The dystopian vision of Trevor Schmidt: a new season at Northern Light Theatre

Holly Turner and Kristin Johnston in Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Frankly, I’ve always been more interested in women’s stories than men’s,” says Trevor Schmidt, his dander up on a break last week from rehearsals for Origin of the Species.

The highly unusual feminist two-hander comedy by the English playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen), gets its Canadian premiere Friday in the Schmidt production that launches Northern Light Theatre’s 43rd season.

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“It’s been my mandate since the ‘90s,” declares Schmidt, a 16-season veteran of the NLT artistic director job, of his record of bringing predominantly women’s stories to the stage.“I find and write the plays that speak to me…. I’m not a typical man, I guess. I wasn’t raised that way; I’m an outsider…. I think I have an affinity to stories that tell that kind of narrative. My sympathies are there. Toxic masculinity frightens me….”

What gets him really riled is the misperception that the striking proliferation of female characters and stories in his own plays and the ones he chooses for Northern Light constitutes

some sort of accommodation to hashtag trend.“No, it’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years! And it wasn’t to appease an agenda that’s forced on us by funders or social media!”

The actor/ playwright/ director/ designer/ producer is remembering The Unconscious Collective, the puckishly named indie co-op he launched here in the 90s at the behest of four actresses who weren’t getting any work. They brought Schmidt, a Calgary transplant, a play to direct. “I thought I could write a better play for them. And I did….” What followed was a series of bizarre black comedies (The Calf Killers, Four-Lane Highway, Precious Goods) and moving portraits of women in plays built from interlocking monologues (The Watermelon Girls, Tales From The Hospital). 

Kristin Johnston with director Trevor Schmidt, getting a trim on the set of Origin of the Species. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Every performer you’ll see onstage in the upcoming three-production NLT lineup is a woman. And that’s not the first time in Schmidt’s tenure that’s happened. In Origin of the Species an archaeologist (Holly Turner) on a dig discovers the skeleton of a four million year-old woman (Kristin Johnston), and since no one wants it — “she was just an old woman and so was I” — takes it home. A kiss, and the prehistoric woman comes to life. Then the archaeologist must teach her new room-mate how to live, to think, to imagine, in the supposed enlightenment of the 20th century world. 

What Schmidt finds irresistible is the play’s union of “the very touching mother/daughter relationship and a lot of slapstick and physical comedy.… It’s this wonderful early feminist play about the empowerment of women, women from different time periods.” 

“I love plays that start out as comedy and become something else. Like my Fringe shows with Darrin (Darrin Hagen, of Guys in Disguise), comedies that have what we call the sucker punch.”

Northern Light seasons are peppered with plays authored by writers whose names don’t ring a bell with audiences here. The Cardiac Shadow by the American Clay McLeod Chapman (he’s the head writer for Spider Man, Typhoid Mary and other Marvel creations) counts as another unlikely discovery by Schmidt, who seems to have an instinct for finding promising scripts in obscure corners. The Canadian premiere production at Northern Light Jan. 1i to Feb. 2 is “a really interesting hybrid of film, dance, theatre that we haven’t seen in Edmonton for quite a while,” says Schmidt.  

The story, chillingly, is borrowed from real-life history: Nazi experiments in extreme temperatures conducted on young women prisoners of Ravensbrück concentration camp. “The first half is a film, with a voice-over of the Nazi doctor,” devised by filmmaker Katrina Beatty of Loud Whisper Productions. The second half, directed by Schmidt, features four dancers from the Good Women Dance Collective, Northern Light’s co-producer, performing to voice-overs.

19 Weeks, a co-production with Azimuth Theatre starring that company’s co-artistic director Vanessa Sabourin (March 29 to April 13), is a true story about the playwright. Emily Steel, a Welsh writer living in Australia, made an agonizing, and controversial, choice to have an abortion when she learned that her baby had Down Syndrome. “The script is so harrowing and difficult. So truthful,” says Schmidt. “And also a story we don’t hear.” It will prove, Schmidt predicts, “extremely emotionally provocative to people…. I’m really looking forward to our “salon” talk-backs. 

Schmidt finds “terribly disheartening” the idea that artists must confine themselves to telling stories exclusively about their own lives (or gender or sexuality or ethnic background). “Can we not look to the universal? I want to see the bigger story…. You have to see yourself somewhere in every story.… You’re not always the protagonist; sometimes you’re the antagonist, and that’s not always a comfortable place to be….”

“For me, a play where everyone behaves the way we wish people behaved isn’t inherently theatrical,” he argues. “We need to show the world as it is, not just as we want it to be. How else can we change what needs to be changed? That means someone in your play may be racist, someone may be homophobic. But it doesn’t make your play racist or sexist.

“Every single theatre piece that I want to do is about your responsibility to yourself versus your responsibility to others…. You’re faced with a moral dilemma whether to do the noble and right thing that will make you a good person or take the cowardly choice, to serve yourself first. That’s the tug of war that makes plays interesting. 

“I tend to program shows where people fail, and things end unhappily. In my experience in life that’s pretty true,” says Schmidt, who self-identifies as a contrarian (“I was that defiant red-head child with an extremely heightened sense of justice”). “They’re confused, the people in my plays; they’re struggling to find their point of view. They don’t always have one yet.”

Tickets for Origin of the Species, and Northern Light Theatre subscriptions: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com.

 

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