By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Beth Graham play that premieres Thursday on the Timms stage takes us into the heart of a mysterious world that is collaborative but hierarchical, creative but rule-bound, populated by high-octane people pretending to be someone else.
Weasel (“a noun and a verb” as the playwright notes, laughing) is about theatre. It’s a view from the inside out, where the actors live, and rehearse and perform. Commissioned from the U of A’s multi-award-winning playwright-in-residence, it’s custom-made for the cast of this premiere production, the 14-member class of BFA student actors, eight women and six men, who’ll graduate from the university’s theatre school in the spring.
It’s a world Graham knows well; she graduated from the U of A as a BFA actor herself in 1998, before she would have called herself a playwright. Before she and her theatre school classmate Daniela Vlaskalic co-created the hit The Drowning Girls (then Comrades, Mules, The Last Train). And years before such award-winning plays as Victoria’s Terrifying Tale of Terrible Things (with Nathan Cuckow), The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, Fortune Falls, and many more. Her latest collaboration with Vlaskalic, Dora Maar: the wicked one, launches the Workshop West season Oct. 27.
Graham connected with the actors on Zoom, then in person. “We talked, got to know each other…. I asked them their expectations of the project, what kind of theatre got them going.” And she heard things like ‘edgy, risky, funny, something to stretch themselves’. She went to all their class presentations, their Greek monologues, movement pieces, plays; she saw their version of Our Town, outside of necessity, in a little park on campus.
“A weird time, I know,” smiles Graham of the moment Weasel began to take shape in 2020, the start of the punishing pandemical era in which live theatre’s identity, its very existence, were open to question — and playwrights-in-residence were in-residence at home. “What I wanted to write about was my relationship to theatre; what was it then? what is it now?. Why had I become so jaded about it? That’s what I was grappling with,” she says. And in a way, it was the right time for creating a play about theatre, Graham muses. “It gave me an appreciation for what wasn’t there any more…. And I realized there was a longing.”
“I just started, and (suddenly) I had heaps of scenes … and I had to populate them. ”
Which brings us to another improbability of Weasel, written as it is for 14 (!) actors — in a period when three or four actors onstage counts as Size Medium. Characters immediately started to emerge from the agile Graham brain and gather, “all kinds of different characters.” Soon there were 36 of them, “some just little fragments in short scenes…. It was hard to keep track!” There are moments in Weasel when we’ll see all 14 on the stage at once, a rare sight in Canadian theatre. And Graham began to wonder “why am I not just writing seven two-person scenes?”
“I’d been back to the university, of course, and done things as an actor there,” says Graham. “But this was different, going in to write…. I looked at all the faces, thinking ‘that was Me’…. What would I say to my younger self? Who was that person? Who am I know? What did I extract from the theatre? What did I want from it?”
After their first in-person meeting she remembers sitting in her car in the Timms parkade thinking she’d just met her younger self times 14. “OK, this is weird. Unsettling and a bit exciting!”
With commissions, of which Graham has had more than a few, playwrights can sometimes struggle to find a fit with their own voice. No such problem with Weasel. “Oh, I get where I fit. I get that time in my life!” she says. And who was that young Graham, training for a career in theatre? “Idealistic, hopeful, eager to take on the world…. Theatre was power.”
Each draft of the play was “drastically different,” she reports. The two university dramaturges, Kenneth T. Williams and Kate Weiss, though strikingly different artists in their approach and thinking, “picked up on a through line.” And that was Charlie.
We follow Charlie, an actor (who’s been a theatre school student) “trying to step onto the stage, and finding it very difficult.” What is the source of this mysterious fear? The character tries to understand where the feeling comes from. It’s not at all chronological, says Graham of Weasel. “I was trying to capture the save the panic-struck, trauma- and fear-filled mind works, the non-linear illogical way we think.”
There are scenes with directors, other actors, her aunt, past and current relationships. Some scenes take Charlie into rehearsals. “I used Charlie as the main seed, and branched out from there.”
In writing Weasel Graham found herself exploring how theatre works. “The way power works in the (rehearsal) room, what we learn, how we behave as actors…. I recognized that I wasn’t going into the room the way I used to. I was going into the room defeated. I called it ‘doormatting myself’. And I’d witness it in other actors too. And I wondered what’s going on here? What had I chosen to learn, and how can I unlearn that?.”
“It’s changing,” she thinks of the power structures of theatre. “And it’s complicated, too…. Some things that happen in difficult (rehearsal) room are incredible!” She muses. “When we look back,” as Charlie does, “we try to simplify, but it’s complicated.”
“Why is there only one way to do it? How do we work differently? I like there to be a decision-maker in the room. But sometimes we’re trained as actors to just obey…. We’re taught to serve the play and realize the director’s vision.”
In Weasel, four different actors play Charlie; sometimes they’re onstage at the same time, different versions of the character. “It’s really interesting when actors share a role…. Tricky, yes, but something to be inspired by; it’s got a special kind of theatricality to it.” And there are four weasels, too. “Interesting, disturbing, exciting!”
”Fourteen voices in a room make a lot of noise!” Graham laughs. In one draft all 14 actors played weasels, a veritable chorus of weasels. “I almost called the play that, A Chorus of Weasels.”
As an actor Graham, who returns to acting this season in a revival of Catalyst’s Nevermore at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, had heard actors refer to “the weasel of fear” before they went onstage — as in “the weasel of fear is with me tonight.” And she assumed it was an expression shared by actors everywhere. “Nope. It’s an Edmonton thing.”
At the end of writing Weasel, what does Graham think of her chosen profession? “It turns out that I do have a love of theatre. It still exists within me! I know it’s there!” She smiles. “I don’t have to LOVVVVVVE it. I can just love it, and find the joy in it.”
Theatre: Studio Theatre, U of A drama department
Written by: Beth Graham
Directed by: Kevin Sutley
Starring: the U of A’s graduating class of BFA actors
Where: Timms Centre For The Arts, 112th St. and 87th Ave.
Running: Oct. 13 through Oct 22