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Col­lab­o­ra­tive work is the key to the cur­rent Theatre Colum­bus pro­duc­tion, a se­ri­ous com­edy about anger.

By JON KA­PLAN The col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit has been a ma­jor part ol small theatre com­pa­nies in Toronto since the early 10s. But in the past few years, cer­tain com­pa­nies that work col­lec­tively have been pro­duc­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of show — one in which so­ci­etal is­sues are im­por­tant, but whose char­ac­ters are in­di­vid­u­als rather than just scvial be­ings.

One of the finest groups in this cat­e­gory is Theatre Coknn bus. founded in 1983 by Leah Ch­er­niak and Martha Ross. Be­gin­ning with Un­til We Part, a touch­ing yet com­i­cal piece about a pair of Si­amese twins and their hunch­backed sis­ter, the com­pany has gone on to pro­duce nine shows that uniquely com­bine laughs and tears.

With its em­pha­sis on orig­i­nal shows cre­ated through a col­lec­tive process of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Theatre Colum­bus has drawn on clown, com­me­dia deU'arte, buf­foon and other Euro­pean theatre tech­niques. The re­sult­ing works have dealt with top­ics such as fer­til­ity, moth­er­hood, in­de­pen­dence and lone­li­ness. Bul Ross, Ch­er­niak and their col­lab­o­ra­tors never lose the heart of their work, never go for the ab­stract in­stead of the hu­man.

Theatre Colum­bus' cur­rent project is The Anger in Ernest and Ernes­tine, a com­edy about anger and how it be­comes the cen­tral ob­ses­sion of two new­ly­weds. The pla\ lea­tures play wright Robert Mor­gan and Ross as the two char­ac­ters; Ch­er­niak is the show's direc­tor and co-cre­ator.

Both Ch­er­niak and Ross trained in Paris at L'Ecole Jac­ques Le­coq, which has in­flu­enced both their the­atri­cal style and the na­ture of their cre­ation Ch­er­niak ad­mits that what they took away from Le­coq was "how to cre­ate our own shows The classes we did gave us clues into why we were funny in front of an au­di­ence."

Phys­i­cal theatre

"Le­coq stressed the im­por­tance Of the per­former, the fact that each per­son's skills are unique," contm ues Ross. "He's typ­i­cally French in be­ing sci­en­tific and an­a­lyt­i­cal about th­ese ideas, but he's un­usual In em­pha­siz­ing the hu­mamu ai the work. We've learned that as an ac­tor you must be true to your­self, or the au­di­ence will nei­ther be­lieve your work nor get ex­cited."

The work of Le­coq and his as­so­ciates is of­ten re­lated to phys­i­cal theatre, clown and re­lated ar­eas. But the two women point out that there is noth­ing sim­plis­tic about such an em­pha­sis. "Le­coq was a mas­ter at in­struct­ing us how to take a seem­ingly ba­nal mo­ment and find the scope of play and hu­man­ity in it," says Ross. "We worked on mo­ments of be­ing in the world — for in­stance, the tragic and comic po­ten­tials of sit­ting in a chair. He steered us away from the psy­cho log­i­cal and en­cour­aged us to tap the pos­si­bil­i­ties of phys­i­cal ac­tion."

The two have no for­mula for cre­at­ing a show, though each piece has a cen­tral idea or im­age which is ex­plored in depth. "We start with a big idea." says Ch­er­niak, "and sim­plify from the ini­tially large The Fi­nal prod­uct is a re­sult of what the per­torm­ers give and our com­bined in­stincts about what is ap­pro­pri­ate."

Voyeurs

In the case of Melan­cho­lia, which won an hon­or­able men­tion in last year's Dora awards, Ross was in­spired by a Durer wood­cut of a brood­ing an­gel; what the com­pany fi­nally pre­sented was the tale of an an­gel who crashes to earth at a con­struc­tion site and the hu­mans she meets there. The per­form­ers — Ross, Mary Durkan, Michael Simp­son and John Lam­bert — each con­trib­uted char­a­clen/ations which were shaped by Ch­er­niak and Julie Bishop.

The idea for Fer­til­ity, Theatre Colum­bus' last show, came to both Ch­er­niak and Ross at the same time. The ini­tial con­cept was of two IMSOs women friends, one was preg­nant and didn't want to be, ilkother wasn't preg­nant but wanted a child. Af­ter the work­shop process, the two char­ac­ters had be­come an an­cient Egyptian scribe and her queen. Fer­til­ity was just nom­i­nated for a Dora award.

De­spite the dif­fer­ent con­texts ol the two shows, Ch­er­niak points out that Ross" char­ac­ters in each hat! a cer­tain sim­i­lar­ity. "That's be­cause of our back­ground. Peo­ple watch­ing Melan­cho­lia or Fci tility would have seen Martha as an an­gel or a scribe, but they would re­ally have been watch­ing Martha the per­former, do­ing what she could with a spe­cific char­ac­ter. We like to keep the sense of theatre alive — that peo­ple are sit ling in front of a stage and we are as aware of them as they are of us''

The cur­rent work marks some thing of a de­par­ture for the com­pany The shtnv be­gan as The Anger Project and was in re­hearsal for a cu­mu­la­tively long pe­riod of time — three three-week ses­sions. It also, af­ter in­temi­is­sion, leaves the Euro­pean tra­di­tions that mark Theatre Colum­bus pieces and "strays into Who's Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf," smiles Ross

"In the first act. our style ackm­r­wledges the au­di­ence. In the sec­ond, the fourth wall is some­times there and the au­di­ence be comes voyeurs of the ac­tion."

"We like to ex­per­i­ment with our own style'' adds Ch­er­niak, "to flirt with the bound­aries ol the audi ence/per­tormer re­la­tion­ship. In this play, the au­di­ence is some­times ex­cluded be­cause the in­ti­macy of the char­ac­ters' re­la­tion­ship is so in­tense Vet an­other re­la­tion­ship, he tweetl the per­form­ers and the au­di­ence, was set up at the start of the work; it has to con­tinue in some way, That's part of the ten­sion of the piece."

The show orig­i­nated when the two women de­cided to work with the idea of anger — as Ross says, "to find out what that mon­ster is all about."

"The re­la­tion­ship of the two char­ac­ters de­vel­oped not in our heads," notes Ch­er­niak, "but through im­pro­vi­sa­tion. We weren't com­mit­ted 10 the idea lhat the two would be mar­ried; in­stead, we played with kinds and lengths of re­la­tion­ships Orig­i­nally, the work was more sur­real than it is now. At one point we had cou­ples like Hera and Zeus. Juliet and Romeo peo­ple who par­tic­i­pated in love and anger at a fe­ro­cious level."

In the ini­tial work­shop ses­sion, the women and Mor­gan re­searched anger by read­ing about it and delv­ing into their own anger. They were sur­prised how much peo­ple wanted to dis­cuss their own types of anger.

Cut off

For Ross, it's re­pressed anger that is a source of com­edy. "Peo­ple didn't see anger and com­edy com­ing to­gether at all. But we think that the two can be re­lated nat­u­ral

Ch­er­niak is quick to point out that the play isn't just about anger, but about "love and in­ti­macy, and the dis­cov­ery that anger is a force in both of those. Wc didn't re­al­ize that un­til part way through the work­shop process."

What has evolved is a pair of char­ac­ters, f in­est and Ernes­tine, who have re­cently mar­ried and moved inlo a tiny base­ment apart meat. Ini­tially they are wholly com­mit­ted lo the bliss of their new re­la­tion­ship. But dif­fer­ences in life­styles and small prob­lems break the bub­ble of per­fec­tion. It's then that the two be­come po­ten­tial fig­ures of com­edy as well as tragedy.

"Ernes­tine is the ac­tive part­ner," says Ross, 'the one who wants to do things. She be­comes an­gry with Ernest be­cause he's so slow and lost in his own world Be­cause he doesn't com­mu­ni­cate with her, she feels judged by him. Some­thing must be wrong, she thinks, be­cause tie s not al­ways there tor her.

"Her anger grows be­cause they don't have the abil­ity to talk and lis- ten to each other about what's go­ing on. She's con­vinced he never re­ally pays at­ten­tion to her. What she ini­tially liked about Ernest — his lit­tle sto­ries, his strange man­ner­isms - be­comes de­testable be­cause she feels cut off from him."

Ernest, ac­cord­ing to Ch­er­niak, "knows less about him­self and anger than Ernes­tine. They both make a dis­cov­ery of anger, for nei­ther has been in­ti­mate enough with any­one be­fore and there­fore has not yet felt the pain that an­other per­son can cause."

Ernest is the kind of per­son who wants ev­ery­thing to be con­trolled. As Ross says, he has to know ex­actly where his box of corn­flakes sits on the shelf and he wants to eat his break­fast at ex­actly 7:02. Since anger is a loss of con­trol, the sit­u­a­tion is even more up­set­ting for him.

( on­nected to the idea of anger is that of sex­ual pas­sion. When the char­ac­ters dis­cover the one, they also find the other. "It's a turn­ing point for both of them," notes Ross. "The un­for­tu­nate thing is that they be­come ad­dicted to that ex­pres­sion of the anger."

The sit­u­a­tion the two are in is ex­ag­ger­ated by their small apart­ment. Un­like the world of Fer­til­ity, which seemed to in­clude the whole of the Sa­hara desert on the tiny FVxir Alex stage, the world of this play is "a postage stamp," notes Ross " As in pre­vi­ous Theatre Colum­bus shows, other part­ners in the pro­duc­tion make as much a con­tri­bu­tion as the ac­tors and direc­tor. The de­sign by Shaun Lynch and Glenn David­son is im­por­tant, as is the mu­sic, com­posed by Ge­orge Axon.

Axon has writ­ten a theme song called So Many Rea­sons, which is reprised sev­eral times — with vari­a­tions — dur­ing the show.

"It's orig­i­nally sung by Robert and Mag Ruff­man," says Ch­er­niak. "Ini­tially, it's a light pop song, full of sim­ple naivete. It pro­gresses through a rock-and-roll ver­sion to a Steam) ver­sion. It fi­nally ap­pears as a sim­pler but non-vo­cal piece, with a sense of hope about it. As the char­ac­ters be­come more so­phis­ti­cated, so docs the mu­sic."

The process of cre­at­ing The Anger in Ernest and Ernes­tine re­flects the im­por­tance that Ross and Cher niak give in all their shows to their fel­low work­ers — as­so­ciate di­rec­tors Kevin Te­ichrocb and Julie Bishop, ad­min­is­tra­tors Luisa IVisi and Jen­nifer Brewin and the ac­tors who have worked with them.

"As we grow," says Ch­er­niak. "we're at­tempt­ing to keep ev­ery­one as in­volved as pos­si­ble in the whole work. We don't want to com­part mentalize but main­tain the col­labo ra­tive spirit. We keep re­mind­ing our­selves of that point — it's the peo­ple who make Theatre Colum bus what it is"

MARTHA ROSS and LEAH CH­ER­NIAK pho­tographed by SUSIE KING

With works like The Anger of Ernest and Ernes­tine, Martha Ross ( left) and Leah Ch­er­niak of Theatre Colum­bus use tech­niques of Euro­pean theatre to go to the heart of hu­man con­flict.

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