Luminous actor teaches us a thing or two about theatre in Between The Sheets
BETWEEN THE SHEETS by Jordi Mand, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Susan Coyne and Christine Horne. Presented by Nightwood Theatre at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Opens tonight (Thursday, September 20) and runs to October 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $13-$40. 416-531-1827, nightwoodtheatre.net. See listing.
Almost exactly five years ago, Christine Horne was at the Toronto Film Festival promoting The Stone Angel, in which she starred as the younger version of Ellen Burstyn’s Hagar Shipley, Margaret Laurence’s iconic matriarch.
The film was merely competent, but Horne, a couple of years out of theatre school and with little onscreen experience, was very good, not to mention a dead ringer for the young Burstyn. I remember thinking as I left the theatre that we were going to lose yet another promising Canadian stage actor to Hollywood.
Lucky for us it hasn’t turned out that way. Horne still pops up in the occasional film and TV series, but in the past several years she’s made an indelible mark on the indie theatre scene.
She won a Dora Award playing the neurotic governess in a spine-tingling walkabout production of Turn Of The Screw set at the historic Campbell House then she got another nomination as a spurned and jealous princess in a gritty adaptation of Racine’s Andromache set in a crumbling Iraq.
And just a month ago she received raves as an Estonian grad student who resorts to prostitution to pay for her gambling-addict brother’s debts in the SummerWorks hit Iceland.
Now she’s starring opposite the formidable Susan Coyne in the world premiere of Between The Sheets, by first-time playwright Jordi Mand.
The play, developed and workshopped through Nightwood Theatre’s Groundswell Festival, has the potential to become one of those controversial two-handers – Oleanna comes to mind – that divide audiences.
Unfortunately, I can’t reveal too much about it, except that Coyne plays the middle-aged mother of a young student and Horne plays the child’s teacher.
“We’re doing a lot of work around balancing the women’s arguments,” says Horne in the Nightwood rehearsal studio a few weeks before opening. She’s a bit restless, fidgeting with her hands while she talks, but when her green eyes focus on you, the effect is almost unnerving.
“It’s been important that both characters have solid arguments for what they do. They’re both right – and paradoxically they’re both wrong. How do we keep flipping it and make sure that it’s interesting and that the argument is engaging without falling into any traps or stereotypes?”
It’s this kind of intellectual rigour – combined with her electric stage presence – that has made Horne’s performances so memorable. Not that she takes anything for granted in the high-stakes arena of live theatre. During one workshop performance of Between The Sheets, she recalls feeling the audience turn away.
“I think we’d come in with the wrong attitudes, because something was off and we lost the audience and couldn’t get them back,” she says. “But that’s why you workshop – to see where the pitfalls are. And in this play you can’t leave the stage, regroup and come back in. So it’s important that, with [director] Kelly [Thornton], we make sure it stays on the rails.”
The first time I saw Horne was Halloween 2006 a fledgling company called Thistle Productions was putting on a show in an old warehouse space in the east end. The show, Gorey Story, was an adaptation of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, his ABC book chronicling the macabre deaths of children. The ensemble – which included Matthew Romantini – and design team charmed me with their inventiveness and energy, and the show made NOW’s top 10 list for that year.
“Matthew and I were classmates at York theatre school, and after graduation we both spent a couple of months waiting for our agents to call,” says Horne, smiling. “We were so bored that we decided to form a theatre company, and one of our first ideas was to adapt Gorey, mostly because we were pale and lanky and looked like Edward Gorey cartoons.”
After a year thinking they had to do something “more sophisticated and serious,” they came back to the idea, enlisted their former York prof Erika Batdorf to help out and presented it – to great acclaim.
Horne’s had her pick of juicy roles since then: a luminous Juliet in Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park a clear and disturbing Miss Julie in Tara Beagan’s native-themed adaptation of Strindberg’s play. And earlier this year she played Daisy Buchanan in an adaptation of The Great Gatsby at London’s Grand.
But she singles out Turn Of The Screw, Andromache and Iceland as her most exciting recent stage roles.
She recalls feeling powerful in the site-specific production of the Henry James play.
“Usually the audience is very safe in the dark and in their seats, and we’re very exposed,” she says. “In this case, I could see and feel the audience be very nervous. We were holding the reins.”
And she admits that while Andromache polarized audiences with its seeming spontaneity, it was extremely detailed.
“We had charts, timelines, lists of all the stuff about what characters say, how many times words come up in the script,” she says. “We had graphs of where characters were losing and gaining power. There was no blocking, but the intentions were so specific and choreographed, it didn’t matter where we moved – we knew what we were doing and what was going to be coming at us.”
One of her biggest challenges to date, however, was learning to speak Estonian for Iceland.
“Oh my god, I’ve never worked so hard on anything,” she says. “Everyone was getting off-book, and I was trying to learn this Estonian. A dialect coach helped me with the accent. An Estonian friend of a friend met me for coffee, and I recorded her. Then I had to go home, write it out phonetically, listen to her and try to say it….”
She sighs. “It’s lucky for me that there aren’t a ton of people who know what Estonian is supposed to sound like. Because mine was certainly not flawless.”
After The Stone Angel, she had a U.S. agent but admits she was “pretty half-assed” about pursuing things there.
“I wanted to stay here and keep doing theatre,” she says. “I did about two years of taping from here, every once in a while going down, but I hated it. It’s just not for me. It’s one of those things that I feel I should want but don’t. I love it here. There’s enough film and TV stuff and theatre that I like it here. And my family in Aurora is close.”
As for the two mediums, she’s stuck on theatre.
“Film and theatre are real and fake in different ways,” she says. “In film, all the stuff is real: there’s a real horse, a real house, real water comes out of taps. But things are shot out of sequence, there’s a machine in my face and a microphone strapped to my leg, and maybe they’ve taken an actor away so I’m talking to an X.
“In theatre, sure, there’s a set, and sometimes all you have” – here she nods to the rehearsal room props for Between The Sheets – “is three chairs. But there’s an emotional arc. We get to do the whole thing in order. The journey feels more authentic.”
Christine Horne on director Kelly Thornton and the Between The Sheets rehearsal process:
Christine Horne on growing up in Aurora, secretly wanting to be an actor and lucking into York’s theatre program:
Christine Horne on why Thistle Theatre never remounted Gorey Story:
Christine Horne on the pressures of playing a young Ellen Burstyn in her first big film outing, The Stone Angel:
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