Simon Stephen’s haunting and poignant “Punk Rock” is about to make its Canadian Premiere with a promising production at the Centaur Theatre by Montreal-based company Beautiful City Theatre. Inspired by the Columbine shooting of 1999, Punk Rock tells the story of seven high school students and the tension that builds among them as they delve into their adolescent angst, repressed feelings, and unrequited love. In an engaging and candid interview, Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon sat down with director Calli Armstrong and cast member Ryan Doherty as they prepare for the curtain to rise for Montreal audiences this week.
Montreal Theatre Hub: Renowned in our city for producing larger scale musicals such as Godspell (2013), The Full Monty (2014), and most recently, Next to Normal (2015), surprisingly this is the first mainstage show Beautiful City Theatre is producing that isn’t a musical. Why Punk Rock?
Calli Armstrong: Some people were definitely confused! Our Artistic Producer, Natalie Gershtein, and I made the decision to bring the play to life here after seeing the off-Broadway production at the MCC Theater back in 2015. We were blown away; it was the most shocking, terrifying show that I had ever seen. We initially joked about the idea, let it go, and eventually came back to it a few months later when we realized how much of a great fit this actually was for our company.
MTH: It’s certainly a bold and risky venture, but I think it’s a refreshing one for BCT that both returning and new audiences will appreciate.
Calli. In looking back at our past productions, one of the recurring themes has been the forming of a community that goes wrong, and that is particularly true about this play. Here we have a group of people who are desperately seeking connection and compassion. In tackling the relevant issues of bullying and school violence, I think this is an extremely important show for Montreal.
MTH: Beautiful City Theatre has a most intriguing mandate, philosophy, and theatrical approach as a “process-oriented company”; can you elaborate?
Calli: We’re not so much about the razzle-dazzle and the polished aspect of what a show could be as we are about the experience of the people involved. The emphasis is really on everything leading up to the show itself: exploring the themes, getting to know the characters, and developing relationships. Every production has its own unique process; in this case, we’ve used Viewpoints, Theatre of the Oppressed, and a bit of Renée Emunah inspired drama therapy processes to really build an ensemble performance and provide mediums for the actors to be more comfortable taking big risks.
Ryan Doherty: To be honest, this was the best play I’ve ever been a part of from that perspective. As soon as we entered the rehearsal process, everyone in the team just was so open and we were given so much freedom to explore. There would be ideas on how to execute certain scenes from the script, for example, but we didn’t always necessarily follow the set plan; we’d just try different things and ended up going with what worked best. Being able to experiment in that manner has really helped me break out professionally and become more open as a person in general.
MTH: Raw, real performances truly are so much more compelling and interesting than a refined but overcalculated one, aren’t they? Audiences can be more forgiving of technical imperfections when they see vulnerability and authenticity onstage.
Calli: Exactly! There is a line in our mandate — “there is perfection in imperfection” — that translates to just that. As a witness to shows in general, the most beautiful thing is that honest, grounded performance.
Ryan: As an actor, sometimes you find that you become a machine that’s just executing and going through the motions — do this, pick up that, move here. But when you’re doing something because you’re in character and feeling it, it’s so nice and refreshing. Being a part of this has been such a great learning process and I’ve never had so much fun rehearsing for a show in my life.
MTH: In auditioning and considering certain cast and creative team members for this production, were there any particular qualities you were looking for in these individuals?
Calli: Callbacks were done as a workshop form and we did a lot of exercises in a group context; we valued listening skills, the willingness to take risks, and a spirit of teamwork. Rather than just looking at individuals for particular parts, there was this other layer of “what will this group look like together?”. The focus is so much more on the overall group chemistry, energy, and dynamics.
MTH: I’m fascinated (and frightened) by the use of masks in this…
Calli: The script for this show is written in a really interesting way, where each scene is introduced by a punk rock song. In our version of the show, each of the 7 scenes begins with a mini-scene — or a “collective creation”, as I call it — that features a punk rock song and that represents one of the themes explored within it (BCT partnered with some local punk rock bands to this effect). A lot of what happens on stage during these moments really comes from the actors. And it’s within these “collective creations” that we experimented working with different performance pieces such as masks, materials, movement, and sound.
What the mini-scenes ultimately represent to me though, is that they convey the collective emotions of the group of characters. When Ryan puts on the mask, I no longer see him as Nicholas, and he instead becomes an integral part of the turmoil. The expressionless masks worked well in that they can be projected onto and they allow for interpretative freedom.
Ryan: It’s thrilling to wear them. You feel so much more free to play and explore.
Calli: They’re revealing and hiding at the same time, and that kind of represents what the adolescents in the show are experiencing.
MTH: What are you hoping audiences will take away from their experience at the theatre?
Calli: I would like for people to have their own experiences and come to their own interpretations and conclusions of what the show means to them. One of our hashtags is #whenempathyfails, so something we certainly hope to inspire them to think and talk about is: “how can we be more empathic towards others? How can we show them that we see them?”
Ryan: While there’s a lack of empathy between the characters, however, you feel so empathetic as an audience member.
Call: Exactly. All of the characters in this show are desperately screaming and crying in some way, so it’s not just about having compassion for the person being abused or oppressed, but also about seeing different perspectives and understanding what drives someone to behave the way they do. It’s not about placing blame or pointing fingers. We need to look at who are the bystanders in this and what is happening as a system that allows bullying and violence to happen.
MTH: There’s no antagonist. We are all flawed and involved.
Calli: Yes! One of the reasons we hesitated to do this show is that, although it is very BCT-like, it’s not BCT-like in the sense that it’s very non-empathic. There’s a lot of heart in it, but nobody’s heart is held. They’re just put out there and squashed.
Ryan: It’s definitely a show we can all relate to in some regard. Everyone understands what it’s like to be a teenage kid in high school and to struggle with growing up, reaching out, and fitting in. I remember picking up the script and thinking to myself, “wow, this got real really quick”. It’s easily been one of the best shows I’ve worked on, just because of the content alone and how the dialogue speaks to you on such a personal level.
MTH: While it’ll certainly resonate with our youth, I also find this is a story that transcends generations due to its universal themes of isolation, alienation, and rejection. The struggle of trying to connect with others and the need for a sense of belonging doesn’t necessarily wane with age, does it? I’m so pleased this show is finally making its premiere here, and I really hope audiences in our city embrace it!
Our tip: The preview performance on May 5th is only $15. Also, hang around after the show to chat with, ask questions, and share your own experiences and stories with the cast and creative team (talkbacks are held after every performance).
Punk Rock plays at the Centaur Theatre, 453 rue St. François Xavier, from May 5-7 and 10-14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 – 35 and can be purchased at the venue, online, or by calling the box office at 514-288-3161. For audiences 14 years+
For more information, visit www.beautifulcitytheatre.com
Facebook: Beautiful City Theatre / Théâtre Belle Cité
Calli Armstrong (Artistic Director/Director) is the cofounder and artistic director of Beautiful City Theatre. A director, actor, and drama therapist, Calli has worked with a number of theatre groups and notforprofit organizations using theatre to build community (e.g. Centre for the Arts and Human Development, Montreal Playback Theatre, Third Space Playback). In addition to working with Beautiful City Theatre, Calli is presently an adjunct professor in Concordia University’s Creative Arts Therapies department.
Ryan Doherty (Nicholas Chatman). Ryan’s love of playing characters and sharing stories brought him to attend the Professional Theatre Program at Dawson College where he trained and honed his craft while playing a variety of characters. Having graduated in 2014, Ryan has already shown his talent and hard work by playing roles such as the young and innocent Jordan Dibbles in Raise the Stakes’ production of Lunduntownby Alaine Mercier. In addition, he played the broken but tough Tom in the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,and Infurnace’s Montreal premier performance of Fuddy Meers,where he played Kenny, a troubled teen with family issues. As well as performing in theatre, Ryan has started to work in film and television, starring in two student films and season 4 episode 6 of CMJ Productions’ Fatal Vows.
WILLIAM CARLISLE: Oliver Price
BENNETT FRANCIS: Nicholas LePage
CHADWICK MEADE: Patrick Park
LILLY CAHILL: Rebecca Bauer
CISSY FRANKS: Madeline Harvey
NICHOLAS CHATMAN: Ryan Doherty
TANYA GLEASON: Victoria Hall
DR. RICHARD HARVEY: Saro Saroyan
Producer: Natalie Gershtein
Director: Calli Armstrong
Production Manager: Todd Hirtle
Stage Manager: Melissa Kay Langille
Set Designer: Holly Hilts
Lighting Designer: Hannah Kirby
Costume Designer: Carlan Lonsdale
Sound Designer: MarcAntoine Legault
Props & Design Team: Jeanne Elizabeth Vachon Graphic Design: Deniz Kepenek
Assistant Producer: Jami Price
Production Assistant: Stephanie Weiner