By Liz Nicholls .ca
Jana O’Connor has been hearing stories in the rehearsal room. Stories which live on in the Teatro Live! archives, of the memorably frantic, complicated journeys to opening nights of Teatro’s most travelled, most often revived, arguably most popular, play ever.
Three actors, four chairs, a rug, a phonograph…. Since its 1997 premiere at the Fringe, Stewart Lemoine’s Pith! — in itself the story of “a journey of epic proportions through the simplest possible means,” as the playwright’s stage directions prescribe — has travelled widely. It’s been on the Varscona stage in three revivals. It’s played cities across Canada. It’s been in New York no fewer than three separate times, including an Off-Broadway run.
Starting Friday, Pith! is back onstage at the Varscona, directed by Lemoine, with a cast that includes O’Connor, Kristin Johnston, and Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the company’s current artistic director. Which is why the multi-talented O’Connor, a long-time Teatro fave, a playwright herself, a star improviser and the executive director of Edmonton’s LitFest, who’s in Pith! for the first time, is hearing “the great history” of a signature play from the assembled raconteurs of the Teatro ensemble.
Two days before the New York opening of 2006, the Pith! props and costumes still hadn’t arrived. “If that’s going to happen, your best-case scenario is that you have Leona Brausen with you,” O’Connor says of Teatro’s resident costume designer who has a special touch in vintage. Brausen, who originated the role of Nancy, the appealing character O’Connor has inherited in the current production, immediately went shopping at Macy’s, buoyed by their flexible return policy. Gigantic as it is, Macy’s, however, does not carry pith helmets, you may not be surprised to learn. These were brought to ground at a 42nd Street army surplus.
Pith helmets? MacDonald-Smith returns to the role he last played in 2012, in Teatro’s 30th anniversary season: Jack Vail, a mysterious itinerant seaman who arrives at a Providence, R.I. pie social in 1931. In improvising a bare-stage imaginary adventure into the heart of the South American jungle for a woman who’s been imprisoned for 10 years in the fortress of her own grief, Jack gives Mrs. Virginia Tilford (Johnston) back her life. Along with Jack, Virginia and Nancy, her warm-hearted wise-cracking sidekick (O’Connor) never leave the room.
O’Connor, delighted, reports that “when you tell people you’ll be in Pith! they go Ohhhhh. Such a big reaction! It is so loved.” Not only is it a tribute to the life-changing power of the imagination, and of theatre, “to me it’s a showcase of all the best things about Stewart’s writing: it’s absolutely hilarious, but also has such a beautiful heart at the core.”
As the director of a literary festival — and books are of course another way to have exotic journeys without leaving the room — she appreciates the Lemoinian language. “So challenging and beautiful and unexpected…. Some of the monologues and sentences are journeys in themselves! Sentences with some heft. And you can really relish them, and go on a journey with the character as they express that thought.”
“I’ve ended up at this point in my career,” O’Connor says, “having the amazing opportunity to bring together two of my greatest loves as an artist. Improv and Teatro!” She laughs. “Improv! My family and I (she’s married to actor/director Chris Bullough, with kids) live our lives madly scrambling to re-arrange the furniture … and wearing funny hats!”
O’Connor’s entry point into theatre and performance came right after high school via the impulse of a friend to take a Rapid Fire Theatre improv workshop. “It wasn’t even my idea.” A talent was revealed. Then came an invitation to play Theatresports, and a berth on RFT’s monthly sketch comedy 11:02 Show. Teatro founder Lemoine and leading man Jeff Haslam both directed editions of 11:02, and discovered a droll and quick-witted performer there, perfect for Teatro. “And that was my introduction to them, to the Varscona, to the opportunity to be part of that community…. Such strange little choices that can lead to such amazing career-changing opportunities.”
“Everything I’ve learned about theatre is from that world,” she says of Teatro and the Varscona.
O’Connor’s introduction was Teatro’s contribution to a Catalyst Theatre initiative, Fusion, an invitation to writers and companies to bring short pieces to a particular set. “Josh Dean and I were on separate staircases .. in a quick, fun, back and forth kind of (Lemoine) piece.” She stage-managed the original 2003 production of Lemoine’s The Margin of the Sky, 20 years before she inherited Brausen’s role in the play in a 2022 revival.
Her first performances with the company came with the Lemoine comedy A Rocky Night For His Nibs (possibly the only play in Canadian theatre in which the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton figures prominently) and Haslam’s Citizen Plate. And there have been many Teatro roles since, some of them — as per Lemoinian practice — written with her particular comic talents in mind.
The route from improv to playwriting is by no means an outlandish detour into the outback, as this theatre town’s roster of actor/playwright/improvisers demonstrates over and over. In a way, O’Connor thinks, in improvising,” you’re writing the play as you go, in your head,” creating scenes and, in long-form improv, creating a dramatic arc.
On the O’Connor resumé is sketch comedy (for CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show and Caution: May Contain Nuts) and a short piece inspired by Jane Austen for Panties Productions. And then came Lonely Hearts, a play inspired by a chance meeting with Famous Last Words, a book from the novelty rack at the U of A Bookstore where she worked at the time. “I came across (serial killer) Martha Beck,” says O’Connor. “I’d never heard of her…. But I found it so compelling that here was a woman who’d murdered all these people, but her biggest sin was being a larger woman.” Bullough directed a Fringe production starring Belinda Cornish.
“A gratifying experience,” she says, and laughs. “Not the voice people would expect from me — creepy, freaky, darkly comic. Enjoy!” That’s the beauty of the Fringe.
Going, Going, Gone!, a comedy she calls a “screwbelle” in honour of its female protagonist, was a more likely O’Connor play, and “a natural extension of (Teatro World).” Intricate hilarity is triggered “when someone grabs someone else’s luggage at the train station.” She wrote with particular actors in mind, and the Teatro production starred MacDonald-Smith, Rachel Bowron, with the protean Mark Meer in seven or eight roles.
In addition to returning to Teatro, at a well-timed period between annual October editions of LitFest, O’Connor has returned to Rapid Fire improv this past year. Kidprovisers was “a treat … performing for my kids on my birthday!.” For the last performance of The Blank Who Stole Christmas, RFT’s ingenious holiday comedy — a fusion of scripted and improvised with a different Blank every night — she picked Mrs. Claus.
Now there’s a subversive, cheeky choice, she acknowledges. “Mrs. Claus was against the patriarch, ready to bring it all down,” O’Connor laughs. “Christmas was her idea and her husband took it over…. Really fun! A full circle to get a chance to be part of an improv family.”
Meanwhile, there’s “a dream role” in a uniquely theatrical play from ta company dedicated to exploring the elastic frontiers of comedy. For women with kids and diverse pursuits and jobs, it’s tricky to find stability “without letting go of opportunities to have your voice heard,” as O’Connor puts it. “Teatro has always provided incredible opportunities for women to shine.”
Theatre: Teatro Live!
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Kristin Johnston, Jana O’Connor
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Friday through Feb. 25