The new play about a troubled marriage came about because of a harmonious union among its creators.
The characters in Kristen Thomson’s plays are usually plucked straight from her own subconscious, deeply inspired by her personal experiences. Her latest script is no different. The titular “someone else” doesn’t mean she’s completely stepping into a foreign pair of shoes, but rather that she’s exploring the crisis that plagues so many of those entering middle age: a changing identity.
Opening this Thursday in a co-production with Crow’s Theatre and Canadian Stage, Someone Else is a story directed by Thomson’s longtime collaborator, Chris Abraham. It explores a marriage on the brink. The troubled spouses are a standup comedian, Cathy, played by Thomson, and a doctor, Peter, played by Stratford actor Tom Rooney.
Torontoist sat down with the two actors to talk about the creative process, the pain of loss, and how finding the right collaborator is like finding a soulmate.
Torontoist: Can you tell us what the play is about?
Kristen Thomson: It’s a story of a couple at a very difficult time in their relationship, because they’re each at a time in their lives when their relationship with each other is changing. They kind of want the relationship to be the way it has been, but it can’t because they’re changing, and that friction makes a lot of who they are deep down erupt. The play is the fallout that follows.
Tom Rooney: It’s a coming-of-age story for middle-aged people.
Kristen, why was this a subject you wanted to tackle now?
KT: I am interested in middle age because that’s where I am, and I’m finding it pretty interesting—what feels like an identity shift. It’s like a second adolescence. And also, as part of that, I’m in a long-term relationship and I’m interested in what happens. How do you love someone over such a long period of time when your own identity is shifting and certainly their identity is shifting? I had these seeds planted thinking about my own life, and then created this couple that would be in couple’s therapy. That was the first idea.
And Tom, when did you get involved?
TR: I was in on the early workshops, that was what, two years ago?
KT: Certainly a year and a half. But you know, Tom had been working with Chris [Abraham] at Stratford, so when I offered up these ideas, [Abraham] thought of Tom immediately. So Tom has been one of the primary creators and, like all the people who come as part of the creative team, [he started] influencing the play.
If you make room for people to make contributions from the beginning, what you work towards is kind of a built, constructed thing and not exclusively words on a page.
TR: The story has really emerged, hasn’t it? It still is, to some extent… Even though I’ve known about it for the last year and a half, I’m still finding more depth to it and more elements to the story that hadn’t really occurred to me before.
It’s very beautiful, and its very funny, and it’s very hopeful, even though it’s quite…
TR: Harsh. In with the comedy is the pain we feel and the pain we inflict on each other. Everyone can relate to that. But in the end, I think it’s very hopeful and very beautiful.
How do you deal with that, being horrible to each other and feeling all that pain, day after day?
TR: As an actor you want something to excite you onstage.
KT: What you don’t want to have is if you’re with, like, a cold fish. You know, where everyone’s being polite? That can happen. It in fact doesn’t feel like pain, it feels like there’s a tremendous amount of generosity and openness that gives you something to play with.
TR: And also, with these two characters, they have a history. And that history involves love, and concern, and care. So at the bottom of all the turmoil, there’s still that. They’re still very much connected with each other.
Kristen, do you have any reservations about using such personal material in your plays?
KT: I don’t necessarily have a story in my mind I want to plot out and tell. I’m more trying to find a way to tap into my subconscious and get out there. So in a way, even though it’s very personal, I’m grappling with stuff that’s not completely known to me. One level it’s really, really rewarding, and on the other, it’s quite scary.
Tom, since it’s so personal to Kristen, what did you relate to in the play?
TR: The thing about being middle-aged to me is that it’s a time in your life where you can look back, but also look forward, and in that regard it’s really unique. I think there’s a great deal to relate to. And in terms of relationships, they’re always changing and you’re always trying to figure out how to keep them going and how to keep them healthy.
I noticed that you said you started working on this show about a year and a half ago. I know that on December 30, 2010, your wife [theatre director Gina Wilkinson] passed away from cancer. What was that experience like, working on a show about a crumbling marriage when you had just lost someone you loved?
TR: You take the experience you have in life, and you can’t help but use it in what you do. I think loss and grief is a part of everyday life, and I think in some ways Cathy and Peter are dealing with a loss.
KT: And you know, I’ve also experienced major loss in my life, and there is also the idea that you just want to keep working, right? Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible to continue on, but then you do.
TR: Also I’ve found that this community is a great place to be when going through difficulties because there’s a tremendous amount of support. And we’re also in the business of understanding emotions and conflict and troubles. They can empathize because that’s what we do. And Gina, being the incredible theatre person she was—
KT: She was incredible.
TR: She loved telling stories, she lived to tell stories. That’s what she would want. She would love to see me working with these people. She would definitely want to see this play, she would love to see this play.
Kristen, you’ve developed a very strong partnership with Chris Abraham, having done I, Claudia, The Patient Hour, and now Someone Else with him. What do you think is the value in having that reliable relationship?
KT: I’m the writer, but I somehow feel like [Abraham]’s the storyteller. He’s the one who has his eye on the story, has an idea of a beginning, middle, and end. He keeps me writing in the right direction and from over-writing quite a bit. Quite a bit. I would say, by the time we’re starting rehearsal, both of us have an equal relationship to what’s happening in the play. I think that true sense of collaboration is unique.
The way you talk about it, it seems like finding a collaborator is just as difficult as it is finding a soulmate. There’s the “dating” period where you try out different people, but then you find the one you’re looking for. Is that kind of how it is?
KT: I think that you’ve said it absolutely right, I don’t even want to comment on it. That’s absolutely right, it is that rare.
This interview has been edited and condensed.