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Inside Out

Daniel MacIvor’s newest play rises at UVic's Phoenix Theatre
Dance scene from the premiere of Daniel MacIvor's new play 'Inside'

Daniel MacIvor’s newest play rises at UVic's Phoenix Theatre

“Every theatre school in the country would give their eyeteeth to do something like this.”

It’s a strong statement, but considering who is delivering it — acclaimed actor and director David Ferry — and where it was delivered — at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre, where Ferry is set to direct the world premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s new play, Inside — it’s a truthful one.

Indeed, not only do these UVic theatre students get to perform in the first-ever production of a new work by one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights — MacIvor has won the Governor General’s Award for Drama, the Siminovitch Prize, a GLAAD and an Obie — they’ve had a chance to work with him directly.

MacIvor and Ferry, last seen in Victoria as Willy Lowman in Blue Bridge’s Death of a Salesman, first met with and cast the students last March, and MacIvor subsequently revised the script to reflect his actors, returning to UVic’s Phoenix Theatre for the first two weeks of rehearsals. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity for UVic’s young actors, many of whom are on the cusp of starting their careers.

Inside a migration

Inside wasn’t originally slated to premiere at the Phoenix; MacIvor started penning the play, in which seemingly disparate characters end up coming together in a hip nightclub, while he was writer-in-residence at the National Theatre School in Montreal. He started working with first-year students with the intention of having them perform the piece in their third year. The desire to work directly with students stemmed from MacIvor wanting to write more culturally diverse characters.

“I was feeling like I was writing a bunch of white characters and my audiences were a bunch of white people and it seems odd, especially living in a city like Toronto that is intensely multicultural,” he says. “But I had this funny thing about cultural appropriation ... When I went to National Theatre School, it was a mix of cultures. So I was able to write specifically for an actor and it felt like I was eliminating that threat of appropriation.”

When other obligations started to interfere with MacIvor’s plan to direct the play, he tapped Ferry to take the helm.

“I asked him if I could pitch it to other theatre schools, and he said sure, so I pitched it out here and they jumped on it,” says Ferry, who received his MFa in directing at UVic in 2004. Eventually, plans to produce Inside at the National Theatre School fell through altogether, making the UVic production the world premiere.

MacIvor says Inside started with a structure: 12 two-character scenes, six in the first act and six in the second.

“There is this idea that we meet people and we get this opportunity to see people in a behaviour with one person and in a behaviour with a totally different person and that illuminates something about character,” he says. “Overall, the play is about a lot of things, but one of the things it’s about is this pursuit we have to feel inside. I think that we probably all feel like outsiders, yet we think that everybody else is inside something when, in fact, we’re probably all inside being outside.”

Alex Plouffe, a fourth-year UVic theatre student playing the role of Brian, a nightclub manager, says a lot of their work with MacIvor and Ferry revolved around the significance of the title.

“It’s been really interesting going through and discovering what it means for each individual person,” he says. “It seems like all characters, for one reason or another — and you could say this about everyone — don’t fit in. There’s something about them that separates them from the norm of how they fit into their job or place in society.”

Collaboration of a lifetime

For the 11 student actors, working on Inside has been a rewarding experience and not just because they get to work with Ferry and MacIvor.

“We’ve been made to feel comfortable enough to create together and not just follow instructions,” says fourth-year student Shaan Rahman, who is playing the role of Vincent, a man trying to immigrate to Canada. “With people like David and Daniel, I find they’ve done so much work and they’re so established in their craft already that they’re not trying to prove anything. They just know exactly what they mean, how they want to do it and that it’s okay for it to flow organically and not have to go this way or have to go that way.”

“It’s almost closer to the work we’ve done in some independent things, like SATCo [Student Alternative Theatre Company] or the Fringe or something, where you’re collectively creating these characters with the writer and director,” says Emily Piggford, who is also in her final year at UVic and is playing immigration lawyer Kara. “To get the opportunity to do that with someone like Daniel MacIvor as university students is very cool.”

But the learning has been a two-way street; both MacIvor and Ferry say they’ve taken a lot away from the experience.

“I always think I take away more than they do because you really have to very clearly enunciate what you’re saying to be understood and you have to have very strong communication abilities in full play because you’re not just working as a director, you’re working as an educator — and that’s always sobering to see when you’re not communicating,” says Ferry.

In MacIvor’s case, not directing his own script and watching the students delve into it has been fascinating.

“Because I wrote the play, I feel like there’s a lot of questions I don’t even bother to ask because I feel like I know,” he says. “If the kids had questions, I’d tell them ... so it allows them a different sort of journey into the character.”

Beyond the Phoenix

But what does the future hold for Inside? Both MacIvor and Ferry say that given its large cast, it’s a play that will likely only be produced in the post-secondary setting.

“I would think there’s potential that this kind of development could be part of every production, that I could potentially go and be there to do a rewrite,” says MacIvor. “Over maybe a few more drafts of doing that, I’ll be in a situation where it will be easily adaptable by the people in the department.”

Plus, he adds, working on a new script is a situation young actors will likely find themselves in.

“I do feel that universities are a bit overwhelmed with trying to teach the classics,” he says. “I have great respect for UVic doing this, because I think a lot of universities miss out on doing contemporary work. In fact, unless kids are going off to Stratford or Shaw, they’re going to end up doing contemporary new plays ... and they need to get some training in that when they’re in school.”

And for the students, some of whom are weeks away from graduating, the opportunity was a very unique way to cap off their education.

“There’s something about creating together that really just unites people,” says Plouffe.”It’s such a different unification, because you’re building something together.”

“We don’t do this stuff by ourselves,” says MacIvor. “If you want to be alone, [theatre] isn’t the place to do it.” M

InsideOpens 8pm Thursday, March 17 to March 26Phoenix Theatre, UVic; Tickets $12-$22; 250-721-8000