Ryan Borochovitz is a fourth-year Theatre Studies student with one foot out the door and into the real world. Sad Ibsen Theatre, a company that he founded while in his third year at York University, will be taking their work to Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto this January. We sat down with Ryan to talk about his company’s debut performance: Exiles, by James Joyce. This interview was conducted by Megan Apa.
How did Sad Ibsen Theatre come to be? How did you pick that name?
I suppose, in the early days, it was more of an effort to brand myself than any kind of serious thought about starting a company. One of these early projects to which I had attached this logo was Like a Bicycle, a short absurdist play that I wrote for last year’s playGround Festival. When George [Kiriakopulos], who directed that play, saw the logo, he asked me what it was about. That got us talking about our long-term theatre goals, one thing lead to another, and pretty soon we were talking about starting up our own company. We already had a name and a logo, all we needed to do was keep making theatre. And that’s really all there was to it. Starting a theatre company, despite being a ton of work, is a lot simpler than it used to be. Nowadays, everyone can, and is encouraged to, start their own if they want to get their work out there.
As for the name, that’s kind of an inside joke that I have with myself. There seems to be this misrepresentative notion that the only way to explain Brecht’s theatrical style is by diminishing Ibsen’s. While I certainly don’t think that political theatre is the be-all and end-all of the medium, if we are judging these two by those standards, I think Ibsen came out as the winner. Can anybody name one instance when a production of Mother Courage can be credited for helping to end a war? For me, Ibsen’s best plays are Peer Gynt, Rosmersholm, and When We Dead Awaken, none of which fall into that short span from 1877 to 1882, from Pillars of Society to An Enemy of the People, when Ibsen tried using his art to change the world. His motif of the individual in conflict with society was replaced by the individual in conflict with the self, and out of that came his most universally touching masterpieces. Judging Ibsen’s style as inferior to Brecht’s does a disservice to them both. They were two different people writing in different times, with different motivations. Instead of arguing with people with more authority on these matters than myself, I just kept quiet and got into the habit of doodling a little caricature of Ibsen with teardrops in my notes. Sometime later, when I decided to give myself a brand label, that was the first thing to come to mind.
What kind of theatre are you looking to create?
For now, we identify primarily as an Aestheticist company, aiming to create “art for art’s sake,” so to speak. I feel as though this mentality is often frowned upon – especially among young artists and in the indie arts community – which is all the more reason why I feel compelled to affirm it. I always make a point of stressing that this isn’t the same thing as escapism (although there’s certainly a place for that too). Aestheticism simply means a theatre that is free from any kind of moral or sociopolitical didacticism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that the world is in shambles, but I think it’s misguided, and sometimes arrogant, to think of art as an effective tool to repair it. Theatre in particular is perhaps more impotent in this respect than other forms, mainly because its very nature limits the amount of people who will be exposed to it. Even if a production like ours were to attempt to further any specific political position or idea, the maximum 500 people (10 showings in a 50 seat venue, and that’s assuming we sell out every night) who will see it would likely be made up predominantly of young, left-leaning arts enthusiasts who already hold the stance that we’d be trying to assert. Sure, they might leave the show happily at having their position affirmed in a clever or interesting way, but that kind of choir preaching seldom accomplishes anything. If, however, we distance ourselves from these overly-idealistic misuses of the medium, we can maybe find the heart of what’s so great about it. Instead of aiming to affect the world, we’ll do what we can to affect the individual.
How does this tie into shows you’ve done in the past? How does this tie into Exiles?
As far as some specific guides for play selection go, I typically gravitate toward works with some degree of historical, literary, or spiritual significance. This might just be a personal preference for me, but I think it makes for some nice guidelines toward a unified aesthetic. The more that I distance myself from theatre used as a political vehicle, I find myself searching more for ways of utilising it as a poetic vehicle.
One way that I’ve often described my vision for the company is being a kind of “Soulpepper Lite.” I’ll admit that Soulpepper is one of my favourite companies making theatre in Toronto today, so it’s natural that my work might occasionally emulate theirs, either consciously or subconsciously. While they primarily work at revivals of old plays from the dramatic canon, they also throw the occasional new piece into the mix – they’ve recently given us some remarkable new plays by Ins Choi and Pamala Sinha. I think that’s the kind of theatre I’d like to see Sad Ibsen develop into someday. I’m certainly open to putting on new works, but I don’t think it’s wise to neglect the importance of great works from the past. When you put up a new play, all of the emphasis is directed toward the playwright; it all becomes about whether it’s a good play or a bad play, could it still use some revising or is it perfect as it is, do we have a talented individual in our midst or don’t we, etc, etc? Not enough attention is paid to the actual production, particularly the acting. Part of what makes Soulpepper so great is its emphasis on older plays that puts the actors and directors back in the spotlight. Nobody goes to judge if the Uncle Vanya or Twelve Angry Men are well written, we go to see what Albert Schultz or Alan Dilworth can bring to them, and what the casts can do with these characters that we already know so well. Part of our mission is to take the kinds of plays that one might expect to see at Soulpepper or the Shaw Festival, and scale them down into more intimate spaces within the indie scene.
How does this all tie into Exiles? It’s a very literary play, set in the past and pertaining to big ideas surrounding love and spirituality. All of this together gives it that certain poetic depth that I look for in a play, and I hope our production does it justice. I don’t believe Soulpepper has ever done this particular play before, which gives me great comfort that I’m not overtly copying them. This is the kind of play that one can imagine seeing grace their stage, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who might draw a comparison. We all imitate the work that we respect on some level until we grow enough to move beyond it.
Usually you write your own pieces. Why did you choose this piece by James Joyce for this production?
I’ve noticed that a lot of small theatre companies are started by playwrights who wish to produce their own work, but that’s not really what I wanted Sad Ibsen to be about. Yes, I do write plays of my own, and I imagine that I will wind up self-producing some of them one day, but there’s time for that down the line. I’ve been given other opportunities to hone in on my playwriting (playGround and Paprika), so I wanted this project to explore another important facet of theatrical art.
There’s a lot of talk – especially in Canadian theatre, where the culture is still so young – about the importance of getting new works into the bloodstream. While this mentality is a noble one, and certainly necessary for establishing a culture that we can call our own, the fetishisation of new, new, new sometimes leads us astray from the reason why we wanted new works in the first place. We tend to forget all about the bloodstream and the inherently circulatory nature of theatre. In cinema, after the piece is made it still exists, and can be replayed forever and ever in its one true state; plays, on the other hand, exist for the sake of being reproduced. After a play’s debut production, all that remains of it, apart from memories of the few who were lucky enough to witness it, is a sort of skeleton (i.e. the script), and it’s up to new directors to dig them up and bring them back to life – not unlike making dinosaur fossils stand once again. If we don’t aim to establish an infrastructure by which plays are encouraged to survive beyond their first productions, we’ll quickly find ourselves trapped in an “eternal present.” Mark Ravenhill coined that term in an article for The Guardian in 2005, and over ten years later, very little has changed.
In terms of why Exiles specifically, there are a number of reasons. The simplest, albeit hardest to describe, is that I really connected with it when I read it. I think a big part of what initially drew me to it was how rarely produced it is. Being written by Joyce, one of the most famous Irish novelists and arguably the figurehead of all Modernist literature, you’d think it would be much more known; it has sadly fallen through the cracks of both literary and dramatic history, which is probably why he never wrote another play thereafter. In keeping with our paleontological desire to resurrect forgotten gems, something about this “noncanonical play by an otherwise canonical author” seemed very enticing. Lastly, and this was a big one for me, Joyce was obsessed with Ibsen, this play being the most apparent monument to that anxiety of influence. Unlike Ibsen, Joyce was not exactly a man of the theatre, but more of a literary man with a passion for drama, which prompted his attempt at dramatic writing to very much emulate that of his “spiritual father.” What better way to baptise this company named in Ibsen’s honour than with this play that was written so purposefully in his style?
Who is a part of your team? Can you tell us some fun stories or eventful moments from rehearsal?
This show would be nothing without the talented band of young people that we’ve gotten together to bring it to life. I’m incredibly grateful to each and every one of them for devoting their time and efforts into making this project a reality.
The cast is made up of some of York’s most talent young actors. In the three lead roles we have George Kiriakopulos, Tiffani Anderson-Davies, and recent graduate Ben Coles. Also, playing crucial supporting roles are Ashley Stevens, Adriana Berardocco, and Tara Schell. On the production side, I’ve been lucky to have Sukaina Ibraheem as my assistant director, always making sure to keep my ego in check and pulling me back into reality while still finding the time to add her own artistic flair to the work; our stage is being excellently managed by Deanna Galati, awesome set and costumes are being designed by Megan Apa, and spellbinding lighting by Jason Thomson. They all make what they do seem so easy, and never cease to amaze me with what they’re capable of.
Hmm, fun stories? Okay, I love my whole team to death, but when it comes to fun stories, it’s always Ben who first comes to mind. He has this naturally cartoonish stage presence that makes his character so delightfully animated. I had read the script in solitude a number of times before we began rehearsals, but it wasn’t until hearing Ben read these lines aloud for the first time at the table-read that I realized just what a perfectly comical character we had on our hands. The development of his onstage chemistry with Tiffani has been a riot for all of us to watch unfold; we always have to brace ourselves to not burst out laughing at his characteristic way of saying her character’s name: “BERTHA!” It occurs to me that you readers won’t really get a sense of how that sounds and why it’s funny, so I encourage you to come see the show to really appreciate it.
How has studying at York University prepared you for this adventure?
While it’s certainly intimidating and insanely time consuming to embark on projects like these while still in school, there’s something to be said about the perks of being a student. In addition to it being the place where I met all of these wonderful collaborators, York provides us with free rehearsal space. It’s easy to take that for granted, but in the real world rehearsal space is expensive, unless somebody involved has a basement that they’re willing to offer up. Also, perhaps the biggest way that York has helped is that we received a generous grant from the Creative Arts Students’ Association (CASA). Putting on a show certainly isn’t cheap, so the support from them has been incredibly helpful in making this dream a reality. We can’t thank them enough.
Overall, I think there’s a certain entrepreneurial attitude that’s subtly present in York’s pedagogical approach to theatre. I remember Alberto [Prof. Guevara] saying in one of his lectures, “The goal of our program is to create people who can create their own jobs,” and that mindset is certainly prevalent throughout our education. Look at Devised Theatre: for the final DT assignment they’re required to form their own mini companies, complete with a name, an artistic mandate, and a Facebook page. Everyone who graduates from it steps out into the world with “Founding member of so-in-so collective” already on their CV, and there’s a genuine hope that some of these groups will stay together after graduation. Take a step back to the department as a whole: it’s mandatory for everyone, regardless of stream, to take either Theatre Management or Theatre Career Management. York is doing what they can to make us the kind of people who can make theatre happen. And it works. Just in my time here, we’ve seen the rise of Little Black Afro, Epigraph Collective, Then They Fight, 10/10/10 Project, Theatre Hera, House of Rebels, Theatre Parallax – probably a bunch others that I’m forgetting about right now – and now Sad Ibsen is joining the party.