Promethean Theatre, a Burnaby-based theatre company is putting on their debut production of SAINT JOAN, written by George Bernard Shaw. The company “finds value in quality, relevant theatre that is accessible for all levels of income and cultural backgrounds” and in “telling stories that matter.” SAINT JOAN is the story of a girl who led the French army in victory against the English, and in the aftermath, fell prey to pride and politics.
I sat down with director Isaac Li, and lead actress Emily Wheeler, to learn more about the show…
Where did the idea to put on Saint Joan come from?
Wheeler: It started last summer. Isaac and I were working on a show together, and he asked me what my dream role was. A couple years ago, I had [learned] one of the monologues from this show, and it impacted me more than any other monologue ever has before.
It’s her final monologue, and it’s where she’s expressing the things about the world that she loves, and the things that she can’t live without. And that she’s literally willing to die, as opposed to give up those things.
I really connected with that. I’d always really admired her growing up- you know, a strong woman who changed the world. So I said to [Isaac] that this is the role I’d love to play, someday, but never imagined that I actually would. And I sent it to him, and he was like “Yeah, wow…we should do this show.”
Was that pretty much how it was for you?
Li: Yeah, it was like…let’s do it!
So, coming from a place where it’s a play from the 1920s, written about a character from the 16th century…What are some of the challenges in taking that story and bringing to a modern stage and a modern context?
Li: It’s a wordy play.
Li: It’s so much talking- we’re still doing edits to this day!
What I’ve been trying to do is keep the meat, and also add in flavour. Instead of being period-focused, we’re drawing out the elemental. There’s a lot of talk about the wind in Joan’s banner as one of her symbols. Wind plays a huge role in [the play]…so we’re also using dancers as well, and there’s a lot of theme with fabrics.
The purpose of being more abstract and using conceptual ideas is so the audience doesn’t step into the period. I don’t think I want them to step into the period, the setting; I want them to take in the story.
Working with such difficult text, how are you, [Emily], working with staying true to the time period, but also driving the story forward in a way that a modern audience can understand and get into?
Wheeler: The issues that are being discussed in the play, and the objectives of each character are timeless. I mean, there are elements…Like, back then, everyone was Catholic in this area, whereas, nowadays, that’s not the case. But, religion and politics and society norms are a part of our current structure, and those are all addressed. So it’s really easy to relate to these characters.
Joan, as a character…how does she fit into the role of extremism ? For both of you- how do you see her, in that context?
Wheeler: I think that she’s an excellent symbol of what can happen when people are willing to stand up for what they believe in regardless of what society may be saying is proper.
The foil to that is that she went to her death for it. And there are elements- and very specific, in the show- of her pride. She had something special that no one else did, and she wasn’t always humble about it. She’s a bit like a sledgehammer. She doesn’t have any tact, or subtlety. She comes in swinging to every confrontation.
Li: Also, the danger, I think of allowing [your conviction] to become the one thing that defines you. She just loves it so much- loves the voices, loves the gift that she has. And it becomes all she is. And I think that’s the danger of extremism: when you lose your “quirks’, when it becomes all about the cause.
So, as a director for the show, [Isaac], drawing from a show full of passion and really strong characters, what was your main source of inspiration as you started to approach the project?
Li: I knew from the start that our Joan would be different from the others. We’re in a new neighbourhood, a neighbourhood, I’m sure that hasn’t often seen Shaw’s Joan. So it would be different-because we’re doing it for them.
What would you say are the themes for the community that you wanted to bring out of the play, especially?
Li: Our generation has learned a lot about how to stand up for ourselves. Having a voice is so important, nowadays. It’s something we push forward towards, so much. I really wanted to emphasize [Joan’s] conviction…how far her conviction takes her. Also, the fall: the chastisement of hubris, and the blindness of ingrained structure.
Li: In the second act, it starts to become a more political show. The people around her start having no more use for her, because she’s done her role. She’s rallied the men, and she’s beaten the English back- what do we have left now? And what they had left was something that didn’t fit with [that structure], the structure that said women can’t wear men’s clothes, that common people can’t hear the voice of God.
What’s been the most rewarding part, so far, of working on this project?
Li: I think the most rewarding part for me has been the journey. Seeing how far the actors have gone. Now, we’re having such stunning moments.
What’s an average day in the rehearsal hall look for you?
Wheeler: There’s a lot of flying by the seat of our pants, it feels like, somedays. (laughs)
Li: (laughs) I can see that.
Wheeler: I think Isaac has done an excellent job at recognizing that maybe we had something planned, but maybe in the moment, or in the rehearsal, we actually need to work on something else, or we need to alter what our plan was.
What would you hope that an audience would take away from this show?
Wheeler: It’s such an inspiring story.
Li: I want each audience member to leave with at least one moment where they’re like “That gave me shivers” or “I didn’t know that was possible in theatre”.
I just have one more question, I think, and that’s…what are you most excited for, for opening night?
Li: To let go of the show.
Li: Just being able to step away from the show, and shake it off!
Wheeler: I think the reward of finally showing it to people: our little world, that we’ve been percolating and building for months. Now we get to share it.
Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you want to “send out into the world”?
Li: We’re so thankful for Cariboo Hill Secondary, for their accommodation, [and for] the drama teacher, Mr. Trevor Found, for allowing us to use so much of his facilities and…set up camp!
Wheeler: It’s like “Okay, we’ve been playing with this thing. Now come and see!”
SAINT JOAN runs June 18-28 at Cariboo Hill Secondary. Tickets can be found here.
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