Matt Gorman enjoys showing sides of a writer that people don’t know.
THE PLAYWRIGHT PROJECT 2014: CARYL CHURCHILL Presented by Bad Joe, Cart/Horse Theatre, Circlesnake Productions and Neoteny Theatre at the Downstage (798 Danforth). Runs in rep through May 4. $10-$15, festival passes $15-$45. Schedule and tickets at playwrightproject.com.
You can get a good dose of Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw at the Stratford or Shaw festivals, but productions of several plays by the same writer in a short period of time are a rarity in Toronto theatre.
That's one of the reasons the Playwright Project appeared on the local scene two years ago, mounting seven plays by Tennessee Williams put on by seven companies in seven days. Project director Alex Johnson and her associates followed up last year with a septet of Sam Shepard scripts.
This year the mini-festival reaches across the Atlantic to mount work by British playwright Caryl Churchill, and reshapes its manner of presentation.
"Last year the festival was really big in terms of its workers, but it became unwieldy," says curator Matthew Gorman, who's also directing A Number, one of the productions. "This year we're intentionally smaller, relying on four companies, and rather than rotate to different venues each night, all four will be in rep at the Downstage."
The benefit of fewer productions in a single venue is that companies can concentrate on the work without worrying about moving after every performance.
"In the past, companies had to build a touring show they'd truck off at the end of the night. Now they can relax and play around with the script, knowing they're going to be on the same stage for the next show."
As in previous years, the focus is on one-act plays rather than longer works. Gorman's Cart/Horse Theatre offers A Number, in which a father confronts several versions of his cloned son. Vinegar Tom, mounted by Neoteny Theatre, uses 17th century British witchcraft trials to examine male attitudes toward women.
Three More Sleepless Nights, presented by Bad Joe, looks at three interrelated couples at the start of the Thatcher era, while the most recent play, Circlesnake Theatre's Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, comments on the multifaceted connection between the United States (Sam) and other nations (Guy, the fellow he seduces) through a male couple's troubled relationship.
"We chose the playwright first, and Churchill's work fascinates me," admits Gorman. "One of the joys of a project like this is taking writers people think they know well and showing their other sides. Churchill's best known for plays like Cloud 9 and Top Girls, but she has a body of 46 published works, including radio plays.
"In some ways she's the perfect ivory-tower playwright; she's not a public persona, as some writers are. There's a political intent to a lot of her work, but she's never come out and said much about her own beliefs. She's been labelled a feminist and someone who espouses liberation of various sorts, but that's based on her plays.
"What I like about Churchill's plays is that we know she has feelings about these things, but they don't get in the way of what her characters feel."
After selecting a writer came choosing the directors and tailoring the shows to their strengths.
"People read and read, emailed each other and camped out at the Reference Library to dig through the plays," smiles Gorman. "There's so much variety in her work, and I wanted people to care about the scripts they chose."
As one of the directors, he's come to realize the importance of paying close attention to Churchill's language.
"While her characters often speak colloquially, there's also a rhythmic stylization and a sense that the sound of the words is as important as their meaning. Each show has a pulse that you have to observe.
"As a director, you can tell the actors to try various things, but it always comes back to the metre that Churchill puts on the page. She's a lot smarter than you are, and she'll get her way in the end."