Antigonish native Courtney Lancaster continues to wow audiences on-stage; including ‘Big Apple’ audiences, where her and her Soulpepper Theatre Company colleagues recently completed a successful five-week run of different productions.
“Soulpepper took 10 shows down; we went down the end of June and came back the end of July,” Lancaster, back in Antigonish for a short mid-August visit, said, talking to the Casket Aug. 22.
“We went down hoping taking Canadian theatre to New York would be a bit of a bridge; we would meet artists down there or they would connect to us.
“Our artistic director and the executive director rented this amazing theatre on 42nd Street. I think we figured we would get half-houses and it would be a hard sell; it’s challenging taking theatre to the theatre capital of the world. You can’t imagine they’re going to want to see a bunch of Canadians, we’re so bashful by nature, but, I have to say, it went off really well.
“By the second week we were selling out everything and we received critic picks in The New York Times for the two shows I was in; Of Human Bondage and Spoon River. We formed some great long-lasting friendships with New Yorkers; I think we really benefitted from this New York, American, appreciation of Canada right now.”
Lancaster talked about the appreciation being expressed directly to her in conversations with native New Yorkers.
“People would stop and tell us; ‘I’m so glad you came down, thank you for coming to visit,’” she said. “They were just really taken with the idea of Canadians coming and bringing their art.
“The thing that really moved me is that our plays stood up. We were nervous thinking ‘oh, we’re going to be compared to the best in the world here’ and ‘will we be able to meet that standard?’ And, I think, we really did … it went off very well.”
Lancaster talked about a website that reviews plays in New York playing a role, as people, who had seen some shows during that first week, used an open forum to tell other theatre enthusiasts about how much they enjoyed them.
“We had only done like three performances at that stage; it was early in the run for Of Human Bondage, and we already had 47 reviews from audience members,” she said. “Meaning, people had come to the show and were passionate enough about theatre that they immediately went home, logged on and wrote a paragraph about the show. And, for the most part, they really liked it.
“How wonderful it is to have a community that engaged with the arts that they go home and write about it, spread the word. That’s exactly how we got audiences out; people told each other, ‘go see the Canadians.’”
Lancaster was back in Antigonish during a summer when another very successful actor from the area, Hugh Thompson, was performing for Festival Antigonish. She was asked about the community fostering artistic talent.
“It’s amazing isn’t it; we just had the most wonderful teachers,” the Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional High School graduate, Loran Scholarship recipient and Western Loran Scholar, said.
“The other day I saw Addy Doucette, who founded Festival Antigonish, and her husband Lionel ‘Buddy’ Doucette, who just made so much happen here. And I went to high school when Jim Mulcahy was such a huge force in the theatre community at the high school, and Brent Bannerman in the music department at the high school … it just inspired so many kids to become artists.
“But not just that, I was chatting with my good old friend Keegan Howe, who I went to high school with, we were chatting online. He is in Nigeria, with Red Cross, working on sanitation projects, and he would tell you doing Monty Python skits in Jim Mulcahy’s fine art showcases, at the high school, has a direct connection to the achievements he has made in this whole other realm. It gave him confidence and creativity and made him see the world beyond the small town.
“I’m just amazed by the people who are willing to push young people forward, through the arts, in this town.”
Along with her acting talents, Lancaster also brings musical skills to performances including flute, piano and singing.
“One of the shows I was doing in New York, the musical Spoon River, I played a bit of piano in that, played flute in that, did a lot of singing, a bit of percussion,” she said.
“It’s such a huge addition to a theatre skill set to have some music. In fact, music really got me into the theatre because Brent [Bannerman] started, as a fundraiser for the band program years ago, Music of the Night. I started doing that when I was 10 or 11, so, really, it’s Brent’s fault, among many other people, for this wonderful and ridiculous career,” she joked, in appreciation.
A two-time Dora Award winner (ensemble cast for Of Human Bondage and Incident at Vichy), Lancaster is now preparing to open the world premiere of Grey in Toronto, a play she is directing.
“It’s certainly different; you have to have a much wider vision than when you’re just doing your own part,” she said about anticipation of an opening as a director as opposed to an actor.
“It’s just as much work but it’s a little more of a personal journey (acting) than when you’re directing, which is ‘oh, you need to have your finger in everything,’ the design, lighting, sound, everyone’s experience in the room.
“Also making sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable in their parts because your actors are depending on you to tell them if something is working or not working, so that they don’t look silly out there, so they’re doing a good job. The energy of the room is your responsibility when you’re directing.”
She talked about the play which is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“It has been modernized and really driven by women,” she said. “The lead character in the original story is a man; the playwright has changed the lead character into a woman and several of the other main characters as well, which is so important, especially when you’re working with classic text, there just aren’t as many roles for women.
“The funny thing is, there are, generally, more women in the theatre scene, in Canada, than there are men and, yet, you tend to see fewer of them on the stage because the roles aren’t there. So this, kind of, transposition of the genders really creates opportunity and, I think, helps people see the story in a new light.
“It does feel like the movement, the choice to do that, is as important as the story itself.”
The playwright who did the ‘transposition’ is Kristofer Van Soelen.
“He is a wonderful playwright; very thoughtful and willing to work with all of us,” she said. “And because it’s a new script, we spent some time, a couple of months ago, workshopping it … we’re continually changing and editing.
“The funny thing is, I just saw a movie producer in the U.S., with Lionsgate Film, they’re coming out, next year, with a movie version of The Picture of Dorian Gray with female leads. It’s the exact same thing and I thought , ‘oh, isn’t that funny, it must be touching a nerve.’”
Following that play, Lancaster returns to acting.
“An independent production of King Lear in Toronto in the fall,” she said of her busy schedule.
“I spend most of my time working at Soulpepper Theatre Company, so I go back there from January through to July, doing three shows. A show called Idomeneus, a Canadian written show called Innocence Lost, which is about the Steven Truscott case written by a Canadian playwright named Beverly Cooper, and then a comedy called Chorus of Disapproval.
“So that will be my whole year and I’m always at Soulpepper, in some capacity or another. I’m producing a festival there in November and I do readings there all the time. I’m a resident artist there so that’s, always, part of my time as an actor.”