Every Family Has A Language

Photo by Trudie Lee

An interview with Bad Jews Director Valerie Planche

By Zachary Moull

You’ve probably seen Valerie Planche on the Max Bell Stage before. She’s played a number of roles over the years, most recently Rebecca Nurse inThe Crucible and Aaltje de Bruijn in Liberation Days. Now she’s making her Theatre Calgary directorial debut at the helm of Bad Jews, a funny and ferocious play about cultural tradition and family legacy that opens this week.

When did you first encounter Bad Jews?

I was in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater, acting in the co-production of Major Barbara. Four members of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts acting class were doing a studio production of Bad Jews in their rehearsal hall. Our vocal coach Nancy Benjamin invited me to come see it. Nancy and I had been having conversations about directing and working with actors, about how we ask actors to imagine things beyond their own experiences and then express the result of that in a play.

What was your experience of the play?

I purposefully didn’t read the script in advance, and the experience was remarkable. I was laughing out loud and gasping in shock all at the same time... and then when it was done, I couldn’t leave. The professors were trying to get us out so the next show could start, and none of us wanted to go. We all just wanted to sit and talk about it.

This is your Theatre Calgary debut as a director, but you have a wealth of experience as an actor and a teacher. How does that inform your approach to the rehearsal process?

I teach acting and movement primarily. Bodies create meaning in space, whether we’re aware of it or not. I wanted this rehearsal process to be very physical for the actors, especially since it’s a young cast. I used principles from the Viewpoints system and the work of Rudolf Laban to develop a common vocabulary about tempo, weight, and time, so that we had a very practical language that we could use in the rehearsal hall. That helped us get away from psychology.

What makes that physical work so necessary, even in a play that’s filled with ideas and argument?

It’s important for actors to have a sense in their bodies of who they are, and to marry what they are talking about intellectually with what they are doing physically. The ideas are inside them, and they need to reach them in a visceral way. As well, we had three short weeks of rehearsal to create a family, with two brothers and a cousin, and every family has its own physical language.

How do you create that language in rehearsal?

We did all sorts of exercises. In one of them, for example, I blindfolded one actor and had the others lead them through the space, over and around obstacles. And only the blindfolded actor could speak; the leaders, who could see, couldn’t speak. So they had to navigate together and learn to work together without using words. You can communicate so much without speaking. We had to create all those layers of understanding that exist within a family, so that the actors could find the looks across the room that tell the audience that there’s a shared secret, that there’s a story there.

To help achieve that quickly, we did Viewpoints together every day [a physical practice that helps a group with spatial awareness and presence]. Our stage space is very confined and full, so we also needed to be very aware of the architecture of the room.

We’re about to go into previews. What are you looking forward to learning once we have our first audiences?

With this type of dark comedy, you have to find the depths and the tragedy in rehearsal. The characters have their fantasies ripped away from them. So we’ve talked a lot about working for the truth of the situation, instead of going for the laugh. Now I’m excited for the actors to hear how all the comedy impacts the audience. It’s not a big slapstick show, but there is so much humour in it from discomfort, and surprise, and the messiness of human beings.