In conversation with Director Kay Brattan
We chatted with theatre-maker Kay Brattan about the kind of work she has been creating since moving to the UK, the difference between the Canadian and British Fringe scene and her what it means to be the actor who is the "organised" one.
When did you decide you wanted to be a theatre director? Have you always known, or is it something you came to later in life?
I actually trained as an actor back in Canada. What was cool about my drama school was that the programme I was in specialized in devised and physical theatre so it set up it’s students with the confidence to generate their own work. I didn’t realize this at the time but this was such a beneficial tool as an emerging artist and it subconsciously helped me find my way into directing.
I did work as an actor for a bit after school but then started falling into stage management roles because I was considered to be “organized”. I actually stumbled into directing as kind of a fluke. I never thought I had the confidence or the leadership ability to be a director when I was in drama school. It kind of scared me to tell you the truth, but I do believe that the scariest things you encounter in life can become the most rewarding experiences in the end.
But the story goes like this- I ran a play reading club in Toronto for a while where we would meet up once a week and do a cold read of a play. We would just sit around a table at a coffee shop tucked away in a corner so we wouldn’t disturb anyone. The rules were that it was a judgement free space where we were allowed to be silly. It was such a great little outlet because there’s not a lot of spaces for actors/performers to meet up casually and just read a play out loud for the sake of reading a play. It sort of was like a little book club.
One of our sessions I brought in Lysistrata and a burlesque dancer friend of mine was attending that week. As we were reading it I suddenly could see the play being done as a burlesque show and thought it would be such a wonderful way to tell the story. So I spoke with this friend afterwards (Her name is Saint Stella and she is a fantastic performer/producer/all around boss lady) and we submitted to the Toronto Fringe as a site specific show. I ended up adapting the script, creating a new version of the play and directed the show with Stella as our lead and our choreographer. We ended up being in the top 5 shows of the festival, with a sold out run and rave reviews. It was a pretty overwhelming/enlightening experience for my first time directing but it felt like it was the thing I was always supposed to do. I’ve always liked making things so falling into directing was an unexpected, but at the same time, organic transition for me. I was fortunate enough to take a year off to study here in the UK at East 15 in their Theatre Directing MA which has been an absolute blessing. It’s helped build up my confidence as a director and made me feel prepared for taking this on as a professional career.
What was your experience of studying in the UK like, compared to Canada?
There’s nothing comparable to the UK theatre scene in Canada. I think having that at my disposal has been an education in itself. Theatre is so accessible here and I really have taken advantage of that. The Canadian theatre scene is still so new compared to the traditions here, which is really exciting as a theatre maker. My drama school in Canada has a very similar pedagogy to East 15’s, which all stems from Joan Litttlewood’s work, so it felt like a very natural progression in my development as an artist to continue my training there. Funny thing was East 15 was recommended to us by our program director in our final year of Drama School if any of us were considering post graduate education. It was something I completely forgot about until I had been accepted into the programme. It’s been interesting to see the similarities in the schooling between Canada and the UK, but I think the biggest difference is just how embedded theatre and the arts are in the community. I go to shows in London and am surrounded by people from all different walks of life. It’s really inspiring to be around because it feels like there’s theatre everywhere here.
What kind of work do you tend to lean toward? Do you have a certain style or genre you are particularly interested in?
I tend to lean more towards classical theatre, which was why Mustard was so much fun because I haven’t directed a lot of contemporary plays so far.
I love adaptation and devising. As an actor I felt very at home working on text like Shakespeare, it was something I was always intuitively inclined to. As a director, it’s something I want to continue exploring, especially in regards to how we contextualize Shakespeare for today’s communities. I thoroughly believe that these stories are totally valid to continue looking at because of how beautifully Shakespeare is able to capture the human condition in his poetry, but I do believe they need to be interrogated and reimagined for new voices and new representation. What’s going on at Shakespeare’s Globe really excites me. I think Michelle Terry has done a fantastic job with her programming as the artistic director. The Richard II that was done last year was a breath of fresh air for the classical cannon in its diversity of casting. Having an all female cast of women of colour was just so beautiful to see onstage in a play that is originally so male dominant. I’ve seen the majority of the history plays there this past season and the casting really made me happy. I saw real people in these roles, people that make up our community in regards to gender, culture, and body diversity. Casting was not confined to as written but was opened up to a diversity of representation. This is the kind of work that excites me as a theatre creator and this is the kind of work that I too want to create.
How long have you been working in the UK? How does the fringe theatre scene differ to that of Canada?
I’ve been in the UK for a little over a year now. Most of that year I was in a post secondary institution but I’ve been really lucky to have been able to work outside of that too. The fringe scene is extraordinary here. There’s so many festivals and venues that are available for fringe artists. The Canadian fringe scene is growing. We have the third largest fringe in the world in Edmonton every summer and every year other fringe festivals around the country keep getting bigger. The Toronto Fringe started in 1989 so it’s turning 31 this year. It’s become one of the largest theatre festivals in my home province now that showcases over 150 productions. I was really lucky to kind of grow up as an artist in the Toronto Fringe scene. Since graduating my acting programme in 2011 I participated in some capacity in the festival almost every year (except one year that I took a break to work on a project called “my self”).
I actually participated in the Brighton Fringe as a stage manager in 2016 on my friend Rebecca Perry’s show Confessions of Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. I think that’s when I caught the bug to move over here. It blew my mind that there was an arts festival in this seaside town that had over 900 shows. I went to as many as I could. And then that same summer, I went to Edinburgh, and that was just a whole other experience. It was almost like a religious pilgrimage. I was swept away. When I got back to Canada I started looking at postgraduate programmes in theatre in the UK which led me to East 15 who had interviews/auditions in Toronto for the following school year. They originally thought I was auditioning for the MFA Acting Programme because I didn’t really have any directing experience at this point. I told them that I was here for the directing interviews and told them my ideas for the Lysistrata I was working on for Toronto Fringe. A few weeks later I had a second interview with the head of the directing course. A week or so after that I got my acceptance letter.
I had to defer a year due to finances, but it gave me time to save and I was able to direct a few more shows before moving over here.
As for the original question, the fringe scene is just so much bigger over here. It’s sort of the same with just anything involving theatre in this country, there’s just so many more opportunities. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come over here, was that exposure to all that this scene has to offer.
How was it working on Mustard? The themes are quite dark and exciting, was it challenging at all or was bringing this story to the stage something that came naturally?
Mustard’s a really interesting play to work on. It’s so energetic and playful, and at times absolutely ridiculous, but the issues that it deals with are quite dark and heartbreaking. The dangers of it are that you don’t want it to play out like an after school special, because despite its absurdity these are people going through relatable situations in regards to growing up, letting go, and how to navigate love in a time of conflict. What’s really interesting in the play as well is that it never actually resolves itself, but it leaves it’s characters in a state where they are ready for what comes next. It’s not about fixing everything but it’s about letting go of pain in order to move on. My parents divorced when I was fairly young so the environment of the play was very familiar to what I grew up in so that was something that definitely drew me to this play in particular. Divorce is nasty. For everyone involved. And as hard as my parents tried to love us in the midst of that storm, it was a tumultuous atmosphere for a young person to grow up in, especially when you’re hit with the trials and tribulations of going through puberty on top of that.
I had a teacher that told me that all plays are about family. When you break them down to their core, that’s sort of the seed you start with. Finding the family dynamic in Mustard is what really rooted us in the story. Despite the presence of imaginary friends and magic, it’s a play about a family, about a mother and daughter who are just trying to find something stable to stand on, for themselves, and with each other.
The actors were also so willing to go there too. They all invested themselves into the story and were so willing to say yes and see where it took them. They brought so much heart and ideas into the room and the process that things clicked into place quite naturally. We knew what story we were telling and we knew what the heart of the story was. I think because we were able to start at such a truthful place in our relationship to the play that it allowed us to really sink into the depth of the material.
How as it working with Little Lion Theatre Company? How has that relationship informed you on the ways the theatre scene in the UK is different to Canada?
Little Lion Theatre Company is a really cool endeavour because it’s created by Kerry Ann Doherty, a Canadian Theatre Director and Alice Greening, a UK Theatre Producer/Theatre Wonder Woman, and their mandate is to bring Canadian work to the UK. So it’s a bit of a theatrical marriage between our two countries. Because my background is in fringe theatre, and I’ve done work in the fringe scene here before, it wasn’t too different from what I’ve experienced. I think it also helped spending a year studying in a British drama school too. Canada’s theatre traditions aren’t too far removed from how we approach the work here. I think the biggest thing for me in what is different is again, the accessibility of theatre in England. We participated in the Audience Club and had a number of people from there show up to the Mustard. We also had audience members that no one in the cast or creative team knew at all. And this was at a show in January. That’s what really surprised me to be honest. The fringe scene is smaller back home and a lot of the time when you make work outside of the festival season your audience comprises mostly of other creatives that you know, or your friends and family. It’s a bit harder getting new audiences in to see independent work back in Canada. The fringe festivals back there receive more of a diverse audience turn out but when you produce something outside of those venues in the off season it suddenly becomes difficult to get an audience out to your independant theatre show. But it just goes back to the culture here. Theatre is a part of the community in the UK and that really was an eye opener for me even more so with Mustard. I was really inspired to see how the audiences responded to the play and I’m hoping to have the chance to put it up again, or continue working with Little Lion to bring more Canadian content to London. We’ve got some great voices writing new work back home and it would be lovely to share them with a global audience.
What is your latest project/what are you currently working on?
I just started this week working on a project heading to Brighton Fringe this May. It’s called Quarter Life Crisis and it’ll be at Sweet Werks from May 1-3. The play’s being written by two recent graduates of the East 15 MA Acting Program, Elise Williams and Beatrice Hyde and it’s about two best friends just out of University who have to try to navigate the working world and what it actually means to “be an adult” in today’s society. But most importantly the piece is a completely female driven venture, both on the cast and creative teams.
Is there anything on the horizon we should be looking forward to?
Fingers crossed for a remount of Mustard! Besides that I’m currently developing a queer adaptation of King Lear using the Ballroom and drag cultures of New York in the 1990’s as a launching point for a conversation on gender, power, and family with Shakespeare’s play as our foundation for this. The working title is Qween Lear which will use Shakespeare’s text but will deconstruct the traditional character casting to open up our exploration on the dynamics between gender and power. I’m co-creating this piece with Tom Sergeant of Car Crash Productions in a new company we’ve made called Villains By Necessity. This all came about because I binged Ru Paul’s Drag Race while assisting on a production of King Lear last year with the BA 2nd Years at East 15. I think what I really want to do with this production is just open up these fantastic roles from the Shakespearean canon to performers who aren’t typed as the traditional “classical actor”. I think a lot of companies are moving away from this in their casting now anyways but it’s something that is really important to myself as a theatre maker to implement as well.
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