by Leah Cooper
For me, preparing to direct a play always starts with two major steps: studying the script’s context, structure and themes; and assembling the best possible team to make the show. This is my first time directing at Commonweal, and one thing quite unique to this theater is its resident ensemble. A complete team of talented performers, designers and production management is already here! When I attended the first production meeting, it was a little unnerving to be meeting most of the team for the first time. But as I heard each of the designers’ great ideas and saw the way they all collaborated intuitively, I realized I was in great hands. Since I didn’t have to run around finding and hiring designers or sitting through hours and hours of auditions, I got to focus entirely on the script. What a luxury!
The Drawer Boy is a play so well constructed and a story so gently told that it can seem disarmingly simple on first read. But subtlety actually takes great craft and attention to detail. With marvelous input from the designers, we studied the time and place: Central Ontario, early 1970s, a farm. Two bachelors who haven’t changed much in 30 years. Architecture, farm life, and memory gaps are all important themes, so we considered how this would shape the set, costumes, props, and lighting. Our setting is a working dairy farm, so David Hennessey (who plays Morgan) arranged a visit to the home and farm of Carolyn and Jeff Freese, and they generously toured us around and explained their work. What an amazing experience – a definite first for this city kid.
One of our characters, Angus, has had a traumatic brain injury and memory loss. Any good actor will tell you that you can’t play what happens to a character, only what they do in response. This is especially important to consider when it comes to playing a person with a disability. The specifics of how it feels to have the disability and how a person works around or through the disability need to be explored. So we found videos of people talking about their experience with TBI for Hal Cropp (who plays Angus) to watch. And I had the opportunity to share my own experience watching my mother struggle with TBI from a car accident.
Morgan and Angus are both veterans of WWII, so we did research and discussed military service, culture, and the effects of post traumatic stress. I’m currently working on another project, gathering the stories of veterans to be made into a new play, so it was really handy to be able to share stories from recent interviews. Finally, the character of Miles is based on a real person who was part of a performing collective in Canada called Theatre Passe Muraille, who really did a play called “The Farm Show,” which is referred to in our show. It was lots of fun reading about them and their particular approach to making theater. The company still exists today in Toronto!
Beyond all the research though, there is the deeper layer of considering what the themes and big questions are that a play is exploring and asking. And so I read the play over and over again, and look for what moves me and why; what confuses me, touches me, provokes me, angers me. This play’s themes of memory, loyalty, and the healing qualities of friendship and art have been such a joy to dig into. Finally, I have to say that staying here in Lanesboro for the duration of the process has been one of the best parts of preparation. Being in this beautiful setting, immersed in the work with a talented, hard-working ensemble has been so inspiring and unlike any other directing experience I’ve had. I’m very grateful to the team at Commonweal and the warm community of Lanesboro for welcoming me.