Theatre Erindale’s 2016/2017 season has offered a diverse repertoire of productions, ranging from classical to contemporary. Despite their differences, the common theme of feminism threads each play.

This week, Theatre Erindale continues this important theme in their second main stage production of the semester, The Mill on the Floss. George Eliot (A.K.A. Mary Ann Evans) originally published this piece as a novel in 1860. The story follows the independent Maggie Tuliver as she struggles against the constraints of 19th century England. In this performance, we’ll see the challenges women face in society, particularly in a historical context. Anita La Selva, a Toronto-based actor, director, dramaturge and teacher, directs Theatre Erindale’s adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.

In an interview with The Medium, La Selva discusses her inspiration and plans for this piece.

The Medium: For your first time working with Theatre Erindale, was there anything you were particularly looking forward to?

Anita La Selva: I was looking forward to working with the students in the [Theatre and Drama Studies] program. I had heard a lot about them from David Matheson and Melee Hutton, who have been teaching them for the past couple years. What’s lovely about the students here at Theatre Erindale is that they’re intelligent because they’re at U of T, and they’re good actors as well. And with a play like this, which is a period piece, there’s a lot of historical research that has to be done. I trusted them to do that work and enter that context as an actor. Not all actors have the ability to research as well as these students do. Because they’re good academics and they’re good at acting, they have a double advantage that they can use to immerse themselves in the world of a historical piece.

TM: What is it like working with the graduating class at Theatre Erindale?

ALS: They’re smart, they’re intelligent, and they’re curious. Often when I ask actors to do research, they come in with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But at Theatre Erindale, the whole class went out and did research. They found so many in-depth pieces of information that were pertinent to their characters and the roles. This piece has a lot to do with women’s roles in Victorian society, so a lot of the women did amazing research on the role of women in this era and the challenges that they faced. What’s great about these students is that they’re really keen and interested in the historical contexts and the literary contexts, as well as the acting.

TM: Why The Mill on the Floss? What are your ties to this production?

ALS: Interestingly enough, I saw a very early production of this play a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – at the Harbourfront World Stage Centre. What appealed to me was that it had a multi-faceted aspect; it had three Maggies that showed her character aging from age nine to about 19. Three different actresses played the role. I was always fascinated by this piece; it just stuck in my mind. I got into a discussion with David Matheson, the artistic director at Theatre Erindale, and I pitched him. I said I’d love to direct this play because I’m interested in women’s roles and feminism. A lot of the work I’ve done has been based around women and society, [including] the different roles and challenges they’ve encountered over the centuries in terms of oppression or emancipation. I also pitched a concept to David that I really wanted to do, which was to include the river floss as another entity or another character in the piece.

TM: How does the river floss function as an entity in this production?

ALS: In the book by George Eliot, the river floss is almost like a character; it has a personality of its own, it has an entity of its own. [The characters] talk about the river as calm, or murky, or with a tide or current. I wanted to put this in the play because of its connection to the lead character’s nature: Maggie Tulliver. She’s like a river, and rivers have to flow their course; you can dam them up, you can reroute them, you can try to stop them, but eventually they’re going to have to flow somewhere. And that’s Maggie’s personality. Her spirit has to flow somewhere, and the more people in her society try to dam it up, the worse it gets. The river works the same way. Sometimes if you try too hard to reroute a river or block it up, it will do something destructive, which is what happens with Maggie. Because her nature is unable to flow freely, she ends up being self-destructive, as a river would. I created a whole concept where the river flows throughout the show. It’s very imagistic: a lot of fabric, a lot of lighting, and a lot of movement.

TM: What are your thoughts on Maggie Tulliver?

ALS: We see her at three different phases of her life. She’s unruly, she doesn’t fit in. She’s not the perfect Victorian child, which means to sit there politely and not do anything. Maggie is inquisitive, she’s curious, she’s excited, she like to roughhouse, she plays by the river, she gets her frock dirty all the time, and she gets her hair messed up. She breaks the norm of what conventional society wants her to be.

As we see her progress throughout the play, we see this idea in many different ways. Maggie herself tries to stop her nature, which is very contemporary in the sense that she does what she wants. She doesn’t want to be constrained. So, what’s interesting is that she tries to put herself in her own constraints by becoming very religious. But then she realizes that doesn’t work either. And unfortunately in that time period, society did not let women have the same freedom as men. So, she turns in on herself, like the river, and things start to flood and get out of control.

TM: Do you feel that the social commentary in this play is relevant to contemporary society?

ALS: Absolutely. In this country, we can choose to have an education, we can choose to marry who we want to marry, and we can choose to be friends with who we want to be friends with. Whereas, in the Victorian era, women had no choice. They often didn’t get an education, they didn’t have any freedom, and they were second class citizens to men.

Watching the Trump government come into power made me realize that this is a government – or a person – who wants to put these controls back on women, [such as] rescinding the abortion laws. As women, we’ve come so far. And yet, there are still people, countries, and cultures in the world who try to oppress women. So, I think this play is very relevant; it puts into perspective how far we’ve come, yet [it also shows that] there are prevalent places and attitudes in the world that don’t want women to have the same freedoms and the same privileges as men.

TM: How have you approached this play? What are you doing similarly or differently to the original script?

ALS: I chose to set this play in the era it was written. But I added a lot of interesting elements, like the water and the movement. In the original script there is mention of the river, but I’ve just taken it to the next level in the way I’ve embodied it. Instead of hearing it or pretending it’s there, we actually see the river. A lot of my background involves fusing disciplines, whether it’s movement, visual, music, or video. In this case we don’t want to use video because it’s not in keeping with the period. I wanted to use something visceral, something tactile to represent the river.

I’ve also used some gesture work with the Maggies in terms of how the different ages follow and mirror each other throughout the play. I’ve brought in a physical element that enhances the original script. I haven’t changed anything, I’ve just tried to make the story pop with my vision.

TM: What can the audience take away from this production?

ALS: The different people working on this show have noted, “Wow, I really see how women had to struggle.” It was so hard for women in those days, in terms of their place in society and how people judged them differently than men. And that’s the big issue: women get judged much harsher than men – they still do. If a woman does something not discretionary, her reputation is gone. Whereas for a man, [it’s shrugged off]. I admire that desire for women to make their own choices and be who they want to be. In this play, we see a lot of struggle for women, but we also see them fighting hard and being fierce, passionate, loving, true, loyal and all these great qualities.

TM: What are the men like in this play?

ALS: Most of them keep with the 19th century attitude, except for Philip, who is sort of an outcast [because of his disability]. In a weird way, Philip is in the same boat as Maggie, in the sense that he’s labelled a cripple – in those days they didn’t call it a disability – because he’s not seen for his true self. He exists in his own private struggle with a society that doesn’t respect him because of his physical challenges.

Philip is a unique character; he’s beautiful, smart, intelligent, and probably more emotionally sensitive than the other men in the play. I think George Elliot is making a comment on how marginalized people, whether they’re women or people with disabilities, have huge hearts and souls and a lot to offer the world. But oftentimes, the world doesn’t allow them to offer what they have.

TM: Do you have any final thoughts on this production?

ALS: I’m really excited. This group has worked so hard. It’s a big production. It’s a lot of elements, and it’s got a lot of emotional depth. I’m so proud of the cast for going to these big, emotional places that I’ve been pushing them. They’ve really done a beautiful job of embodying the characters and their struggles.

The Mill on the Floss opened today, February 17, at the MiST Theatre.

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