A man climbs onto the ledge of a building and contemplates jumping. His entire life culminates in this one fatal moment. But just when he’s about to take the leap, seven self-absorbed tenants in the building interrupt him with their own problems. And so goes the plot of Morris Panych’s 7 Stories.
After a diverse season of productions, Hart House Theatre ends the year with 7 Stories. And what better way to end than with a dark comedy? In an interview with Brian Haight and Margarita Valderrama, who play Man and Rachel/Jennifer respectively, they discuss the effect of the play’s genre and the intricacies of their characters.
The Medium: How did you get involved with 7 Stories? What interested you about this play?
Margarita Valderrama: For me it was Rebecca Ballarin, the director. I went to school with her at the Drama Centre at U of T, so I was really interested in working with her. I had also read the script a long time ago, and it seemed like an exciting challenge.
Brian Haight: For me it was the script itself. Morris Panych is such a talented man and writer. When I first saw the script, I was really enthusiastic about it, because I thought I fit the part of Man really well.
TM: Do you prefer working with contemporary plays like 7 Stories?
MV: Although it is from the 80s, contemporary pieces like this still speak to what’s happening today. Many of the characters’ experiences are still things that happen in our current society. For example, one of the characters has an obsession with how many friends they have. Presently, that relates to social media. Contemporary plays always interest me because they speak to more relevant or topical things in my life. However, I think the classics always give you a great challenge.
BH: There’s something a little more accessible in contemporary works, especially contemporary Canadian works, because a lot of the themes from 1989 are still relevant today. In terms of the classics, I think the goal is to make the text relevant. But with contemporary works, it’s easier to dissect because many things that are happening in the play are still happening in the world around us.
TM: 7 Stories is described as a “black comedy.” Do you think comedy is an effective way to communicate messages about serious topics, like suicide?
MV: I always think so. Comedy creates a bond between the performers and the audience that’s much more instantaneous than dramatic plays, which can often be inaccessible. With a play like 7 Stories, you can recognize what these people are supposed to represent, because they’re so big and they’re so comedic.
BH: Tragedy and comedy are different ways of accessing the same kind of message. I enjoy comedy, and I think that it’s an amazing way to talk about important themes. With [7 Stories], you need a sense of comedy to deal with the absurdism of the play. Without it, the play just becomes nonsensical. It’s like the nihilist view that you can create your own meaning out of the absurdity of life. Many existentialists and absurdists from the mid-20th century believed comedy was of the upmost importance for this type of thing. So I would absolutely say that comedy is a great way to access themes like suicide and meaninglessness.
TM: What has the rehearsal process been like?
MV: Brian has been lucky because he gets to work with everyone, while we haven’t been able to see each other. The way our rehearsals have been scheduled is that I’ll come in for a certain amount of time and another person will come in, because all the scenes are individual. Now that we’ve gotten into run-throughs, it’s been a real treat to see all the other scenes and see how we fit into the world we’re creating.
BH: It’s interesting to see the play develop in the sense that I get to work with someone one day, work with someone else the next, and then have a run-through where everyone comes together. For me, it’s an entirely different experience, but it’s a great way to get a full sense of the play in parts and then as a whole. [Ballarin] is so insightful and fun to work with. She’s been awesome at making sure that everything is cohesive throughout the entire play.
MV: [Ballarin] also feeds us a lot of inspiration. If something’s not working, she always presents other options that might not necessarily be the final decision, but still give you an idea of something to try in rehearsal.
TM: How have you prepared for your roles? [To Valderrama]: Do you find it’s more challenging taking on two different personalities?
MV: I was worried about that at first. For Jennifer, I’m trying to give her a higher pitch, just because that feels right for her role. We played with an accent for a bit with Rachel, which was helpful in finding her identity. For me, the process has been about trying different things until something has stuck with me. Costume has been a huge part of it. Now that we’re working with costumes and we have our props, it’s helped me find the physicality of these two women.
BH: Every actor has their own process. I would say I’m more of a head-heavy actor, in the sense that I like to understand a lot about the play. I usually start with a ton of research, where I read plays that are similar to this one, like works by Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Reading these plays help me find the spirit of the play.
I waded through all the research and made this huge ball of information in my head. After that, it’s just a matter of infusing the character with these details and trying to take that spirit and put it into a body, voice, or presence on the stage. And then, using this process to play with the other actors on the stage in order to create a cohesive, but well-informed product.
TM: Why does Man have minimal dialogue?
BH: I think it’s because of the state of confusion he’s in. There’s so much happening within him because he’s at a breaking point. He’s been led by his logic onto this ledge, and he can’t really express himself in a coherent way because of all his feelings, and so he expresses himself in little mono-syllabic bursts throughout the play. When he’s finally allowed to express himself at the end, he just lets everything out in a tidal wave of feelings. Also, the characters that come before are set in their own world. They’re so enthralled with what’s happening in their own lives, that they don’t allow Man to speak.
TM: Why is Man unnamed?
BH: I think it’s because he’s an average man. He represents humanity in general. It doesn’t matter what his name is—he could be anyone.
TM: Are the other characters symbolic as well?
MV: They all try to fill their lives with meaning, which is something that Man has lost. They each have their own thing. Rachel has her religion, which she hangs on to for dear life, whereas Jennifer fills her life with people and parties. Each of the characters represent different ways of life. They’re maybe not as symbolic as Man, but they all represent different things.
TM: What do you think is the message behind 7 Stories?
BH: I believe it’s that we don’t have to look for something extremely important in life. If you kill yourself over looking for something extremely important, then you’re moving backwards—you’re working counter-productively. It’s important to accept the absurdity of living in a world where seemingly nothing matters. [7 Stories] is about letting go of things that hold us down, like major routines that we might feel confined to, or a desire for things that maybe aren’t graspable. It’s about letting go of those things and just being content to live a life of happiness and acceptance.
MV: It’s not that the characters are doing anything inherently wrong, but Man comes in to poke holes in each of their lives. I think the play is about developing a sense of self-awareness. If religion is important to you, that’s wonderful, but know that you don’t need to be completely defined by it. Each of the characters are so stubborn in what they’ve chosen to be their signifier, that they don’t leave room for anything else. [7 Stories] is about being open to the possibility of being happy with other things, because we’re all too closed off in our own worlds.
BH: There are a lot of serious things in this play, but it’s meant to be a comedy, a light experience. To deal with these large themes, it’s important that people in the audience are able to laugh.
MV: Overall, the play is hopeful.
7 Stories premieres at Hart House Theatre on March 3.