As I Lay Dying at the Pumphouse Theatre, January 12-14, 7:30pm
Every theatre company searches for stories to tell, and innovative ways to tell them.
For Dean Gilmour and his theatrical – and real-life – partner Michele Smith, who received part of their theatrical training at one of the most famous clown schools in the world, the surprise twist was that they found a bunch of great plays hiding inside the short stories of Dr. Anton Chekhov.
That’s the same Anton Chekhov who wrote, you know – The Cherry Orchard – and other classic plays like that. But years ago, Gilmour and Smith, whose adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying opens Wednesday as part of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo, dug into the legendary playwright’s short stories, and found a whole other treasure trove of stuff that they suspected could be transformed into theatrical dynamite.
“ In the short stories, you see his whole world,” says Gilmour, “and so it was a very exciting time for discovering Chekhov, if you like – discovering the playwright inside the fiction writer.”
That revelation led, in short order, to the company adapting 11 of Chekhov’s short stories into four separate, critically-acclaimed productions that took the company to festivals around the world – including one memorable trip to a Chekhov Festival in Moscow.
More about that later. But more importantly, they realized there was a world of literary adaptations – many of them written by dead writers whose work had passed into the public domain (so no royalties!) – out there to be created.
“After that (success),” he says, “we went searching for possibilities (to adapt other things).
“We did Grimm Fairy Tales,” Gilmour says, “we adapted short stories from Katherine Mansfield (as well as an adaptation of Dosteovsky’s The Idiot) – and then, maybe 15 years ago, we had read Faulkner.
“It didn’t seem doable,” he says, “so it kind of went on a shelf.”
That Faulkner was As I Lay Dying, a stream-of-consciousness classic written from the point of view of 16 different characters, which tells the epic story of one Mississippi family’s – the Bundrens – journey to take their family matriarch home to Jefferson to bury her.
Written by Faulkner in 1930, when he worked at a Mississipi power plant, the novel has consistently been included in lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
There had been a French attempt at adapting the novel in the early 1930’s, by someone named Jean-Louis Perrault, but Faulkner refused to grant the rights to adapt it into a play – so Perrault created a version inspired by the novel’s incidents, but minus Faulkner’s poetic literary text.
However, 80 years later, the novel was in the public domain, so Gilmour and Smith decided to take a crack at it.
“It kind of was in the back of our mind for a long time,” Gilmour says, “and then so when we started it, we went into a rehearsal hall, Michele Smith and me, just the two of us…and we started reading it out loud.
“As soon as we read it out loud,” he says, “we knew it was doable.”
While it told the somewhat gothic story of a bunch of Mississipi eccentrics from a long time ago, there was something in the voices of the characters that Gilmour – who grew up in rural Ontario, in St. Thomas and Smith – who grew up in Corsica, France – could both connect to.
“We both came towards Faulkner from different points of view,” he says. “But when we read it out loud, we started to realize that there was something of the language of Faulkner in the vocabulary and the language of my grandparents – so I kind of started recognizing it too, from where I grew up.”
Of course, language is just one part of the theatrical equation – particularly when you’re talking about Smith-Gilmour’s uniquely physical brand of theatre.
Both met studying bouffant (clown) with Jacques Le Coq in Paris. (Think Mump & Smoot, Bruce Horak, Karen Hines’ Pochsy plays, Jacqueline Russell, Alice Nelson and others of that comedic ilk).
Before their Chekhov aha moment, Smith-Gilmour started out in theatrical life doing clown shows, adapting commedia del’arte scripts and classic comedy by people like Moliere.
So the show might be called As I Lay Dying, but there’s lots of life and light in it as well, Gilmour says.
“We’ve kind of dedicated ourselves to creating a theatre of image and action with text,” Gilmour says. “We root our adaptations in the action and in creating the images (onstage). We work on a bare stage.
“It’s kind of the comedy of life,” he adds. “Of course, the comedy of life can be tragic and a zany comic (moment) at the same time – so I think we’re really children of that modern era of tragicomedy.
“As I Lay Dying,” he says, “is kind of an epic, tragic journey – but the human struggle is sometimes very funny.”
After all, Russians have always thought of Anton Chekhov’s plays as funny, so finding the funny in Faulkner isn’t really such a stretch for a bunch of theatre artists that did the good doctor’s work well enough to land themselves an invite to the most prestigious Chekhov festival in the world one year.
How did that go, anyways?
“If you’re going to do Chekhov, it’s the place to do it,” he says. “It was just kind of a pinnacle experience.”
It was in Moscow where Smith and Gilmour discovered the great (theatrical) debate between Chekhovian purists, who wanted his work presented literally and traditionally, and those who believed his scripts and stories could be re-interpreted in a way that incorporated modern sensibilities – a group that included the festival’s organizers.
“It was great,” Gilmour says, “to be in the city where there’s a great debate about Chekhov.”
As for the public reaction, that was driven home one night, after a performance, when the company received a visitor backstage.
“There was a woman who came backstage in Moscow,” Gilmour says, “who was so moved (by the show, she had to come talk to us).
“She had just lost her parents,” he adds. “And we were doing a story about death and loss and she came downstairs and talked (with us) for 45 minutes.
“That’s kind of the quintessential experience of doing Chekhov in Moscow,” he says. “Because, in a country full of extraordinary writers, they’re all precious to Russians.”