From the creators of the 5-time META award-winning “Confiteor [Vol II]”, “Confiteor [Vol I]”, and “Mary Stuart” comes an original contemporary work that seeks to stretch the boundaries of live performance through post-dramatic theatre and visceral media design. Written by Rhiannon Collett and directed by Anthony Kennedy, Cabal Theatre‘s “Tragic Queens” makes its way to Montreal’s MainLine Theatre from August 17 to 27, 2017.
Montreal Theatre Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon sat down to speak with Cabal co-founders and leading ladies of “Tragic Queens” Jillian Harris, Meagan Schroeder, and Alex Petrachuk in anticipation of the grand premiere next week. Read our full in-depth piece of the edited interview below.
Provocative, poetic, and poignant is what one can expect from the “performance party” perching itself at the heights of the MainLine come August 17th.
While Tragic Queens marks Cabal as the independent theatre company’s inaugural production, it is but the brainchild of the established META award-winning performance ensemble consisting of Jillian Harris, Devon Bate, Meagan Schroeder, Peter Shaw, Anthony Kennedy, and Alex Petrachuk (winner of the META Emerging Artist and Outstanding Supporting Actress awards) in serendipitous convergence with artist-in-residence Rhiannon Collett (winner of the Playwrights Guild of Canada RBC Emerging Playwright award) and dramaturg Kate Stockburger.
The existing ensemble is composed of select members from past ensemble obra anaïs, who in their impressive momentum have come to ascertain themselves at the forefront of the post-dramatic movement in Montreal English theatre with their critically acclaimed productions of Confiteor [Vol I & II] and Mary Stuart (read our review of the latter here) – all strikingly bold interdisciplinary pieces that have set a new standard for the contemporary scene. Heavily inspired by German theatre and motivated by their concerted desire to raise public awareness of topical subject matter, the Concordia graduates have emerged to produce in recent years some of the most relevant and exciting boundary-defying works within city limits and beyond.
Tragic Queens shows signs of no less. No pressure on the sovereigns.
And yet, overbearing societal pressure – to perform, to succeed, to survive – is precisely what it’s all about.
The politically charged piece extracts the juice of the ensemble’s 2016 feminist adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – namely, the overarching themes of toxic masculinity, status, and women in power – to devise a more abstract and image-based contemporary performance that draws not only from a wealth of academic, poetic, and prose texts, both modern and classical (influences include Virginia Woolf, Ann Carson, Audrey Wollen, and Mary Beard), but also from the archives of personal experiences of its fresh-faced creators.
“Tragic Queens is actually what our dream would have been of Mary Stuart,” confesses Harris.
“There, we ended up using a lot of Schiller’s text and doing a more traditionally staged production. Here, we’ve taken the best elements from the story and focused more on the power dynamics between females and the general competition that exists amongst them.” Sadness as protest, the sexualization of women’s suffering and melancholy, and queer relationships are among the main issues explored.
Lifted from Collett’s script to the carnal realm by Harris, Schroeder, and Petrachuk, Tragic Queens follows the trajectory of three women as they go through their formative childhood, teenage, and adult years. Each milestone in the life chronology is distinguished by a different performance style.
“The early years are shown though what can be described as physical, dance, and movement-based performance. The teen section is then performed as a music video collage where the girls are drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, very American high school style. When we move into adulthood, we’re confronted with this idealized concept of what that grown-up phase is supposed to be: glamorous and sexy,” Petrachuk explains.
The two-act affair then culminates in a “lecture performance” presented in a post-dramatic style which revolves around Queenhood, alluding to iconic monarchs from classical tragedies such as Queen Elizabeth I, Iphigenia, and Clytenmestra, the Duchess of Malfi. Time is stretched and condensed, and images and inserts of historical empresses who have struggled with power and identity throughout their reign are infused as leitmotifs throughout the modular spectacle.
ON SPACE, DESIGN, & AESTHETICS
Penned as an explosive “collision of video and shifting performance spaces”, Tragic Queens employs a range of theatrical devices that include live music and live projections in addition to a highly integrated sound design (Devon Bate) and lighting design (Jon Cleveland and Robert Mallin). Site-responsive theatre appears, in essence, to be in their DNA.
“Space is a big character in our shows,” asserts Petrachuk.
Montreal’s MainLine Theatre, whose wholly inviting quality, quirky charm, and nostalgic history lines its walls from the moment one begins the walk in ascension of its steep flight of stairs, serves the production as a well-equipped playground.
Game-playing, in fact – both literal and of the mind – is rather inherent to Tragic Queens.
“We’ve really put a lot of thought and effort into making use of the MainLine, which is a space that everyone in the community knows well and we want to use it in unconventional and alternative ways,” divulges Schroeder.
Petrachuk elaborates: “I think we have done a really good job this time – without physically removing anyone from their seats – of transporting the audience to other spaces throughout the show. It is by no means immersive, then, in the sense that they have to get up and move. However, with the use of a camera or a mirror, people will have the ability to sort of selectively watch either something live or something projected. Mechanically and technically, things might be going on that the audience can’t see; in other cases, the recording process is totally deconstructed in front of them.”
She furthermore hints: “The fourth wall also may or may not be broken at certain moments.”
With celebrity, pop culture, and self-curation being constituent themes in the narrative, multiple digital technologies have been incorporated into the avant-garde production, particularly (and most fittingly) during the designated “teen section”.
In the age of the hashtag-selfie, “we’re using camera as mirror and live video as archival documentation of a time and space,” explicates Petrachuk, “and the audience plays an important role in that they are not only spectator, but also voyeur.”
Arresting aesthetics has become synonymous with the performance ensemble, whose striking design elements have seized the reverence of Montreal theatre insiders. Costume designer Sophie El-Assad (whose regal work in Mary Stuart can be seen pictured in the gallery above) returns to bring “high fashion” – royal and metallic colours, fabrics, and textures – to “Tragic Queens”.
ON CREATION THROUGH COLLABORATION
Prior to rehearsal, the piece was developed out of an intensive three-week period of research and journalling involving all creative team and cast members.
On the process of birthing Tragic Queens, Schroeder discloses: “Someone would select a specific topic for the day and then everyone would come together to submit and share what they’d written down about it. Oftentimes we would do a small puppetry piece and from that exercise we would discover an image that we loved and just knew we needed to incorporate into the show somehow. Then, it would all boil down to Anthony, Rhiannon, and Kate sitting down, taking this material, and deciding what was good and what was missing.”
Community building and collaboration appear to be at the core of Cabal. In striving to practice an outsourced vision, they have opened up their artistic space and resources to fellow theatre practitioners.
Among those brought onboard has been Artist-in-Residence Collett, deemed to have been an invaluable asset to the project. “Rhiannon is incredible,” they chant in unison. “She has written this play that is just so sexy, soul-crushing, and extraordinarily empowering,” eulogizes Harris.
“Kate Stockburger as dramaturg, researcher, and co-writer has also been phenomenal,” Harris continues. “There’s also Anne-Marie St-Louis, one of the most amazing stage managers I’ve ever worked with; she keeps us on track in the most real way,” remarks Schroeder. “Then there’s Anthony, our visionary director who brings an eye for composition and the big picture stuff.” Harris completes: “Working with people that you truly want to work with and who demonstrate ownership, investment, and love for the material is so nourishing.”
“We really want to emphasize that the ideas we present the show are not all ours,” expresses Harris. “A lot of people have contributed to this piece and many different perspectives are involved. There’s a whole history and a wealth of research and academic writing about the sad girl theory, women in power, and power dynamics behind Tragic Queens that pays credence to an entire lineage of feminists and all of this work that’s been done before.”
In their disarming humility, they also acknowledge the limitations of their youth in credibly bringing certain mature themes to the stage.
“The oldest person in our group is only in their thirties and there are all of these things that we still haven’t done or gone through yet – such as having babies and getting married,” they concede. “We can really only speak to our lives up until a certain point. There is so much still that exceeds our scope of understanding due to our age.”
Filling the experience gap, then, are veteran artists who have been selected by Cabal to collaborate. Each night, a special surprise guest star of Canadian or International fame will join Harris, Schroeder and Petrachuk on stage, making each performance distinctly unique from the next.
“We had this one particular role in the show that we needed to cast and we decided to use that opening as an exciting chance to collaborate with some of the most beautiful, talented, and inspiring older artists that we knew from Montreal and beyond.” reveals Schroeder. “Their stories provide us with the opportunity to learn something new.”
ON TRANSFORMATIVE THEATRE
We’re always to curious to ask the ways in which such a highly vulnerable and risky piece of theatre changes the lives of those involved.
“Since working on Tragic Queens I’ve reflected on my teenage years, which is something I haven’t done for a long time. Everything was so life or death back then, and now I look back and think, ‘Wow, I forgot about that! That was really hard and at the time it felt like the end of the world’. There are all these little nuggets of nostalgia,” imparts Harris.
Petrachuk follows. “I’m walking down memory lane big time and have been confronted with a lot of tough questions in the process. To be reliving some of these memories on stage with these people who weren’t there with me during those times but who are now two of my best friends has made all of this an unusually transformative experience. It’s been intense.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about time since we’ve started doing this. Childhood seemed to last forever when you were in it. Now I’m trying to figure out adulthood and grasp how fast it’s going by. I still haven’t wrapped my brain around it,” shares Schroeder.
In reframing women’s delirium as a form of political protest, Cabal’s hope with Tragic Queens is to instill empathy and to empower women and female identifying individuals.
And, while the provocative material is certainly an interrogation, it aspires not to alienation, striving to be fundamentally accessible in exploring deeply relatable human concerns.
“We want to break down this idea of women being intimidating and that they can only become powerful by acting like a man,” says Schroeder. “To show sadness should not be perceived as something that is weak.”
“The female protagonist is often confronted with this masculine sort of force that they have to battle against.” adds Petrachuk. “But it’s okay to throw yourself on the ground and cry. It’s okay to scream and yell and rage because there are things in this world that are unfair, making it completely valid to do those things. If everybody really started expressing their true feelings – can you imagine how revolutionary that would that be? We ought to hold each other and let out a good cry every now and again!”
“Yes – we need to pay attention to each other more – both women and men, because there needs to be less of this division among us and simply more listening,” concludes Schroeder.
Interview by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
Cabal Theatre presents its inaugural production
August 17th to 27th, 2017
MainLine Theatre (3997 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal)
August 17 8pm | August 18 8pm | August 19 8pm |August 20 2pm | August 24 8pm | August 25 8pm | August 26 2pm + 8pm | August 27 2pm
General: $25 | Students/artists/QDF/seniors: $20
MainLine box office: 514-849-3378
Buy tickets online
Playwright: Rhiannon Collett
Director: Anthony Kennedy
Dramaturg: Kate Stockburger
Stage Manager: Anne-Marie St. Louis
Sound Design & Compositions: Devon Bate
Lighting Design: Jon Cleveland and Robert Mallin
Costume Design: Sophie El-Assaad
Performers: Jillian Harris, Meagan Schroeder and Alex Petrachuk