Culture  Ten days of student plays

The Daily’s Ben Fried opens the curtains on the Director’s Project 2011

Correction amended March 29th, 2011.

McGill theatregoers, well accustomed to “measuring their evenings out with coffee spoons,” to quote T.S. Eliot, face an unexpected glut of plays in the next two weeks. The English Department’s production of The Alchemist opened last week, and the McGill Drama Festival will present seven original works at Players’ Theatre starting this Tuesday. Arriving between these sturdy entrees is the largest and longest course of student theatre this year: Directors’ Projects 2011. From March 23 to April 2, eleven shows – which, given two double-bills, comprise 13 plays – will be performed on a rotating schedule at Morrice Hall Theatre. They run the smorgasbord from breezily inconsequential comedy to domestic drama so gritty that it more closely resembles the kitchen plumbing than the proverbial sink.

These productions, each brought to life by a different director, are the result of a little-known, long-running drama course taught by Myrna Wyatt Selkirk. Since 1991, “Directing for the Theatre” has been selective, intensive, and full-year. Its participants – a mongrel mix of actors and directors – are determined by interview during the preceding spring semester. Having devoted the summer to reading plays, the students choose their one-act projects early on, and spend the rest of the year working toward their performances. The first semester focuses on rehearsal techniques and script analysis, proceeding at a leisurely four hours a week. The second semester is single-minded and builds to a climax in a caffeinated rush of twenty-hour weeks.

The directors cast their own plays, find their own stage managers, and design their own sets. Amazingly, everyone involved declares that the experience debunks the myth of the director as an egomaniac and theatre as the last civilized refuge for dictatorship. Selkirk claims to “focus on true collaboration, rather than a dictatorial style.” The latter is what one student, Alex Montagnese, describes as “‘the traffic cop director,’ which is someone who tells the actors where to place their hands, when to shed a tear, and when to laugh.” Director and Daily Staffer Kallee Lins,  echoed the disapproval, even though she has coined the acronym L.Y.F.L. (Learn Your Fucking Lines). Lins admits that, “sometimes I feel rather tyrannical. One day I threw an orange peel at my actors.” The largest part of directing, she insists, does not consist of imposition but “in drawing out as much as possible from the actors and the text.”

Now this is only a wild guess, but their comments seem to suggest an organic aesthetic, which locates the director’s job in the unfolding and integrating of a play’s many elements. The results are, without exception, imaginatively staged and performed. Often an audience recognizes the direction only when its flaws are too glaring to be ignored; Directors’ Projects reminds us that we can be simultaneously aware and consumed by a drama. Originally conceived by Eleanor Foulkes, Mike McPhaden’s Poochwater keeps a single, amnesiac character alone onstage for much of the play without becoming static. Natalie Gershtein’s chilling production of Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, does much of the same by maintaining the brutal tension of a couple’s cross-examination through the slightest movements and shifts in tone. Rachael Benjamin’s take on Doug Wright’s The Stonewater Rapture builds imperceptibly from light religious satire to a disturbing vision of faith, climaxing in an aria of distress, beautifully delivered by Elizabeth Conway.

With all this talent, it’s a shame that the directors didn’t pick better plays. The most impressive work belongs to Montagnese, whose staging of The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls is thrillingly confident. She devises seamless exits and entrances, moving her actors fluidly around the stage, and cutting between rooms and years with frictionless ease. The play itself is another story; a collaboration attributed to five women – Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross – its compromises show, from the characters stuck in caricature to the smoothed-over satisfactions of the ending. Tara Richter-Smith’s production of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is another instance of interesting direction that makes use of the entire auditorium, yet is let down by its subject. In this case, the laughably melodramatic lines of John Patrick Shanley, a fervent exponent of the “I should cut your throat…God, I miss you” school of writing.

Luckily, there are two plays that will linger in the mind. Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotton boasts an excellent performance from Hope Whalen. In director Trisha Pathak’s opinion, Williams is interested in the important things, such as “staying in a bad relationship, doing the wrong thing for the right reason, being blinded by love till something terrible happens.” Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, written by Michel Tremblay and directed by Kyra Lightburn, is one long howl of anguish. Its heartache offers overwhelming proof that disappointment is the companion of love; for those who already know that, or have been the cause of such disappointment, the play may be very hard to take.

Directors’ Projects 2011 follows a pattern of single-show matinees and double-bill soirees. Presented in pairs, the plays throw each other into relief – a technique already applauded by the delegates of Philopolis, for whom the absurdist pieces The Tricycle and The Chairs were specially rehearsed. The best combinations, however, require more extended viewing, as every play connects and deepens over the course of the festival. It’s a wonderful way to end the year.

Directors’ Project 2011 runs from March 23 to April 2 at Morrice Hall, 3485 McTavish. Evening shows are $5 and matinees are $3.