From January 26th to 29th, Snowglobe Theatre will mount the classic Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing at the MainLine Theatre. To kick off our 2017 Interview Series, Montreal Theatre Hub’s Alisha Ruiss spoke with producer and director Peter Giser about the newly established theatre company’s inaugural production, the challenges of Shakespeare, and what lies on the horizon for Snowglobe.
Tell us about yourself and your background in theatre.
My early theatre training began in the late 90’s at the Montreal School of Performing Arts. Not too long after that I was accepted into McGill University’s music program from which I eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Music. I wanted to pursue acting in New York, so I enrolled in a 2-year diploma program at the Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC. Following my studies there I worked in a theatre company for a couple of years, right in the theatre district in Manhattan. It was there I began to study directing and where I produced and directed my first productions. I’ve now returned to Montreal and after performing in a few productions I decided that it was time to put my knowledge to use and create my own theatre company, something I’ve wanted to do for a while.
Snowglobe Theatre is a new company formed by yourself, Sandra D’Angelo, and Edward Cohen. Can you tell us about its origins? Does the company have a particular mandate?
I had already made up my mind to create a company and was in the process of choosing the first play I wanted to work on. More or less on the very day I had set for myself to make a decision about what to produce, I received a message from Sandra and Ed saying they wanted to put on Much Ado about Nothing. The timing could not have been more serendipitous, and after meeting with them we resolved to found a company together and to have Much Ado be our first production.
As for Snowglobe’s mandate, I hope it will evolve over time, but generally speaking, our focus is on producing high-quality material that reaches the audience and does justice to great works. This may sound obvious in a way, but I prefer to go beyond “Let’s do a play!” and instead to think in terms of “Let’s show why this play is terribly important.”
There have already been two productions of Much Ado this year – Dawson, NTS, and you yourself were involved with a production of it with Jubilee and Raise the Stakes Theatre in 2014 as Dogberry. What made you choose this piece and what do you think is its main appeal?
Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare comedy, and although I hadn’t specifically set out to be a part of another production of it, when Sandra and Ed suggested it to me I was almost startled to realize how much I wanted to work on it again.
Often a company’s choices will be influenced based on what else is playing in town, but we really wanted to do this play regardless of whether not it was being produced elsewhere.
As to its popularity, basically, it’s quality of the material. The relationships between the characters in Much Ado are so wonderful that when compared with other comedies this one really stands out. Some plays also suffer from certain sections that are weaker than others, whereas in Much Ado every part of the play is incredibly strong.
What is your regular directing process like?
My personal process begins long before rehearsals or auditions happen. It involves a combination of studying the script, the playwright, the period, expert analysis of the material, and even watching other productions of the work. In short, similar to what a dramaturg would do, but I prefer to do these things myself if I have the luxury of time.
The beautiful thing about directing is that the process is about finding what the process will be for each production. The demands of one show are going to be very different from another, and usually the beginning of a rehearsal process will involve some sort of technical training with the cast to get into the genre, the world of the play, and its physical style.
As rehearsals go on, I try to tailor the process to suit both the play and the group. I can definitely say that there is a lot of improvisation in how I work with the actors.
What is the main challenge of directing Shakespeare? Of performing it?
The primary challenge begins with decoding what is literally written. Even aside from looking up archaic words there is the issue of trying to figure out what Shakespeare intended, both in the meaning of specific passages and in the characters themselves. I believe he had a clear sense of the details of what the characters are like and what they want, but often only gave little clues here and there, which must be pounced upon as rosetta stones to unlock what the truth of the character is.
The other challenge in Shakespeare is in living up to the energy and liveliness of the writing. To be as alive as the words themselves are and to bring that to the stage is a great challenge. Usually the greatest achievement in performing Shakespeare is to be able to say that you did real justice to a line or even a scene.
We currently have a climate that makes it hard for people to concentrate on language of a more complex nature, in fact, of anything that is lengthy. Do you see theatre as having a role in addressing that issue, and how so?
This is true. We have been brought up to look at interesting things, to watch entertainment, but rarely to just listen. This is endemic in modern times and impacts us all individually and also culturally. We have a hard time hearing plays when we are so used to watching film and TV.
Failure to listen can be damaging in personal relationships and politics alike, and I do think that cultivating one’s ears to really hear what’s being said is an important area of life that is currently neglected. Hearing a variety of theatre, especially from playwrights that demand attention to text such as Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, David Rabe, can definitely help with that.
The other benefit is that because a play is about other people, it allows you to listen differently than if it were a personal conversation. When one has no personal stake in the outcome of a piece of dialogue one can perhaps more readily learn how to hear what’s really being said.
Why do you think it is necessary/good to continue to produce Shakespeare today?
I hate to default to a generic answer, but honestly Shakespeare simple wrote the best plays there are. The language and ideas presented are so rich that you can study a play for years and still hear new meanings in old lines, realize entire aspects of the theme that weren’t apparent before, and learn new things about the characters. Additionally, his plays are just so much fun. This really cannot be overstated, because one thing a lot of plays lack is entertainment value, whereas on the other side of it many plays so strenuously try to be entertaining that they end up being about nothing. Shakespeare is maximally entertaining, meaningful, funny, and touching, and so I will offer some commiseration for modern playwrights in that it seems almost insurmountable to create something as great as what an Englishman managed to do 400 years ago.
Tell me about your cast. Has your experience with them been different in any way from others you’ve had as a director?
We have a diverse age range amongst the actors, some of whom aspire to acting careers while others treat it as a serious hobby. I can say that the energy level and commitment from everyone in this cast is exceptional. Usually there is some measure of having to deal with problems as a director, but everyone comports themselves professionally. They are a special group.
Why should people be sure to catch this production?
Aside from the fact that we have an incredibly talented cast, the venue, Mainline Theatre, is a terribly fun space. We play in the round, which gives us a lot options for interactaction with the audience. Also of special note is that our show features live, original music, composed and performed by a great Montreal-based group called The Bomabadils. It’s a great honor to have their calibre of musical presence in our show.
What are your plans, if any, for future productions?
We are currently planning our next production, and what I can say for now is that we will do something other than a Shakespeare. One hint I’ll give is that we’re seriously considering bring a classic film adaptation to the stage for the first time. We intend to do a mix of material in the future, including Shakespeare and contemporary plays, and perhaps musical territory, even opera, but for now we’re going to take it one thing at a time.
For more information on Peter Giser: www.petergiser.com
Snowglobe Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing runs for 4 performances from January 26th – 29th, 2017, at the Mainline Theatre (3997 Boul. Saint-Laurent). Tickets are $15-25 and can be purchased online at www.mainlinetheatre.ca or by calling the Box Office at (514) 849-3378.
Interview by Montreal Theatre Hub Contributor Alisha Ruiss