We Had A Girl Before You: what happened to her? A new Gothic thriller opens the Northern Light season

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

O no O no…. Don’t look through that keyhole. And don’t open that door.

Trevor Schmidt’s new gothic thriller looks through that keyhole, and  opens that door (and the Northern Light Theatre season), Friday. In We Had A Girl Before You we meet a Victorian orphan spinster who’s accepted a position as a lady’s companion. O no: at a remote country manor.  O no: on an island.

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What has happened to Edwina Trout’s predecessors in the job? It’s a mystery that “the new girl” (Kristin Johnston) is increasingly apprehensive about, but highly motivated to explore.    

We Had A Girl Before You, joins a select group of Schmidt’s own plays produced by NLT in his tenure of nearly two decades there, among them Flora and Fawna’s Field Trip, Cleopatra’s Sister, Water’s Daughter. And it’s a rare example of something tricky onstage: a solo thriller.

“The protagonist is trying to piece together a mystery, along with the audience,” says Schmidt of this complex playwriting and acting challenge. “It’s someone recounting their terrifying experience…. She walks us through it: ‘I felt my skin crawl’, that kind of descriptive language. And the audience is trying to get ahead of the story as well, to figure out where it’s going.”

Kristen Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“With narration, you can have her talking to someone through the keyhole. You can do creeping dread. You can do suspense. You can’t do jump scares, the shocking things like that,” he says of his chosen monologue form. The events of the story “have to be doled out differently in a monologue.”

As a veteran writer of award-winning monologues, sometimes play-length and sometimes an interlocking series (Watermelon Girls, Tales From the Hospital) Schmidt says “I love the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is this a ghost story? Or is this person crazy? Are we being told the truth?” After all, “we only get introduced to other characters through the protagonist. We’re only seeing their version of these people.”

Schmidt, who has long gravitated to writing for women, is “a huge fan” of the gothic thriller genre. “I love the old black-and-white movies, the ‘40s costume melodramas!” he says, warming to a favourite subject. He can’t get enough of the BBC Rank Studio movies based on the novels of Lady Eleanor Smith (The Man in Gray), or Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), or Henry James (The Turn of the Screw).

The scenarios are time-honoured. “A young woman who ends up in a castle or a manor house. Sometimes she’s married to an emotionally distant man with secrets. Or she’s the second wife battling the memories of the first. Or  the governess. And if only she can uncover his secrets and help him heal, he’ll fall in love with her and her life will change.” Ah, or maybe it will change for the worse; things aren’t easy (in economic, romantic, or fashion terms as Schmidt points out) for the women of the Victorian age.

It’s an attraction that goes way back with him, back to a boyhood self whose TV access, of economic necessity, was delayed, then limited to three channels. “Saturday mornings when other kids were watching cartoons I was watching old black-and-white movies,” he says. “I was raised on them…. I think it’s why I’m so attracted to colour onstage. It’s the first thing I notice, and it’s very important to my design work.”

And that appeal includes the particularities of the acting style. “The best actors of that era have a heightened way of playing things,” says Schmidt, who’s nailed that delivery himself in such Guys in Disguise hits as BitchSlap! in which he was Bette Davis opposite Darrin Hagen’s Joan Crawford. Crawford, “fully commits to … everything! It’s so good. You have to play it straight, a full-on heartfelt commitment.”

The style “is very difficult for young actors today to grab onto,” as Schmidt puts it. “It’s just not accessible to them. They kinda want to send it up. To secretly make it a judgment instead of buying into it…. If you fully commit, it will work; if you hold back it won’t fly.”

Kristin Johnston in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Johnston was an ideal choice, says Schmidt, witness her big bold performances in such NLT shows as Origin of the Species and Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs. “When we started rehearsal, I told Kristin I didn’t know what the tone was — was it straight-up homage? Or a satire, because she is so funny? Can we straddle both? It starts off with lots of comedy, and becomes a lot more gripping and serious.”

That arc is what Schmidt and Hagen have aimed at in their outrageous Guys in Disguise comedies. “Darrin and I call it ‘the sucker punch’. You bring ‘em in thinking they’re getting one thing, then you give ‘em something more.… I love to pull the rug out from under people. You thought you knew, and now you don’t! ‘Cause life is like that.”

These thoughts find their way into a production originally intended as a two-night Northern Light fund-raiser in late November.  COVID meant the cancellation of the intended season-opener, The Oldest Profession, with its five-member cast of women of a certain age. Then “Fringe Theatre bumped us up (from the 60-seat Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn) into the (300-seat) Westbury. “It allows for more social distance, and for more seating…. We had to re-envision a solo show for a much larger space. That was the challenge.”

Actually, the sense of isolation in a big dark space works in favour of atmosphere, he says of a design that is more about candlelight, draperies, and sound designer/composer Dave Clarke’s contributions on theremin, than a set per se. “There’s a lot of telling; there’s not a lot of showing. So the audience has to engage their imagination and envision what’s being described.”

“You can’t just sit there!” says Schmidt, who’s no fan of kitchen sink drama (“where water runs in the tap … that doesn’t interest me.”). The less you can see the more you can start to imagine….”

PREVIEW

We Had A Girl Before You

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written, directed, and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kristin Johnston

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Friday through Nov. 21

Tickets and COVID restrictions: northernlighttheatre.com

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