Actors Margo Macdonald and Sarah Finn have just wrapped up their video interview with Ottawa Tonite, taped on a sumptuous set of the Ottawa Little Theatre, when I steal them away for an interview. “We were still in rehearsals on May 25th,” says Margo as I ask about the development of the script for their show, Shadows. “I made minor adjustments by the following Sunday. So I wrote this script over about three and a half weeks.” Not bad for a show which has managed to sell out every show during its run.
I ask Margo about the development of the show. “Lynn Cox and I decided that we wanted to do a show together for the Fringe,” she says. “She designed lights for me last year for Comes Around… we had so much fun, we thought we want to do another show together. I got the idea for this script; but we applied with no show mentioned. We thought, we’ll just figure it out later.” As entry to the fringe is based on the results of a lottery, you take your chances, and Margo and Lyn’s as-yet-uncreated show didn’t get in. “We got on the waiting list, we were number five. And then we moved up to number three. But then the deadlines for dropping out of the fringe and getting your money back passed, and I talked to Natalie who said, sorry Margo… there hasn’t been any more movement, it doesn’t look like you’re going to get in this year. So I was like, oh well, I let myself off the hook, I stopped doing research, I went off doing other things, and then two weeks later, I got a call from her really early, saying, ah… surprise! We have a place for you, but you have to let me know by the end of today if you want it… and I said yes! I thought, I can write a script in three weeks, I can do that…”
So near the end of April, the race begins to create a script. “I finished the amount of research that I felt I needed to do,” continues Margo, “and started writing. I tried to write on the computer because, you know, it’s fast! But it just wasn’t working. I would sit there in front of my computer, and decided, I need to do the dishes first, or go walk the cat… and so after a few days of producing nothing, literally nothing.” Margo decided she needed to get out of the house, so she tried another method: pen and paper. “It came out so easily. And I just think that when you write by hand it connects to a different place in you. I think it’s more emotional. For me, when I type, it’s very cerebral, it goes really fast, I can type almost as fast as I think. In the end, I wrote the whole thing by hand, and then I typed it in.”
Margo asked Sarah to be part of the show before it was even written. “We were all thrilled by the first draft, very excited,” says Sarah, “it was a well-written script, and it was exciting to see someone just come up with a first draft that was not only a complete story, but two well-developed characters with a great relationship. You can see its entire progression, and you can feel the love and the hate and the passion between these two women, right there on the page. You knew it was just going to get better. As an actor, when you come across a work that makes you want to say, yes, I want to do this, that doesn’t happen all the time.”
Margo and Sarah appeared at the fringe last year, with the mutatits mutandis production of Comes Around. I ask Margo where she first saw Sarah’s work. “I first came to realize Sarah’s existence when she was playing Jason in Medea. And I was blown away by her performance. This happens to me from time to time, I’ll see an actor and be like, who is that? I want to work with them, they’re brilliant! Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to work with Sarah, was fortunate to get her last year for Comes Around, directed her in that… we didn’t have any scenes in that but she was awesome, so sexy. I needed somebody who could play a really wide range of stuff for this show. And right away I thought Sarah would be the perfect choice, because she’s super-talented. In the play, [Eva and Josephine] play not only themselves, but you see them playing scenes from some of the famous shows that they did at the time: Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Hedda Gabbler… and so I needed somebody who could do all that, as well as play a wide range of emotions in this character, in very quick burst scenes that are non-linear… and I knew that Sarah was more than talented enough to handle it.”
The play centres around the relationship between two actresses in pre-depression New York, Eva Le Gallienne and Josephine Hutchinson. Le Gallienne isn’t a widely-known figure in the history of theatre. “When I found out about Eva Le Gallienne, I’d never heard of hear before,” says Margo. “I was reading another book that was not about her at all, but talked a little bit about her… did a little bit more research, and was like, how could I not have heard of this woman? I took theatre in school, theatre history, never heard of her. She started the American repertory system. I asked several women who worked in theatre, and none of them had heard of her.” Writing a play can be challenging and rewarding, but the opportunity to craft a role for yourself must be enticing, I suggest to Margo. “I became fascinated by her: she’s so complicated. On one hand she was so generous, and so lovely and encouraging – and on the other hand she was so terrible, just vicious and cruel. And she herself admitted to this dichotomy. So immediately I thought, I’d love to play her on the stage. But of course nobody’s written anything about her. No one remembers who she is. So then it’s case of, well, if I want to play her I’m going to have to write it. So I did. It’s scarey, but exciting at the same time.”
“So now I feel that maybe that’s my calling as a playwright,” says Margo, “to bring to life these lost stories, and particularly woman who had alternative sexualities and lifestyles, and were living well ahead of their time in terms of their freedom of making their own decisions. For Eva, operating her own theatre on her own terms, she rejected the Broadway system utterly, and felt that theatre should not be making its choices based on what’s going to bring us the most money. She hated Broadway for having to sign on for such a long period of time. And that they had complete control over what you would play. So she started her own theatre, under a European repertory model, she brought that system to North America.”
As much as the script was written in short period of time, Margo felt the support of a number of people that encouraged her. “It kind of feels like this show was just meant to be. Because everything fell into place. The incredible people who came on board – the designers Lynn Cox and Judy DeBoer, the director Diana Fajrajsl, Sarah, our stage manager Hilary, everybody just signed up without even having read the script. And then when I started writing, it just fell into my head. Ah, this is the structure I should use. Ah, I’m going start here, and end here. And I have never worked like that. Maybe the fact that I knew I only had three weeks to write really it helped with that, because it really helps to focus the mind.”
And what do Margo and Sarah hope the audience will take away from the show? For Sarah: “I think the relationship between the two women, regardless of your sex or sexuality, there’s going to be parts of these scenes that you can certainly relate to and feel for.” For Margo, “I hope that people will feel like I did, why haven’t I heard of this woman before, and be glad to have met her at least in this small way. There’s kind of an argument in Eva’s life: the most important thing to her was her art, and what she was creating. She was willing to sacrifice to the point of destruction, everything else in her life, in order to fill what she felt was her artistic need. Was it worth it? Because today, her art is all but forgotten, she ended alone, drunk, bitter. She’d sunk so low, because of the choices she made at a personal level. It’s an argument that I think people will feel, and will be left thinking about.”
You’ve got one more chance to see Shadows before the fringe ends, with the Best In Fest performance at 9:30pm at Studio Leonard Beaulne.