Drama Club: I, Kristen
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Drama Club: I, Kristen

Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.

Don’t tap on the glass! Photo by Colin O’Connor.

Claudia may be Canada’s favourite official pre-teen. The star of Kristen Thomson’s one-woman masterpiece, I, Claudia, has been delighting audiences for the better part of a decade. Since the play’s 2001 premiere at Tarragon Theatre, it’s toured the country, won multiple awards, been adapted into a wonderful film for CBC’s (now defunct) Opening Night series, and, most recently, been performed by actors other than Thomson. Now, it’s back to Toronto with a remount that opened last week at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
I, Claudia is a story about a young girl trying to cope with her parents’ recent divorce. What makes this show different than your typical pre-teen melodrama is that Thomson portrays Claudia while wearing a big, white latex mask. As well as the titular teen heroine, Thomson also plays Claudia’s grandfather, a bird enthusiast with a sweet-tooth; Drachman, the immigrant custodian at her middle school who was once a respected theatre director in his native “Bulgonia”; and Leslie, the “other woman” her father is about to marry—each with their own unique mask. Thomson skips back and forth between these four characters in a virtuosic performance that brings a laugh to your belly and a tear to your eye.
After the fold, we talk all about Claudia with Kristen Thomson, plus more theatre news and reviews.

Claudia: Behind the Mask

Claudia ruminates on sensible shoes. Photo by Colin O’Connor.

Torontoist: I, Claudia has been both a celebrated play, and a celebrated film. How are the experiences of the two mediums different for you?
Kristen Thomson: The thing that I love in the play is that you get to see the transformation from character to character, because I think you get a special insight into how those masks work. How that piece of latex transforms everything.
And this is also a show where clothes are an important part of the story: Leslie’s wedding dress, Claudia’s new shoes…
Number one, when you’re working with a limited ability to change wardrobe, the choices that you make have to be that much more specific. So, the hunt for the perfect, iconic high-heel shoes for Leslie was a challenge for our designer, as one example. But, on a couple of levels, you’re right. One of the main themes in the play overall is transformation. And that’s about me as the actor transforming from character to character, but it’s also about Claudia’s coming of age, right? Changing from being that middle-line between childhood and adulthood, and having this experience that is is going to push her over into her adult self. But, in terms of the observation you made about the clothes, it’s also part of the way the masks work. Because it’s so obvious that there’s a performer underneath the mask who’s choosing certain gestures and certain wardrobe pieces to communicate the essence of the character, I think the choices that are made are that much louder to the audience. You can read them more clearly with a mask than with a bare-faced, normal performance.
One of the differences between seeing the play and seeing the movie is how Kristen the performer disappears behind the mask. In the film, there are close-ups, and you can see that the same actor is wearing the different masks.
You can see the eyes behind the masks.
Right, but on stage, we never see you that close. We see the characters, but the actor vanishes.
I guess the theatre really is a more comfortable home for those masks. They also disappear a little bit more. They come off more like real faces, or faces with real expressions.
The masks are obviously a really important part of creating the characters, but the last thing you put on whenever you transform into Claudia is the red tam. It’s the finishing touch, and it really crystallizes her character. At what point did you start working with that hat?
Right away. When I first started working with those masks. The thing about those masks is, you have to dress them up. Otherwise, you’re just a person with a mask on. You’ve got to follow what the mask is doing on your body. So, on my body, the Claudia mask is a twelve-and-three-quarters-year-old girl. But if somebody else wore her, wore that mask, it could be a man, it could be older—it just takes on different qualities on each person. So, the first thing you do is you encounter yourself in the mirror. You start using your voice, slowly, and using your body to express something that you feel in the mask. And as you move further along, you start to dress the character up. So, what I did was I went to Goodwill. And because she has a very high, squared-off forehead, I tried that hat on, and it allowed my hair to come out and look quite girlish underneath. And it took away the hard edge at the top of her head. And I think you’re exactly right, it’s the finishing touch. There she is, as soon as that hat goes on. There’s that one part in the play about growing my hair out where I don’t wear the hat, and I always feel like I gotta get that tam back on!
Recently, other performers have started playing Claudia…
Chris, my director, has been working with his wife, Liisa Repo-Martell, and they’ve been touring around, and also Michelle Pollack did a version of it in Montreal, with Leah Cherniak directing.
Was it strange to see other people playing those characters?
It was actually really exciting. For sure, when I first started performing it, I wanted total ownership over it. But at a certain point, especially because I am interested in developing myself as a writer over time—I’ve got more projects that I wanna write; I have one that I wanna write for myself, I have this other one that I wanna write for someone else. And so it’s been exciting for me to see someone else do it and feel like it exists as a play without me involved in it. It’s a strange little play on paper. It’s very much a performance piece. It’s not language that lives on the page, it kind of lives in the air. So, reading the play is never a very satisfying experience. But hearing those words spoken, and hearing them come out of other performers’ mouths, and hearing an audience laugh in the same places that they laugh when I say it, and cry in the same place that people cry when I say those words, it makes me feel like the play has something. It’s a strange little piece, but it has something.
Are there any notable changes you made to the play for this remount?
We updated Claudia’s rock-out music. Because it used to be The Backstreet Boys in the original production, but that’s just a bit too past its best-before date.
It’s been six years since you last did I, Claudia, and in that time, you’ve become a parent. Does that make the show different for you?
It feels different on a lot of different levels. Because I’m older. And after you have kids, your body does different things. Coming back and finding that pre-teen physicality…it’s pretty exhausting. She has such a springy physicality, and (laughing) that’s not there anymore. I actually have a real appreciation right now for having the opportunity to perform this show again. That actually caught me by surprise. Because, when I came towards the date of starting to rehearse it, it was like, “oh, maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to do this.” It’s like “can’t she do something else?” And as I’m having the opportunity to do it, I’m very grateful that people wanna see it. That’s what you need. You need people to come.
Although only four characters appear on stage in I, Claudia, there are many more that inhabit the world that they live in who we never get to see-—most notably, Claudia’s parents. How did you decide which characters were necessary to tell this story?
I used the masks. They were my main tool for figuring out the play. So, originally, I started just working with the Claudia mask, and improvising with her. I worked up this kind of ten-minute improv piece with it. And then the Tarragon invited me many many years ago to develop it into a full-length play. At which point I decided that, if it’s gonna be a full-length play, then I’d like to use some other masks. But you can’t force anything on the mask. They are what they are when you put them on. I should explain that the Claudia mask is from a set of twenty-six masks that were designed decades ago by an Anglo-Algerian designer named Abdel Kader Farrah. And he designed them for…I think it was LAMDA, for students to study character. And so, I was taught using these masks, as generations of theatre school students have been. We had access to them at the National Theatre School. So, I went to Montreal and I borrowed the set of twenty-six masks, and I started to play with the masks, and to find out with each of the masks what character was there. I was looking for characters who would be part of the play, and those were the four that agreed. Those were the characters that had something to offer. Drachman was an Eastern European director, and I thought, “well, if it’s a play, maybe he could direct it.” And it was over time that the story of him coming to Canada and ending up a custodian at Claudia’s school was developed. The grandfather came out, and Leslie came out. But I never found anybody for the Mum and Dad, despite looking. I did these very arbitrary improvs, just let the characters talk, and then I edited it. But I didn’t really on my own, as Kristen, impose any storylines on the characters, or anything I wanted them to do.
So, it wasn’t like, “now I need to find the Leslie mask…”
At all! She found me.
Now, obviously, it’s Claudia’s show. But on opening night, the audience was going crazy for the grandfather. He was sort of the break-out star of the show.
It’s so funny that you should say that. Because sometimes he is a bit of a rockstar. Sometimes Leslie is too. People love to hate her. Drachman isn’t usually, he’s more of a subtle guy. But ultimately, you feel like people are on Claudia’s side.
And what about you personally? Do you have a favourite?
I actually feel really strongly about all of them. Each of those characters have something really important of myself in them. I really care about and identify with each of those characters. It’s Claudia’s story, and she’s the most vulnerable, she’s my little pal. But I really appreciate Drachman’s ability to roll with the punches. I appreciate Leslie trying to do more for herself than was done for her. She’s got a real survivor instinct that I like.
I, Claudia and The Patient Hour are very different plays stylistically, but one thing that they do have in common is that they explore the relationships between parents and children, and in both cases, the parents are not really present on stage. Are there any other connections between the two plays that you’ve noticed?
I agree with you about the parents, but for me, the connection is the transforming power of pain. The painful situations in your life, the ones that you wanna run away from, are the ones that transform you. And if you run away from them, you won’t be changed, and if you engage with them, you will be changed. In both the instances, the characters find themselves having to isolate themselves in these quiet environments, away from everyday life. And as Drachman says: [a “Bulgonian” phrase Torontoist had trouble trying to spell]. “The man who is always the same is a stranger to himself.” That, for me, is the drama that I’m interested in. In a way, sometimes plot, and big events, and relentless twists and turns—it can feel like all that empties the meaning out of the little things, by saying that “we have to have a chase, or a murder” to really express something about being human. It’s not that that’s not dramatic, of course it is, but there’s also an inherent drama to be found in the little, incremental pushes and pulls of everyday life. In a way, the parents not being a part of the play allows for the fact that we’re given the opportunity to see that Monday is huge for Claudia because she gets to see her dad, and Tuesday is devastating, because she has to say goodbye. I don’t think the parents would even know that, because she’s just handling it, coping with it on an everyday basis.
So, what’s next for Kristen Thomson? You mentioned that you have some other writing projects in the works?
I do, but in a way, there’s no point in talking about them, because I take such a long time to write things. I, Claudia took two years. The Patient Hour took six years, because I was having kids, and I wrote The Patient Hour basically at nap time for six years. So, I don’t know how long it’ll be before I do anything. The ideas are pretty raw. I’m actually going to be starting working in September on a couple of new pieces, and it’s gonna be just my first baby steps.
I, Claudia continues until May 23.

On Stage This Week

Fringe hit Balls opened last night at the Lower Ossington Theatre as part of Ten Foot Pole Productions’ Show Us Yours Series. This show, a comedy about testicular cancer, has been getting good reviews across the board. It runs until May 17.

Caroline Gillis and Tracy Wright take a look at the view. Photo by Gunter Kravis.

A remount of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View opened last week at Tarragon. Although this isn’t one of MacIvor’s one-man shows, there’s a familiar feeling to this two-hander, not to mention similar subject matter. Expect his trademark deft characterization and authentic-yet-hilarious dialogue. Mitch and Liz are two women who have a passionate sexual encounter. Thing is: neither of them are lesbians, or even bisexual, and both believed they were being seduced by the other. Years later, they reconnect, developing an intense, and almost romantic, friendship. This crypto-queer love story is brought beautifully to life by actors Caroline Gillis and Tracy Wright, both of whom have different, unusual energies that compliment each other in a very appealing way. The very first beat of the play is intentionally slow, to the point of tedium. It’s a strange choice, and a funny way to kick off a show. However, once the story starts going, and the actors start talking to each other, it’s hard not to go along with them. It plays until May 24.
CanStage’s production of Doubt, a Parable opens tomorrow night at the Bluma Appel. And yes, it is the inspiration for that movie. It plays until May 30.
Soulpepper’s top-notch production of Glengarry Glen Ross continues at the Young Centre. David Mamet’s expletive-filled play about a very angry (and very macho) group of real estate agents all competing to save their jobs is brought brilliantly to life through a combination of a cast that includes Eric Peterson, Peter Donaldson, Jordan Pettle, William Webster, and Albert Schultz, and Ken MacDonald’s elegant and fuctional set design. One of Soulpepper’s strongest shows in recent memory, Glengarry runs until May 19.
HARDSELL continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre until Saturday night. Daniel Brooks directs tour-de-force performer Rick Miller (Bigger Than Jesus, MacHomer) in this exploration of consumer culture. Miller comes on stage in white-face, a sinister clown somewhere in between Beetlejuice and Jack Nicholson, and informs us that he is not Rick Miller, but Rick’s less-famous brother, Arnie: a failed theatre artist. Because Miller is indeed the man behind the mask, this means a performance as varied as it is accomplished, skipping from a James Brown impression, to a PowerPoint lecture, to some soft shoe, to a story about a sexual encounter with Ayn Rand, to a somewhat dirty-minded puppet. HARDSELL is definitely Rick Miller’s most difficult show to date. But it also just might be his best.
Jonathan Garfinkle’s House of Many Tongues opens tonight at Tarragon. A magical-realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, It runs until June 3.