From Beirut to Buffalo, then Whitehorse. That’s how Clare Preuss sums up the summer of
2016 from her standpoint as an itinerant stage director.
The Toronto-based actor, choreographer and director is currently in the Yukon to steer the Guild Theatre’s season-opener, Myth of the Ostrich.
Although the Matt Murray comedy was a standout hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2014, Preuss has never seen a production of it. Neither had she met any of the actors she is directing before she arrived in town at the end of August.
“We cast it by Skype,” she explains. “That was my first time doing that, and also a lot of the actors’ first time doing that.”
Preuss considers selecting the right cast as 99 per cent of a director’s job, and credits the Guild’s new artistic director, Brian Fidler, with helping familiarize her with the three women she eventually chose.
In local actors Carrie Burgess (Holly), Rosie Stuckless (Pam) and Andrea Bols (Cheryl), Preuss says she found a “great cast, with great chemistry among the three of them.”
It’s the third time this year that Preuss has directed a three-woman show. At a time when the lack of diversity in Canadian theatre is being questioned, she feels it is important to produce plays with strong female characters.
“I think it’s cool that Matt has written these really relatable women,” she says. “All three of these women are really layered and really truthful. He tells a beautiful story that is totally believable to me, top to bottom.”
That story begins when Holly, a single mother struggling to finish writing her second book, receives a visit from Pam, a stay-at-home mom who has intercepted a love letter from her young son, Evan, to Holly’s teenager, Jodi.
The difference in their social attitudes and values is clear from the start, but the conflict becomes much more apparent with the arrival of Holly’s friend, a hard-living, coarse-talking Newfoundlander named Cheryl.
“There’s a lot of political stuff in there. It talks about queer politics, it talks about marijuana politics, it talks about suicide, it talks about different views of how women of a certain age conduct their sexual lives,” Preuss explains.
Despite the serious themes, however, Myth of the Ostrich is very much a comedy at heart.
“Matt Murray is a beautiful writer. I just love the way he sculpts the words.”
Preuss says the black-box Guild Hall provides an appropriate atmosphere for a play set in the living room of a small basement apartment.
“I love working with smaller spaces and intimate spaces, because then you can get into really fine-detailed work that’s really perceived by the audience and not only by the actors,” she says. “What’s so great about Myth of the Ostrich is that it takes place in real time, so the hour and a half for us is also the hour and a half for the characters. You can kind of feel cozy in a show like that.”
Still, the director admits, the limitations of space and time present at least one interesting challenge to her and production designer, Donald Watt.
In what she calls “one of the more choreographed parts of the show,” the three women assemble and occupy a blanket fort as their journey together slides into a sort of Alice in Wonderland dimension.
The scene also includes “lots of Christmas tree lights. As many Christmas tree lights as we can fit on that stage. As many Christmas tree lights as exist in Whitehorse,” Preuss says.
“It transforms into quite a magical space. And then you kind of see people’s guards go down and truths come out.”
As the intensity increases, the director’s goal is to produce a kind of roller-coaster effect for both the characters and the audience.
“It’s going to be a challenge to find that balance, letting them get wild, and also keeping the story clear and keeping the pace going,” she says.
“There’s moments where we can pause, but it really has to click along, and we have to have those really specific moments between characters, because there’s quite a bit of subtext and layering to the story.”
Beyond the proven laughs in Murray’s script, Preuss believes Myth of the Ostrich has some important thoughts to convey.
“What Matt is saying is that we can find ways to relate to each other, to be human with each other, to be compassionate with each other, even if we come from very different backgrounds,” she says.
“We are enriched by being in community with folks who are different from us, and it’s actually useful for us, because we open up our world view, and we can become more compassionate human beings.”
Myth of the Ostrich runs for 10 performances from Sept. 22 to Oct. 8, with a preview performance on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Go to www.GuildHall.ca for more information.