Q&A: Passion Play

Convergence Theatre's Aaron Willis talks about bringing Sarah Ruhl's epic work to Toronto

This month, three of Toronto's indie theatre companies are coming together to bring Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play to Toronto's east end. Presented by Outside The March, Convergence Theatre and Sheep No Wool, the work is an epic three-part saga that examines a company of amateur actors staging a traditional passion play at three different historical moments: Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany and Reagan-Era America.

We caught up with one of the production's three directors, Convergence Theatre's Aaron Willis, to find out more about this ambitious project.

Theatromania: Tell us about this production of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play. How would you describe it in a sentence or two?

AW: It's a three-part play that explores the collisions between faith, politics and theatre.  It depicts the performance of a Passion Play by three communities in three historical eras: a village in Northern England in 1575, the German town of Oberammergau in 1934, and Spearfish, South Dakota from 1969-1984.

Theatromania: What first inspired Outside the March, Convergence Theatre and Sheep No Wool to collaborate on a project of this scale?

AW: Convergence Theatre has had a history of mounting large-scale, large-cast productions over the past few years, The Gladstone Variations and YICHUD (Seclusion) being the most recent.  Our interest in large-scale, ambitious plays and in site-specific and immersive theatre dovetailed perfectly with the artistic visions of both Outside the March and Sheep No Wool.  Passion Play is such a large project though, that the only way it seemed possible to even attempt it was to join forces.  All of the core artists in the companies were also eager to collaborate on a project together, and this piece seemed like the perfect onewe were all equally excited about it.

Theatromania: The show begins at Withrow Park, after which the audience and performers will process together to Eastminster United Church. Why did the companies choose these particular locations?

AW: All three companies are interested in creating unconventional theatrical experiences, whether site-specific, immersive, or by re-imagining the use of traditional theatre spaces. From the beginning, we wanted to create an experience that reflected the different performance styles of the three era.  It seemed appropriate to perform the Elizabethan era outdoors, and to move indoors for parts two and three as technology becomes a more integral part of the performance.  In order to do this, we needed to find an outdoor and indoor venue that were close enough for us to move the audience to; and after much searching, Withrow and Eastminster were a match.

Theatromania: What are some of the challenges involved in mounting a moving production like this?

AW: Passion Play is essentially three one-act plays, each with their own design concept. Moving from one place to another is certainly a logistical challenge and we only really learn about how it works once we have an audience.  Another challenge was simply rehearsing all three plays at once: it was like working in a repertory company where the actors had to rehearse all three simultaneouslysome days they would go from the 1500s to 1984 to 1934 in the space of a few hours!

Theatromania: What do you hope audiences take away from this experience?

AW: More than anything else, we hope audiences get as much from this play as we do.  It has a lot to say about our relationships with the communities we live in, and with the powers and that shape the ideology and values we live our lives by, whether those powers be religious or political ones.  Sarah Ruhl, in her playwright's notes writes:  “It's easy to feel powerless as the great political wheels turn, financed by enormous wealth. But then I thought about what starts every grassroots movementpeople organizing in one room...and one thing [that theatre artists do well] is organize people to come to one room. It's not that the play is a political treatisenot at allbut it does provide us with another occasion to be in one room together as we continue to meditate on the relationship of community to political icons. And to meditate on what we can do to effect change in very solemn times indeed.”

Passion Play runs from June 6 until June 30. Visit outsidethemarch.ca for more information and to buy tickets.



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