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On Truth, Vulnerability, and The After: An Interview with Andrea Donaldson, Director of GRACE

January 10th, 2019     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

GRACE. Rose Napoli and Michaela Washburn. Photo by Dahlia Katz. Nightwood Theatre

Grace by Jane Doe from Nightwood Theatre on Vimeo.

CONTENT & TRIGGER WARNING: mention of childhood sexual assault (CSA), legal proceedings of sexual assault cases

When I first started working on this interview, drafting questions, I was on the subway. I looked up at the news screen and the first thing I saw was “Over 140 women killed by men in Canada in 2018”. I put my phone away and without really thinking about it, pulled out my copy of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho’s fragments. I felt like that was appropriate. Sappho was an Ancient Greek musician and poet, and notable lesbian. Much of her work is lost, but the fragments that remain are so perfect in their breaks and spaces. You yearn to fill in the blanks, but a lot of what makes stories and art special are the spaces between. So it goes with Nightwood Theatre’s newest production – Grace by Jane Doe.

Grace is a searing piece written by an anonymous playwright that ignites a pertinent discussion on the failures and limitations of the legal system. In the wake of a young woman’s disclosure of childhood sexual assault, a family presses charges. This is a true story about survival, hope, and the pursuit of justice at a time when provability still usurps truth in our courtrooms (Nightwood, 2019). Grace is written collaboratively – started by Sarah, who is Grace’s sister (names changed), and consists of conversations, statistics, interviews, poetry, prose, and visuals telling their family’s story. This is about the after.

Last year, I word-vomited up a zine of poems that were about processing my own traumas, and I didn’t write a word for months. I thought I had no other stories worth telling. I would never tell someone else that about their own stories, ever, but for my own experiences, I thought my stories were tapped out. Grace is one of the many works that proves how deeply untrue that is.

This show has given me a lot of feelings about storytelling, specifically around ownership of stories and “the truth”. Grace is an exercise in showing how different it feels to say the truth out loud compared to rolling it around in your head, and how that can play out in a family.

This is a work that handles ownership of voice, story, and truth so vulnerably. It is achingly transparent and humane. It really is a story about living afterwards, and I know I found it cathartic in a way that doesn’t rush to tie up loose ends, which was both refreshing and hopeful. Grace also addresses the nuance of class privilege and having access to therapy and legal support as being specific to their family’s story. They also hold space for lightness. Those moments after you’ve been harmed and everything is different in ways you didn’t expect but you still laugh with someone you love and who supports you because what else can you do sometimes?

Grace reckons with believability and truth in a really heavy way at times, too – but this family’s truth is laid so bare, I’m so thankful they were able to be vulnerable in this way, and continue to change and grow and learn and carry on.

Andrea Donaldson

I had a fantastic discussion with the director of Grace, Andrea Donaldson, just days before opening day.

Andrea was Tarragon Theatre’s Assistant/Associate Artistic Director for four seasons, and is going into her fifth season as the Program Director for Nightwood Theatre’s Write From the Hip and is Co-Artistic Director of Groundwater Productions. She has been honoured with Stratford’s Jean Gascon Award for Direction, has been nominated for the Pauline McGibbon Award & the John Hirsch Directing Award and has received a Dora Award for Outstanding Performance & Production for performing in And By the Way, Miss (Theatre Direct). She has also been a choreographer, set designer, set decorator, producer, costume designer, actor, and artist in many works.

Our interview is condensed below.

Jackie: Grace came to be from the “Write from the Hip” program you facilitate. Can you tell me a bit about the early stages of the script, and the process between you and the playwright?

Andrea: I’ve been running the program for 5 years, and we typically have between 80-100 applicants for about 4 spots. The playwright came in for an interview having been shortlisted and we had read an excerpt of the play she had been assembling with her sister. She brought in a letter of blessing from her sister. From the very beginning, she was very concerned about appropriating her sister’s experience and exploiting her family for any kind of professional gain…part of our work together was to encourage her to go towards the things in the piece that scared her. Her concerns were really outside of the draft. But, the more we talked about it, and said “you know you are part of this”, the concerns you have are going to be shared by the people watching it too. So how do you bring those questions into the work? At the end of the Write from the Hip program, all of the plays have a public reading. The actors came in and read Grace, and her family came in and saw it, and they hadn’t heard it aloud before. I think that experience was intense all around. There’s a lot of stuff that came out in their private interviews, which Grace hadn’t been privy to beforehand. In the truths that aired privately, it ultimately showed me the value in vulnerability and sharing those private feelings even if it means you can’t be strong in the moment. I became really fascinated with the subtext of their relationship — what it was like to live together as parents, who have to be these total rocks for their daughter, where there isn’t really space to have your emotional space. And in the end, that vulnerability and transparency – the communication between them actually makes them feel less alone.

J: I really like that Grace is a story of a family, particularly between sisters, trying to support a loved one after being harmed. What was it like to hold space for this dynamic?

A: I feel like I always enter any space … from the perspective that we try to include trigger warnings. There are also triggers we don’t know we have that can come up. I feel like my M.O. is to go in with the expectation that everyone requires the care of being a survivor of something, and we’ve all been hurt and need support in some way, which I think is part of the human condition, which is a baseline value of mine as a person and as an artist. Obviously we have to talk about super sensitive things, there are things that, in order to make this piece, I need to know, and things I don’t need know. Though I’ve met the family, and I know they will be coming out to the show at some point, I feel a huge responsibility towards being as full of care and respectful, while also knowing as artists we need to have artistic license to be inventive and fill in blanks. We want to portray them as accurately as we can with the information we have. It’s important for our true life Grace that she wouldn’t come and see the character as a victim, because that’s not how she sees herself. It would be a disservice to the family if we only saw the polished side of their humanity. Taking care of the cast & crew was a big part of this too – we know that most people have undergone some kind of abuse, I know that when I’m leading a room, that some of those people have endured things that we’re going to be talking about. Michaela Washburn, in our cast, has been so generous to smudge the space before rehearsals, which has been one practice that’s been in place where everyone has benefited.

J: How does Grace grapple with the idea of justice? Is there space to think about transformative/restorative justice?

A: This trial got tossed out before it had any chance to play out, for a number of reasons. Restorative justice doesn’t entirely play out in this script, in this particular case. Ultimately, as Diane says in this play, “even if they had a positive legal outcome, the defense had outright said we would do everything in our power to destroy Grace.” And that’s not unique to this case…Defense lawyers shouldn’t use rape myths in court, but many do and it’s at the discretion of judges to actually enforce it. Grace, as a young woman, is a creative person and a writer; defense lawyers would attack her creativity as an example of a person being able to fabricate a story. All of these narratives are built to steer the case, and uphold the respect of their client, but they aren’t true and harm the victim/complainant. I think about the hopeful moment that we’re in, because things are so bad and people are speaking out about how bad the system is. I think Grace ultimately, like anyone who goes through a trial, win or lose, they have to transform on their own… after all this, I can’t help but think about you know, this man is out there somewhere and I wonder if his ears are burning.

J: I read The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison recently - it’s a book that’s partially literary criticism, memoir, and narrative non-fiction grappling with alcoholism. She artfully argues against glamorizing the idea that being a “great writer” goes hand in hand with addiction; that great art can be made about sobriety and “the aftermath”. She does a lot of work with Alcoholics Anonymous, and she notices that many people have very similar stories with alcoholism, but every story she hears not only enriches her understanding of herself and the world around her, but she sees on people’s faces they realize they aren’t alone in this. I think many people sharing their stories adds something to our cultural consciousness. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to gendered violence, in the sense of how crucial it is to tell stories that don’t try to put the traumatic event in the spotlight (literally, in this case), but on the complex, messy, non-linear way of living afterwards. I think Grace does just that. Could you speak to your experience of directing the story this way and why you think it’s important?

A: I don’t know from the playwright or the sister’s perspective, if there was a concerted effort towards staying away from certain contexts. Sarah, in an effort to stay away from any kind of exploitation from her sister, of herself, or of the audience, really tried to stay on the outside of things. Working from the outside in. I don’t know if she had any predictions about what her sister would write, her poetry and reflections in the piece. I think our author was really conscious to not censor her sister either. I think it’s really good to know the actual trauma itself is not in the spotlight. Not every play that I work on is a play that ends in hope, and this is one of the most hopeful plays I’ve ever worked on; because Grace is okay. This is a piece where a room full of survivors and allies can celebrate where they’re at. I’m really interested in seeing what the feedback from the audiences will be.

J: Sarah, Grace’s sister, says in the play “I don’t want this to be a therapy piece. I just want people to know. To know the truth. To know what it was like”. Do you think this was a therapeutic piece in some way?

A: When Sarah re-reflects on this, it becomes funny for us. From the beginning, Sarah wanted to be objective and make something she was just the facilitator for. Throughout the dramatic process, she becomes much more part of the process and her concerns about exploiting her sister’s story are integral to the show. The family didn’t work on this piece in order to heal. It is a radical transformation though, in a micro and macro way. Their family is closer, Grace’s future is materializing, and they’ve made something that’s bigger than themselves. Sarah felt really wronged by the system, and felt it wasn’t fair that Grace’s case didn’t go forward. There’s some peacemaking about truth and truth has a very specific context in a legal arena. I think they have some kind of vindication. Some people say that making a piece of theatre is parallel to a trial? And that hypothesis is proven true in Grace.

Rose Napoli, Michaela Washburn, Brenda Robins and Conrad Coates. Set & Costume Design Joanna Yu, Lighting Design Michelle Ramsay, Projection Design Laura Warren, Associate Lighting Design Christina Cicko, Photo by Dahlia Katz.

J: Grace is a really fascinating production for many reasons, but especially due to the mixed media elements - with the use of projections, choreography, and the documentary style theatre. Can you speak to the process of why these methods were used and what it looks like?

A: From a director’s perspective, the piece is about Sarah making a project. And for the good student Sarah is, she wants to make this a great presentation for us. On the flip side, when Grace’s poetry and prose come up, I became really fascinated with the stage direction of “What Grace’s world is”. “The Grace’s world” section – I wanted to bust out of the analytical space with the statistics and the details, and blow up the space with this wild, imagistic space. You can also see this in the sound design too. There’s this very left-brain side of the show, and this potent counter point, which gets into more of the heartbeat of the play.

J: For teen readers – is there anything as a director, you’d want to tell folks about Grace?

A: I feel like there’s so much energy coming from that particular demographic. And our potential for change comes from teens. Teens are the people with the nerve, the gumption, the energy and drive to call things out as they are. When I talk about crossing my fingers that change is in the wind, I feel like part of that is young people coming up and saying things don’t have to be this way and figuring out how to mobilize. Shameless readership is already such with-it, progressive folks. You are the people who can do something. Sometimes, when we’re young, we feel like we don’t have the agency to do that. I know I felt that way, but there’s so many great examples of why that’s not true.

J: You have such an incredible body of work in so many different positions! How did you get started? And do you have any tips for young folks looking to get into theatre?

A: I went to an arts school as a kid, so I was fortunate to have that part of my self recognized and developed. I would say what continues to keep me going has a lot to do with really acknowledging what my talents are, which I think is important for women and non binary folks – having the nerve to go for what you’re awesome at. It’s also about having the humility to really look into what your deficits are and build, and build, and build. For the last decade, I’ve been really obsessed with being honest about my gaps as a citizen, as a person, as an artist. Who do I need or what do I need to get better at the things I want to get better at or scared to even go near. It takes a lot of nerve and self-interrogation. That’s been really fruitful. Ultimately, whether it’s in the arts or anywhere, so much of it has to do with connecting with people. I wasn’t always good at that, but I actually learned from younger people how important it is to meet up and talk about art making. I was lucky to have supporters in my life, and I was lucky to know pretty young that this was what I was kind of obsessed with.

Grace will be running from January 8 - January 26 at Crowsnest Theatre. You can get tickets here. They are offering many Pay What You Can presentations, and it is well worth your while.

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