I met Joanne Abraham in January of this year when I attended an artist retreat in Colorado hosted by Robin and Ben Pasley of the Blue Renaissance Creative Group (and their fine team of two Adolphes and one Strumpel). The retreat focused on art, faith, community, and coffee, things that Joanne is very much about. Conversation with Joanne is dazzling – she’ll walk around the city seven times until the walls come down. She is a woman of great energy and insight, one of the many unique but like-minded creative people I met during the retreat.
I was thrilled to learn that Joanne was sweeping through Alberta to perform Wendy Lill‘s One Woman Show, “The Occupation of Heather Rose.” (Read about it here). I’m also intrigued by the new project Joanne has launched – Living Room Stage – in which she brings theatre to the intimate space of peoples’ homes. I’m hosting a performance of the play in my living room in Red Deer. And as I and friends anticipate the show on May 10, 2010, I wanted I’d pick Joanne’s brain. I sent her a barrage of questions, via email, about her approach to theatre and this show in particular. Despite her busy traveling schedule between Ontario, Alberta, and BC as she prepares for the tour, she responded to said barrage with a volley of answers all her own.
AK: What is it about theatre that you think audiences are drawn to?
JA: I think a lot of it has to do with the inescapability of it. When you’re there, you’re kind of stuck. So you have to deal with what you’re seeing. You can’t hit pause to get a snack or to go pee, you can’t fast-forward past the boring parts, you can’t leave the room for whatever reason without bringing heaps of attention to yourself. I LOVE that people have to deal. Right then and there.
AK: What was your original pull into theatre as an actor – was there a specific moment where you said, “I must!” or was it a slower capitulation?
JA: Oh, I resisted a long time. All my life, even as a child, people told me ”you should be an actor!” I think mostly because I was loud and obnoxious. I always responded with: ‘Bah. Everyone and their dog is a starving actor – I’m not good or ambitious enough to be any different”. But after a few years of meandering my way through various programs at a good handful of colleges and universities, I enrolled at a university that didn’t have any courses left for me to choose from. Too many students, I guess. I made an appointment with a student advisor to see what courses they had left….who said ”mostly some math courses, some business courses, and an intro to acting class…which you’d have to audition for – next week”.
Sign me up for the audition, I said. By then end of that semester, I was hooked. The following year I declared myself an official theatre student, and devoted the following 5 years to taking every single theatre class I could possibly take.
AK: You’ve worn and do wear various hats for various productions. Is there a particular aspect of production you most enjoy?
JA: Mmmm…I can’t pick just one. So to be as vague but as honest as I can, what I really love is the dynamic of collaboration at any stage, in any capacity…whether it is working as part of design team and brainstorming how we can make each other look awesome, or working as an actor among actors who love to take risks and also trust each other, or as a director that wants to give her actors the best possible experience by navigating the artistic balance between directing and co-creating. Plus, the shows themselves, in front of a real, live audience comprised of (oh my!) real, live people, are a definite highlight – seeing their reactions, getting their feedback, and hopefully, hearing that people are connecting with what they are experiencing. I also love the fact that I don’t ever get bored working in one capacity, because I switch hats often enough to keep me on my toes. I would say I’m primarily an actor, secondarily a director, thirdly (and lucratively) a lighting designer (the only real money to be made in theatre!), and wishingly a playwright. There are other proverbial hats on the list, but those are my faves.
AK: How has your variety of production experience informed your experience as a story teller?
JA: I think I’ve worked with enough directors, designers, creators, dreamers, and brainiacs that I’ve been exposed to a wide gamut of possibilities and ideas. It has made me aware of the limitations I accept, and has given me the courage and passion to challenge them from time to time. To think outside the box as to what theatre is, and what it can be. And from a purely practical standpoint, it has also made me aware of how we limit the mobility and reach of a story by always feeling the need to add bells and whistles. The need for lights and sound require a load of resources that can cripple the mobility of a troupe or a show – money, equipment, operators, and space. But you can take a story places you can’t necessarily take a ‘play’.
AK: What is Living Room Stage (LRS) and how did it become a reality for you?
JA: The Living Room Stage is theatre in intimate and familiar spaces….ie, your living room. It is a concept that incorporates a love of the performing arts and hospitality, a passion for intimate conversation, an inclination towards personal growth, and a heart for the world and all the people in it. It came into being very slowly: it was a happy accident that birthed a vague idea that brewed for 5 or 6 years before it became anything near tangible or articulable.
I was first cast in ”The Occupation of Heather Rose” for a theatre festival in the Fraser Valley (BC) in 2004, as a very green second year theatre student graciously cast by a director with a lot of faith in my ”potential”. Once all my hard work and my skepticism met its audiences, and had the chance to lead them in talkback sessions to debrief the experience after each show, something clicked in me. THIS was EXACTLY what I needed to be doing. But how? When? What? Those questions wouldn’t be answered until much later.
Six months after the festival, I was invited to perform as a guest in a space with no real technical flexibility (no light other than the room’s fluoresescents, no stereo or sound system), a decision was made to forego the stress of trying to force the technical things to come together. So with fluorescent lighting, and with the absence of any special sound or music, the show went on. And it was one of the most authentic experiences I have ever had. The audience (a classroom of performing arts students at Simon Fraser University) was there with me, engaged in the story and not just the ”play”. No bells or whistles needed. And the fact that the actual play really does take place in a classroom had a tremendous effect on us all. It affected not only how it was conveyed (I mean, the effect of this whole new dynamic on me and my interpretation of the text), but also how it was received (since it blurred so well the lines between story and reality).
And now, 5 years after that whistle-less performance, I have had time to ruminate, to brainstorm, to dream, and to be encouraged by those who know me better than I know myself. I have taken my final cue from my best friend (Karla Adolphe of Jacob and Lily), and have taken her model of doing house shows and adapted it to fit who I am and what I do. I bought a domain name to make it feel more official and to keep myself accountable. And voilà! There you have the beginnings of the Living Room stage.
AK: Your philosophy (a la your website) for LRS is enthusiastic and optimistic. Among other purposeful statements you highlight that LRS exists to “Promote Life, Celebration, and Authenticity” and that you want to bridge cultural, spiritual, and lingual understanding. How do you gauge and quantify how successfully you do these things? And, why these things?
JA: These things are not quantifiable in a tangible sense, which makes them a bit difficult gauge. But that being said, I can still get a sense of success by how I pumped I feel when I leave a show, by the sense of optimism that emanates from the guests as they are leaving, by the emails and comments I get days later from people who had a chance to ruminate a bit.
AK: What about LRS (or theatre in general) can achieve these noble purposes?
JA: I think we have a responsibility as performers, entertainers, and storytellers to be smart about what we are doing when we’ve grabbed someone’s attention. I do not want my performance to provoke senselessness, hopelessness, or despair. An element of challenge (which often means asking the hard questions…which in turn means increasing the potential for feeling a twinge of hopelessness…which can be a really good thing to force people to get to the heart of things) is crucial, but not for the purpose of discouraging people. I think theatre can present challenges that may be tough to slog through, but can ultimately lead to awesome insight and encouragement, if you are deliberate about taking it there in some way, shape, or form.
AK: Why are you producing this show at this time?
JA: I can’t escape this show. It is, first of all, incredibly well written. Wendy Lill – (I recommend googling her bio!) – is a phenomenal Canadian playwright, social activist, and politician. She cares about her country. She cares about the people in it. She is intelligent and active. And she has this way of seamlessly blending the sacred with the profane through poetic prose. And she paints such incredible images with her words that it’s almost impossible NOT to see what she’s describing – which really makes my job as an actor a piece of cake.
Secondly, this show is inside of me. I can’t leave it behind. And since it’s inside me, why not let it out from time to time? And thirdly, the feedback I have received from various individuals and audiences (of all ages, beliefs, and ever other demographic) has encouraged me to keep bringing this particular story to new people, new communities, because of how universal the story is. I can’t believe how open people have been to discussing everything from the issues raised in the show about Canadian ‘culture’ clashes (particularly white vs first nations) to the human condition on a global scale.
Really, I just want to meet new people and communities, chat with them, encourage them, and hear what they have to say. And this is, so far, the best excuse I can find to accomplish that.
AK: How much collaboration was involved in this production: is it all you?
JA: For now, it’s all me in terms of performance, direction, and production. But I consider it to be a collaborative effort with the different communities I travel to, as the whole point is to get people to host events in their own homes, which makes the hosts and their guests a HUGE part of the vision of what the LRS is all about.
Eventually, I would LOVE to collaborate more with writers, designers, other performers, and musicians. Karla and I have been throwing around an idea for a couple of years now of creating a show together – I just need to get my butt in gear and get to writing it! The concept involves a series of monologues and a live soundtrack comprised of meaningful songs for each character – Karla is a superbly gifted musician. That’s just one of the possibilities right now.
AK: Is there more on the line for you, personally, in the performance of a One Woman show, compared to a play with an ensemble?
JA: Yes and no? I mean yes in the sense that I have no backup, no bailout, no scapegoat, and, most scarily at this point, no accountability in terms of staying on track with everything. One can be a lonely and dangerous number. But I also mean no …. in the sense that I don’t have to worry about anything other than my own responsibilities, getting myself, my ideas, and my show on the road. So for the control freak in me, a one-person show directed and produced by the very same person keeps things simple and actionable.
AK: What are the challenges for you as you travel with the show?
JA: Well, right now there are many…time and money being the obvious (and most clichéd!) obstacles. I have a lot of student loan debt after a sweet decade of university studies, so I have a pretty big responsibility there. And as you might assume, there’s not a ton of money in theatre – especially in the kind of home-made theatre that actually favors tiny audiences. I also have royalty fees to pay when I am performing a show written by someone other than me….so until I can make more time (that other hot commodity) to write for myself, I have to add royalty costs to my travel costs. After those costs are covered, there’s not much room to make a profit. The other challenge – lack of time – is mostly due to the fact that I’m planning to go back to school for another year (which is part of the 5 year plan I am about to mention in the next sentence), which will not allow for any major touring efforts or rehearsing new shows. I do, however, have a vision for how this model of theatre can be sustainable in the long run, and am excited to see that happen. I’m just in the very preliminary stages of slogging what seems to be shaping up as a 5 year plan.
AK: With “Heather Rose” you engage the audience in conversation after each show. As an actor, how important is your connection with the audience?
JA: It’s the only thing that matters, really. Connecting with the audience. What’s the point if I’m not? It has to be about appealing to the audience about something…whether overtly or covertly… in order gets their brains and hearts moving….whether overtly or covertly. Not necessarily in a certain direction, even. I don’t really have a specific agenda, but if I am not authentically connecting with REAL people with REAL lives, I’m missing the point.
AK: How does the experience of the show change for you as an actor by bringing the production into living rooms and engaging in dialogue (as opposed to doing a performance, taking the bow, and slipping behind the curtain again)?
JA: Oh, there is absolutely nothing like it. Messing with convention can really be a shocking and refreshing experience. It can be awesomely awkward, in a good way. Very Brechtian. Reminds us that we’re human, that things are not always neat and tidy, open and shut, black and white. It gives the group the chance to address anxiety, awkwardness and uncertainty…on top of the themes addressed in the show itself. I usually give an intro before I perform in living rooms, to address the anxieties that might be associated with now knowing what to expect as an audience member at such an event. It usually includes the following notes:
”I’m going to take 5 minutes and get ready. You can hang out and chat, grab another drink or a last minute snack, and when I come out again and take the stage, you can finish what you were doing and make your way over to your seat. No rush. And since I have no lights or curtain to indicate and end, and so you don’t feel weird or awkward about when to clap, it’s an hour and 20 minutes long with no intermission, and it will be over officially when I leave the room. And then I’ll come back a few minutes later, after you’ve have a chance to stretch your legs and grab another drink, and we’ll chat about what you thought. And obviously, I see you just as well as you see me. Which is the best part of this whole thing. Don’t feel the need to look away if I look you in the eye…. I promise you won’t make me screw up. You’re just as much a part of this performance as I am.”
And so on and so on…
AK: Is there a typical audience response to “Heather Rose” – something you aim for or that the audience aims at you?
JA: Again, I’m always surprised at how the audience responds. I’m always a bit apprehensive about how people will process the content of the show…because some of it can seem vulgar and offensive. But EVERY time, my fears are quelled. People are far more understanding and far more willing to go to tough places than you might expect. I would say that overall, the audience leaves feeling like they were just a part of something important.
AK: It seems a potentially risky thing to get audience feedback immediately after a performance. Maybe it isn’t at all. What “controls” do you put on the feedback time and how guided is the time?
JA: I’m surprised EVERY time by the success of the talkback sessions. They are my source of renewal and encouragement, because they always serve to remind me that this theory of living room theatre really, actually works, and people of all ages and walks actually want to engage in it.
I do have controls ready in the back of my head, but I very rarely need to use them. What I try to be aware of is the whole group dynamic. If you pay attention, it’s easy to tell if the group – as a whole – is wanting to stay longer to talk more all together, or if it’s time to cut it short and keep it sweet, and suggest to those that want to talk more to come and chat with me after we release the others to go. In general, I try to keep it to 20 minutes, though if it gets intense, it can easily make it to 30 or 40.
I also try to be aware of monopolizers, and as much as possible I try to send the questions I’m fielding from the audience back out to the audience themselves for thoughts, anecdotes, or answers. I don’t want to be a monopolizer either…especially after having spent an hour and a half monopolizing on their forced undivided attention!
AK: How do Faith and Theatre, Belief and Performance connect and intersect for you? How is your faith enriched by theatre and vice versa? How is it limited (if at all)?
JA: My faith and my philosophy of theatre are inextricably linked, without question. It’s not like I have these separate compartments of self…what I do (in everything, including theatre) is completely rooted in who I am, and who I am is firmly rooted in God’s heart.
Joanne Abraham is the founder of Living Room Stage, an all-round theatre person (she acts, directs, dabbles in light design), and is an avid photographer. Learn more about Joanne, check out her photography, and book shows at LivingRoomStage.com
Visit Joanne’s blog.
Winnipeg may 15