One of Toronto’s theatrical highlights last year wasn’t held on a stage, didn’t cost any money, and appeared once every four weeks or so, for just a single night at a time. It was indie theatre company Small Wooden Shoe‘s Difficult Plays and Simple Songs, for which the company and its friends would gather together in a Parkdale home in the midst of renovations to read plays aloud and sing. Artistic director Jacob Zimmer spoke to us about what inspired the series, what makes a difficult play so difficult, and what can be expected when Difficult Plays resumes on November 25.
Torontoist: How did the original idea for Difficult Plays and Simple Songs come about—and what prompted you to make communal singing a part of the event?
Jacob Zimmer: I was watching a festival production of a play by Gertrude Stein, who I love. But I’ve never seen a production more satisfying than simply hearing her text read aloud. This got me thinking that there are a lot of plays that this is true for, and we had done Life of Galileo as a reading, and I’d found that artistically satisfying—perhaps more than a full staging would have been.
I like meeting new actors by working with them, which is hard when I’m only making a new show every year or so and tending to work with regular collaborators and hating auditions. It was also a project that matched shared interests between [theatre director and series curator] Leora Morris and I, and she’s way better at reading lots of plays than I am. As for the music, I’ve long said that when doing something strange, it’s best to be relaxed. And so I thought that if the audience and cast was going to be dealing with difficult material, breaks for sing-alongs could be very helpful.
How were the plays chosen? And what does “difficult” mean in this context?
“Difficult” can mean a lot of different things, which is really helpful for play selection. The biggest thing was that for some reason in the play, it would be hard to produce right now. Sometimes that was about language or style—we have very restricted choices in mainstream indie Toronto theatre for language and style. Often our choices involved a large cast and staging requirements that would cost too much. Sometimes “difficult” meant that it was great to hear read, but that staging would ruin it.
The element of secrecy—about the play, the location, and the readers—brought something special to the evenings as well. Why the secrecy? Purely for practical reasons?
Partially practical, yes. Being secretive allows us to make decisions quickly and avoid some red tape. Also, the events were in someone’s house and I didn’t want to put their address on the internet. Mostly, though, I like the idea of regular events where I’m not sure what’s going to happen. It’s exciting, and excitement is good for theatre. Also, it is pretty lovely that people come to see a “difficult” play without knowing exactly which play.
The final instalment of last year’s Difficult Plays and Simple Songs was also a farewell to Leora Morris. Could you tell me a bit about her role in Small Wooden Shoe, where she’s off to, and why?
Leora has been a huge part of what Small Wooden Shoe has been up to in recent years. She’s a great director and fantastic collaborator. We balanced each other well. She’s at Yale now doing her MFA in directing, which is amazing, but a sad loss for Toronto for the next few years. We need to start a petition to make sure she comes back.
Fall and winter always seem like busy times for your company. What’s coming up for Small Wooden Shoe between now and January?
On Monday, November 25, we’re hooking up with our friends at Aluna Theatre and doing our first Difficult Plays and Simple Songs of the year. We’re reading a great Argentine play that does politics and “immersive theatre” incredibly well. That’s all I’ll say for now. To know the readers, singers, and exact play, you’ll have to show up in person. Details are on the Small Wooden Shoe website.
On December 29, we do the fifth-annual 3penny Christmas Concert, a sing-along pop-up choir with special guests. It’s a magic night, and we’ll be trying a few new things this year. We’re holding it at the Monarch Tavern and it costs three cents. Also, we just finished our first beta edition of The Fun Palace Radio Variety Show, and we’ll be back with that in February. I’m also scheming for an outdoor summer spectacular, so watch for that in June.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos by Erin Brubacher.