One woman – 24 characters

Never is a good time to do a one-woman show – that’s what actor Katherine McCallum used to think.

But when Donald Trump was elected president in the U.S. last year, McCallum, who was looking for a new show to mount at The Courts in Riverdale, found her mind wandering back to a play she’d seen in New York in 2001.

“This play kept knocking on the back of my head going, ‘Come on, look at me,’” McCallum said of The Syringa Tree – a memoir by Pamela Gien, of her childhood growing up in apartheid South Africa.

“I’d put it up there as one of the top 10 live theatre experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life… When I walked out of the theatre, it felt like the world was adjusted in some way.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. When the play opened in New York in 2000, it won a number of off-broadway awards. It also attracted such esteemed audience members as Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell, Paul Newman and J.D. Salinger.

At the time, the one-woman show was performed entirely by Gien. When it opens in Whitehorse on November 8, McCallum will perform all of the play’s 24 characters, ranging in age from six to early 40s, and speaking a total of six different accents.

“If ever there was a play that challenged every aspect of my ability as a performer, this might be the one,” McCallum laughed, saying this feels like the right time in her career to perform The Syringa Tree.

Originally from Australia, McCallum has a bachelor’s degree in drama from Macquarie University. She also spent three years at The Atlantic Theatre Company in New York before serving as artistic director of Whitehorse’s Guild Hall, and founding local theatre company Larrikin Entertainment Ensemble.

At this point in her career, she says she feels she has the maturity and confidence to pull off a show like this.

Part of that feeling comes from the support of the crew of 15 helping put it on, including Vancouver director Laura McLean (“She sticks right on top of me and makes sure I’m not slipping,” McCallum said). And part comes from the weeks of preparation McCallum did in September, before October rehearsals started, when she travelled to Vancouver to work with accent and dialect coaches.

But the bigger catalyst, McCallum said, was really Trump.

During the U.S election, her pre-teen kids were devastated watching the debates. As she watched them watching TV, she remembered the devastation she felt growing up and hearing about apartheid. She asked her kids if they’d ever heard anything about it, and was surprised to hear they hadn’t.

“There’s this sort of concurrent mirror image that’s sort of happening in the world right now where the new normal is a little scary,” she said.

“I think we need to keep that conversation out there, that we have made mistakes in the very recent past.”

That said, McCallum stresses the play is more deeply personal than it is political. At its heart, it’s a story about two families.

“The brilliance of this writing is it’s a piece that’s incredibly poignant and powerful but (Gien has) written it in a way where you’re going along in such a light-hearted way for so long you don’t ever feel like you’re being politicized.”

The Syringa Tree preview is Tuesday, November 7, and opens on Wednesday, November 8. It then runs Wednesdays through Saturdays, until Saturday, November 26. All performances are at the Courts Theatre, which is located behind Epic Pizza in Riverdale at 39 Lewes Blvd.

For more information go to the Larrikin Entertainment Facebook page.

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