What happens when we combine movement and dance with complex emotions, darker realities and unhappy experiences? Department of Theatre professor Conrad Alexandrowicz uses his extensive background in physical theatre for his direction of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s award-winning play, Lion in the Streets—the third production in Phoenix Theatre‘s 2014/15 season.
Alexandrowicz has always loved the powerful combination of dance and theatre working together. With a BFA in Dance and an MFA in Directing, he is also the founding artistic director of Wild Excursions Performance and, since 2008, the Theatre department’s professor of movement and physical theatre. Alexandrowicz was interested in staging Lion in the Streets for the current season, and wanted to explore the possibilities for impactful movement and choreography in this challenging piece. “Theatre provides a forum of common experience—and really good theatre should ask difficult questions and challenge audiences at the very foundation of their beliefs,” says Alexandrowicz. “It should shake you to the core.”
Learn more about Alexandrowicz’s vision when he discusses his collaborative directing process in a special pre-show lecture at 7pm, Friday February 13.
Lion in the Streets follows Isobel, a lost Portuguese girl wandering around her neighbourhood, frightened and looking for answers. She witnesses a series of dark moments in the intertwined and troubled lives of several strangers in her community as they try to hold on to their own humanity; by watching them, she finds understanding, forgiveness, and ultimately redemption. And although the scenes in Lion in the Streets are set in a Toronto neighbourhood, the play itself brings the audience to a place somewhere between reality and dreams, memories and fantasies.
Read more about the Phoenix production of Lion in the Streets in this Times Colonist article, which also features an interview with playwright Judith Thompson. And both director Alexandrowicz and set designer Allan Stichbury were interviewed in this Oak Bay News piece.
“At first glance, this play seemed to be a series of fairly realistic scenes contained within a completely non-realistic frame, amounting to a kind of allegory,” says Alexandrowicz. “But then I realized that nothing about this play is realistic. This sits well with me as, coming from a background in dance and text-based performance, I am compelled by the possibilities of scripts that emphasize the physicality of the actor.”
Prior to rehearsals, Alexandrowicz consulted the playwright herself to talk about the real-life inspirations for the play. Thompson described the personal memory that sparked the need to tell this story and give voice to the victims of horrible crime: while living in Toronto in 1983, a nine year-old girl named Sharin Morningstar Keenan was abducted and murdered in her neighbourhood. “We lived on Brunswick Avenue at that time, very near the park where she was taken,” Thompson recalls. “All night we heard the police van’s pleas: if anyone has seen a nine year old girl . . . and while we listened, she was being murdered a block away. That is inscribed on my soul.”
It is dark memories like this that remain with Thompson and inspired her to pen Lion in the Streets in 1990, which tackles the incredibly challenging subject material with a sense of poetry and allegory. “Yes, the play portrays violence, but it strives to put it in to a context, a continuum, in which the emotional violence within different relationships has the potential to lead all the way to murder,” notes Alexandrowicz. “That smaller interpersonal and emotional violence have the capacity to generate lethal physical violence across generations.”
Going into the rehearsal process, Alexandrowicz remained open to the many possibilities of collaborating with his cast. Many directors approach a play with a very clear idea of what the final product should look like and how the characters should talk and act. Conrad chose to begin with a clear idea of only the themes of each scene and let the specifics arise out of the collaboration with the actors, working together to improvise and experiment with movements and characterization to mould the final product. “This is the way I work all the time”, says Alexandrowicz, who has a strong background in devising new plays from poetry and text. “If you’re not collaborative you’re missing out because everyone has such great ideas.”
While this style of creation is the norm for Alexandrowicz, it was a whole new world for many of the student actors. “Conrad really encouraged neutrality going in, which was absolutely terrifying as a young actor”, says student Lindsay Curl, who plays the nine-year-old Isobel. “Each rehearsal was like trying on different approaches to the character until we found one that fit.” Student Levi Schneider, who plays multiple characters throughout the play, says that the creative process could be challenging at times. “There is a lot of responsibility as an actor. It was sometimes difficult to know which improvisational choices were beneficial to the themes and which should be put on the back burner.”
After six weeks of rehearsals, the production has captured that poetic sense of existing between reality and dreams, memories and fantasies. In many scenes, several actors move together as an ensemble or tableau to portray the emotional state of one individual character. “I wanted the actors to animate the interiority, the inner landscape, of the character who’s talking and try to make physical their unspoken internal words,” explains Alexandrowicz.
And these internal thoughts – made manifest on stage through the actions of the cast – also help to emphasize the humanity of these characters, casting a light of hope on the darker challenging stories, that hopefully will, as Alexandrowicz says, “shake you to the core.”
This story was written by Leah McGraw, a second year student in both Theatre and Writing.