Q&A: 52 Pick-Up

Co-directors Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia on remounting The Howland Company's hit Fringe show

Presented by The Howland Company
Written by TJ Dawe & Rita Bozi
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Paolo Santalucia

Paolo Santalucia and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster.

TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi's 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival hit 52 Pick-Up returns to the stage this month in a remount directed by two of the original cast members, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Paolo Santalucia. A blend of scripted scenes and improv, the 75-minute play explores the ups and downs of falling in love, and features a cast of four different couples who rotate every performance (Alexander Plouffe and Llyandra Jones join returning cast members James Graham, Cam Laurie, Hallie Seline, Ruth Goodwin, Alex Crowther and Kristen Zaza).

The catch? 52 scene titles are written on an ordinary deck of playing cards. At the beginning of each show the actors toss the cards in the air and the story follows the order in which they are randomly picked up.

Here, Courtney and Paolo chat with us about their experiences working on this unpredictable production.

Theatomania: Tell us about 52 Pick-Up. What inspired this show?

Courtney: TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi wrote the script some time ago, and it has been performed by them and by others all over the world, but not in Toronto. TJ sent it to one of our company members as a suggestion, and we all read it together and felt that it hit home as a good script to cut our teeth on – the struggles of young, early twenties love and life, trying to figure yourself out, trying to act like an adult, trying desperately to connect with and love another person.

Paolo: What struck us after reading the piece for the first time was how many of the scenes were embarrassingly recognizable by so many of us. The amount of groaning and cringing and smiling and laughter that came from the company seeing themselves in the piece was exciting to us. We went into the show without thinking we would be casting it with four couples, but after we read it and realized how personal and varied our own experiences were, it made sense that everyone in the company could be involved. At that point, the exploration of this play through a wide array of relationships started to take shape. For us, the play speaks to the experience of being changed by the people we love and, as Courtney says, how significant that experience is when you’re a young adult falling deeply for someone else, potentially for the first time.

Theatromania: How would you describe the production in a few sentences?

Courtney: It’s a theatrical challenge and a love story—there are 52 scenes ranging from the beginning to the end of a relationship. The title of each scene is written on a playing card. At the beginning of the show, the two actors shuffle the cards and scatter them across the scene, and then pick up a card at a time, performing the show in whatever random order occurs.

Paolo: Someone said this during the Fringe, and I liked it a lot: “This play feels like what it is to fall in love for the first time." That probably won’t ring true for everyone, but I found that to be a very sweet way to describe the show.

Theatromania: Has the show changed much since it was staged at the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival?

Courtney: We’ve cast two new actors in to our four-couple rotating cast—Alexander Plouffe and Llyandra Jones have replaced Paolo and I, and they’ve both brought fresh eyes and new ideas to the show. Otherwise I’d say most of the show remains fairly true to our Fringe Festival staging—hopefully just a little deeper!

Theatromania: The random structure of the piece means that no two shows are ever the same. What are some of the challenges in directing this unique format?

Courtney: We really emphasize the importance of not hiding anything from the audience—show the bumps and struggles of dealing with randomness! Sometimes as a director I have the urge to prepare contingency plans for every possibility, but really it’s more important to prepare the actors to be calm and collected and deal with whatever order and surprises come up in the moment, and without panic!

Paolo: It makes it hard at times to give feedback. Normally a production gets more focused as you continue to work on it. Directors stop crafting the bigger picture to work on smaller sections, which get narrower and narrower in their focus. But this piece almost needs the inverse of that. We started working really specifically on each scene, but as we move closer to opening each couple, Courtney and I have to constantly remind both ourselves and the actors that the piece needs to function as a whole. I find that we start talking in terms of what the essence of each scene is, and working from there to shape the same thing in varied ways. That way, no matter what order the play is presented in, the actors are responding to new things while being able to repeat a sense of what is familiar. Finding that balance of spontaneity and repetition is both very challenging and very inspiring.

Theatromania: What have you learned from this experience?

Courtney: This show has been my first directorial experience, so I’ve learned a TON. It’s been wonderful to be on the other side and really grapple with how to communicate acting notes effectively. As a whole The Howland Company has learned and continues to learn from this process—we, as a company, are doing many things for the first time: producing, marketing and negotiating, budgeting and so much more. The experience we’ve learned doing this show will be so valuable to us for our future projects. We’ve also received such generous support from our friends and family in the community. It’s really taught me that people are hugely generous and excited to help people realize their ambitions.

Paolo: Like Courtney, I’ve learned so much from this because it’s my first time being in the director’s chair. But what this has reinforced for me is how much I love theatricality. So much of this play exists in small exchanges that happen constantly every single day, but need to be made special and significant in context of this piece. One of my favorite scenes occurs when the two characters simply say “I love you” and “I love you too” to each other. As soon as you focus an audience’s attention on that, you have the chance to create something really moving from something very simple. It’s been a great lesson in the strength of the medium we work in. This process has been really rewarding in its reminder of what theatre can do to the smallest and simplest of stories. Two people falling in love and breaking apart seems like the oldest tale there is. But T.J. and Rita have crafted a really theatricalized version of that story. I think that’s what the audience responds to. It’s certainly what I respond to and what I find so moving about it.

52 Pick-Up runs until March 22 at Fraser Studios, 76 Stafford St. Toronto (Stafford & Adelaide) Tickets: General Admission - $20, Arts Worker - $15. Visit howlandcompanytheatre.com for more information and to buy tickets.

Show Dates: 
Thu, 2015-03-05 - Sun, 2015-03-22


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