BWW Interview: Actress/Producer Sarah Booth Talks BLACKBIRD

BWW Interview: Actress/Producer Sarah Booth Talks BLACKBIRD

Montreal actress/producer Sarah Booth's Toronto debut in the searing, smash indie hit "Blackbird" is an overnight hit three years in the making.

Calling her and her partner David Ferry's performances "remarkable," the Toronto Star critic raved "A must see. Catch it while you can." "A heart-stopping production," opined the Globe and Mail's J. Kelly Nestruck. Martin Morrow for the Torontoist called it "electrifying." "(A) gripping, explosive production of an unsettling play," wrote Lynn Slotkin in her review posted on The Slotkin Letter.

It also made several year-end top-10 lists including Robert Cushman's in The National Post who shared it with "The Motherf**er with the Hat" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" as one of "a remarkable string of independent presentations" that ended the year. "He called them "invigorating productions of exciting plays, staged intimate spaces and attracting top-of-the-line actors."

Written by Scottish playwright David Harrower, "Blackbird " is a 90-minute, one-act play portraying the reunion of a 27-year-old woman a 55-year-old man dealing with a sexual relationship they shared when she was 12 years old.

Sarah Booth starred in the play with David Ferry (who also directed). She moved to Toronto in 2011 and this was the first play she has produced here. She took time out for an interview early last month.

Q. Were you born and raised in Montreal?

I was born in Montreal and raised in a small town called Ormstown just south west of the city. My parents were city folk who dreamed of having horses and a small farm. We moved there when I was four and lived there until I was eighteen. I moved back to Montreal for my post-secondary education.

Q. What inspired you to want to become an actress?

I loved dance and competing with my pony when I was young. I loved being in front of people and doing my thing. I never even considered acting as a career although I did secretly want to be Shirley Temple. When I was in secondary school it was a school which was very sports oriented. I participated in the sports programs, but then in my last year of school two amazing teachers came on board and created an ARTS PROGRAM! We put on a show and I was hooked. Once I found out I could go to college and train for acting there was no going back.

Q. Where did you go to theatre school?

I attended the Professional Theatre Program at Dawson College. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I don't think I had even read a play before I went. I had directed my friends in one I had made up, but never really read a professional script. But, I suppose that's why you go to school right!? I learned a lot. I love theatre school but I do think it is a place where you can get trapped into being like everyone else... stuck in one acting mold, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Q. What are your other theatre activities besides acting? You've been involved with the National Theatre School, right?

When I first finished theatre school I put on a play right away as a way to get seen by casting directors in Montreal (Sound familiar?). That was my first dabbling as a producer and all the other hats that you must wear when you have no money but want to put something up. I danced a lot during theatre school, - frequently in dance troupes for female impersonators and Drag Queens.

I worked with NTS three times doing workshops for their directors' lab: 'Blasted" with Kelly Thornton, "After Miss Julie" with Sophie Gee, and of course 'Blackbird' with the very talented Andreja Kovac. It was an intense, concentrated work period, especially because of the subject matter. We had two-and-a-half weeks to analyze, learn, block and present the show as a work-in-progress for only one, single performance!

Although my experience at NTS was fantastic, I felt unsatisfied. I wanted to get to know this play and character-to portray Una in a full engagement. I had already been considering staging a production in Toronto.

Q. Why did you move to Toronto?

I wanted to take the next step in my acting career. I love Montreal but it is definitely much smaller than Toronto which means less work opportunities. It is very hard to be a full time actor there. I decided that I wanted to split my time between two cities to double my chances of being cast.

I moved to Toronto three years ago and have struggled to get in front of casting directors here. It has been pretty hard for me here. You have to start from scratch. I have still been booking most of my gigs in the past three years in Montreal. So the 401 is very familiar territory! That's why I wanted to do this play. Get my name out there any way I could. As a new face here, I needed to be seen and prove myself. There are so many talented actors here that just being seen is a full time job on its own.

Toronto has also given me my biggest push forward in creating my own short and feature film projects which are adding to getting my name and acting work out there.

My most rewarding performance experiences so far here have been when I created my own work. Mikaela Davies, our associate director in "Blackbird" and another transplant from Montreal, was also having similar difficulty.

She had previously directed a production of Blackbird back home, so we agreed an indie production of "Blackbird" here in Toronto would accomplish both of our goals: putting our names out there but, at worst case, keeping us busy; helping us grow as actor and director.

All of these plans were in place before I had met David Ferry. He became the last big puzzle piece - but definitely one of the most important pieces. It was David who stepped into the director's role and presented a vision for performing the play in a "found space". We originally set out to rent an actual business after hours but once we toured Artscape we realized it was the perfect compromise.

Q - Tell me about how you got David involved? He was on tour with David Suchet, right? And he asked you to wait until he was done as he wanted to play the role of Ray.

I met David after attending the preview for "After Miss Julie" he directed at The Storefront Theatre. I know Amy Keating, who was in the show. Honestly, I was not familiar with David's work prior to that show but I was very impressed.

Actor friends like Amy are fantastic because they go out of their way to help me meet people in the city. She introduced me to David after the show. I told him a bit about myself and how I wanted to put up a show soon. When I told him it was "Blackbird," his eyes got big. He wanted to play Ray.

Seemed like a match made in heaven... but we wanted to put it up in March. David was going to be on tour for The Last Confession all year and he asked me to delay the show. (Ferry played ... and understudied David Suchet in the starring role of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli and played Monsignor John Magee, principal secretary to Popes Paul, John Paul I and II, and a suspect in the death of Pope John Paul I.)

I didn't really want to wait, but when I was home that night I "googled" David. I had no idea before that google search the caliber of actor/director that David is - what his experience could bring to the production as well as the opportunity to act opposite him would be for me. I told Mikaela about meeting him we both realized how stupid we would be if we didn't take this opportunity.

Q - By waiting, it now seems the play has become very timely, indeed, with the all of the attention being paid on the abuse of women. Serendipity, yes? I understand playwright David Harrower was inspired, in part, by the crimes of real-life sex offender Toby Studebaker. (The play premiered in 2005 at the Ediburgh Festival in Scotland.)

We were at the start of rehearsals when the CBC/Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke. We panicked immediately, thinking "how do we handle this? We don't want to be seen as capitalizing on real life situations to promote our theatre production." Quickly those thoughts turned to realizing that the play's subject matter could be used to start a conversation, to bring the topic to light in a less sensationalized way. That's all we could do. We can't tell people what to think or how to feel, but we can definitely invite them to watch something and talk about it.

And yes, David Harrower was inspired by the events of Toby Studebaker's crimes, but I think the interesting part about his script is the grey area. Toby abducted a girl. Ray did not, in my opinion. This play brings out so many "what if" questions.

Q - Tell me a bit about the panel discussions you have had. Did people get emotional or passionate? Did Harrower's script provoke them?

The panel discussions were tough... in a good way. People have very strong opinions about this subject matter. Sometimes I found that emotions strayed off topic. The subject we were talking about wasn't always clear when this occurred. Some believed the characters of Una and Ray were in love. Some believed this was no doubt abuse or pedophilia.

I think it is also very important to remember that we do not know the history, the background of everyone who attended the panel discussions. We don't know their upbringing or experiences that lead them to their opinions on the matter. Our production also wanted to be sure to present the play without a bias - we perform the material as written and wanted to engage the audience to have their own thoughts and feelings about the outcome.

During the first panel discussion we had Dr. Catherine Classen who is an expert in Sexual Trauma. Much of the conversation and questions that night dealt about the 'system' that Una went through after her "abuse". Was she abused? The second panel was geared towards "Ray". Joining us was Dr. James Cantor who is the top specialist in the Canada, if not the world, on the brain mapping of pedophiles. Both panels drew out compassion and anger. Both were very welcome, of course!

Q - What did people ask when comparing "Blackbird" to "How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel?

During one of the panel discussion someone did mention "How I Learned to Drive (HILTD)". It raises the main argument about "Blackbird": did Ray molest her? Was Una abused? There are also similarities with the photos he took of her etc...

However, I think the difference between the two plays is, and I am not super familiar with "HILTD" - one is centered on abuse. The other is very much a grey area about it. So many of our audience members walked away from Artscape not knowing what to call the situation that caused what happened between Ray and Una.

A sensitive question - Have you ever been abused or known anybody who was? Is the play a catharsis ... maybe not about abuse ... but other issues that have troubled you?

No, I've never been abused. I do not know of anyone personally that had been abused. Or if I do they have not shared their experience with me. There is a lot of silence with abuse. Victims are so ashamed and blame themselves. They have been told or feel that they are the ones who brought it onto themselves. However this play did create an environment where a person did share their experiences with me. I am happy that the room created a safe place for them to share and not feel judgment.

Q - How many performances did you have? Were you surprised by the popular response and that it forced you to add extra performances?

We originally were supposed to have nine performances but then cancelled our preview because of a crazy shooting schedule I had in Montreal for the series "Helix". So it was eight shows in total so we could have that extra day of rehearsal. I did invite a few friends to the dress rehearsal that drove in from Montreal to see it. I know, right? I have the best friends in the world.

We could not get bums in seats so we gave away most of our opening tickets. This is my first time producing a play in Toronto. FilmBooth is a new company. This is independent theatre right before Christmas. It was an uphill battle going into it and we knew that; we accepted that risk. Thankfully for us, and we are incredibly grateful that members of the press came out that first night. When the reviews started coming out the next morning it really picked up. We were thrilled by the reviews. We had some of Toronto's best critics give our show a proper chance. Kelly Nestruck, Robert Crew, Martin Morrow, and Jon Kaplan to name a few.

By the end of the first weekend we sold out our entire run. So we collectively decided to add a show. Two shows in one night because why not?

Any chances you will re-mount it? Will David's schedule allow it? Would you consider replacing him with an actor who is available?

I would love to remount it. The biggest problem with that, in my opinion, is financials. I put up all the money for the show's budget as the producer. That doesn't come without stress I'd rather forgo.

I'd wish to focus on the performance alone. We'd ideally have proper P.R., a bigger space... that all equals $$. We would need an investor or established company behind us in order to remount it in an ideal way.

Will David's schedule allow it? Would you consider replacing him with an actor who is available?

I know that David is booked for a while. We haven't talked in detail about it. I think we are both exhausted, hung over from the run. But if an offer were to come in, I know we would sit down and definitely consider it.

What's it like performing a two-hander like this with David?

Working with David has given me a lot of confidence. He is a fabulous director. He helped me reach places as an actor I have never been before. There was a lot of trust with him on stage that made it OK for us to literally try anything we felt like attempting with the material. Mikaela was there to keep us honest and on track and ask us some really tough questions.

I think the most important part of the rehearsal process was the safety of the room. We had some serious questions to explore and some deep places to dig, but whatever happened was okay. We always found something of value in every exercise and conversation that we had, whether it worked or not.

David is so much fun to work with. We had a blast every night on stage. You have to with this show or you will lose your mind. I wouldn't want to perform it with anyone else; I feel that David and I really discovered something that works for this show.

Each performance was done a little differently, too. David encouraged it. "Try different tactics every night." That helps keeps it interesting. No auto-pilot allowed... these are characters that should be kept on their toes at all times.

Q - Have you learned anything from playing Una? The play ... and your role ... are very intense and emotional.

Una is very strong and confident. When you first read the script it is very easy to fall into a trap. Una is weak; she is the victim. Her whole life is over. But this woman has overcome some tremendous events. She is here to stand face to face with someone that has ruined her life. That alone takes some serious courage. She is a hero in my eyes. Yes, she is a victim but she is a victim that had decided to take her life into her own hands and understand the whole truth. And she is aware that the truth could potentially change her life for the better or absolutely destroy her. Either way she is there and she is not leaving without an answer.

Q. Tell me about your activities in filmmaking and your new company FILMBOOTH. Your husband is in film as well, right?

As soon as I left theatre school I knew that I wanted to learn about filmmaking in addition to the stage. I did the best thing I think anyone can do in this industry, which is, to jump in and learn from experience. I have been an actor, a producer, a PA, camera operator, sound tech, editor, a production manager, a driver, a coffee girl, a cleaner, wardrobe department, continuity and also have been involved in writing films as well. I love the filmmaking machine. It is fascinating.

When I met my husband, Gavin Michael Booth, I really started to understand. He is an "I wear every hat kind of guy" in his productions. He is so patient and generous with his time; helping other producers and directors,

I first met him approaching him for advice on a television project with which I was involved. He has taught me so much. He is honestly the most talented person I know. He graduated from high school and knew what he wanted to do and set out to do it. We have worked together on a few projects since we got married and it is my favorite work experience ever. We make a great team. I couldn't have done the play without his assistance. He is always there to support any crazy project I want to tackle.

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From This Author Dennis Kucherawy

A veteran entertainment executive, Dennis Kucherawy has worked in film exhibition and live theatre on Broadway, in London's West End and in Canada. An award-winning (read more...)

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