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."
"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."
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.
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.