Haley McGee, the Virgin Mary in Theatre Columbus's walkabout Nativity story, talks about her solo work and her world travels.
Playwright and performer Haley McGee has been globetrotting for much of the past year, performing to great acclaim at theatre festivals with her one-woman show, Oh My Irma. Now, she’s back home for the holidays to reprise her role as the Virgin Mary in Theatre Columbus’s The Story. We talked to McGee about jazz, monodrama, and Dutch lesbians, among other things. The Story opens tonight at the Evergreen Brick Works.
Torontoist: This is the second year you’re playing the Virgin Mary in Theatre Columbus’s version of the Nativity story, yes?
Haley McGee: Yes. And last year, we were so surprised by how many people actually came to the depths of the Don Valley to see our kinda crazy version—an outdoor show where the audience has to walk around in the snow to follow the story. And it’s the Nativity story, but you can also enjoy it from a secular view. It’s a story about the birth of a new idea, or about someone who comes from nothing to become a leader of people.
Have there been any changes to the show based on last year’s experience?
We changed the route, so the audience no longer has to walk over an icy bridge. [She laughs.] There have been a few rewrites, mostly to the order of the scenes. And we have two new cast members: Neema Bickersteth and Jeff Yung, who’s my new husband, my Joseph. [Editor's note: Yung is not actually McGee's husband. She's joking.]
And any new choirs? That was a really cool element of the show last year: different choirs singing along the route.
Yes, the choirs are back. I think we have nine of them this year. They’re a huge component of the show, and they’re all volunteers. There are 30 people working in the cast and creative team, but then we also have over 120 volunteers singing, and leading the audience, and working the box office. It’s a whole community that’s rallied around this project.
And the choirs move around during the show.
The choirs move to different locations than the actors. So the audience will be following the action down a path, and off in the distance on a hill, the choir is singing. The show’s based on the old tradition of processional plays. And it’s about a journey, of course. So it makes sense to use many locations, and that each location informs the scene.
It’s almost a comedy, the way the story is told, isn’t it?
While I don’t think it’s irreverent, it is playful. In Martha Ross’s notes in the script, she says it’s based on morality plays and Brecht, but also clown. And I think she even mentions The Three Stooges. It’s old traditions mixed with comedy and jazz. There’s a secondary storyline where the angels talk about the birth of jazz, and later on, they sing a Dave Brubeck song. And our musical director pointed out, “Dave Brubeck is late jazz. Jazz has been developing for a really long time.” [Editor's note: this interview took place before Brubeck's recent passing.]
So the idea that Jesus represents change is there, but also, that change percolates slowly, and leads up to big flashpoints. The example of jazz is how Martha addresses change in the secular world, and more recent change.
This is the second year for The Story, but it may be its last, because there are plans for a new show next year, I hear?
Yes. I’m writing the winter show for next year. I’m spending a lot of time at the Brick Works. I want the place to inform the next show. The idea is to tell an urban fairy tale. I don’t exactly know what it’ll be yet, and it’s daunting and terrifying. In a good way.
I’ve been touring my solo show, Oh My Irma, for a while now. I performed it at a festival in New York last year, where it won an award, and that led to the opportunity to tour it around Europe, which has been an amazing dream come true, to be able to travel with my work. I was at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival, which is a curated festival, similar to SummerWorks. They were wonderful to me. They even gave me a bicycle while I was there. I was in a beautiful theatre, and had four performances, and learned a lot about communicating to non-English speakers. Everyone speaks English there, but it’s not their first language. My technician actually pointed out to me how much the show plays with language, and I had to really focus on telling the story clearly to the audience.
That technician became a big fan, yes?
Ha, yes. And the show was a big hit apparently with the young lesbian population in Amsterdam, which was a source of great joy for my technician.
The Dutch crowd would coo at some moments, almost bird-like sounds of sympathy. And in London, I found it really fascinating that the parts that a Canadian audience cringed at, the British guffaw over. When the character, Mission Bird, vomits into a man’s shoes, the audience here almost “tsk”-ed at me. But in the U.K., that was a knee-slapper. And the Germans, in Berlin and Hamburg, were almost totally silent through the show—but I must have taken 20 bows at the end. (An American performer at that festival told me that companies actually time the applause at German theatres, and make a note of it.)
The Hamburg festival was an international exchange, a “monodrama” festival, with 13 different shows from 10 different countries. Each performer did just one show, and we spent the rest of the time seeing each others’ work, participating in conference talks on monodrama, talking about lots of things, especially how to eliminate the stigma of the stereotypical “one-person show”—the sort of wanky experience everyone thinks of.
Like that Family Guy bit with the guy who turns his hat to signify different characters.
Jess Grant, an improviser here in Toronto, does a hilarious sketch bit about a one-woman show: “I’m 30, I’m SINGLE, and I LOVE it!”
But when I thought about it, I realized a lot of my favourite shows lately have been solo shows. Like Alon Nashman’s Hirsch, which I saw this summer. Rachelle Elie has this show called Joe, The Perfect Man, and Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date.
And you won a major award in Hamburg?
Yes, to my surprise, I shared the top prize with an amazing performer from Tunisia named Meher Awachri. We were also the two youngest people in the festival; the jury said they wanted to recognize the “newer” generation, who’d evolve the art form.
Congratulations! So between this production of The Story, and next winter’s Theatre Columbus project, you have some other things coming up?
I’m going to Ottawa with Theatre Columbus to take part in their Undercurrents Festival, presenting The Public Servant, a show about the civil service collectively created by Jennifer Brewin [who also directed The Story], Sarah McVie, Amy Rutherford, and myself. It’s a comedy; we wanted to find the humour and the glory of the most mundane jobs we could think of. And the power—how much power these people actually have, and yet their jobs are so boring. I told Jennifer while we were preparing that it’d have been so much easier to make a show about gypsies! Because it’s tough to stage how one finds moments of beauty, and of great impact, in paperwork.
It’s celebrating the glory of what seems to be so mundane. Like the birth of a baby in a barn.
Any last things people should know about The Story?
Dress warmly! Wear a hat, and warm boots. And two pairs of socks, one wool. Basically, dress like any Canadian out walking in winter. But it’s a warm experience, that ends by a fire.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Second photo, of McGee in Oh My Irma, by Axel Nickolaus.
This post originally misspelled Jeff Yung’s last name. It has now been corrected. We apologize for the error.