BWW Interviews: Philip Riccio Talks Speaking in Tongues
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by Kelly Cameron
Speaking in Tongues is the latest offering from Toronto's Company Theatre, in association with The Canadian Stage Company. The show tells the story of nine parallel lives which are interlocked by lust, infidelity and a mysterious stilletto.
Company Theatre was founded by Allan Hawco and Philip Riccio in 2004 as an actor's company, a place where our country's top talent could go and be part of daring and brave works that would challenge them and help them further develop their craft. The company has put on many award winning productions since it's inception, including last year's The Test.
Speaking in Tongues is directed by Company Theatre co-founded Philip Riccio, who won a Toronto Theatre Critic's Award for his performance in The Test. He sat down to speak with BWW about the unique challenges associated with directing a production such as Speaking in Tongues, about the show's mature subject matter and about the vision that he and Allan have for Company Theatre:
Congratulations on the opening of Speaking in Tongues! Could you give us a brief overview about what the show is about?
Speaking in Tongues was written in the nineties by Andrew Bovell who is an Australian playwright and the play is about nine characters who's lives interconnect in all sorts of ways. Through these nine characters we explore the ideas of marriages, relationships and infidelity, as well as the consequences of our choices to both ourselves and to the people around us. Some of the choices are major ones such as betrayin one's spouse but many are smaller choices as well. The play explores the potentially tragic consequenes our decisions can have on the people we love most. It also explores the issue of intimacy and how sometimes it can be easier to be intimate with strangers, not only in a sexual sense but also in terms of expressing ourselves. Sometimes it can be easier to reach out and create bonds with strangers as opposed to the people who we're supposed to be the most intimate with.
The show is structured in three very distinct parts, and each part gives us a piece of this larger puzzle. It isn't told in a linear function, instead Andrew has created this large arc and the audience has to put the pieces together.
You are a co-founder of Company Theatre with Allan Hawco. How do the two of you go about choosing what you program each year?
We do most of the choosing together, but for the last few years with Allan being so busy on the Republic of Doyle I've been doing a lot of the grunt work for the programming. Once I have a short list assembled I send it to him and he helps with the decision. We're partnered with Canadian Stage as well so they have veto rights and help us decide what we produce also.
Often when choosing a play we already have attached one or two actors from our ensemble before we make any final decisions, so we're keeping that in mind and thinking about how a person would fit with a particular show. In the case of Speaking in Tongues we were already thinking of Jonathan Goad and it seemed like a perfect fit for him. We also look for something that gets under your skin and can haunt you for a long time after readin or seeing it. This show hits on a lot of truths and dramatizes what it is to connect with other human beings. It's universally resonant.
What would you say is the main focus of Company Theatre's productions?
Our main focus is certainly on performance. When we started this company we were both freelance actors who had been working for six or seven years for various companies within Canada and we felt like there wasn't the type of focus in rehearsal on the process and the art of performance. Every show we do we try and build off that process that we've been working with. It puts the actor at the centre and we try and examine what it is to be a live performance and look at how the actors can shape that performance for an audience.
That said, we don't necessarily stage our shows in the traditional fashion so our actors aren't asked to repeat choices every night. This way you're really seeing the performance unfold in front of you every night. We want to be a company that is around for actors to challenge themselves and that's where most of our success has come from - that belief has allowed us to attract some of the best actors in Canada and any of our success is based on their work.
You talk about how you don't stage your shows in a traditional way. How do you speak to that as a director?
I’m fairly new at it, I certainly have a lot of influences and I try and create a rehearsal atmoshere that allows the actors to feel like they can explore and try everything. That way they start to weed out the choices that don't work for the show or that take them in the wrong direction, and they end up feeling confident in the characters they're playing. My job as a director is to be someone who will encourage the actors to be brave and bold. The tendency for an actor if they sense an audience is to have a natural human reaction of fear, and that can inhibit a performance. I want them to fight against that and realize that they are allowed to fail, and that they might fail, but that's the only way they're goin to allow for something spontaneous that could also be great.
So basically if someone were to come see Speaking in Tongues every night of the run, they could see something slightly different each night?
In a way, yes. Every play has its own set of challenges and rules that we figure out through rehearsal. This play in particular has some technical challenges that we've never worked with before, including having some parts of the story where there is very little movement. The play demands that structure and it wouldn't work if we didn't adhere to that.
On the flip side we've got the first two scenes of the show which happen simultaneously and where the actors share a lot of dialogue. The timing and the dialogue has to be very precise but we haven't blocked those scenes so the movement can be different every night and how the actors find their performance can be different as well. The character may feel comfortable with something one night and more reticent another, causing the show to unfold differently even though you are bein told the same story each night.
Is there a 'safety net' in place in case things do go awry?
We've been lucky to work with actors who are really amazing, talented people. In this cast we've got four incredible talents and they are super experienced. Even when things go awry, it doesn't mean the whole show is going to go down. That moment can pass and maybe it wasn't the greatest moment, but you move on. And then you get to have those nights where something extraordinary happens. With this type of performance, the cast has been rehearsing for weeks so they're truly experts at their characters and the story they're telling. They have what they need, they have the talent and the knowledge which becomes their safety net. In fact, the great thing about working this way is that if something does go wrong, our actors are almost better prepared to handle it. In a completed blocked and traditional show you can begin to lose that instinct.
The subject matter of this show is quite mature, but what would you say to encourage a younger demographic to come and check it out?
Our shows seem to resonate really well with younger people and I think it's because we aren't that much older than them and we're trying to create the type of theatre that we would want to see. Allan and I were in our late twenties when we created the company, so our esthetic and our taste seems to gel with a younger audience and that flows into our performance style. Plus in this show you've got four extraordinary Canadian talents, and I think it's worth seeing just to watch them.
When and Where?
Speaking in Tongues
Oct 29th - November 24th
The Berkeley Street Theatre
Tickets range from $22 to $49 and are available in person at the box office, but phone at 416-368-3110 or online at www.canadianstage.com.