TOAST: A Conversation with Emily McLean, Director of New Blue Room Show
Brand new at the Blue Room Theatre this month is a new Western Australian born-and-raised show: Maiden Voyage Theatre Company's Toast. This comedy/drama explores the complex relationships and conflicting emotions between siblings following the death of their mother. The stellar creative team includes writer and producer Liz Newell (writer of Alone Outside, a Fringe World Festival Martin Sims Award Finalist and a show we described as "a fine performance") and director Emily McLean (director of Grounded, The Blue Room Theatre Best Production Award Winner 2016). We got the chance to discuss this new show with Emily McLean in the lead-up to the play's premiere.
IN: We’ll start with the ultra-serious question: how do you like your toast?
EM: I like it with real butter and a little Vegemite. If I’m feeling crazy I’ll have marmalade.
IN: What was it about Toast that made you want to direct it?
EM: It’s a new West Australian script that is well written, intelligent and has a sense of humour. It also says something important – that we need to belong to a family, whatever that definition of family may be.
I loved the twisting conversations that the three sisters in it have. I’m one of three sisters, born of a mother who was one of three sisters. It’s in my blood. I love that adoption was a part of this story. I’ve seen firsthand the joy these kids bring to their family and how much the love means to those kids. It’s a beautiful thing. And there’s a great challenge to putting families on stage – they have such loaded conversations and complicated emotional relationships. I really wanted to try to make that real within the very unforgiving theatrical close up that is The Blue Room Theatre.
IN: You’ve been responsible for directing a whole range of notable, award-winning shows. How would you describe your personal directing style?
EM: I’m a collaborator. I love to work alongside people. I work hard. I come in to every rehearsal with a clear idea of what I want to achieve in a scene but always leave space for play and the amazing ideas of others in the room. I love trying every idea on the floor. I’m not interested in talking an idea to death. I pursue action between actors rather than internal moments. I like active. I played a lot of sport growing up – be on the balls of your feet, not your heels. Grab the ball, pass the ball. And so on.
IN: Toast features a creative team comprised entirely of women, how important was this for you all, both for the show and the wider theatre community?
EM: We’re all aware of the stupid stats. So it’s important. I think that taking positive action is important. Sure we need more than a co-op show to change the world, but doing is better than not doing. Also, I have seen through my long history of smaller shows how this can lead to work on the larger stages in WA. So to do a show with female designers, writer and cast could be a small but very real step toward improving those stats.
IN: The show also has a lot of fantastic performers (Alison van Reeken, Amy Mathews and more), what were they like to work with? What have they brought to their respective roles?
EM: They both have a huge amount of talent and they both work really hard. They look any moment that is not working in the eye, interrogate it and try different things until it is true.
Ali and I have done a few shows together. We have a great language and understanding of each other’s process and methods. She is hilarious in the room – gets the giggles, tries lots of different ways to say a line, and is just so theatrically smart. Amy and I had never even met when we started. She’s completely wonderful. Her understanding of the emotional landscape of her character and the scene is amazing – it has history, thought and truth in it.
I’d also like to quickly mention our other two cast members, Anna Lindstedt and Samantha Maclean. They are both just starting their professional careers and play the two younger characters. It’s a great combination. The raw, fun unpredictability (and talent) of the newbies sits beautifully next to the experienced control and tried methodology of the more experienced women. It’s been interesting to watch what this produces and then work that into shape.
IN: It's a well-known fact that rehearsals can be a rollercoaster of emotions. Were there any humorous and/or odd stories that came out of this show that you feel are safe to share?
EM: There are a lot of names and relationships to get on top of. So there have been some great mix-ups delivered very genuinely – we would have a great blooper reel. For a story about death there has been a lot of laughter. Also, the play is set in the garage of a large family home. I had to draw a ridiculously detailed picture of the house and yard in order to place the sites the characters talk about. There’s nothing worse than watching a show where the backyard pool moves about. I’m tempted to display the plan in the foyer. Maybe even build it and move in. It’s a beautiful house.
IN: Were there any artistic minds/drama theorists whom you drew inspiration from for this play?
EM: Not in particular. I think all that sits behind any show I do.
IN: And finally, the sales pitch question: Why should our readers go and see the show?
EM: Our voices telling our stories on our stages is always worth seeing (and fighting for). A story about four interesting women that somehow involves both an axe and a toaster while they deal with their mother’s sudden death is worth leaving home for. Liz Newell, the playwright, is one to watch. And our cast is funny and gorgeous – my favourite qualities in actors and people.
IN: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, can’t wait to see the show!