Soulpepper revisits David French’s hilarious and poignant comedy about making Canadian theatre.
The opening of David French’s Leaving Home, on May 16, 1972, was a night fraught with jitters. Not only was it French’s first stage play—and a highly personal one, based on his own family—but there had been ugliness behind the scenes. A simmering feud between actors Liza Creighton and Sean Sullivan finally boiled over just 15 minutes before curtain, when the two got into a row and Creighton, angrily declaring, “I quit!” threw her fur coat on and stormed out of the Tarragon Theatre.
The stage manager chased after her and caught her under the bridge on Howland Avenue, French recalled during a video interview not long before his death in 2010. “He physically tackled her, threw her over his shoulder, and brought her back kicking and screaming. He sat her down in a chair in the green room and said, ‘You’re going on!’ and that was it. This was my first play and I’m watching this stuff happening,” French told interviewer RH Thomson. “I was a wreck.”
Leaving Home, however, was a hit, and went on to become one of Canada’s first successful homegrown dramas. But its backstage drama also inspired French to write one of Canada’s funniest comedies: Jitters. It premiered in 1979 and was an equally smashing success, although it didn’t get its definitive production until 2010, when Soulpepper Theatre gave it a hilarious and perfectly cast revival.
Now, Jitters is being remounted for audiences to savour again, with director Ted Dykstra once more at the helm and Diane D’Aquila back to lead the ensemble as the play’s diva actress.
For Dykstra, revisiting the play has a very personal meaning. He collaborated with French when Soulpepper staged three of the playwright’s Mercer Plays (Leaving Home, Of the Fields, Lately, and Salt-Water Moon), and Jitters was their last project together.
“He was dying of cancer and yet every hour of every rehearsal he was there,” Dykstra recalls, sitting down for an interview with Torontoist in Soulpepper’s small but impressively stocked library. Indeed, it was French who pronounced this the definitive production.
“And he wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t mean it,” adds D’Aquila, who joined us in the library. “He was not one to mince words.”
“That said, a week before we opened, he was telling me it was going to be a disaster,” Dykstra says with a laugh. “He’d get totally freaked out”—just like Robert, the high-strung playwright character in Jitters, which is a French self-portrait. The play, in fact, draws closely on French’s experiences with the original production of Leaving Home and many of the characters were based on those in Toronto’s theatre scene in the 1970s.
Jitters takes us through the rehearsals, opening night, and aftermath of a new Canadian drama called The Care and Treatment of Roses, which is receiving its premiere at a small Toronto theatre. Hopes are riding high for the play, thanks to the casting of Jessica Logan (D’Aquila), an actress who has enjoyed past success in New York and London. The theatre is banking on her attracting the notice of U.S. producers, while Jessica—badly in need of another hit—sees the play as her route back to Broadway.
Those hopes risk being scuppered by the egos and eccentricities of all involved, from Patrick (Geordie Johnson), the show’s bitter, anti-American leading man, to Phil (Oliver Dennis), the fussy character actor obsessed with his wardrobe but seemingly incapable of remembering his lines.
Jitters has proved one of French’s most frequently produced plays, along with his two-character romance Salt-Water Moon, which is also getting another staging right now at Factory Theatre. The Factory production, directed by Ravi Jain, is a low-key, experimental treatment without set or period costumes. It succeeds beautifully in focusing on the wit, humanity, and poetry of French’s writing.
Soulpepper’s approach to Jitters takes the opposite tack: with the aid of colourful décor and costumes by Patrick Clark, it faithfully (and amusingly) recreates its 1970s Toronto setting.
“I like to do things in the period they’re written in,” Dykstra explains. After all, it’s a period both he and D’Aquila remember well. The Ontario-born, Alberta-raised Dykstra, 54, made his professional acting debut in Edmonton in 1976. And D’Aquila, 63, was already carving out a career in Toronto’s small theatres during that decade—she remembers attending the original Jitters on opening night at Tarragon in ’79. “But even though we enjoy the nostalgic aspects of it,” Dykstra says, “the truths are still there.”
Among those truths is the Canadian need for outside (read: American) approval. We’re still more impressed when a Canadian show succeeds in New York than we are if it’s a national hit. “Look at that musical Come From Away,” Dykstra says, referring to the show by Toronto’s Irene Sankoff and David Hein. “It got done in the States, it’s heading for Broadway, and now we just can’t stop writing about it. But nobody wanted to do it here.”
Minneapolis native D’Aquila, who works both in Canada and the U.S., says there’s no reason for Canadians to feel insecure. “There are so many Canadians down there in the theatre community and the Americans love them,” she says, “they think Canadians are hugely talented because they can do everything. Whereas in the States actors get pigeonholed, to survive up here you have to be flexible.”
Although this production of Jitters follows the blueprint of the 2010 one, it’s not a slavish duplicate. For one thing, there are three new cast members: Johnson as the boozing, womanizing Patrick; Alex Furber as neophyte actor Tom; and Sophia Walker as the unflappable front-of-house manager Susi.
“They bring in new energy, new insight,” D’Aquila says. “I find it’s a very different production in many ways. It’s deeper, more meaningful, it’s quite moving in places.”
Indeed, while Jitters is often compared to Michael Frayn’s contemporaneous farce Noises Off, D’Aquila believes it’s the richer play.
“It’s very easy to just see it as a funny play, because it is hysterically funny, but you dig underneath it and you realize that it’s an incredible portrayal of the frailty and the fear in making art,” she says. “There’s a reason why they call it ‘stage fright.’ Most people in their right minds wouldn’t step on a stage; it’s a stupid way to make a living, you can make an ass of yourself every time. I find that French has really nailed it.”