In October of 2016 a group of writers collected to workshop and create new pieces of theatre to then be produced by local theatre companies. This group, The Windsor Writer’s Series, created four plays which were then produced over four months at Mackenzie Hall beginning in March, 2017. Each play was unique and intriguing, leaving the audience laughing or crying or sometimes both all at once. I had the pleasure to attend the first three of the plays and then direct the final play in the series.
The Windsor Writers Series kicked off it’s season this March with The Purple Theatre Company’s latest play, Dark Steps. Written and directed by Purple’s founder Joey Ouellette, Dark Steps is an intense look at the way death affects us, especially when it’s unexpected and brutal.
The story focuses on Helen (played by Samantha Burton), who has recently suffered the loss of a friend. As the play progresses we learn of the brutal murder of Helen’s friend Angie while they were out running together, an event that has understandably destroyed Helen’s life. The audience watches as the people in Helen’s life try to help her put the pieces back together, yet they somehow manage to make things worse for Helen rather than better, even her boyfriend Corey (played by Alex Monk) doesn’t know how to help her out of the depression she’s so deeply experiencing. It isn’t until Helen finally breaks down that she’s able to start the process of getting the closure she craves.
Burton and Monk were supported by an amazing ensemble comprised of Linda Collard, Jennifer Desaulniers, Cheri Kratz and Joey Ouellette. They played everyone from Helen’s therapist, to her coworkers, to the murderer and his victim. I thought that the representation of the people around the person who’s suffering to be very true to life; it’s hard to open up when you’re hurting, and the people around you can think that they’re helping you when it can actually make things more uncomfortable. It’s totally innocent and tends to be well intentioned, but grief can shade other’s actions differently.
The moment when Helen finally breaks down, when all the running can’t fix it any more, was very cathartic; I found myself tearing up along with her. The fact that Corey and the rest of the community were there to pick her up, both physically and emotionally is an exceptionally important lesson for all involved. Sometimes you need picking up when you’re at your lowest, and sometimes you have to open your arms to catch those who are falling.
This was by far my favourite piece that I’ve ever seen from Purple Theatre. I was totally moved and absolutely loved the story and how it was presented. The use of space, costuming, and role doubling all added to a well written script. Dark Steps set the bar very high for the rest of the pieces in the Series.
In April came Opia Theatre Collective’s piece Fermata, written by University of Windsor BFA graduate Cassidy Anne Hicks. Directed by her fellow BFA graduate Brendan Kinnon, Fermata explores life for a musician who is forced to leave her career after a debilitating illness. A devastating look at what happens when one’s passions are removed from their life and how it affects not only the victim but the people around them as well.
It was something that I had never considered before, but what would happen if a piano virtuoso suddenly lost the ability to use their hands and therefore play? It would be like me loosing my capacity to see or hear, my career would never be the same. But this is exactly the question that Fermata asks and answers. Clara (played by Kathleen Welch) is just that, a piano virtuoso who plays in an Orchestra and who is suddenly struck by an unknown illness which strips her of the use of one of her hands. Her husband and conductor Tim (played by Owen Fawcett) attempts to help her deal with the loss and the grief that comes along with it. He starts an affair with flutist Katrina (played by Lauren Wolanski) and throws all three of their lives into a whirlwind.
This story about loss, deception, emotion, passion, and trying to find your way again after all of that, was such a moving piece that words can’t really do justice to. I was astounded to learn that this was Kinnon’s first time in the director’s chair as the play was orchestrated (no pun intended) so well and the expertise of the three actors shone through every moment. The movement of the play through time and locations was deftly manouvered by the actors; I was certainly impressed by the fluidity and preciseness of their motion.
My favourite moment in the play was towards the end, when the “piano” in the corner of the room collapsed. The “piano” was conveyed by a suspended structure covered with a sheet and noir from behind. Clara would go behind it to practice and later try to recover her abilities. But at her lowest point, the light goes off and the structure falls and were left with Clara sitting helplessly on the floor. It image sticks in your brain because of the suddenness and perfection with which it all happens, but also the final image being so stark and dark compared to the light that occupied it before. It was beautiful, and a perfect embodiment of the play.
May produced Bolt House by Lydia Daniel. A comedy based on the trials of a group of coworkers at a distribution company, Bolt House certainly piled on the laughs! Produced by Windsor Feminist Theatre and directed by Deborah Cottreau, the third instalment of the series was unique and filled with fun!
The Bolt House concentrates on the story of Marley, a new hire at the Bolt House distribution company. Thinking that she can handle the sometimes stressful job, Marley quickly learns that there is a good deal more to shipping parts than she initially thought. The branch of the Bolt House which Marley works at is juxtaposed with another branch within the city, where the stress has clearly gotten to them a little bit more (I mean, no one should be eating lucky charms off of their own face). As the branches are threatened to merge and their main branch the “other branch”, Marley and coworkers have to find a way to ensure that their little bit of sanity is preserved.
The Bolt House had the largest cast of the Series, with seven cast members creating the Bolt House company as well as their many clients. Dark Steps’ Monk, Burton, and Desauliers were joined by Eric Branget, Autumn Debassige, Beka Goldsmith and Samantha Lillian. The cast was hysterically funny, breathing life and laughter to every character. Eric Branget’s character Ron, who worked at the “other branch” was truly hilarious, with the stress of his job turning into downright paranoia and fear, causing roars of laughter from the audience. I was very impressed with how well the cast handled the role doubling they were faced with, some of them playing 2 or 3 different characters. It was this dexterity of acting which helped to create such an authentic environment; you could easily understand how the agents on the phones were having a stressful time dealing with their clients or how the people at the “other branch” wound up as crazy as they did.
I think my favourite moment of the play was purely for its shock/comedic value. Right at the end of the play, Alex Monk came out dressed in drag to portray the lady from HR who Marley is pleading with to help them. Dressed in high heels, capris and some sort of zany jacket, I couldn’t get over what I was seeing. Like I said, it was so funny and completely unexpected. But knowing Monk and the roles he usually plays, this was definitely a total departure from the usual. It was fantastic, and an uproarious way to end a truly amusing play.
The final installment of the Series was Runaway written by Brittni Brinn and directed by yours truly. Produced by Paper-Knife Theatre, Runaway is a look at how mental illness affects not only the individual, but the family and community as well. This was a moving closure to a series filled with diverse topics and genres.
Runaway looks at the life of a family of three: Patrick, Doris, and Kim, as well as their neighbour Marty, and how Patrick’s forgetfulness is starting to affect them all. Patrick routinely runs away, leaving the rest of the family in a constant state of fear and the local police always on their toes. While Doris struggles with being her husband’s caretaker, Kim is struggling with an issue every child faces: who to put first, yourself or your family? All the while Kim is finding out more about their neighbour Marty and his shadowy past, but also how her parents have made his life brighter. As the story unfolds the sense of family grows stronger and while the ending is left ambiguously, there is a sense of peace and calm.
Parents Doris and Patrick were played by Linda Collard and Joey Oullette respectively. Their real-life relationship brought a whole other level of authenticity to the role. Kim was played by Somerville Black, who skillfully navigated Kim’s ever changing emotions. Nathan Prindler rounded out the cast as Marty/Ollie, who handled the role doubling very well. I was so proud of this cast, they took on every challenge I threw at them, but they also added several essential ideas to the process, always came with intelligent questions about their characters or the play, and really made this process one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to helm. Their faith and confidence in Brittni and I and their level of professionalism was so reassuring.
One of my favourite moments from the play, both in performance and in rehearsal, is when Doris has found Patrick in Kim’s old treehouse. Kim used to hide there when she ran away, and so Patrick was “looking for her” there. Doris climbs up to try and get Patrick to come down, and they have this beautifully tender moment, talking about the past and the difficulties of the present. Often during rehearsals and during each performance, Linda would truly cry delivering those lines; it made me cry every night as well. It was a genuine performance, and her emotions took it to a whole other level than I thought it was going to reach. There was frequently not a dry eye in the house, and many people reported to me that it was one of their favourite parts of the play.
I have to say, I felt so privileged to be working on a totally new work, but most importantly to have the author by my side. To be able to fully collaborate with Brittni, my dear friend and most of the time my brain when mine isn’t present, was such a fun and memorable experience. I’m lucky to have such talented, creative people in my life; they help me more than I think they know.
The Windsor Writer’s Series was a great hit, and a unique offering for the city. I was very proud to be part of it and to help tell a new and important story. I hope that we’ll be able to continue to do new, local work and keep Windsor’s theatre scene vibrant!