Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The opening night of Emily’s Piano will forever be ingrained in my family’s memory. An evening of unexpected delays, missed turns, and some shattered glass had my son despairing on the tense drive to the theatre, “this is the play I’ve wanted to see most this year–and now we’re going to miss it!”
By some miracle, we made curtain by a scant minute. And after curtain? My usually forthright son refrained from comment. When asked his impressions of the play, he offered only a sober, “I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about everything that I saw.”
Without doubt, there’s lots to think about in Emily’s Piano, just receiving its world premiere at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. Adapted by Mark Cassidy from the children’s novel La boîte à bonheur by Charlotte Gingras, the play explores the serious themes of relocation, mental illness, adultery, the dissolution of a family and dementia. All are depicted from the 9-year-old Emily’s point-of-view, with the titular piano symbolizing both the loss and the recovery that her family experiences. Indeed, the play opens when the family piano is dismantled part by deliberate part, with Emily’s mother (Heather Marie Annis) despairing at its centre. This dismemberment mirrors her psychological unraveling and foreshadows the break-up of her family. As our family discussed afterwards, it’s both beautifully staged . . . and powerfully uncomfortable to watch the effects on Emily (Hilary Carroll) and every member of her family.
Playwright Mark Cassidy, who also directed the play, and is a father, was inspired to adapt Gingras’ book based on his own children’s reactions to it. Both he and his wife, Suzanne, read it to their children when they were growing up. Seeing their enjoyment, his wife suggested that he adapt it into a play. For him, part of the story’s appeal was that Gingras took on real life situations with a disarming blend of directness and compassion, creating a journey for 9-year old Emily, which was both beautiful and inspiring.
Cassidy is an experienced playwright, having created plays from a range of source material, including novels, poems, short stories, letters, memoirs and places. (Incidentally, his next project is a piece he wrote about his own childhood, Allistonian Brockvillian Dionysian, about growing up in a hotel and motel in small town Ontario.) Prior to Emily’s Piano, however, he had never adapted a story for children. “This seemed like a really great story to try it with,” he explained. “I brought the story to YPT as part of an artist residency I was doing there, and we started doing workshops on the piece, trying to figure out how to turn it into a play. People in the workshops seemed to really connect with the story, and we explored many possible ways to bring the material to theatrical life.”
No doubt, Emily’s Piano presents serious themes not often found in plays for young audiences. As many young people are living these themes, Cassidy didn’t feel the need to dilute them in any way: “The book is already written for young audiences, so I just had to be true to its tone, while honouring its content.”
The book itself is highly internal and entirely from Emily’s point of view. So he and the cast had to find ways to “theatricalize” Emily’s inner worlds while fleshing out her outer world: most notably the other characters in the story, like her distant parents (played by Heather Marie Annis and Christopher Sawchyn) and self-involved older twin sisters (Ginette Mohr and Mary Ellen MacLean). “Emily is a very resilient and courageous character, so I think young audiences will be attracted to her. The fact she has to overcome the difficulties she is facing in this period of her life, makes her someone I hope young people will both relate to and root for.”
The plot, its feisty, perceptive protagonist and cast of memorable characters have inspired a deep and long-term commitment from its cast. Emily’s Piano is a labour of love for both Cassidy and the ensemble, having been developed through workshops over 3 years. For him, the roles of playwright and director on this piece have blended quite seamlessly. “It’s really been a collaborative effort bringing this story to the stage,” Cassidy feels, “involving a lot of discussion, improvisation and experimentation. I have been moved by the actors’ commitment to sharing their own personal connections to the story and plunging into the unknown when it came to creating scenes from the outlines I would sometimes bring in.”
So how did he go about finding the “just right’ actors for these roles? When casting, he looked for people who would be good for the individual roles in this piece, as well as be great members of an ensemble. “The actors who are in the play have brought a wonderful blend of exuberance, sensitivity and imagination to the process. I really look forward each day to what we will discover together in rehearsal. It requires lots of thought, trying things out, getting feedback from collaborators, trying it again, and again, until you feel it’s right.”
And Cassidy is quick to emphasize that production design is equally critical to the play’s impact: “Along with the talented actors in the cast, I have been fortunate to be working with wonderful designers and the technicians here at YPT to help bring the various sensory dimensions of Emily’s world to life.” He enjoys the challenge of keeping things outwardly engaging while retaining a certain inner complexity, and, this tension is apparent in the innovative staging. The piano of the play’s title — in various states of disassembly, and sometimes just its spectre — underpins every scene of the play. And the way that the emotional and psychological aspects of the plot are manifested and enacted is a virtuoso feat by the entire team–the designers who envision it and the performers who enliven it.
Like the notes of the piano score that begin and end the play, the many themes in Emily’s Piano–including a child’s ability to cope with mental illness in her family, and to effect meaningful change from within that challenging situation–will resonate and linger long after the curtain. Many audience members, I expect, will join my son in the quiet reflection that comes from lots of “thinking”.
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What: Emily’s Piano by Charlotte Gingras, translated by Susan Ouriou, adapted for the stage and directed by Mark Cassidy; featuring Heather Marie Annis, Hilary Carroll, Mary Ellen MacLean, Ginette Mohr and Christopher Sawchyn
Who: Audiences 10 years of age (grade 5) and up
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON M5A 3Z4
When: running until May 2, 2015
© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya