Toronto’s iconic Tarragon Theatre, one of the main centres for contemporary playwriting in Canada, is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Founded by Bill and Jane Glassco in 1970, the theatre is famous for the development, creation and encouragement of new work. Part of the Tarragon’s anniversary celebrations will include a bold new take on their seminal play, Sticks and Stones: The Donnellys Part 1, written by Canadian playwright James Reaney.
Premiering at the Tarragon on November 24, 1973, the play is based on the true story of a family, The Donnellys, who emigrated from Ireland to Ontario in 1842, and has been hailed as a classic piece of Canadian theatre history. The story of leaving home for a new life, for better or for worse, resonates today with so many who arrive on our shores with high hopes, including the 25,000 Syrian refugees who are set to settle in Canada, but it also speaks to anyone who is forced to uproot and start over.
We spoke to Toronto actor/director Zach McKendrick, about this event, and his involvement in The Donnelly Project.
Zach, how did this project come about?
The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones has a long history at the Tarragon theatre, as one of their original plays. The themes are still so relevant today, so this was a natural choice to help celebrate the theatre’s 45th anniversary. Kat Sandler has adapted it in a very unique way, but in the spirit of the original play.
What are the themes?
The play is about family and lineage, and about being a stranger in a new place. It’s about how your history can follow you, which is so relevant to people today.
The Donnellys were a real family who moved to Ontario from Ireland in 1842, hoping for a better life. They had been persecuted in their country, and they wanted to escape and start over. Then someone from the old country shows up, and suddenly, it all follows them.
You’re right, that’s pretty relevant today, especially with the Syrian refugees coming to Canada.
The Syrian refugee situation, obviously, but it’s also relevant to anyone who has to relocate, which is so common these days. It’s easy to attach this to the big headline, but this is also relevant to anyone who has to relocate for a new job or whatever. The broad strokes are there, but I feel that the more we can connect to the everyday person’s experience, that’s what I love. The need to fit in, and feeling like an outsider. If you make it wholly and completely about one thing, you isolate it. With the Donnellys, it’s about trying to make a place for yourself, feeling displaced, and having the odds stacked against you.
How did you get involved?
When Kat Sandler became involved with this project, she asked UTSC if they could suggest anyone to co-direct. I was just finishing up my degree (in Art and Cultural Specialist , Theatre and Performance) there, and I’d been very active in the drama department, so my name came up. I had previously directed a play with Kat called ‘Sucker’, so she was familiar with my work, and got in touch with me about The Donnelly Project.
Who else is involved in the Donnelly Project?
The idea was to have a lot of community involvement and engagement in this project. The Tarragon Theatre has a long history with the play in this city. Tarragon wanted to bring this new version to the community, through the community. With the cooperation of the Toronto District School Board, three schools were chosen to participate in the project, involving members of their drama programs.
So how does all this come together?
Kat has structured the play into three parts, and each school is creating and presenting one part. Each part has one director, with Kat coordinating, as writer and director.
Have the groups been working together on this? Is there a lot of interaction?
No, in fact we’ve mostly been working as separate groups! It’s been great, because we’ve been able to work and develop Kat’s work individually, with her trust.
So none of the groups has known what the others are doing?
Not really. Our group has been rehearsing about two days a week since mid-March, but we have one major difference from the other groups.
The other two groups have about twenty people each. We only have five.
Wow! How is that going to work?
It’s a challenge, for sure! We’re all from UTSC, and we’ve all worked together on another project. I hand-picked my actors, telling them they would have to be completely committed to the project. They are all so talented, and they’ve been amazing. We were off-book in just two weeks!
Are they all actors?
Not at all! One is heading off to teachers’ college, one is an undergrad in Biology, and one is a Psychology student. The other two are in the acting program.
A diverse group! What about you?
I’ve been involved in theatre for sixteen years, and I sort of designed my own course at UTSC. I’m an actor, but I also direct. I started out in acting, but directing seems to have become my goal. My best friend told me “You’re a really good actor, but you’re an even better director.”
How do you feel about that?
I feel like it fits. I love directing. You get to be the person who gets everyone working towards one goal. You help everyone to be their best, and you see this arc of development. You see it ‘click’.
What do you think is the most important quality in a director?
To have been an actor first! I can speak the same language. I understand the process, so we’re all in the same boat. And these days, you need to be able to do several different things. I consider myself an inter-disciplinarian! I just love it so much, I want to be able to do as much as I can.
What’s next for you, after the Donnelly Project?
I’m heading to the Stephenville Theatre Festival in Newfoundland, which is going into its 38th year. I was there last summer as well, and this year I get to be Production Manager, as well as Assistant Director, which I’m very excited about. That’s the theatre life in Canada; you need to be ready to up stakes and go where the work is.
So on the Donnelly Project, how are you handling the fact that you only have five actors?
The other groups are filling the space with bodies, we’re filling it with sound. It might work, it might not work – I’m excited to see!
Will your groups have any rehearsals together at all?
We’ll have a handful, but not many. Mostly we’ll be rehearsing the ways to move from one group, one part of the play, to the next. To create a cohesive piece with three very different styles. Our only dress –and tech- rehearsal will be on the day before the performance. That’s it.
Tell us about the details of the performance.
Well, there’s only one performance, and that’s on May 14th at 2 p.m. It’s taking place outside, at the Scarborough Arts Park, rain or shine! We’re encouraging people to bring chairs, umbrellas, whatever, and come out and enjoy the show. Admittance is free, and the only limitation is the number of people the park can hold.
Any last words on what we can expect? Something interesting. Some of it is very physical, my group is working vocally. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, and I think that’s the fun of it. Basically, expect the unexpected!
The Donnelly Project is taking place at The Scarborough Arts Park on 1859 Kingston Rd., Saturday, May 14 at 2 p.m., admission is free.