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Navigating Boundaries

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Excerpts from a conversation with playwright Beth Graham and PhD in Performance Studies student Brandon Shalansky on situating Weasel within the realm of emerging actors.

Playwright Beth Graham

Brandon: So what was your training like? You did the BFA program here, right?

Beth: I did the BFA acting, yeah. I graduated in 1998. I loved it. It kind of consumes you for those three years. But the world has changed so much since then, it feels like there's a different awareness now in the program for self-care. When I was in the program you’d go into this kind of bubble — you’d live, eat, and breathe your art. Which is a really joyful experience, but it's also hard because you get so self-involved in a way. And I think you kind of have to; what you're bringing to the work is yourself. And then, when I went out into the world, I had to kind of realize that it wasn't all about me.

Brandon: I remember talking to a friend when he was in acting school and he said, “I'm in a period in my life where I have to be selfish.”

Beth: Yes. In a good way!

Brandon: That's a quote that has really stuck with me for a long time.

Beth: It feels like in order to do this you sometimes have to have that. I think that's healthy in a lot of ways; I need to take this time for myself so that I can do my best at this. But there's also a balance there, one I don't think I was particularly great at out of the gates. And I still struggle with it.

Brandon: In what way?

Beth: In getting too consumed by it. There’s other things! And they actually feed the art. So then, when I got out of school, it was pretty jarring because I had all these expectations of, you know, what I was gonna become. And what I was gonna do and where I was going to go. I had an approach to rehearsal. I had learned the code of behaviour, obeying a hierarchy — and the hierarchy isn't all bad if the people in charge are looking out for you.

Brandon: What was that code of behaviour?

Beth: You are quiet, respectful. You do the work. You take the note. You adapt to the room. And that's something I think I lost myself in, always thinking how do I fit in? How do I adapt? How do I not cause problems? What are the things that aren't being said that I need to pick up on? It's like you're tuning in when you walk into a rehearsal hall, the volume gets turned way up. And it can be an absolute joy to be in that room, and it can be a nightmare. And I think I didn't realize how much that affected me.

I think something that we learned too was that you need to trust immediately. You must trust what is being presented, what is being offered to you. You must trust the script, you must trust the director.

Brandon: It doesn't really allow room for doubt.

Beth: No. And it’s a big part of the creative process, right? There's that time in rehearsal when you're getting off book, you're learning, you're trying to find an understanding of what the heck you're doing. And it just feels bad. And that’s okay! That’s good! You just have to live through that and just keep moving forward. And that's on the other side too, for me as a playwright. Patience.

We didn't have a lot of training in new work when I did the BFA, but that was actually a lot of what I ended up doing. I got a ton of work workshopping new plays and being the first actor to inhabit a role.

Brandon: And now you’re giving this opportunity to these students?

Beth: Oh yeah. I totally see myself in the room and wish that I could have had that experience. I think I would've loved to have witnessed the playwright figuring it out, because you watch how a play is created and that it can start off super funky and hopefully it becomes less funky. I love how collaborative it is. It feels way more collaborative to work on a new work.

Brandon: So, thinking about this period where the actor leaves training and goes into the industry, how does all this lead to Weasel? Because that's really where most of it takes place.

Beth: It was meeting them; it was when I walked into their classroom for the very first time in the fall of 2020. Walking into the rehearsal hall and seeing a group of people who took the same program that I did and talking with them and hearing who they are and, I guess, seeing myself in that. I left that classroom kind of shaken from it, in a good way! I remember getting into my car and I just sat there. I remember this feeling, a hunch: this is what I need to write about. And that's where that began because I saw myself in it and I remembered who I'd been.

Brandon: So why post-school, then? You meet all these students, still in training. Why shift it to the future? Their near future?

Beth: Because it's some of the stuff I wanted to hear. Some of the gaps, you know?

Brandon: Like boundaries.

Beth: Yes!

Brandon: I don’t think you can read this play or act or watch it and not understand this idea of boundaries. And I think that's something young actors are not fully prepared for in training, even with the recent additions of intimacy training and such.

Beth: Yes, thanks for saying that out loud. That learning, not knowing what a boundary was. It's like you can have boundaries in your life and then walk into a rehearsal hall and something happens to you. Cowardice, I think I was really disturbed by that — how afraid I'd been to not upset the balance.

Brandon: I think boundaries are something we often understand as a theoretical concept, but the application is so different.

Beth: Sometimes you don't know how you're being affected by repeatedly performing or rehearsing a rape scene, or a domestic dispute. And then you go home and you're just exhausted — your body has somehow lived through that. And you go back the next day and do it again.

Brandon: And boundaries often aren’t just personal. Most of them are interpersonal — they require a conversation. Which is great that you fragment Charlie across four actors, then there's a bit of a dialogue. And that also harkens back to what we were talking about before with this sense of other-selves, feeling like a different version of yourself in the rehearsal room.

Beth: Yes.

Brandon: So in terms of creating the show, thinking about your own time leaving training and becoming an early career performer, how much of your own experience is in here?

Beth: It's all highly fictionalized but there's bits of me in every single character. The good, the questionable stuff that's said, the positive and the negative things. Sometimes I look at Cleo, the character that's the acting machine, and it’s like: I know that Beth. I know that intolerant person who would be in rehearsal and be in her head thinking just take the note, right?

Brandon: That's a very relatable emotion, that defensiveness. She's staked too much of herself on this to admit anything else. She’s too entrenched.

Beth: When you're lying to yourself to such an extent that it's just your truth. And you hear it back from other people. So you're like, yeah, my truth is your truth is our truth is the room's truth.

Brandon: And it's a good foil for the other characters who are breaking that trend, admitting fault.

Beth: I feel like that's the thing that really cracks open in Charlie, an understanding of how she behaved in the past and that it wasn't good enough. Thinking from my perspective too: is it enough if I just check on the actor in the green room? Sometimes it is but sometimes its just checking a box. How can we go further than that?

Brandon: Going back to one of the first things we talked about, the idea of hierarchies. So how do you feel, dealing with these young actors now, thinking of yourself when you were in their shoes and your journey here, now, writing this show, how does this idea of hierarchy and the code of behaviour change? Or how you want it to change?

Beth: I think, mainly the awareness that, if you are the person in charge, how do you make that room a good place to be? A healthy place to be. Where people can call you on something. If you make a joke, what you thought was a joke, how are we able to address it? I want there to be a dialogue. The whole idea of restorative justice is so fascinating to me too; how you can have difficult conversations?

Brandon: And its not always big things — the extreme abuses of power we are so used to seeing in these narratives. It’s the casual transgressions, the building blocks of the systematic problems. Things that people like the director in this play might not even realize they're doing. It’s not always a career-ending offense.

Beth: No.

Brandon: But the defensiveness makes it one.

Beth: Exactly.

Brandon: We just need to become comfortable with starting that dialogue. Embracing that vulnerability. It's part of collaboration, even within a hierarchy.

Beth: Not being afraid to question yourself and not being afraid to change.

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