How do you bring a creative idea to life? Jennifer Brewin, artistic director of Common Boots Theatre, talks with me about the interweaving of dialogue, collaboration and contributions required for moving an idea to the stage. As she states, “It’s an equation for me: the creative and social value of an idea, the method for bringing it to life and the distinct skills and personalities of the individual team members give a work a fighting chance to make it to public view”.
Can you comment on theatre as a dialogue; a dialogue that creates, a dialogue of collaboration and a dialogue that contributes?
Everything about making theatre is a dialogue. Dialogue between director and actor, between cast and crew, between writer and designer, publicists and administrators, board members and arts council officers. A theatre production necessitates collaboration and insists on a collective vision. The ultimate goal is a vibrant dialogue between the finished piece and the audience.
I am the artistic director of an independent theatre company in Toronto, Common Boots Theatre. Independent is code for small. Over the course of the year we produce one major show and nurture the development of new plays for future production. It’s low paying, time consuming, and high stress work. Sometimes people come to see it sometimes they don’t. Every work project I take on begins with defining the kind of relationship the audience has with the work be it the theme, the space or the characters.
In our company, the plays are written through a process of collaborative creation. Actors are joined by a writer and a director and in some cases designers and musicians. Collectively the group investigates an idea and over the course of many sessions, over a number of years, the play is created and then performed.
I have always been drawn to works collectively created. The creative process makes for rich performances and utterly unique works of theatre. The journey that every member of the team endures is embroidered into the work, giving it both energy and complexity.
The collaborative process is an arduous dance of personality and technique. It insists on authentic vulnerability along with a fairly sophisticated understanding of collaboration. We insult when we mean to compliment, we retreat when we are scared. Someone in the group gets too much attention while others are overlooked. The bully declares they are just being forthright. The doubter keeps the process in a perpetual loop of indecision. Then there are the doldrums when nothing happens for days and you have no idea if it’s because the entire concept is dead, or it is simply stalled, and a proverbial wind will rise-up and fill the creative sails at any moment. Our personalities, skills and talents keep the ship afloat and threaten to sink it at every turn. When a project fails – it fails big. It has taken me years to recover from some of the projects. And even with such sacrifices, the play can be a great success.
I have a quote from one of my hero’s, British Director Simon McBurney, taped to my workbook every time I begin a project, “(Collaborative creation) it can be a shaping force for excellence or the road to chaos, nothing is set in stone, the map is non-existent.”
How do you see yourself amidst this dialogue as both an artistic director, director and enthusiastic supporter of Canadian theatre?
My job is to conceive of original works that have the potential to mean something to a contemporary audience. It is my responsibility to shepherd a process that will bring a nascent idea to life.
It’s an equation for me: the creative and social value of the idea, the method for bringing it to life and the distinct skills and personalities of the individual team members give a work a fighting chance to make it to public view. It works when everyone involved can see that equation.
I am driven to show off this country’s unbelievable theatrical talent to the public and to be part of those theatrical events that show off the best of what we are in community. I am committed to the next generation of theatre artists by providing opportunities to create and develop alongside us, challenging our work to be better and stronger than before. I encourage the voice of women in artistic leadership.
You are known for producing and directing theatre productions that take place outdoors. Can you comment on your experiences of bringing theatre to life outdoors? What becomes possible for you, the actors and the audience when a production takes place outdoors?
I like working on large ensemble pieces, large scale works and shows that are performed in unique settings. I’ve directed shows in all sorts of spaces: a staged reading on the Vimy Monument in Vimy France, a sleigh ride winter play across an 80acre farm in the British Columbia interior, a traveling rock and roll show in the back alleys of downtown Toronto, to name just a few. The sense of the spontaneous in the performance is central to the dynamic of the piece, for those performing and for those watching. Any number of common happenstances can alter the experience, shifting weather systems, dog walkers, and drug dealers to name just a few. Each spontaneous act of life is blended into the performance. As such, there is a palpable sense of awe that is shared by artists and audience. Everyone is in it together and anything can happen that will change the plan, making every performance unique – even a show where nothing interferes with the performance is a miracle.
I am happiest working on projects with many moving and seemingly incompatible parts and I am drawn to multi character plots. I think it comes from growing up as a middle child in a large multi-generational family. I like to carve shape from the mayhem of life. I want to honour the mayhem and give it meaning. This is my kind of storytelling.