Coming in with the tide

The Medium sits down with the cast of Hart House's first play of the 2016/17 season

As Hart House approaches the start of its 2016/2017 season, cast members of Tideline engage in final preparations for Friday’s opening. Written by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Ken Gass, Tideline explores the emotional and cultural conflicts of Wilfred, a man returning to his native country to bury his estranged father. Danny Ghantous and Angela Sun, who play Wilfred and the knight respectively, reflect on their roles and relationships with Hart House’s newest production.

The Medium: Can you tell me a little bit about your characters?

Danny Ghantous: My character, Wilfred, is racked with the loss of his somewhat estranged father. He doesn’t know how to go about burying him, what the procedures are, and where he should be buried, as his mother died when he was born. His journey is how he’s going to bury his father. He travels to his homeland in order to bury his father in his village, but all the graves are full. He then goes from village to village, trying to find a proper place to rest his father’s soul.

Angela Sun: I play Wilfred’s imaginary friend, who is a knight from the tales his father used to tell him. I act as Wilfred’s companion throughout his whole journey. [The knight] is a representation of how, when you’re going through a lot of grief and trauma, you tend to hold on to certain things in your childhood that make you feel better. And I think throughout this whole journey Wilfred feels very alone, so he creates this imaginary character to help him navigate through the grief that he’s going through.

TM: What have rehearsals been like?

DG: We’ve had some really good table-reads. We’ve had in-depth discussions about every single scene, what they mean, what [Mouawad] is saying, what the connections are, what the relationships are, what the history behind [the story is]. [Mouawad’s] scripts are very dense. They take a lot of inspiration from many different sources, whether it be from events in his homeland [in Lebanon] or an event in his life. Other than that, our discussions have involved a lot of exploration of the space, such as how people fit [on stage]. [Gass] is a very visual director, so he likes to create images and layers, and having actors explore that in the space is a good learning tool.

AS: There’s a good balance between allowing us to explore our relationships with each other and specifically telling us what works and what doesn’t. Now I think we’re moving more towards a place where things are getting solidified. Slowly, I think we’re coming to the end.

TM: Have you encountered any challenges with this production?

DG: Not having platforms [at first] was a challenge for us. I think it was a little bit of a struggle just figuring out where things are supposed to go [on stage]. There are lots of moving elements that move almost every scene. Besides that, I think the toughest thing is that we don’t know what is a dream and what is reality in Tideline. We keep on breaking the idea that this is a theatrical production—is it real life, or is it a dream that Wilfred has made up in his mind? [We wonder if] this is happening to him because his father is dead, yet he’s talking to him throughout the entire play. Tideline is constantly breaking that fourth wall and asking new questions. How do you wake up from a dream and tell that to an audience without breaking the idea that you’re still in a theatre telling a story?

AS: For me, it’s just about getting meaning and emotions out of the lines. As Danny said, the play is so thick and it’s working on so many different layers that it poses the question of how we put certain references in while making it look natural. Our two characters have a relationship and we’re two different people, but we’re also two facets of the same person. How do you navigate that?

TM: Do you see yourselves reflected in your roles?

DG: I have a very special connection to [Mouawad’s] plays. I love doing them. They are really like a dream and I couldn’t ask for anything better, being a Lebanese-Canadian still searching for his identity and culture. Especially with the idea that even though Wilfred is taught by his family and the people in his homeland—whether directly or non-directly because he was born in Montreal—he’s still considered a foreigner. He wasn’t taught the proper accent. He’s still ostracized. He can still say throughout the entire play, no matter how many villagers he runs into, “Those aren’t my stories. Those stories you have of your country and your land and your experiences, those aren’t my stories.” He tries to find his place in his homeland, and even in the world. It’s such a beautiful story. It’s something I’m constantly struggling with, being Lebanese but not having lived in Lebanon—living in the Middle East, and not having lived in Lebanon too. And now, being Canadian. It’s very visceral.

AS: I was thinking about my casting the other day and how interesting it is, as an East Asian woman, being cast as a paragon of English virtue in the role of the knight. Originally, the part was written as a male, so we’re kind of playing around with the gender identity of the character. I do appreciate being cast in a role that I don’t think someone who looks like me would naturally be cast in.

TM (to Angela): I read that you’re a feminist. Do you feel that Tideline reflects your ideas/beliefs on this topic? Do you think this play includes feminist thinking or lacks it?

AS: That is something I’ve been thinking about. First of all, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, the character of Wilfred very much reflects [Mouawad] as a person. In this play, there’s somewhat of an autobiographical aspect to Wilfred. So I feel that naturally, the women are going to be placed slightly secondary, in a way. I think the fact that [Gass] chose to have a female actor playing the knight, playing a counter-part to the main character, is a bit revolutionary and I appreciate that.

[Mouawad] also writes very beautifully for the female characters. So I don’t see a lacking in the writing. But regarding whether or not it’s a feminist play, I think it’s something I would have to figure out watching from a distance. The thing about theatre is that the writer gives you a foundation, and then it’s the interpretation from everyone else working on the production that moves it towards a particular side. So I think I would want to watch it before I could tell you whether or not it’s feminist. I would like to think so, though. I certainly play my character as strongly as I can. And I try not to put on any particular gender differentiation when I play the character. As a woman of colour, I’m all for breaking tradition. Because tradition is often formed by very similar-looking people—straight, white males, generally of middle age. I am for exploring, but exploring with sensitivity.

TM (to Danny): I read that you’ve also acted in two other plays by Mouawad: Scorched and Dreams. Do you feel that your performances in these plays have given you an advantage in Tideline and helped you better understand its context?

DG: To better understand it, definitely. Scorched kind of has its own Greek tragedy story. The character I played [Nihad] is parallel to what Wilfred is going through. [Wilfred] doesn’t think he’s going through much at all and this is the first big thing that happens in his life, as far as he’s letting up. Definitely the world in which [Mouawad] lived in while writing his plays has informed me of the text, his poeticism, and what it means to say those words in front of this audience. Definitely exploring the world [Mouawad] lived in, the events that shook him, and knowing his biography really helps. Getting to know him better here, and getting more of an understanding as time goes, I can dive deeper into Lebanese culture and history and know what those names mean, what those references are, what those events actually were. Because as poetic as it can be, a lot of the topics [Mouawad] writes about [aren’t] just off the top of his head. They’re references to real events and stories of our people.

TM: Do you prefer working with contemporary or classic scripts?

DG: I like exploring new things. I love new works, because there’s still work to be done and there’s still exploration. You can still have a conversation. Sometimes when it comes to classical texts, especially considering the school, the director, or the theatre company, it comes from the perspective that there’s a right and wrong way of how it should be done. I like exploring both, though. With classical pieces, I’m firstly interested in why we’re doing it—why we’re telling the story, and why it’s relevant now. That’s where I think the exploration comes from. I’d rather do a contemporary play that takes a risk and pushes something I believe in.

AS: I like reimaginings of old texts, taking something old and making it new again. But nowadays, with lots of contemporary texts, you have to read the same background material. Just being in a Western academic environment, it’s inevitable that if [someone] were to create a new work, there’s going to be some sort of reference in there and some sort of inspiration taken from the classical texts. So I don’t know if you could really separate the two.

TM: Do you have any closing remarks you’d like to make about Tideline?

AS: It is filled with talented actors, designers, and directors who have done many wonderful things for Canadian theatre. That’s one of the reasons why I did this play. I hope you’ll come see it, and I’d love to know what people thought, because I think this is such a deep play that works on so many levels. I’m really interested to see people’s interpretations of it, whether negative or positive. I think everyone will have something thoughtful to say about it.

Tideline premiered at Hart House Theatre on Friday September 16.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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