At Soulpepper, a Toronto-based theatre company that brought several productions to New York this summer, design becomes part of the agenda in the rehearsal room. Designers build new work from the ground up with directors, writers, and actors. “It’s really an attempt at a holistic approach to theatre-making,” says resident designer Lorenzo Savioni. Read Part One of the story here.
Creating A Company That Playgrounds
Playgrounding began to develop during Soulpepper’s first season in 1988, when the Hungarian director, László Marton, directed Chekhov’s Platonov. The 13-actor production had a $5,000 budget for sets and costumes. “The great Canadian designer Michael Levine sourced a whole bunch of costumes from Value Village and brought them into the rehearsal hall,” recalls Albert Schultz, an actor, director, and Soulpepper’s founding artistic director. “The actors experimented with what was there, developing their own costumes in consultation with the designer and director.”
Many artists have come through Soulpepper’s ten-year-old Academy or have been members of the permanent company for a time, so they have a shared vocabulary. “I can’t imagine walking into a group of strangers and doing this,” actor Gregory Prest says. “We’re a group of colleagues, and we trust each other.”
Savioni was the first designer to train in the Academy. Initially, there was one designer, writer, director, producer, and seven actors. Now there are more, including two designers. All are paid and function as a mini-Soulpepper company, with fewer resources. “We took things from the green room and offices,” recalls Prest. Resident designer Ken MacKenzie had an undergraduate degree in performance and a graduate degree in design before entering the two-year program. “It’s like going to school, except you’re getting paid,” he says. Through the Academy, they hope a new generation is being trained so that playgrounding becomes the norm.
To work in the Soulpepper style, a responsive production department is essential. It also means the designer can’t ask for a giant staircase. Not that a Soulpepper designer would want to; that would limit the creative process. “If you just paid for a staircase, we’re not going to take the staircase away,” says Schultz, explaining that, by solving the staircase in a simple way, you can also solve it in a more poetic way.
“Most of the industry is built around cost. Our production department is able to structure its schedule so they focus their energy on a later execution date,” Savioni says. “Sometimes, they mock up an idea and give the company something to work with the next day.”
The company develops several works at a time and presents them in rotating rep, even though the theatre isn’t built for rep.
“We took over an old 1800s whiskey distillery. There’s not much wing space, and you can’t blow out a wall to make a big storage area. It’s a constant compromise,” says Savioni. “We have to be quite modular, and the production team has to figure out how to move each show. You keep dreaming things up, but it has to rep with the complexities of the other show.”
Adds Savioni, “Our production department by now is so used to the envelope being pushed that their problem-solving brain is usually ready for new challenges. It’s about having a technical production team that also sees themselves as artists and collaborators. Rarely do our technical directors immediately say no to an idea. They often come up with at least one solution, even if it’s bad. It can be a bit chaotic, but it’s a creative chaos that seems to work for us,” says Savioni.
Designing Poetry And Music
Some of the work Soulpepper has created is based on works in other genres like poems and music, for instance. “What it would end up being on stage was a mystery to everyone,” says MacKenzie. “With Spoon River, we came into a room with bunch of songs from the book [which features] a bunch of people speaking from their graves. We wanted it to be minimal—you don’t take anything with you—so we kept it really spare. Lighting carried the show.
“I think of the scenic design as being a psychological space, but I think of the lighting as temporal,” says MacKenzie. “It’s how the show gets from the beginning to the end and carries the story. There’s always a huge leap when you first turn on the lights. The story becomes deeper.”
MacKenzie enjoyed working on Kim’s Convenience, which started out as a fringe show with a $150 budget. The play is a little more conventional than most Soulpepper offerings. MacKenzie was drawn to it because he lived down the block from a convenience store run by two Korean brothers when he was a kid and found going back to that store and taking photos “a real treat.” When Soulpepper picked it up and provided a budget, MacKenzie rethought with his collaborators. He didn’t bring a model to the first rehearsal. “I tried to bring the right ingredients—props, for instance—into the room,” he says.
Cage, inspired by the composer’s work, had no director. “One of our longtime actors, Diego Matamoros, wanted to make a new piece around John Cage’s process, with a sound designer and a production designer. Richard Feren, the sound designer, and I are co-writers of the show. All three of us perform. Design is not the icing on the cake; it’s an ingredient in the cake,” says Savioni.
Because Soulpepper has a resident company and works in rep, actors are available for longterm projects. This fall, they will begin work on an adaptation of Spring Awakening. Director, designers, and actors will rehearse, come up with design ideas, and go through a simple tech, all in five weeks. And after they’ve gone as far as they can go, they’ll begin. The production will gestate over ten months and open a year later.