Ellen Denny on becoming Alice in Britta Johnson’s Life After

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Ellen Denny (photo: Pierre Gautreau)

We’re in the clutches of an unseasonable heatwave when Ellen Denny and I connect. Death is on our minds. A tragically young cousin of mine in India has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my head and heart are heavy with thoughts of him. She is currently starring in a unique musical as a tragically young character who must face the consequences of sudden, unexpected family death.

On a sweltering Friday morning, I catch her in the midst of preparing breakfast. She warns me about the possible clank of pans and rattle of dishes, and I reciprocate with a warning about my liable-to-spontaneously-bark dog. After these domestic pleasantries, we settle in for a phone chat about her portrayal of Alice, the central character in Life After. This new musical about loss and love by intrepid composer Britta Johnson created a richly deserved stir when it sold out houses at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival. An expanded and reworked production is now enjoying a just-extended run produced by Canadian Stage, The Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals.

Ms Denny describes the lead up to the show’s opening as “very surreal…. It’s been this incredibly safe environment, and we’ve been given the luxury of time [and] honestly, a longer rehearsal process than I usually get in productions here in Canada. It’s such a gift to have the time to really delve in.” Given the show’s weighty central theme, she is sincere in this avowal: “The big moment in Alice’s life and that we open the show with, is loss for the first time.” Alice loses her father Frank (played by Dan Chameroy) in a mysterious car accident on her 16th birthday –  mysterious because he was supposed to be on an 8:00 am flight, yet dies in a car accident at 8:22 am. Alice plays the final, unanswered message left for her by her father, a popular author of self-help books. Having quarreled with her about his schedule, he had wanted to make amends. “What a horrible way to say goodbye,” he says on the message, a phrase that repeats and reverberates throughout the show.

Dan Chameroy & Ellen Denny in Life After; photo: Michael Cooper

Whether death comes unexpectedly – out of sudden illness or as the final milestone of a life well-lived —  how does one say goodbye? Can a final goodbye not be horrible? For the living, the stream of memories unleashed by grief . . . the words that must remain forever unspoken and unsaid . . . the misunderstandings never to be resolved . . . the memories that invade uninvited – and all else that cruelly lingers in the life after loss – are poignantly symbolized in the recurring loop of this phrase.

Yes, death is a bracing topic. Few choose to contemplate it, yet everyone must face it. Having to cope with life after a death is all the more significant for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, notes Ms Denny. Up to this moment, Alice is a typical teenager: “She’s really bright, she’s on the debate team, she has a very close friendship with her teacher, Mrs Hopkins (portrayed by Trish Lindström), who runs debate team.” However, Alice is not one of the popular kids at school. She has been close with her one great friend Hannah (Kelsey Verzotti) since they were children, and Hannah “puts up with Alice not fitting in quite right.” And not only is Alice trying to navigate the uneven adolescent terrain of school, identity and relationships . . . but “she loses her dad on her 16th birthday,” notes Ms Denny. “So not only are we seeing a formative time in a young woman’s life, but also [one] facing this massive change.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Ms Denny did not see the show at last year’s Fringe and learned of this production through an audition notice: “I didn’t know anything about this piece beyond what I had heard from people. There was obviously such strong reactions last year at the Fringe, but I never heard any of the music or read a script.” As she was out of town and couldn’t audition in person, she sent in a tape instead. It was at the callback that she met “Britta (Johnson) the writer, Robert (McQueen) the director and Reza (Jacobs) the music director” for the first time. “I did know Mitchell (Marcus), the [Artistic Director] of Musical Stage, but basically it was a room of people I didn’t know. And… I really enjoyed being in the room with them, just working with them on the material they had asked me to prepare.” Though her callback was “really long,” the decision to cast her came quickly, confirmed by phone the following day.

Ellen Denny & Tracy Michailidis in Life After; photo: Michael Cooper

Not having seen anyone else portray the role, she found the exercise of enlivening Alice – tapping into her world and psyche – was a liberating journey with a solid starting point: “It’s been laid out for me in what Britta’s created in her writing; that’s for sure. I definitely have to think about the age because I’m not 16 anymore,” she chuckles. The moments in the show where Ms Johnson has placed Alice’s songs communicate the age of the character, making it “pretty straightforward” and “a joy” to step back into that age range, though it’s taken effort and insight “just finding what that physicality is, finding what the rhythm is, of being just that little bit younger.”

While Ms Denny must focus on outwardly manifesting this 16-year-old girl, “she [also] has an extremely vivid inner world. She lives alone in her imagination” where memory and regret swirl. Within the yawning gulf of her grief, her mother Beth’s (Tracy Michaildis) and sister Kate’s (Rielle Braid) tangible expressions ripple in the periphery. For instance, vegan Kate rails at the thoughtless compassion of women who bring meat dishes for the grieving family, while Beth is preoccupied by the wallpaper she’s always hated in Frank’s office. For each of the living, grief manifests in a unique way. In Alice’s case, it is compounded by her guilt over the unresolved argument with her father and confusion about his presence in the car.

This emotional complexity is echoed in Ms Johnson’s music: much of it “in Alice’s head,” an approach which Ms Denny views as a “cool experience…You’re not playing necessarily literal scenes, but you are getting to explore the characters in [Alice’s] world.” Life After is almost entirely sung through, so to embody Alice’s persona, Ms Denny had first to figure out where each song sat in her voice, and what she needed to do technically to sing it. “Then I [could] stop thinking about the fact that I’m singing, and just be in the moment and be in the character’s experience. Certainly the songs in this show really allow for that because Britta’s music is very active, so it’s not like ‘let me stop and sing a song’. There’s nothing like that. We’re hurtling through space. We’re hurtling through Alice’s emotional journey with the music.” Remaining flexible and not getting locked into one persona or attitude have been key elements of Ms Denny’s preparation. “I come every day, and there could be a new scene or a new song…. you just have to be ready to play. If we discover something that needs to change, then we have to do it.”

Ellen Denny, Dan Chameroy, Trish Lindström, Barbara Fulton, Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson in Life After; photo: Michael Cooper

This adaptability might be the mantra for her career success to date. Since graduating from Dalhousie University, Ms Denny has worked continuously and often with major Canadian productions companies. But “usually I’m in plays that are written by men who are often dead,” she deadpans. What is “really exciting” about being in Life After is that it was written by a contemporary woman who is close in age (and very much alive!): “That means the world to me because it means that my character isn’t a trope; it’s not an ingénue. It’s fully realized.” Ms Johnson’s ability to be “so in tune” with the experience of being a young woman has enabled her to create a central character who is compelling and completely realistic: “That difference comes from the fact that you have a young woman at the helm. That changes the energy of the whole project. It’s definitely my favorite thing about being a part of it.”

Our conversation (and Ms Denny’s breakfast) are coming to their close. I notice that we’ve covered a lot of ground, yet I haven’t heard a single clink of cutlery or stray bark. And I note something else. There it is, one final time: Ms Johnson’s name. Like a motif, it has cropped up recurrently. “I’ve mentioned her so many times because I’m excited to work with Britta, and honestly, everyone else has just been the cherry on top!” Ms Denny is not alone in her admiration of Britta Johnson’s talent. Life After is the first musical that Canadian Stage has ever co-produced, and Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn, who saw Life After at the 2016 Fringe, chose it to launch the company’s 30th anniversary season. The Musical Stage Company has committed to producing 2 more of Ms Johnson’s works or collaborations over the next 3 seasons through its Crescendo Series. Ms Denny re-focuses the attention paid to Life After to the musical’s creator – whom we must now view as a major Canadian contributor to the stage-musical canon. The significance of this is “palpable,” Ms Denny thrills. “It’s even reaching beyond the theatre community…People are saying that a musical can originate in Canada and not in the States. I’m so thrilled that Life After is a part of that wave of new musical writing. And to be part of that movement is really exciting!”

Ellen Denny in Life After; photo: Michael Cooper

And happily, the life of Life After has just been extended, so Ms Denny can continue to “enjoy the ride” a while longer. “I have an amazing cast by my side, and I want to do the best I can for Britta’s work.”

News You Can Use

What: Life After, book, music and lyrics by Britta Johnson; produced by Canadian Stage, The Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals; music direction by Reza Jacobs; choreography by Linda Garneau; directed by Robert McQueen

Featuring Neema Bickersteth, Rielle Braid, Dan Chameroy, Ellen Denny, Barbara Fulton, Anika Johnson, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Kelsey Verzotti         

When: On stage until October 29, 2017, evening and matinee performances; running time is 75 minutes (no intermission)

Where: Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON

Information and Tickets: CanadianStage.com and 416.368.3110

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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