In anticipation of the announcement of TROJAN GIRLS & THE OUTHOUSE OF ATREUS, the creative team sat down with OtM creative producer Griffin McInnes to chat about the show. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation with playwright Gillian Clark, director Mitchell Cushman, associate director Frances Koncan and dramaturge Jeff Ho:
Griffin: Gill, this show started with your brain. Do you wanna tell us why this show is so special?
Gill: Yeah, well the show originated as a commission from [Nova Scotia’s] Two Planks and a Passion to adapt The Trojan Women. It took place around a fire and it’s a super special atmosphere beside the Bay of Fundy and it really created this magical, communal experience. I discovered that that approach really lends itself to doing stories like the Greeks.
I’m very transparent about this: I have a hard time getting myself into these stories. When I look it up on Wikipedia or someone is like, “The show is about this,” I’m like, “That’s AMAZING.” It’s that kernel that I want to grab on to. The original thing that I was excited about was thinking about a group of teens and how the drama of being a teenager—especially within a community—how that has such high stakes
Anyway. Don’t feel like you have to have any pre-knowledge of the Greeks. A large part of this story is: ‘how do myths evolve?’ And in a lot of cases I’ve evolved them to be unrecognizable.
Griffin: Jeff you’re no stranger to contemporary adaptations of Greek drama. Do you want to maybe tell us about what feels new about Gill’s approach?
Jeff: It’s the entire form of it: the site-specificness of it, the campfire and the dance, the audience immersion. I feel like what’s new for me is it’s not just asking “why now?” It’s asking “why not?” While adding in GREASE mythology… It’s so vivid.
Griffin: Mitchell maybe you can speak to us a little bit about the immersive concept. There are two plays happening simultaneously, and we get to watch two generations in a small town, with the same actor playing parent and child… What’s it been like to develop this thing?
Mitchell: What really made me fall in love with this piece is Gill’s really clear-eyed understanding that the Greeks offer a great platform to explore cycles of behaviour across generations: how parents see their children, how children see their parents.
It was out of Gill’s writing that this larger idea grew: could we use some of the principles of immersive theatre to hear from both the parents and the children and could we do that on a larger canvas than a traditional theatre experience allows for?
The fact that we’re going to be able to tell the children’s story and the parents’ story simultaneously in a single actor body, as opposed to trying to neatly arrange it in a more theatrical distillation—it feels a lot more like life. Life is a messy, chaotic thing where everyone is trying to navigate their shit at the same time.
Griffin: Frances, I get the sense that you’re something of an immersive theatre connoisseur—
Griffin: I’m gonna go with it. So as an immersive theatre connoisseur, I’m curious what your take is on the… immersive chaos I guess is the best way to distill what Mitch just said. What has it been like to develop that ambitious immersive concept?
Frances: It’s been illuminating. This process is giving substantial weight to the writing, in a way that you don’t often see in immersive theatre, which is generally very devised and more of that style. So to come at it from a place of honouring the text sort of adds this extra layer of challenge but also excitement.
Griffin: Is there anything that you’ve been surprised by?
Frances: Here’s a pull quote for you: the process has been like opening up Pandora’s box.
Mitchell: That’s perfect.
Frances: I used to work in journalism, so.
Griffin: Has anybody else had that experience in the process? Of opening Pandora’s box?
Frances: Like a good box, though!
Griffin: Like a good Pandora’s box.
Griffin: So what got opened? What have you discovered?
Mitchell: I feel like that really describes my internal experience of having that first phone call with Gill when we started talking about expanding the play. It felt like a delicate thing to put on the table. Gill had already written this really textured, detailed, beautiful, complete play. And so to begin exploring how it could be expanded with this whole parallel piece felt both potentially exciting but also there was this feeling of like.. You know in Greek mythology if you have too much hubris and you fly too close to the sun or you tamper with the gods, you get shipwrecked or you’re going to have to sacrifice something? It definitely felt like we were opening a door and not sure where it would lead, but at least from my side of that conversation, it also felt like we were on the precipice of uncharted territory in a really exciting way.
Gill: Yeah. I think Pandora—that’s brilliant, Frances. I find that quite grounding in some capacity because something that I feel really grateful for is the enthusiasm and generosity of the team bringing in a lot of new material to try to dig to find what the thing actually is. There’s been something about that process, and doing it with a community, that acknowledges that the best part about theatre is that this is a work in process and we can all be in that together.
Griffin: That’s really lovely. Hey, this show is happening at Factory. That’s cool. Does anyone want to talk about that?
Mitchell: That question feels lobbed at me so I’ll start. Elements of downtown—and many of our theatre buildings—have been in hibernation over the past two years. We want to contribute to the revival of these spaces. The pandemic has pushed a lot of our work outdoors—more in the public eye—and that’s meant that not just the initiated but the passers-by also can connect with it. Factory’s also been the home of Canadian playwriting experimentation for the last 50 years and it really feels appropriate that this play joins that pantheon.
Jeff: It feels full circle. The first experience that I had with OtM was seeing Terminus almost 10 years ago now on the Factory mainstage—literally, sitting on the mainstage. Factory has always felt like a home for that kind of experimentation and growth.
Mitchell: Also, can I just say, not only the fact that Nina [Lee Aquino] said yes but the way she said yes was such a sign that it was going to be such a beautiful partnership. There’s alway a little bit of trepidation when you’re inquiring about a large immersive project with a venued company… that they might get quite trepidatious about the results. And there was such a warm and open enthusiasm for us to come to Factory and do something that’s never been done there before and give people a unique experience of the building. So that also felt really fated.
Griffin: Fated. Fate. Cool. Making connections. Okay we have to talk about Grease. Gill, Grease is a big part of this show. What’s the deal?
Gill: Mitchell doesn’t believe me but I actually didn’t really understand that I had made a joke until the reading of the first draft. Our brains naturally make structure. So how can you follow that? Grease was a big part of my childhood. I would play Grease with Barbies. I really wanted to be Sandy. Bad Sandy made me feel weird, which now I look at a little differently as to potentially why. I just like Grease! That’s all, it’s fun!
And, okay, the smarter answer is that there is such a mythology behind it. How do we look at these pop culture references and how do they inform our stories in potentially the same way that the ancient Greeks have? How do we look at the evolution of what is a seminal text?
Griffin: Okay, speaking of fun, I would like you all to imagine that this play is a human being. Great. Don’t overthink it, we’re going to do some rapidfire answers. Jeff, describe Trojan Girls’ eyes in one word.
Jeff: Wide-eyed, gigantic and endlessly curious. But with a wink.
Griffin: Okay that was like 15 words. But great. Frances, introvert or extrovert?
Frances: Introvert. BUT, okay, because there’s two parts, one is an introvert and one is an extrovert.
Griffin: Mitchell, who are they at a party?
Mitchell: They would be the social butterfly who would make sure they engage with everyone, but not in a superficial way.
Griffin: Gill, what is their fashion sense?
Gill: American flag bikinis.
Griffin: Anyone—favourite food?
Jeff: Hot dogs.
Griffin: Favourite musician?
Mitchell: Shania Twain.
Griffin: Great. Anything else we need to know about Trojan Girls, the person?
Gill: Don’t get in a fight with them.
Mitchell: (Laughs.) Don’t mess with Trojan Girls.
Griffin: Thank you all very much.