our fellow critics with class, see the show.
Kate Croome writes: When we entered the Bluma Appel Theatre, everyone involved with the production seemed in a flurry, caught between extreme excitement and extreme nerves about this new and challenging piece. It was reassuring to find that professional theatre companies get nervous during “hell week” too!
We had the privilege of speaking to a number of people on the creative and design team, and it was uplifting to observe professionals all devoted to a common cause. Voice and dialect coach Jane Gooderham informed us of the challenges of the use of accents in a verbatim musical. With Cockney, for example, Gooderham explained that there are a number of options for pronunciations. In typical musicals, the voice coach would select the pronunciation that was most easily understood; with a verbatim piece, however, there is no such liberty as it would fail to represent the speech of the real person. Gooderham also revealed that the London Road team had been working seven-day weeks with only three days off at Christmas.
We were pleased to find a lot of Niagara talent working in the Bluma Appel. Lighting Designer Kevin Lamotte approached us for a chat: he hails from Niagara-on-the-Lake and is the Shaw Festival lighting design director. Steve Ross, who plays Dodge, is a Brock alumnus; he was very excited to see us in the audience.
The cast performed the entire first act and half of the second with full costumes and lights. It was thrilling to see Maxwell’s vision come to life. While the run was not entirely smooth, most of the glitches were pretty much imperceptible to us. During the breaks it was obvious that the actors were tired, but none of that fatigue was present in their performances.
After performing most of the show, there was still a bit of time left before the band had to leave. Maxwell asked the cast to sing through and do the basic choreography for a few other numbers, as well as rerunning a few numbers from the first half to perfect them. The actors were also asked to practice a number of transitions and quick costume changes. It is clear that both Maxwell and music director Reza Jacobs are strongly devoted to their craft; neither were content until the sound levels were just right. It was exhilarating to watch these two professionals at work, both completely unyielding in their artistic visions, and yet so kind and nurturing towards their actors. As a young performer, I’ve always worried the professional world of theatre would be a scary place, where directors are perpetually cranky and you have to always watch your “ps and qs.” It is wonderful to know that there are artists like Jackie Maxwell who, while being strongly opinionated and a supreme perfectionist, still has utmost faith in her actors’ abilities to carry out her artistic vision.
It’s amazing thinking back on our initial meeting with Maxwell, and now seeing her vision in motion. London Road has come such a long way since November. I for one am most excited to see it in full performance.
Sean Cottrell writes: I felt initially unnerved walking through the stage door of the Bluma Appel theatre: how were I and my fellow DARTcritics going to be able to appreciate and communicate everything that had happened in the month-long rehearsal process of London Road? Stepping into the theatre itself, this nervousness was all but forgotten as we were greeted by various company members and designers getting ready to go on with their technical rehearsal.
When we first spoke to Jackie Maxwell, one of her biggest concerns was the size of the theatre, so I was particularly interested to see how the set had turned out. There are different projections of a typical, small English street with long horizontal and vertical strips of yellow paint – representing police tape – which direct the eye to particular spots of focus. Maxwell had expressed concern that with no music in transitions between scenes, and because the theatre is so large, there would be difficulty getting actors into positions in time. I thought they dealt with this issue wonderfully; they had installed three tall spinning panels upstage, and a sliding platform in each wing. These made it easy for the eye to follow the flow of the action in transitions; one moment we are in a pub, then in a café, then inside one of the cozy houses on London Road. Nothing ever stays the same. The cast and crew seemed very happy with how the set has turned out, and I agree.
When we got to chat to lighting designer Kevin Lamotte, he honed in on exactly the same issue – focusing the audience’s attention on particular places on the stage. He said he was trying to perfect the size and color of the light to just illuminate the space in use, and nothing else, and was working with different levels of light to make sure the action did not seem too small when only a portion of the stage was in use. With this careful lighting and impressive set design, it seems to me like Maxwell has solved the problem of the large space. The set never feels unused, and the show uses the entire theatre to its advantage.
What seemed to take priority during the tech run was sound. This was their first opportunity to rehearse in the theatre, and a few things were going awry. Mikes weren’t picking up actors in specific spots, and in others sound cues and amps were overpowering anything that tried to compete with them. In another show they might have been able to get away with a slightly imperfect mix, but for a verbatim musical, everything had to be tuned, then fine-tuned, then tuned again to make sure the whole cast could be heard during the verbatim songs.
It was also the first time that the cast was working with the live band in the orchestra pit. This was another variable that had to be taken into account: the volume on a clarinet or saxophone can’t be turned up or down at the touch of a dial. To deal with volume they actually put sheets down over top of the pit so as to muffle it just enough for the actors. Dialect coach Jane Gooderham hasn’t been working for months with the cast just to be thwarted by a squeaky reed!
They ran every musical number of the show at least once in the few hours we were in attendance and by the end of it, I simply couldn’t wait to be return to this little recreation of Ipswich for the dress rehearsal the following night, and a full performance the following Saturday.
Tara S. Johnston attended the first rehearsal of the production on 9th December, 2013. Here’s her account:
It was 7:30am when I left St. Catharines on Monday, December 9th on a trek to the first rehearsal of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road. I finally arrived at 10:15am — 15 minutes late, all thanks to rush hour traffic (not impressed). I quietly tiptoed into the rehearsal hall where I expected an intimate gathering, but to my surprise, there were just over seventy people, including the cast, production team, Canadian Stage’s staff, and some of the crew, attentively listening to director Jackie Maxwell express her excitement about starting the rehearsal process, and her confidence in everyone involved.
Following the introduction, set and costume designer Judith Bowden unveiled her vision for the production, referencing a model, inspiration boards, and press clippings taped to the wall behind her. The top portion of the set will be comprised of projection screens setting the location of the scenes. There are also rotating columns and sliding panels with yellow edges to suggest the presence of police tape at key moments. As there is no music provided for transitions, these have to happen very quickly and fluidly, which is why Bowden has incorporated slide-on platforms and spinners. Maxwell explained that these elements will serve to “construct and deconstruct the scenes”, demonstrating that “nothing is constant”.
Bowden said her overall inspiration for the set is to “show London Road as a place, but make it look like [the tragic event] can happen anywhere”, as there’s a “universality to it”. Bowden and Maxwell are in tune in their focus on the universality of the story – this is something that Maxwell consistently stressed in our first interview with her. The Sandy Hook shootings in late 2012 in Connecticut had happened when auditions for the production were held and “a lot of the things resonated”; Maxwell reiterated that the idea of “people coming together and finding a way out is a big lynchpin” between the two tragedies. In terms of design, the idea is to “add more technology in the second act to show that the media is becoming more and more present” in Ipswich as the word spreads around Britain about the murders, says Bowden.
One of the challenges Maxwell expressed in our earlier interview was that the characters speak and sing in direct address. How do you establish this to the audience? It has been decided that they will set a single chair on stage at the beginning of the show to indicate that an interviewer is present, but not as a visible character on stage. The opening also establishes the mood in the town, as the prostitutes’ bodies are discovered against the backdrop of the holiday season. Maxwell says that it is “important to have that mix and tension”.
As each actor will play several characters, costume design is important. Bowden explained that they “don’t have a lot of information on these people, except for their voice”, so her research started by listening to the audio tapes. Somewhat paradoxically, she talked about her work on the production as trying not to “‘costume’ each piece” so as to avoid presenting these real people as “stereotypes.” Bowden’s aim is to make costume changes as simple as they can. “We still have to work on these changes. Do they happen on stage or not? That’s something that we’ve gone to and fro on,” Maxwell chimes in.
After the meet and greet, I spoke with assistant director Estelle Shook, who has worked for Can Stage before, though this is her first time working with Maxwell. She told me about the initial address from artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, which I had missed thanks to Toronto gridlock. Jocelyn explained that Can Stage chose to produce this non-Canadian play because verbatim theatre is an “extraordinary innovation” and “more than that, how the music [in London Road] engages with the material has transcended the genre”.
At this point in the first day of a production process, the standard activity would be for the actors to read the script around a table. But Maxwell took a different approach: the company sat and listened to Blythe’s original tapes of the Ipswich townspeople being interviewed. She reminded the actors that “the script is a reference” and that they first need to “get to know these people through the tapes”. She urged the actors to avoid the impulse to “follow along with the script”, stressing how “important [it is] that we just sit together in this room and listen to these people tell their story”. The actors listened attentively, attempting to decipher each line through the wind, sirens, and thick accents.
After the initial listen, Maxwell explained that their company “will take over the story and present it for [the people of London Road], as them.” Actor Fiona Reid commented that Blythe’s ability to put this material together into a story form was “a remarkable accomplishment”. Choreographer Valerie Moore, who had heard the music at a previous meeting, added that the way in which composer Adam Cork “captured the cadence of [the townspeople’s] voices” is “amazing”. A sense of simultaneous excitement and responsibility to present the story respectfully was the general consensus.
The rehearsal process is longer than usual three weeks devoted to staging plays at Can Stage. Music rehearsal would start that afternoon, and staging held off until the following week. In terms of movement work, Maxwell stressed that there will be no dancing as this is “not a normal musical” but rather an “oratorical kind of piece”: “The movement has to feel like something these people would do, a natural impulse”. Sound designer John Lott stated that he will be working with each actor individually that week to get them started on working with tapes of Blythe’s original interviews. Each actor will use an mp3 player during rehearsals, listening and attempting to imitate the characters’ voices, capturing every “um” and “uh” that the interviewees use in their natural speech.
As I left the theatre, I felt I’d been given an idea of the production team’s goals for London Road. I have acquired a sense of appreciation for the final product before even seeing it, and a sense of excitement to see how the company’s goals will be realized on stage once everything comes together in the very short amount of time. I also had the opportunity to be in the same room as Fiona Reid (who I recognized from My Big Fat Greek Wedding!) — so I guess that makes up for the fact that I had to sit in Toronto traffic… all over again.
28 November 2013: We were invited to meet with renowned theatre director Jackie Maxwell before we begin our embedded criticism process for London Road, which plays at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in January-February 2014. This is a directing assignment Maxwell is taking on alongside her work as artistic director of the Shaw Festival; we met her at the Shaw Festival Theatre for our interview, and had the chance to see all the work that had undertaken as director, months before rehearsals even begin.
London Road is a verbatim musical, which is “unlike anything I have ever done before,” says Maxwell. Quoting a song from the musical, Maxwell admits that “everyone is very, very nervous” to take on the challenges the verbatim form poses, along with the serious subject matter. But she says she is up for it. The unfamiliar aspects of this production are “all part of the fun” of putting on a show: “I can apply all of my directorial approaches in terms of getting [the show] up, but ultimately it is a very unknown beast.”
The award-winning musical, with text by Alecky Blythe and music by Adam Cork, details the true story of a quiet suburban community in and around Ipswich, England. The community is shaken after the bodies of five prostitutes are discovered, and word of a serial killer continuing to live among them unnerves residents. In an attempt to come together, the residents try to rebuild spirits by holding a hanging flower basket competition.
As per the verbatim style, the entire text of London Road is taken from interviews with the real-life residents of Ipswich. Maxwell says that “the fascinating thing about the music [is that it] it really does sound like the voices” of the townspeople. Cork has “taken the original source material and turned it into songs, but it’s not sort of like Rogers and Hammerstein […] It’s really, really complicated rhythmically and harmonically.” The actors must therefore be very precise in their delivery; rather than mastering their lyrics and music ahead of time, they will learn these with the help of the musical director in rehearsal. “It’s going to be an extraordinary thing for the actors to learn,” says Maxwell. After auditions and casting, she met with every cast member to “talk through this specific process and to make sure that they’re up for it.” This contact has made Maxwell more confident than ever that she has “fantastic actors. They’re going to bring a lot to [the production].”
The actors will be building character through imitation of the residents’ voices, rather than studying their characters textually and then finding a voice from them through internal, personal exploration, as would be the standard approach in more traditional forms of theatre. In this way, acting in a verbatim piece becomes very much an imitative art, and raises important questions about non-traditional acting, which we hope to explore as we watch London Road take shape.
Maxwell is an avid researcher: she wrote meticulous notes and compiled binders of groundwork months before the rehearsal process begins on December 9th. She has also spent more than 50 hours in preliminary meetings with the designers, choreographer, and music director, dissecting the material and starting to find ways through it. Maxwell affirms that any director should be able to look at a scene in great detail, as well as keeping the bigger picture in mind. Although the company has an extra week of rehearsals beyond Canadian Stage’s usual three-week rehearsal period, she has conceived a world and its parameters for the actors to inhabit, as this style of theatre demands extreme attention to detail. Maxwell believes that “as the director you need to have assimilated an enormous amount of pragmatic information in order to position yourself and everyone else to succeed.”
Maxwell obviously knows the inner workings of the Shaw Festival well, having been its artistic director for eleven years, and expresses a combination of excitement and apprehension about working in the relatively unfamiliar territory of Canadian Stage. Another issue on her mind is the large size of the venue: she is working to create a sense of intimacy to support the subject matter in the 876-seat Bluma Appel Theatre. Challenges such as these are what Maxwell finds exciting when she takes on new directing projects. She admits to being “obsessed” with the production — to always thinking about how she can address these challenges.
When asked how she sees this English material connecting to Canadian audiences, Maxwell responds that “any piece of theatre that is specific will also be universal as well.” One area of potential concern are the characters’ rural English accents; she may alter a few phrases that may be particularly challenging for Toronto audiences to understand. The production’s creators, Blythe and Cork, will attend the production; it will be interesting to see how they will respond to these changes.
Maxwell’s intention is to challenge her audiences and move them to think critically. She says that “If people just come into the theatre and sit back and stay that way, I don’t feel I’ve succeeded. I have to do something that pulls people up… I do ultimately want to move people. I don’t like the idea of just fucking with people. I want to give them something that is real, and I want to emotionally connect with them. I want to really want to make them think.” She is confident that both form and content of this production will allow her to achieve that goal.
As we attend rehearsals in December and January, our group will have the opportunity to observe the preparation needed and the various methods required to bring this complex and ambitious production to life. Maxwell seems very excited to begin the rehearsal process and believes that “the fun of it is that the form is so challenging, and the scaryness of it is that the form is so challenging”.
— Sean Cottrell, Chloe Coyle, Kate Croome, and Tara S. Johnston
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