The World Premiere of Calpurnia by Audrey Dwyer, a co-production from Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre, this week. The play is a provocative and satirical look at class, race, and appropriation. Calpurnia follows the story of Julie, a screenwriter from a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian home who goes to extreme lengths to redress To Kill a Mockingbird through the perspective of Calpurnia, the Finch family maid.
To understand more about the play, its evolution, and Dwyer’s own process, I had the chance to pose a few questions to her.
HM: I understand you wrote your first draft of Calpurnia around 2011-2012. Could you speak about how the initial idea of writing this play about caregivers, race, politics first come to light?
Audrey Dwyer (AD, Pictured above): When I was working on the first draft, I was in a play where the character I played – a maid – was completely silent during a racial attack on her character. A cast mate spoke about how her silence made her “strong.” I found it interesting that a Black woman’s silence would be interpreted as strong, that silence equals strength rather than fear. The “strong” element made me think of stereotypes in literature and why these women were so silent. Why had writers made these women silent?
I also wanted to write something that dealt with the past. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and Calpurnia was the maid in that novel. I felt that there was something dramatic about talking about race in Canada, the loyalty that people have for the book and Mammy Culture. I thought that there had to be a way for me to address a number of complicated issues in one play.
HM: Since its first staged reading in 2012, how has Calpurnia evolved?
AD: Since the first staged reading, it has evolved into a cutting social commentary. It is edgier and funnier. I made sure that each character was three dimensional, hilarious, and flawed. I wanted the audience to experience a play that kept them on the edges of their seats, that made them laugh and that challenged them. For the people who haven’t read or watched To Kill a Mockingbird, they will still be able to understand all the humour and all the action.
HM: Given its difficult themes, how did you infuse Calpurnia the necessary amount of humour — be it dark or otherwise?
AD: I’m an actor with over twenty years of experience. I graduated from the National Theatre school in 2001. I’ve worked at Second City as an actor, improviser and while I was there, I wrote countless comedic sketches. I love people. I’m a people person. I am naturally curious about why people behave the way that they do. So, infusing the play with comedy came quite naturally. As I studied each character that I was writing, it was easy to pull from real situations that I had been in. The people in Calpurnia are your friends and your family members. They are people you work with. These characters are so familiar. I feel that one of the best ways to deal with this content, especially in a live setting, is through laughter.
HM: Could you talk a bit about your cast — Andrew Moodie, Matthew G. Brown, Don Allison, Meghan Swaby, Carolyn Fe, and Natasha Greenblatt — a group of talented actors with varying degrees of experience. How did they help shape the story in its current incarnation?
AD: As a playwright, I had a clear picture in my head of who each character was and how they would behave based on the events in the play. As a director, I was able to choose the cast. My goal wasn’t to change a lot of the text in the rehearsal process because I felt the text was ready. I also wanted to focus on staging and on leading each actor through their process. Because I am not a Filipino woman, I made one exception. I asked Carolyn Fe to give me feedback on her text. I knew that I needed to check my privilege with her character’s lines. I knew that Carolyn knew more than I did because of her life experience. Carolyn changed a few lines here and there – and I am so grateful for her feedback. In addition to that, each actor brought a fullness to the play that I had never imagined. They are all excellent creators. They showed me things that I couldn’t dream up. They brought the play to life.
HM: As part of Calpurnia’s run at Buddies in Bad Times, there are a couple of events aimed at celebrating community and Black History Month. How do you envision these events helping to engage more with your audiences and fellow theatre members?
AD: For the people who attend the supplementary events, they will be gaining tools in allyship and intersectionality, which are themes in the play. There will be time to ask questions, to learn and to discover where you stand in light of issues like race, racism, family, parenting, friendship, power, appropriation, and class and more. One of the questions that I’ve been asked is whether or not we need allyship? That is a perfect question for the workshops and talkbacks we’re holding. It will also be an excellent time to learn about how theatre is created and how the entire creative team works to bring a play to life. Seeing a play is one thing and being able to dissect it and analyze it’s themes in group settings is another thing. These events will allow people to gain deeper understandings of themselves and those around them, which is always thrilling.
After seeing the play, I will say it is a rich and layered piece of theatre. Calpurnia raises some key questions and observations – albeit uncomfortable – which are very important to discuss and think about in today’s society. I enjoy theatre that challenges the status quo; that challenges me and my own opinions about anything; and most importantly, theatre that creates dialogue. Calpurnia, Dwyer, its producers, and excellent cast have created an important piece of theatre.
Calpurnia runs until February 4, 2018 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. For showtimes, tickets and more details, visit nightwoodtheatre.net.
**All photos by Dahlia Katz.