In selecting the Guild Society’s first play of the 2021 theatre season, artistic director Brian Fidler sought help from Calgary-based director Clare Preuss. He had a few criteria in mind. He was looking for something that could cross into the queer community, was relatively new, and had a lot of joy in it. Preuss responded by sending Fidler five plays for his consideration. He chose Canadian playwright Christopher Duthie’s A Dinner Party.
“This one really jumped out for me,” Fidler says.
Preuss shares Fidler’s sentiment. She saw A Dinner Party when it premiered in Calgary in 2019 and immediately wanted to direct it. She feels like Yukoners will make the perfect audience for what will only be the second production of the play.
“I love Whitehorse audiences, from what I’ve experienced, because there’s an eagerness and also an openness to absurdity that I find really fun and this play gets really weird,” Preuss says. “It’s very relatable, but then it really tilts in the most fun ways, but still always speaking to the human condition.”
Both Fidler and Preuss remark on a sudden twist the play takes, when the reality of a mundane dinner party is shattered and things rapidly go sideways. Neither wants to give too much away, but they use the same adjectives: playful, super funny and, most of all, absurd.
The playwright responsible for the absurd turn, Christopher Duthie, wrote the play as his thesis for a Master of Fine Arts from Guelph University. He said that he had a dream with a scene involving “anxiety dreams,” and this planted the seed for what would become A Dinner Party.
“It felt like a very intuitive process of just following that one scene that I woke up with in my head,” Duthie says. “It was a very pleasurable thing to write just for myself because it felt in some ways that it wrote itself.”
“I have a deeply entrenched love for the absurd that comes from my family—my mom and dad and my sister,” he says. “What I was interested in doing, just on a process level, was following my comedic instinct and letting it drive the play and see where it took me.”
Meanwhile, back in Whitehorse, Preuss says there are challenges to directing Duthie’s absurdist vison. However, Preuss says they are part of what makes the play so fun because they are “challenges of creating effective hijinks.”
“There’s some magic-making for sure,” she says.
Among those making the magic with Preuss are four actors: Andrea Bols, Heidi J. Loos, Jessica Westman and Erica Ward.
“They’re all so funny,” Preuss says of the actors. “They all have awesome comedic timing.”
At the same time, Preuss says that the actors need to keep the play grounded in emotional truth so audiences can still relate. We need to believe the relationships between the characters, which in the case of this production are all queer. Duthie wrote the play so that it would work with characters of any gender.
“I felt really strongly that I didn’t want the play to be about two straight couples,” Duthie says. “I really wanted to have diverse depictions of love and romance on stage. That’s more reflective of the social circles I travel in. I needed to put a check on my own hetero-normative perspective … I was excited about imagining the different versions of the play.”
Unfortunately, Duthie won’t be able to leave Calgary to see the Guild’s production of A Dinner Party. He is excited that it’s being produced here, though. And Preuss is excited to be directing it.
“I love coming up here,” she says. “I have a few homes around the world and this is definitely one of them. It’s good to come back. Always really great people. There’s so much talent up here too. I’m always excited about how people approach the work and people’s skill at doing it too.”
Some COVID-19 restrictions still apply for the production. Seating is limited, with folks sitting at small tables in their pods. Fidler isn’t sure if the bar will be open; they’re playing it by ear for now.
Whether or not the bar is open, the production offers Yukoners a chance to experience live theatre again. A Dinner Party is a good fit for the times, according to Fidler, as it deals with a reunion of friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. It’s also a wonderful play to program at this time of year, Preuss says, when we’re returning to theatre.
“It will be a fun adventure,” she promises. “It’ll be a good time.”