I sit in the lobby of Hart House theatre, flanked by John Cleland and Sarah Murphy-Dyson, two members in the cast of George F. Walker’s new play We the Family. This is quite the occasion for Hart House—the opening of We the Family will be a world premiere, and director Andrea Wasserman and the cast have worked alongside Walker to bring this piece to life.
Walker is famous in the theatre world for his larger-than-life writing that has been seducing actors and directors for many years. It is difficult to take a postsecondary or even high school level drama course and not know about Walker’s body of work.
I’m interested in how much he’s been involved in this production so far, as well as whether or not this has changed anything in the actors’ experiences.
Hart House Theatre usually hires non-union actors for their performances, but We the Family incorporates both union and non-union performers. This, I think, speaks to the diversity of characters in the script, reflected in the diversity of performers.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Medium: So, let’s start with an easy question. How’s rehearsal?
John Cleland: It’s good. It’s interesting because it’s a different style than I’m used to. There’s no table work. Just dove right into running, which is how George works.
Sarah Murphy-Dyson: He just wants us to say the words, and mean them, and that’s it. If the play is alive, he’s happy.
We come in having done the work, on our own, and then what I really liked about this is that I find that each time we run it, there are different things lying, and you just kind of get deeper into it each time. Things just kind of reveal themselves.
TM: You’re getting into tech week. Are you nervous? Excited?
SMD: Well, I’m not nervous—yet. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s going to be a bit of a transition because we’ve been working onstage but with bare basic props and a set. So, as you can see, the set is pretty phenomenal, and there are a lot of scene changes and costume changes and those kinds of things.
The changes are not always fun, but adding that extra dimension to your character through the costume is always really neat.
JC: You’re aware that you’re anticipating but you don’t really know until you’re in the clothes. They affect you physically.
It’s a bit nerve-wracking doing a George F. Walker work; that Hart House got it is pretty phenomenal. I don’t know if I feel any pressure around that, but a more intense excitement. This is the first time I’ve done a play by Walker.
SMD: And getting to be the first people to perform this, it’s a huge honour. It really is yours.
TM: And George F. Walker’s been involved, somewhat?
SMD: I’ve done a couple of other plays with him in the last little while and he was much more involved. I think with this one, he loves and trusts Andrea and loves and trusts Hart House and I understand why, having worked here. It’s a well-oiled machine. Everything is just there for you. You don’t have to do anything—just go out there and say some words.
But [Walker] really hasn’t been here all that much, he’s just given it to us to go with. But it’s neat when he is here. Of all the playwrights, I think I would have expected him to be very precious with the words, but he’s the opposite. Say whatever you want, as long as it makes sense and get you where you need to get to. But what I’ve found is that even if you do that for a while, you always come back to what he wrote. What comes out of him is, I think, the best way of saying it.
JC: There’s weirdness to it. You try to say it the way you would say it, but then in the end, I find myself coming back. The more I say the words, I feel they are actually what would come out of my character’s mouth.
TM: What do you find are the biggest challenges in this play?
SMD: I think probably the costume changes are the most challenging thing.
JC: As well, the play—in true George F. Walker style—is dark, dark comedy. He writes very vicious characters who love each other but in a very odd way.
I love playing characters who are unlikable but you always have to find that kernel of what does make them do the things they do, which has to be honest. And that’s been a challenge so far. It is important to be a villain that people can laugh at. And laugh with, as well.
TM: So what are the rewards, then?
SMD: I don’t even know where to start. For me, my character has a great arc and is a very troubled soul. I love Lizzie. Walker writes for women in a way I’ve never experienced and it’s actually impacted how I live my life. He gives women a voice, he makes it okay to be loud, to be ugly, all the things we’re taught typically are not feminine characteristics. That just goes out the window. So I always love getting into the characters, and then finding all the interactions with the other characters. They’re just people doing their best to get by, and a lot of what they say and do may be perceived as ignorant and offensive, so getting to go there and play with all these different people is fantastic.
It kind of sets you free to say and do things you never would.
TM: In theatre school, they spend a lot of time pounding into us this thing about “hits”. You’re supposed to play your “hit”. And I think yes, but also no.
JC: I think that’s the beauty of theatre. That you are never trapped in who you are. You can play something that is exactly the opposite of who you are. I think of myself as a character actor—I’ve always loved playing villains and playing roles that other people don’t want to play.
TM: Do you find that, as actors, there’s a point where you have to sacrifice art to make money, or vice versa?
SMD: I’ve done quite a few commercials, and maybe a couple of them could be considered artistic. It’s not a sacrifice, but having a meatier role is always what I want to be doing. But for me I sometimes supplement it with teaching—I teach ballet—and I think it’s always good to have something on the side so that I don’t have to make money [acting]. I think that’s an important thing—that you have to commit fully.
JC: I came out of theatre school with very high ideals about what I would and wouldn’t do, figuring money would just happen, and I figured out pretty early on that theatre is not a way to make a living. So anybody coming into the business now needs to have a multi-pronged attack. If they want to do theatre, then they also have to be able to do voice or film and television and supplement that theatre, and I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of voice work as a supplement.
We the Family opens on September 18 at Hart House Theatre.