Ava Jane Markus talks about Outside the March's production of the dark fantasy play Terminus, which opened the first-ever Off-Mirvish Second Stage Series this past weekend.
When Outside the March’s remount of Terminus recently opened the new Off-Mirvish Series, it was a high water mark for the fledgling site-specific theatre company—and for OTM member Ava Jane Markus, who’s wanted to produce the lyrical, dark fantasy by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe for the better part of a decade. We spoke to the Alberta-raised actress (now Toronto-based) about her personal journey with the play.
Torontoist: Why don’t we start with how you found this play?
Markus: Five years ago, I was backpacking across Europe, and in Dublin my girlfriend and I stumbled into a theatre…Terminus is what we stumbled into; it was the premiere run of the show.
The feelings I had leaving that show were all over the place. It was spiritual, mystical, supernatural. It was a kind of text and writing I’d never experienced before, that I just couldn’t shake. We were speaking in rhyme to each other for weeks after, and I knew I had to do it someday.
I bought a copy of the play, and I’ve always had it with me wherever I’ve gone. And since then, I’ve been waiting to acquire the skills, and meet a team of people with which to do it.
And when did you start to meet that team?
Mitchell [Cushman], our director, was doing his MFA at the University of Alberta, and he was focusing on Irish theatre. And after we’d done a few shows together, I told him about Terminus. “This is in my heart.” And since he read it, he’s been as passionate about it as I am.
But it took some time to get it started. He moved to Toronto first, and told me he wanted to help me make the leap here—because it can be quite a leap. So that was Mr. Marmalade, our first run at SummerWorks in 2011.
You had a “wandering in the wilderness” experience between that show and Terminus, yes?
Yeah, working at a rock quarry back in Alberta—which is a bit weird, because the show has a backdrop of a work site and cranes, and it’s set in a city of unfinished construction work.
Between Mr. Marmalade and Terminus, I went through a time in my life where I wondered “Am I in the right career, have I messed everything up so far?” The move to Toronto last year didn’t take, and I had to take some time to figure out what I was doing. And that involved working in a rock quarry—which was not where I wanted to be—and considering becoming a yoga teacher, and wondering if theatre was right for me.
But while I was stuck there, Mitchell and I would connect and talk about producing Terminus—”should we try for a grant, should we approach another company, should we try this“—and we slowly realized we were on the right track. And it got very real when [co-star] Maev [Beaty] came on board. That’s when I first started getting butterflies in my stomach and realized the show was actually, finally going to happen.
How would you describe Terminus in a nutshell—as magic realism, say?
I feel like the word “fantasy” has to be in there. It also feels like a graphic novel, on stage. There’s so much grounded in reality, but then there’s this underworld that comes up and swallows it whole. Mark O’Rowe has tapped into something really powerful, with questions like, do we have a soul, are there demons and angels, other dimensions, can they exist simultaneously? The play explores the connections between our three characters, and also, their connections to those otherworldly things.
It’s spiritual, in a very real sense. And when I say that, it throws some people for a loop, but it’s the only way I can explain how I felt when I saw it.
Let’s talk a bit about how the show is staged, with the audience seated on the stage. When you saw it done in Dublin, was it like that?
No, it was conventionally staged when I saw it. And the actors were all isolated, standing on islands separated from each other, and never moving. They stood up when they were speaking, and sat down when they weren’t.
They were at “monologue stations”?
Yes, “monologue stations.” They were almost casual performances, which I found riveting. But Mitchell had a different vision. With the close proximity onstage, the show’s experienced more viscerally. It’s a really fascinating way of going with it.
How did audiences at your initial staging of the show, at this year’s SummerWorks festival, react to that up-close experience?
Well, one performance was stopped 15 minutes before the end, when a woman in the front row collapsed. Of course, we had to stop the show. And while the show was often intense, watching the audience react, that was different. We were all concerned for her, the cast and the audience.
But as she was being cared for and taken out, we could also feel the audience wondering, “So, what happens next?” Since it was in a festival situation, we couldn’t finish the show.
That was the performance David Mirvish attended. Did he come back and see the end?
He didn’t! When it opens at the Royal Alex, that’ll be when he sees the end.
How does it feel to be the first company, and show, to open this new Off-Mirvish series?
Great. It definitely seems like it’s a dream project for John [Karastamatis], who was the first one to approach us. We really felt like he was in our corner. Even having the press announcement to announce the series on stage, looking out into the empty theatre—we were really honoured that our staging of the show inspired them. And of course, with all the other great shows in the series…I keep dropping hints, “so, could we maybe get passes for the season?” Because we didn’t negotiate that in. [She laughs.]
And does this production differ at all from the SummerWorks version?
It does for me, in that I’m still realizing things as an actor, like that the writing doesn’t leave you. I start living the insecurities and problems of my character, and Mitchell has started to call me on it. “Why are you acting so scared?” And because the things this character is going through are also ones I’m going through as a twenty-eight year old woman—not the circumstances, but those fears and doubts—it’s very scary to share those with an audience. I’m engendering the role a little too much at times. But you find rituals to let the character go when the show’s done.
Your own crises have passed, to some extent? Are you settled here in Toronto?
I changed my cell phone number to a 416 area code, so that seems pretty significant. I’ve made the leap. It took over a year, and it was gradual, but it feels like a rebirth. You should write that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Second photo of Markus by Josie Di Luzio.