Gormenghast: An interview with Director Mike Griffin, and actors Jonah McGrath, Candice Burn and Caroline Coon

davidvivianBrock University’s Department of Dramatic Arts is putting on Gormenghast this week, a play deemed “haunting and hilarious” by its director, Professor M. Griffin. I was able to sit down with him and some other members of the cast to ask a few questions about the “grotesque” production.

Q: You’ve commented that this play is haunting and hilarious — why?

Mike Griffin; Director

Griffin: One of the things that this play really brings together is a number of different styles. On one hand you’ve got comedy and some really over the top characters, but within the gothic nature of the play there are a lot of dark things that are happening. There’s a lot of murder and a lot of horrific events. So, we’ve really tried to embrace that, through the blending of these different styles. One of the things we have been researching on is the style of Grand Guignol, which is the theatre of horror. We’ve been looking at the moments of violence in the play and looking at how we can do that stylistically versus realistically, because the show is an elevated style.

We’re looking at melodrama and physical theatre, and a collage of different styles of theatre. When I say something is elevated or heightened style, I mean that it is something larger than life and bigger than realism, different than how we interact normally today.

Q: Physical theatre?

Griffin: Most of my research as a professor is in styles of physical theatre and mask, and so a lot of the work that we’re doing is stemming from my research. There are elements of gesture and ritual, and looking at characters that have bigger physicalities. We’re not necessarily normal humans in this play. Everyone’s quirky and different, so when we started to explore the physical nature of this play we started looking through different inspirations so we can look at what motivates or where this character comes from in a physical basis. Everyone walks and stands in a different way.

Q: How does this play explore physical theatre?

Griffin: This play overall has a lot of challenges. It’s a very epic play and it all takes place in a castle, and there are towers and motes, and when we start to add things like cats and ravens then we’ve got to ask the question, ‘how do we do that?’

Rather than making the choice of actors playing cats or ravens, we decided we wanted to do it with puppets. Our puppets are really fantastic, they’re created by a puppeteer in Calgary named Juanita Dawn and the Long Grass puppet studio.

This is a distorted, grotesque and strange world. Things are distorted and there are a lot of connections to animals and humans. One of the explorations that we did to find the physical characterization is looking at what your character might be as an animal and evolving a physicalization out of that.

Q: Why Gormenghast?

Griffin: For me, it’s been a play that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I wanted to do something a bit darker, a bit stranger, and so when I was deciding on what show I wanted to do with these particular students, I wanted to do something that was going to push them out of their normal bodies, something that was big in characterization, big in physicalization, and so this sort of just came up as the play that I think would really challenge them. I felt it would also give them an opportunity to learn about techniques of physical theatre and different styles of theatre, too.

It’s really rare to see this kind of a production on stage; professional theatre companies don’t often do this kind of thing. First of all, it’s a large cast. We’ve got a cast of 16 and a lot of theatre companies don’t necessarily have a mandate that would fit the fantasy of this kind of play. What better place to do it than in a university setting? Especially when we look at things like the popular TV — Game of Thrones and all these kind of fantasy worlds that are created. There’s such a huge interest in that. For me, I love Game of Thrones and I love Lord of the Rings, and I love the works of Tim Burton.

 Jonah McGrath as Steerpike

Q: What is your role in Gormenghast?

McGrath: I am playing the role of Steerpike. He begins his journey in Gormenghast as a lowly kitchen servant, but he has aspirations to become more. Through his Machiavellian way of approaching conversations and interactions with the various people of Gormenghast, he’s trying to claw his way up the social ladder.

Q: What was your process like?

McGrath: We began over the course of the summer. We wouldn’t take the more conventional way of memorizing something and just sitting and reading it; it was recommended that we do it while we’re doing everyday errands, activities like washing the dishes — just repeating lines and getting them into our body. We took a very physical approach in tackling this play. We began with a three day physical workshop; a rigorous experimentation where we played around with many different styles. We looked at our characters through the lenses of different animals and did some cast and ensemble-building exercises.

Q: For one of your exercises I hear you all had to bring in pictures that you felt related to your character. What did you bring in?

McGrath: I brought in a picture of fog setting on a dead forest. I did that because I think Steerpike is a new presence in Gormenghast and is very otherworldly. He comes upon this old place that is bound by ritual and is so firmly held within tradition, and he completely changes the atmosphere.

Q: Do you like your character?

McGrath: I love my character. He’s so much fun to play. He’s a real challenge because I find there are so many different faces to Steerpike depending on who he’s talking to. He’s got a lot of layers to him. As much as we’re pushing the melodrama of it all, there’s also a very three-dimensional layer which we’re experimenting with in regards to everybody’s character. I’ve discovered a lot about him and I’ve really grown to love him. I’m sure for some people it would be more of a love-to-hate kind of thing, but I love Steerpike. I think he is so sharp and so quick, and ambitious, that it really is unparalleled. In this world I think he has such a way of working people. A master manipulator.

Q: Why is this play seen as grotesque and haunting?

McGrath: In a very goosebumps kind of way, there are a lot of unsettling moments. We’re trying to gross you out a little bit. It’s not completely different than horror film or imagery; we really draw on that in the show. We want people to, at times, feel uncomfortable.

In regards to the physicality, everybody’s character is over the top and unrecognizable if we’re looking at them in regards to our world. In Gormenghast, everything is huge, everything is over the top and anything goes.

Candice Burn and Caroline Coon as twins Cora and Clarice

Q: What are your roles in the play?

Burn: I play Cora and she’s one of the twins of Sepulchrave. She and her sister have been isolated from everyone. Our back story is that they were actually sick with a disease and they were separated so they would’t cause each other to become more sick. Then, when it seemed all hope was lost, they brought them together again and our characters eventually got better. That’s why we always stick together. We feel like we are one body. Our movement reflects that; our thought process allows us to move to one side and then the other, in synchronicity.

Coon: I play Clarice. We are the younger twin sisters of Sepulchrave, who is the Earl of Gormenghast. They’ve been isolated and so they’ve always felt like they were on the outskirts of everything. In the play, you’re going to see them using Steerpike to try and climb to power, and regain the place they feel they should be. While they’re trying to use Steerpike, Steerpike is also trying to use them.

Q: You move in unison – what was that process like?

Coon: Every head move, every look and every step is choreographed. That was really difficult — it took a lot of going over to make sure we were on the same page for each movement we made. We can’t even turn our head without the other one doing it.

Burn: It’s a very collaborative process. We went through our lines with what our intentions were, and how we found each other moving naturally when we said our lines. We fed off of each other and choreographed those movements. In perspective of who else is in the scene, it’s very heavily influenced by the blocking of other people. We follow Steerpike in many scenes, which really shows how he manipulates us and has that control over us.

Coon: We practiced a lot in front of the mirror to get it right, and to make sure that we were walking symmetrically.

Burn: It took us a while to figure out our walk. We used those intensive and research days on what kind of animal physicality we see in our characters, and we found a combination of bird and cat movements. We definitely use that in our head movements — the characters are even described as bird brains. People perceive them to be mad or not all there.

Q: So, who is really using who? Do you feel that your characters are aware of what’s going on?

Burn: I don’t think they feel like they’re using Steerpike. I think they actually trust him because he made such a large gesture towards them and no one else has. The characters are almost in shock — they’re surprised that someone wants to help them at all. He gains their trust and gives them all these promises, and they don’t have anyone else other than each other. The twins don’t manipulate Steerpike the way he does to them.

Coon: I looked at the analogy of the frog in boiling water. Steerpike as a character is very good at manipulating people and I think they brought their walls down for him because no one has reached out to them in so long or shown them any type of respect. They really latch onto that. He uses their trust and molds them into what he needs them to be.

Q: Why do you feel the play is seen as grotesque?

Coon: There are physicalities and events that happen on stage that are unsettling. There is definitely some gore in this show. There are some props and moments that make even us uncomfortable.

Burn: Even the soundtrack of the show. There are things that, every time in rehearsal, we just can’t listen to. It wakes up your senses and makes you go to an uncomfortable place. That’s what makes it grotesque, in a way.

Coon: The world is so out of anything in this realm. We use the term “Gormenghasty”. The end result is stuff that you’ve never seen before, which is why we’re really excited about performing this.

Gormenghast is being performed at the Marilyn I. Walker Theatre at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, 15 Artists’ Common, St. Catharines. The performances take place on November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 13 at 2:00 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 11:30 p.m.

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