THE LONG VALLEY by John Steinbeck, adapted by This Is A Bird, with Colombe Demers, David Jansen, Ann-Marie Kerr, Jordan Pettle and Liisa Repo-Martell. Presented by Soulpepper at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). Previews from Saturday (September 10), opens September 15 and runs in repertory until September 29. $32.50-$51.50, stu $25, limited rush $5-$18. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
They say that three's a crowd, but Colombe Demers, Ann-Marie Kerr and Liisa Repo-Martell burst into the George Brown Theatre green room for our interview like school chums at recess.
With smiles all around, they collapse on a battered red couch after a long morning of rehearsing Soulpepper's final production of the season: an adaptation of three stories by John Steinbeck from his 1938 collection, The Long Valley. From the book's thirteen short stories, the company has adapted The Chrysanthemums, The White Quail and The Snake. Each features a wealth of Steinbeck's trademark imagery and melancholy, mercurial characters.
"We chose three stories so we'd each have one," says Kerr, a newcomer to Soulpepper's acting ensemble. "We're adapting images from the writing so it's not a blah-blah-blah kind of text-driven thing."
The actors chose tales expressing timeless, mythic themes. In all of them, the characters' happiness is thwarted by circumstances, or their relationships fail to fulfill deeply felt physical and emotional needs.
"It's about sloppy humanity," says Demers by way of clarification. "Complicated, sloppy but really recognizable stuff."
The three women met during the 2003 production of Theatre Smith-Gilmour's Chekhov Longs, another collective work. It was a definitive, memorable time for all three, and they soon started work on their own piece.
"We didn't want to wait around by the phone for them to call us again," says Repo-Martell.
Though Kerr, Demers, and Repo-Martell started work on The Long Valley, they soon found others willing to join in a December 2003 workshop. Soulpepper captain Albert Schultz came to see a second workshop production in May 2004, and invited the company for a short run this fall at Harbourfront.
The Long Valley will be Soulpepper's first original adaptation, and the actors are eager to launch it. After nearly two years working on a piece without a public audience, it's a small miracle that the original three are all still here, still speaking to one another and still able to muster lusty praise for the show.
"We fight really well, and fighting is essential to all of this," explains Repo-Martell.
Demers advocates for their egalitarian rehearsal process, where fighting leads to discovery.
"Nothing lingers," she adds, looking at the others.
"We were talking today about how a jewel is polished. It rubs up against other things, and in that scrubbing up it gets shiny," Demers finishes with a quick grin and raised eyebrows. As if on cue, Kerr deadpans, "It's a very honest room."
The other two hoot with nervous laughter.
The conversation keeps ricocheting throughout our interview. Often Repo-Martell begins, choosing her words carefully; then Demers jumps in with a colourful remark, leaving Kerr to summarize what the others have said.
Good vibes peak when lunch arrives, and lapse only when they're asked what would happen if two of them were interviewed instead of all three. Smiles fail, and with one voice they resist. Kerr comes through most clearly: "We're a company," she says firmly.
"You want one of us, you get all of us," adds Repo-Martell, looking up from the tuna sandwich she's demolishing. Kerr and Demers gravely nod their agreement over their soup and sandwich, looking put out.
Sensing a dead end, I move back to questions about the text itself.
Enthusiasm and sparkling eyes return. Clearly, it's all for one and one for all, a mindset that characterizes collectives, whose fierce attachment to the work that they're doing is topped only by their commitment to each other.
On my walk home, I wonder about what their reaction will be if one of them crashes and burns in the press, but I think I already know the answer. Who cares what we think? This company already has all the approval and affirmation it needs.
They've got each other.