We're in Jimmy's Coffee Shop in Kensington Market, on the warmest Sunday afternoon Toronto has seen this spring, but that hasn't kept Laura Anne Harris and Janelle Hanna from working on their show. Their efforts are beginning to pay off.
"We're sold out opening night!" says Janelle. "Yeah, and not just our friends" adds Laura Anne. We all laugh. Even the big guys struggle for audience for "serious" work. As a small, independent production company, Harris' company, Convection Theatre is working hard to establish a presence in Toronto's dynamic independent theatre scene. COMMENCEMENT is the company's fourth production,
COMMENCEMENT was written by Clay McLeod Chapman, a New York-based writer who teaches playwriting at the Actors' Studio. I've seen a previous production of COMMENCEMENT, and I think it's one of the best plays I've seen in the past 5 years. The play is written for one actor, who plays three women in the aftermath of a school shooting: Sara, the mother of the assailant, Mary, the mother of the victim, and Julie, the victim and a promising young woman, the class valedictorian. It was a critic's pick by Time Out NY.
"I discovered this script when I saw an American production of it touring on the Fringe circuit, a few years back. It's a rich, layered text, full of vivid imagery," says Laura Anne. "Chapman was really approachable, and excited to have us do it. As we've rehearsed, we've gone to him with questions about the script, and he's been really open."
Laura Anne continues: "I was looking for a project for Janelle and me to do together. We had such a great time working on SWELL BROAD last year. It's a demanding role, and I knew she had the range to be able to pull it off. I am a playwright, and my company has produced shows I've written, but I don't always want to be the playwright. This was a good vehicle for us."
Janelle jumps in, smiling. "I was the class valedictorian. My picture is in the library at my old high school, Quinte Secondary."
Janelle continues: "I'd hate to be in high school now. The easy access to weapons now is terrifying. Social media was just beginning to be popular, when I was leaving high school. We grow up in high school. Social media can be part of building community, but often it is used to fuel alienation, insecurity and aloneness."
Laura Anne says, " You see it in Mary, too. She's surrounded by people, but alone in her grief. It's a play that feels very 21st century, in its grasp of the issues of community and alienation in contemporary society."
Janelle says, "We wanted to do something to help kids who are struggling in isolation."
Laura Anne looks at her. " So we decided to donate 50% the box office from our Saturday May 9th 4:00 pm to Kids Help Phone. It's our way of trying to support the community. There's a donation jar out during the run if people want to give them something. They operate without government support."
"Like an independent theatre company?" I ask.
We all laugh. Laura Anne adds, "We're in an independent space too: Hub 14. I know Andrew Gaboury (who runs the space) from working with him in AS THE FOO TURNS. He's an associate artist with the Toronto Festival of Clowns."
She pauses. "When I studied clown with John Turner, he taught us that it is important to invite the audience into the environment of the show. We are trying to build that inclusive environment, onstage and off."
COMMENCEMENT opens tonight, May 1st at HUB 14, 14 Markham Street, one block west of Queen St W. and Bathurst, for six performances: May & 2 at 8:00 PM May 3rd at 4:00 PM and continuing the following weekend: May 8 & 9 at 8:00 PM with matinees Saturday May 9th and Sunday, May 10th at 4:00 PM. Tickets are $20/$15 (arts workers) and may be purchased in advance at http://bpt.me/1374075