“Both funny and messy, like life”: Sarah Kitz on directing Ellie Moon’s “What I call her”

Sarah Kitz; photo: Alejandro Santiago

Is it possible to discuss a play by Ellie Moon without its resonant themes reverberating outside the play and echoing back into it? Take her latest play What I call her, premiering at Crow’s Theatre this week. When I spoke with Director Sarah Kitz (winner of Crow’s Theatre’s 2017 RBC Emerging Director Prize) about this production, she offered that the play is about the confluence of trauma, family and identity; and the larger ways in which “those aspects of ourselves from past and present and future intersect”. By coincidence, prescience or zeitgeist, her exact words “discomfort” and “trauma” have come up, unprompted, in several of my conversations this week. As has our uncomfortable relationship with them: “In this post #MeToo world, we are saying to women, particularly to victims of abuse, ‘it’s safe for you to name your abuser now, and we can talk about this, and you can heal’. But of course the suppression of trauma is not a controllable force. And so when it releases, so often the reaction is, ‘oh, I don’t want to deal with that! That’s frightening’. Or ‘that’s messy. Or ‘it’s not expressing in a way that makes me comfortable’.”

This complex material receives a lucid, compassionate treatment from Ms Kitz because of her vast range as an artist, as well as her relationship with the playwright (whom she has known “for a couple of years now”) and the play, which she has known since “the very first reading of the first draft” in January. She recalls how “Ellie and I started talking and working immediately because we were both really jazzed to discuss the script from its earliest form and see it come to life.”  Ms Kitz also credits Moon with busting open the consent conversation with her acclaimed playwriting debut Asking for it, right at the moment when #MeToo hit the news. Just as Moon “really had her finger on the pulse for that”, the conversations in What I call her “are the conversations that we are having in our lives and in our politics right now”. More specifically, “we’re in this moment that is full of possibility and also of knee-jerk reactions.” While society is telling women they are allowed to move forward into the world, in truth, we still want them to act the way they did before. “It’s not ladylike to rage,” Ms Kitz notes. “We still want women to make us comfortable, rather than prioritize their own feelings.” The result is a “real whirlpool of confusion . . . like trauma affecting the body and being buried, and then society saying, ‘ok, let’s start to make space for people’s trauma’.” So trauma starts to emerge, and the first contact from outside yields a reactionary response of recoil, “like ‘oh, actually, I don’t want to do this.’ So it’s this moment of opening, which is very frightening for everyone.”

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand, What I call her; photo: Dahlia Katz

How to cover such vast psychological and political territory in one 90-minute act? It’s simple, Ms Kitz explains: while the themes of the play are large, the focus of the play is intimate. There are just three characters: two are a couple, and two are sisters. Ms Kitz is effusive when describing the 3-actor ensemble who bring the play to life. Michael Ayres plays the role of Kyle, and “he is just so wonderful in this show. We’re so excited to have him”. Charlie Gould, who is originally from Calgary, is “the centre of the storm in the show as Kate”. And National Theatre School graduate Ellie Ellwand plays her younger sister Ruby. “They are incredible, and together, very funny and very brave in their willingness to risk being unlikeable while still being entertaining, which I think is hard sometimes for actors – or for anyone.” All twenty-somethings, the characters are “both self-involved and not beaten down by life. They don’t take themselves overly seriously. Or they take themselves overly seriously in a way that becomes funny to watch. Like being in a fight about real history, like what the Truth is of a matter, and then having a side argument about grammar or something, the way siblings can do ridiculous things like that. It’s a lot of light-footed stepping around large topics.”

So notwithstanding the weightiness of the play’s themes, we can be assured that its “unexpected, nonlinear… twisty and turny” nature provides ample scope for humour. This dark comedy follows more “an emotional path rather than a logical path”, and affords “a lot of opportunities to laugh, which is delightful and also necessary, I think, when you’re dealing with large content like this.” This laughter doesn’t cheapen or distract from the weight of the trauma at the play’s heart  – it heightens it and helps propel it forward: “We laugh all the time in daily life, in places that don’t necessarily look really funny. People laugh . . . to relieve tension. They laugh at jokes.” So the play rings true to human experience. “Yes, it’s one act, but it’s also one continuous scene. It never breaks, and then we move forward in time. So once the play begins, we are all living through this scenario together, which is another exciting thing.” Ultimately, this immersive roller coaster is a “thrilling ride” that is “both funny and messy, just like life” and – also like life – is “not the kind of thing that you can sit back from”.

Charlie Gould, What I call her: photo: Dahlia Katz

Given the topicality of the themes, which are finding unrelenting expression in the media, What I call her seems like necessary viewing, particularly for teen audiences. With their social-media hyper-connectedness and YouTube influences, the limits of “comfort” among the teen generation seem dangerously elastic. Asked what she might like younger audience members to understand from the play, Ms Kitz pauses before offering a multi-layered perspective: “I want them to understand what healthy boundaries are for themselves and in their relationships. Once they understand what those healthy boundaries are, I want them to be brave about being uncomfortable.” In her view, the  work we need to do as a society, in our families, and in our circles of friends requires discomfort – the kind of productive unease that arises from searingly honest, vulnerable sharing. “To move the needle forward so that everyone can be safer and better, and society is more equitable, we’re going to have to have conversations that are awkward and uncomfortable,” and we will need to “be supple inside of those,…and not shut down.” At the same time, Ms Kitz asserts that we need to take care of each other: “I feel that in this play but really feel in the world right now, with everything that’s happening, we have forgotten the simple but powerful idea that we’re all responsible for each other. Our lives are in each other’s keeping all the time, and we need to do a better job. And where it’s happening, it’s beautiful and affirming, but no-one can actually get by on their own. People who are isolated are in trouble. We need each other, so we need to engage with each other through discomfort and not let discomfort get in the way.”

I have long admired Ms Kitz’s work, most recently in Liza Balkan’s Out the Window. Our conversation reinforces that she is witty and insightful. She is also smart. During our conversation, she has done a masterful job of steering clear of plot points, so as not to spoil the viewing experience. Complimented on her circumspection, she laughs and nods – this is very much by design. The press release reveals only that “the estranged mother of 25-year old Kate is on her deathbed. A Facebook post becomes the subject of heated debate. Then, a knock on the door.” Within the context of our earnest conversation on topical discomfort and trauma, these fragments of specificity intrigue and provoke . . . but they certainly do not clarify the plot.

Resist greater spoilers. An open mind, it seems probable, will grant audiences their opportunity to be brave about being uncomfortable, as well as entertained and moved.

Charlie Gould & Michael Ayres, What I call her, Photo: Dahlia Katz

News You Can Use

What: What I call her, by Ellie Moon; an In Association Production, in partnership with Crow’s Theatre; Directed by Sarah Kitz; Produced by Annie Clarke
Performed by Michael Ayres, Ellie Ellwand and Charlie Gould

Who: Audiences 14 years and older

When: On stage until December 8, 2018; Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Where: Scotiabank Community Studio, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, ON 

Info and tickets: crowstheatre.com

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

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