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New Ideas Festival: A Retrospective with Cassidy Sadler and Claire Renaud

Every year, Alumnae Theatre Company hosts the New Ideas Festival (NiF) over the course of three weeks in March. Our editor, Liz, sat down with Cassidy Sadler (director) and Claire Renaud (performer) to discuss the challenges and milestones of staging new works. All photos are from Andrew Lee's The Dancing Man of Macklin Street which Sadler and Renaud brought to life during the first week of NiF.

Liz Der: I just want to talk a little bit about the New Ideas Festival; sort of a retrospective to get a sense of what it’s like working on new plays and with new material that one has never seen before. So, how do you approach new works, Cassidy as a director (and also as an actor if you wish to speak to that) and Claire, as an actor/performer? And how does that change from the way you approach established plays?

Cassidy Sadler: I think, as a director, the interesting thing about a new play is that the script is trying to figure out how to be a script as much as you are trying to figure out how to stage the show. I think you, in terms of new works, I find, really need to let the work speak as much as possible. You have to let it sort itself out before you approach it with a structured idea of exactly how everything’s going to go. It needs to be more of a two-way street with the script. I don’t necessarily mean asking the writer to adjust things – I actually haven’t done much of that in the new works that I’ve worked on – but I just mean allowing the script time in the rehearsal room to settle. And we may find that there are problems or a few things that need to be changed, but giving it a chance to just be said for the first time, to be moved in for the first time, and then starting to figure out what really is this play about, and then going from there.

Claire Renaud: In terms of an approach it didn’t change much because, for me, it just starts with what is being said, what are the words – the answers should be in the text itself. Now that might be a little bit trickier to decipher or to find when it’s a work in progress and there are questions left unanswered. But what I find is really interesting with my experience with new works is that there is more of a dialogue with the playwright, which I had not experienced in my other acting projects. So, if there was a question that I did have from the text, it was nice to be able to talk with the director and speak with the playwright directly and say, ‘Listen, what does this mean? Where was the inspiration behind this? Is there something that I should be taking from this, that I should really make clear in my performance?’ So, I think that is the most significant difference, but beyond that, the work itself is pretty much the same.

From left: Claire Renaud, Mitchell Janiak, and Gabriella Kosmidis. Photo by Bruce Peters.

LD: So, both of you have a very movement-oriented praxis, Cassidy you do a lot of Viewpoints and Claire you dance. How do you make room for that in new plays? Is it more elastic than a Shakespeare piece or an Albee piece?

CS: That’s a really good question. I think… [laughs] I think it’s always wrong to force movement on anything. I think it’s a really good tool, especially at the beginning of a rehearsal process… especially if you’re in the space that you’re going to be in for the performance, to figure out everything that the space has to offer. And how does the script live in my body in a first impression kind of way.

CR: If anything it helps clarify the relationship between the characters. In the very first movement exploration that we did as a cast [for The Dancing Man of Macklin Street], it was really interesting to have a Viewpoints exercise to find how these characters relate to each other without words.

I think there’s an idea that with a new work you’re starting from scratch. That should always be thought with a play. Regardless of whether you’re a Shakespeare or an Albee piece, you really should be approaching it as something that’s never been seen before. Or else you might simply be copying or recreating as opposed to providing your voice, your movement style…

CS: I think the really exciting thing about new work is that the danger of falling into that trap of relying on conscious or unconscious preconceived notions about the show is just not there. Falling back on that is not an option, whether or not you mean to. This doesn’t just apply to movement, it applies to every facet of rehearsing a new play. You are starting from scratch, as Claire said, you’re completely in a blank space. Which is nice and maybe it does give more freedom to do movement explorations or character development – I think it depends on the actor that you have… But it’s definitely nice to not have that option. To know that we’re all here with just this pile of paper and we’re going to make it something.

Mitchell Janiak and Claire Renaud. Photo by Bruce Peters.

LD: What’s your favourite part about working on new plays?

CS: I think one of my favourite things about working on – just as a baseline – it’s so much fun to give life to a piece of art that has been written by somebody who you know. But beyond that, I think one of my favourite things about working with a new play is… it forces you to grow as a director. When you’re working with an established text and you run into a problem or something you don’t understand, you say to yourself right away, ‘Well, I’m missing something.’ Because even if it’s not a Shakespeare or a Chekhov or whatever, if it’s a show that’s been around for a while, it’s been published, the assumption is that it’s all there, it works, there aren’t problems with the text. So, in a new play, when you run into a problem, sometimes, for me, there can be the inclination to say, ‘Well that just doesn’t make sense because it’s a new play.’ So, it’s been good for me to temper that initial reaction. And I think that is a really good practice to learn. To learn to respect the text and to mine it for all it’s worth and a new play challenges you to do that. Because you do have the option to ask the playwright to change things, or to modify things, but I think it’s a nice challenge to say, ‘No, this is the script that we have. Where can I find the answers in the script?’ And you work on that for a couple weeks with everybody on the team, and then if there’s really something not there, then you do have the option to make it better.

CR: Yeah – I think that as well. I found there was a significant challenge with [The Dancing Man of Macklin Street] specifically, because the final scene was a monologue. And with that comes of course a big responsibility. And I’d be sitting there, going through this monologue but I don’t know if it’s going to work – I don’t know what people are going to think of this… How am I going to make this interesting and engaging for people when I’m basically asking what I think is a lot of an audience? So that was both probably the greatest area of growth and the part that I was hitting my head against the most because, as [Cassidy] said, there was no safety net. There’s nothing to fall back on…

CS: No guarantee that it’ll work.

CR: No guarantee that it’ll work! I can’t think, ‘Oh, well they’ve seen this show before, so they’ll get the gist of the plot.’ No, no. This plot, this story is very new for everyone – it’s never been seen before – you can’t rely on people making assumptions or putting two and two together. This is your job now as the first person sharing this story. It’s your job to make it work. If the show is done again, then that might be something that’s changed. It might be something that’s built upon. So that’s an exciting thing. But it’s also terrifying to be the first one.

CS: Because a lot of the time, too, when you’re working with new works… I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the time writers have not had their work read out loud. Some do – some have the willingness to share and have people around them who are willing to sit down three, four times in the writing process and hear this thing said. Because it’s going to be said. When that hasn’t been the case, that’s our job, too; to make sure that aurally it makes sense. And that’s the thing too, going back to what I was saying about mining the text, there’s another dimension to that. Say you do find the answers in the text, there’s still the possibility that it’s not quite clear for an audience to hear. And I think those are things that are helpful to a writer if they’re handled with tact and with respect, just to say, “You know, these thoughts coming in this order are a little bit jarring, what if we just flip them?” And we did that a little bit in our show, just to make Claire’s monologue at the end easier to follow. But also, we didn’t make those changes until there were, what, two weeks left in rehearsal? We really kept the script as it was for quite a long time to give it as much space as we could. Because you don’t want to go in and just restructure the show right off the top because that’s not the game, that’s not the point.

CR: Yeah, that’s not the point! Because then you’d do that with any play that’s a little bit complicated. You read it and say I don’t understand it, I’m going to change it so that I can understand it.

Claire Renaud and Daniel Staseff. Photo by Bruce Peters.

LD: One final question: why is it important to see new works?

CS: Well, it’s important to see new works because it’s important to create new works. And I don’t know that that needs a lot of explanation as to why it’s important to create new art. Because, I mean, it’s the whole lamp and the mirror thing, that it’s important to illuminate or to reflect the present.

In terms of seeing new work, I do think that one thing that’s great about it is that it can often prompt the creation of more new works. It’s a more, I find, accessible point of inspiration than falling in love with established works and wanting to be a playwright, or not even just a playwright, a creator; it’s nice to see an immediate example of people who are experimenting and who are saying this is possible to do. Specifically in terms of the New Ideas Festival, because it is a festival with so many plays in it, it’s great for people to come see that new work and see the platform for new work, too. To see what’s available in the city and what’s accessible to you if you want to create anything.

CR: With the New Ideas Festival specifically, it’s so interesting because yes, you do have access to fifteen new works that may align with your, you know, current belief system. But they might be something you’ve never considered before, they might present a group of people that you might not otherwise…

Well, okay. So, they say that art reflects reality, or it reflects life. And yes, it does, but it also shapes how we see it. It doesn’t just reflect what’s already there, it helps us to navigate and change and alter. And what I mean by that is it introduces questions that people have been talking about, amongst themselves, in private, into the public eye and allows people to change how they might have otherwise thought.

CS: In relation to that, I think a really great thing about new works is that you can get tricked into seeing something that you didn’t mean to see, which I think is fantastic. Because I think that a lot of people who maybe aren’t actively involved in the creation of theatre, or in the ‘theatre scene’, but who still enjoy going to the theatre, choose to see plays that they feel that they know they will like, that they know they’ll enjoy. And the thing with new works is, as much as there’s going to be a synopsis out there, you have no idea what you’re getting into. And I think that that’s really wonderful. If someone thinks that they’re going to see a romance on stage, and perhaps that’s part of it, but, you know, new works can often be very experimental, so there might be a lot of stuff in there that they were not expecting. And that they perhaps otherwise would not have been exposed to, which I think is just fantastic.

CR: Yeah. It’s great when you’re surprised and when you’re allowing yourself to be surprised. And I understand going to see a show, I mean I’ve done it many times – like I’m going to see Beauty and the Beast because I want a completely escapist show where I will feel good for the three hours because I have spent x-amount of money, I have one night off in this week where I can actually go do something for myself, I want it to be an enjoyable experience. So, I recognise people’s hesitation about going to see new shows because people are busy! But what I think is great about a festival like New Ideas is that they’re seeing multiple shows, they’re not investing and entire evening into one show they might not understand – which is totally fine if they don’t understand it – it’s a nice sample of what is out there.

CS: Exactly. And if you’re someone who is coming to support someone that you know that has been a part of one particular show, as you [Claire] said, as a part of a festival of shows with more than one show in one night, you get tricked into seeing other stuff which I think is great! And even if it’s stuff that you don’t like, that’s fine, because isn’t it much better to see something and learn that you don’t like it than to just be ignorant and aloof and detached from everything that’s out there?