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Posted November 10, 2022

The Interview – Liza Balkan

Liza Balkan

Liza Balkan is an Ontario-based, multi-disciplinary theatre artist whose practices and artistic inquiries continue to evolve as she heads into her fortieth year in the profession. She works as an actor, director, librettist, writer, and educator. She has written text for music works produced by Tapestry Opera, Bicycle Opera Project, Opera McGill, Brooklyn Art song Society (NYC), Scrag Mountain Music (Vermont), and Five Borough Songbook 2 (NYC). In collaboration with composer Paul Shilton, Liza recently created, wrote, and directed the verbatim song cycle So, how’s it been? which had a sold-out run at the outdoor Here for Now festival in Stratford, Ontario during the summer of 2021. She also wrote the text for composer Brian Current’s new opera Gould’s Wall, in production in 2022 at Koerner Hall/RCM. During a multi-year residency at the Theatre Centre, she developed her documentary/verbatim project Out the Window. Liza directed its original production at the Theatre Centre and it was produced at Toronto’s International Luminato Festival in 2018, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley. Early written works include her solo shows BRANGST, and Leftovers, performed at assorted festivals and fringes across Ontario. Liza’s recent directing credits include Much Ado About Nothing for Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, Every Brilliant Thing (starring Rebecca Northan) at Grand Theatre in London, and the premiere stage production of Stephanie Martin’s opera Llandovery Castle at Opera Laurier. Liza has been an actor in multiple productions across Canada and in the US. She received a Dora Award for her performance in Theresa Tova’s Still the Night (Theatre Passe Muraille/Tapestry). Upcoming: the libretto for the Canadian Premiere of Lembit Beecher’s After The Fires (Koerner /RCM).

Liza, Out the Window is a verbatim theatre piece based on a terrible incident that you witnessed in 2000, the death of Otto Vass, and the aftermath of that. What were some of the challenges you faced as you set about examining this incident through the lens of theatre?

 There were many challenges—each of them became my teachers guiding me forward in some fashion. I am grateful. These were some of them:

  • Placing myself as a character in the story, using my words on the stand, while trying to keep enough artistic distance to be able to collaborate well, shape the piece and make compelling choices.
  • The navigation of theatrical storytelling of an incident I was involved in personally, yet was not about me, but rather about a multi-tentacled subject, that also involved Mr. Vass’ family, the lives of others, the justice system, police culture, systemic racism, ableism… And bumping up against my own naivete—as both an artist and a citizen.
  • The seemingly endless amount of research coupled with the private, dogged desire to uncover material that might highlight ‘the thing’ that would change all things—including a verdict.
  • Recognizing the impossibility of finding “that thing.”
  • The humbleness of letting go of some material and of control, for the piece to grow into itself more fully.
  • The challenge of re-energizing the project for each new iteration through some personal and artistic questioning and sense of overwhelm.
  • Revisiting the incident, sometimes daily, over a period of years.

In addition to the text of the Luminato version of the play, which featured a partially-scripted third section, Out the Window also includes unscripted dialogue and interactions with the audience. What did this interactive section add to the production?

A desire for audience engagement in some form has always been intrinsic to the storytelling for this project. Initially, in ’07, it involved direct address to the audience and allowing them to wander around in the installation I created. For the workshop production I directed in 2012, six audience members joined the actors on stage in Act 2 for the (recorded, transcribed and edited) luncheon I had had with two of the key lawyers involved in the case. The servers were played by the actors who were playing the cops.

There was a desire to explore ideas around personal accountability and investigate the meanings and intersections of words like “witness” and “participant.” These audience members would eat and witness the verbatim interaction—and had an opportunity to engage in conversation, if prompted—while the rest of the audience was witnessing from their seats. This proved an interesting exploration of these themes. It almost worked. Not quite. Certainly, it was a first step, though one not deep enough.

For the Luminato Festival /Theatre Centre co-production in 2018, the project was re-investigated, re-imagined and directed by the incomparable Sarah Garton Stanley. Sarah’s envisioning of the show, and the artists and activists she invited to engage in the material, forwarded these and other essential themes that reflected the needs and conversations occurring in 2018.

In her director’s’ notes, Sarah speaks to a “responsibility as a storyteller to seek to find true places. Of transformation both for the subjects (of the play) and for the audience.” She continues, “we know that the legal system works for precedence and not justice. What new can be gained or learned or felt?” Sarah guided a condensation the written piece— originally three acts of primarily verbatim text—to two acts. The third act became what Sarah describes as an opportunity to take a “break, and figure out how, as a community, actors, and choir, along with the audience can build together a communal experience that required the involvement of everyone…The theatre can be a place to recharge and its rituals can help to unlock our inner resistance to change—or perhaps, more persistently it can help us imagine possible worlds through recounting worlds of limited possibility.” Sarah also mentions having had a private wish, one that is intrinsically linked to the interconnectedness of “witness” and “participant”: for the audience and artists on stage to take a bow together. And this occurred at each performance. It was a profoundly beautiful thing.

The book contains not only the text of the play, but also a history of the actual incident, a history of the play’s development, and essay contributions from many of the artists you collaborated with, including director Sarah Garton Stanley and artist Syrus Marcus Ware. How important were collaborators to the process of creating the play?

Collaboration was key, at every stage of the project’s development; right from the initial residency at The Theatre Centre starting in ’08. Former TTC Artistic Director Franco Boni and present AD Aislinn Rose offered essential support and input over the years. Several artists and designers joined. The book shares a bit about these multiple collaborations, which were instrumental in the growth of the project up to 2012. For the Luminato production in 2018, director Sarah Garton Stanley, Syrus Marcus Ware, Rozina Kazi, Nicholas Murray, Tanisha Tait, Trevor Schwellnus, Frank Donato and the rest of the company—all guided by Sarah, lifted and expanded the play, its storytelling , its conversations,  its activism, its  provocations, its theatricality, its humanity, and  its  audience engagement. Indeed, my own writing and thinking about the piece, about the subject matter and about the nature of theatre grew exponentially because of this collaboration.

One of the things that becomes very clear in Out the Window is that the issues examined in the play are intersectional: mental health care, policing, the justice system. Do you think that we, as a society, have made any progress on these issues since you first began writing about them?

 Has there been progress? I think it depends on who you ask; whose voice and body, living in this society, can respond and be heard.

What has changed since this project began: The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, louder calls to action toward Truth and Reconciliation, demands around defunding the police and channelling dollars toward community care and alternate responses for crisis intervention, the acknowledgement of entrenched white privilege, and the essential, daily work necessary to break down the walls of systemic racism that inform and create the ongoing intersection of these, and other, issues. These conversations are more present, or rather, a white population (myself included) is HEARING them in ways that we weren’t back in ‘07.

Liza, you are also a very successful writer of opera libretti and were recently nominated (along with composer Brian Current) for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Opera. Can you tell us more about that? What are the differences between writing libretti and writing plays?

Thank you for this compliment. And the nomination was a sweet honour, indeed. You know, I have been experiencing an interesting co-relation between the text for music works I have been writing of late and a project like Out The Window. They share the following: Discipline. Research. Collaboration. Interviewing. Listening. Honouring. Respecting. Editing. Due diligence. Probably crying. Writing less. Also: Language is music.

 I cannot generalize about my playwriting, as I have written very few plays prior to Out The Window, and these were primarily solo shows with wild, large props inhabiting the space (example: a 6 x 5 foot, three-dimensional bran muffin that I lived IN and ON with BRANGST.)

Out The Window demanded ongoing research, rigorous editing and letting go of VAST amounts of material to keep the storytelling flowing forward and compelling. This meant diving into its fulsome, multi-layered content while also listening for the musicality of the language, in conjunction with the focused precision and the exactitude necessary when working with verbatim court transcripts and interviews. In a similar way, writing text for opera is all about precision—and editing. Understanding and playing with and within musical composition. Writing less. Letting go of material. Knowing that the music will be telling much of the story. Knowing that a single word riding on a chord or cadenza may offer far more power than a full sentence ever could.

Much of the text for music works I have been writing over the past few years, whether for opera or in more folk/rock/musical genres, have involved interviewing people, transcribing the conversations and weaving them into poetry that I hope honours the sense of the conversation as well as the words, heart and mind of the person interviewed. These works hold verbatim material, but here there is also some liberty taken, with permission, for repetition, rhythm and occasional rhyming schemes. The text for Gould’s Wall includes many of Gould’s own words uncovered through research. They spin, the fly, they have their own musical, contrapuntal coherence. I was listening to a lot of Bach while writing! And then, in collaboration with composer Brian Current, writing less.

Out the Window includes selected trial transcripts, interview transcripts, etc. I am wondering how you organized all of the material you gathered while putting the play together. Did you have a system? Do you have any advice for other writers who would like to tackle a verbatim theatre piece?

One of the ways in which I organized the court transcripts right away, especially as the number of pages acquired grew, was to colour-code sections within each volume, creating a kind of map of various subject matters. Example: Red: My testimony. Blue: Officers’ testimony. Green: Details of injuries. Yellow: Defence Lawyers. Orange: Prosecuting Lawyers. Pink: Humour. Grey: Horror, etc. There were several colour-coded sub-sections, as well. Through the process of listening to the material via working with a variety of actors, I photocopied and filed multiple selections that proved compelling, or co-related to OTHER topics. Bankers’ boxes lined one wall of my apartment. This allowed me to be able to find and grab—or discard—material. There were scores of digital files as well as I headed ever deeper into the project. I was not good at deleting. Environmentally, an unconscionable amount of paper was used and pages created. This became both a literal and figurative reflection of the subject matter, certainly. However, if I were to attempt a project like this today, most of the material would remain digital.

In terms of further advice: 1. Self-care. 2. Find collaborators who will open your world in ways that you could never have imagined yourself. 3. Look to the brilliant verbatim work and rigorous, compelling, practices of artists like Anna Devere Smith and Andrew Kushner of Project Humanity, to name just two. There are so many, of course.