Tag Archives: Margaret Spence

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood Relations : Part drama, part mystery, all compelling. “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?”

life with more cowbell

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading…

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“The Lady’s Not For Burning” Talkback, Feb 2

Lady's Not For Burning cast

Cast of “The Lady’s Not For Burning”. BACK ROW:
Chris Coculuzzi (Thomas), Ian Orr (Matthew Skipps), Christopher Kelk (Mayor Tyson), Rob Candy (Tappercoom), Paul Cotton (Humphrey), Chris Whidden (Richard).
FRONT ROW: Andrea Brown (Jennet), Elsbeth McCall (Alizon), Carol McLennan (Margaret), Peter Higginson (The Chaplain).
NOT PICTURED: Ryan Armstrong (Nicholas).  Photo:  Dahlia Katz

As is traditional on the second Sunday of the run, yesterday’s matinee of The Lady’s Not For Burning was followed by a Talkback.  About a third of the audience stuck around for an informative Q&A with director Jane Carnwath, sound designer Angus Barlow, set & lighting designer Ed Rosing, and of course the cast.  Costume designer Margaret Spence was unfortunately not able to make it.  The Q&A was hosted by one of the producers, Barbara Larose.  Scenic artist Cathy McKim took pictures of the set which will soon go up on her blog as a slideshow, and of course I will re-blog for Alumnae.  Following is a sort-of transcript of the questions and answers during the approx 30-minute Talkback.

 Q:           It’s mentioned in the press release that Jane has loved The Lady for a long time.  Can you tell us why?

A:            Director JANE CARNWATH – It was instinctive – before I knew better!  I heard the recording of the original production – 1949?  1950?  [according to my research it was actually 1948 – bloggergal] which starred John Gielguid as Thomas and Pamela Brown as Jennet, and fell in love with the language.  At first I wanted to play Jennet, and then as time went on and that became unlikely, I wanted to play Margaret [the mayor’s sister, mother of Humphrey and Nicholas].  And then when that didn’t happen, I decided I wanted to direct it. Why do I love it?  I love the themes of hope and the possibility of redemption, and I love the characters.

Q:           The language shifted from almost Shakespearean to modern.  Was that in the script?

A:            Director JANE CARNWATH – Yes.  Christopher Fry wrote the play just after World War II, and the language is full of intentional anachronisms.  Fry states that the period is 1400, “either more or less or exactly” – he’s not very concerned about it.  We decided to just do a tip of the hat to the period, and not worry about exact period accuracy.

Q:           There are a lot of doors and exits – was that specified in the script, or a production decision?

A:            Set Designer ED ROSING –  It was necessary!  People are constantly going and coming through doors and windows.  The concept for the set was a house built around a stone room, like a church.  That’s why you’ll see the walls are stone on the inside.  In those days, fabric was used as insulation – we went a step further and put fabric on the walls.  The set in the original production was very Gothic – church-like with lots of arches.  I never forgot that original, but wanted this set to be much more humble and down-to-earth.        [bloggergal’s note:  in the original 1948 production in London’s West End, a then-unknown Richard Burton played Richard, the mayor’s clerk!]         

 Q:           To the actors, what was it like, working with this text?

A:            CHRIS COCULUZZI (Thomas) – I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare over the last 20 years.  This was more challenging!   Maybe because Fry’s language is not so much a part of our culture and consciousness as Shakespeare’s is.

A:            CAROL McLENNAN (Margaret) – They key for me was I found it was essential to e-nun-ci-ate!  You can’t just garble it all together – it has to be understandable to the audience when they hear it for the first time.  Even now we’re still finding things. When I first read for Jane, she said “You were very natural – this play isn’t.”

A:            PAUL COTTON (Humphrey) – Jane insisted we get the language down first, then work on making it natural after.  Which is a reversal of the usual process.

A:            ANDREA BROWN (Jennet) – It’s a journey and a quest with every performance!  The challenge was how to honour the beautiful and poetic language while making it engaging to the audience.

Q:           The cast did a great job in getting the comedy across.

A:            IAN ORR (Matthew Skipps) – This is a comedy??!!

Q:           I noticed in her bio that Andrea has now played an accused witch in two shows.

A:            ANDREA BROWN – Yes, I played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible just a few months ago.  Spoiler alert: it does not end well for her!  Jennet has a much happier ending.

Q:           (Jane calls the audience’s attention to the sound design)

A:            Sound Designer ANGUS BARLOW – There are about 25 sound cues.  Some are so subtle, it’s like Margot [stage manager Margot Devlin] calls the cue and nothing happens.  We can’t hear it in the booth, but it’s audible to the audience.  It was a challenge to build and run the sound.  We recorded some of the cast to make the noises of the angry mob and the party, and a professional cellist was brought in to record the awful sounds of the viol tuning [actor Peter Higginson, who plays the musically untalented Chaplain, interjects: “it wasn’t me!”].

Q:           It’s a big cast [11 actors] – was everybody at all the rehearsals?

A:            Director JANE CARNWATH – No, we had a few reads all together and then I broke the script into scenes and tried to bring actors in only when they would be used.   When we finally get to run all the scenes together it takes a huge leap forward.  This was one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with – a lot happened onstage; the actors made it come together.  I had a great time with the production because I was also working with people I’ve worked with before – Ed, Angus, Margaret, Margot… it’s been wonderful.

The Lady’s Not For Burning runs to Saturday Feb 8.  Four more performances:  Wed – Sat at 8pm.  Tickets are 2-for-1 on Wed, and $20 Thu – Sat (unless you purchase day-of tickets at half price at the T.O. Tix booth!).  reservations@alumnaetheatre.com


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Wit, wonder & wisdom in The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

life with more cowbell

Lady's Not For Burning - image only“Life, forbye, is the way

We fatten for the Michaelmas of our own particular

Gallows. What a wonderful thing is metaphor!”

– Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning (from director’s program notes)

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning, directed by Jane Carnwath, brings the wit, wonder and wisdom of Christopher Fry’s play to life through sight, sound and poetic wordplay – an excellent cast and a beautiful show.

The marvelous ensemble includes some remarkable stand-outs. Chris Coculuzzi gives us a Thomas Mendip that combines the melancholy philosophy of a Jacques with the good-humoured wit of a Fool, and Andrea Brown is luminous as Jennet Jourdemayne, quirky, sharp-witted and compassionate. Together, their performances show us opposite perspectives of the all too fleeting realization of the nature of the human condition: we live, suffer out our short time in these bodies – yes – and…

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Surprise!! All hail Margaret Spence

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

The much-beloved Margaret Spence was the longtime Wardrobe Mistress of Alumnae Theatre Company, and is a frequent costume designer.  When she announced her retirement at the end of the 2011/12 season, some kind of tribute was definitely called for.  It just took a while to come together, for various reasons.   Finally, a date was decided:  Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  Alumnae’s 2012/13 season was over, and this was the one day when the theatre was not booked with rentals.

Ramona Baillie (who served as MC on the night) spearheaded and co-ordinated a team of people to pull the surprise event together, and invitees were cautioned not to mention it to Margaret.  Razie Brownstone, who unfortunately could not attend on June 26 because she was en route to Newfoundland, helped with wardrobe selection and some invaluable historical context.  After all, we’re talking about 50 years of history, folks!  Tabitha Keast, Razie’s great-niece Bec Brownstone and current Wardrobe Mistress Barbara Blonska pulled costumes for models to wear – more on that later.  Sandy Schneider (who was also out of town on the event date) arranged a catering team of Bev Atkinson, Norma Crawford, Johanna Jaciw, and Carol Libman to provide delicious goodies for the guests.  Bar Manager Jayne Patterson ensured stock and bartenders; Tess Hendaoui and Sara Kohal spent a steamy Sunday afternoon helping to set up the tables and lobby display, cleaning windows and the brass banister, etc., Janis Sivell welcomed guests and handed out the ‘playbill’ on the event night.

Bill Scott, a frequent lighting designer and special effects builder (an ingenious basket/lampshade on a pulley in After Magritte in January 2011, for example), was enlisted to design and construct an award for Margaret.  Placing a Victorian-gowned statuette (acquired by Ramona in the U.S. ) atop a base he carved from wood from Ghana, Bill affixed an engraved brass plaque.  The whole thing was encased in a cylindrical plexiglass case.  The award was dubbed “The Judy” (in costume design lingo, a “judy” is a dressmaker’s form).

Margaret’s daughters Catherine Spence (Theatre Manager and Archivist) and Martha Spence not only researched Margaret’s long list of credits, built the lobby displays and helped select costumes, but also managed to sneak photo albums, etc. out of their parents’ house! Their father Michael Spence (who I’m told has a difficult time keeping secrets from his wife) held onto the secret until the moment Margaret walked through the door, having accompanied Michael when he invented a reason to come to the theatre!

Here’s a little history on this wonderful lady. Margaret studied Art and Archaeology (now Art History) at the University of Toronto. She joined Alumnae Theatre Company (then called University Alumnae Dramatic Club) in the early 1960’s.  At the time, the company was located on Cecil Street in a former synagogue dubbed The Coach House Theatre.

Her daughters Catherine and Martha like to joke that they were raised in theatre – Catherine recalls sorting screws at age 4 or 5 in the hardware cabinet of Cecil Street for her father Michael.  When Alumnae acquired the former firehall at 70 Berkeley Street, Martha remembers accompanying her mother (then Theatre Manager) to the space before the 1971-72 renovations, and not being allowed to climb the “unsafe” tower stairs.

In over 50 years of tireless volunteering with the theatre, Margaret filled various executive positions on the Board, produced shows, assisted with wardrobe, and exercised her creative bent with costume design.

A special favourite is meticulously-researched period costuming – in recent years alone she has dressed the 21-member cast of Pride and Prejudice (2009) in the fashions of 1813 England; 17 actors as for 1905 in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (2007); 1930’s-style for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (2010) and for Noël Coward’s Private Lives (2008), and she brought the 18th century to life in She Stoops To Conquer (2005).

And not only does she consider the period, but Margaret also takes into account the character and the situation.  She’s been known to say, “Oh, no – [character name] wouldn’t wear that!”   Anyone who’s been costumed by Margaret knows that she will let no actor cross the stage with an undone hem, or heaven forbid: the wrong kind of headgear or footwear!  She also insists on proper foundation garments (i.e.: corsets) for ladies, where appropriate, to ensure correct fit of period wear.  Her attention to detail is legendary, and much appreciated.

During the June 26 event, which was attended by members of Alumnae Theatre Company, Margaret’s friends, design colleagues, etc., models wearing her costumes paraded among the guests, stopping at times to perform a few lines from the play they represented.  Tabitha Keast chose dialogue from the plays.

Carol McLennan and Molly Thom, valiantly disregarding the heat in heavy medieval gear, portrayed Patient Griselda and Pope Joan from Alumnae’s 1996 production Top Girls.

Patient Griselda: “The Marquis said it wasn’t an order, I could say no, but if I said yes I must always obey him in everything.”

Pope Joan:  “I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me.”

The 1992 production For The Love Of The Nightingale was represented by Ramona Baillie, Loriel Medynski and Stephanie Williams in Greek-inspired togas and sporting vine-leaf headdresses.  Their dialogue included:  “What are they like? Men?” 

“They fight.” 

“What are they like: naked?” 


(Yes, it got a laugh.)

Jane Carnwath and I represented Pride and Prejudice (2009).  Jane (who had been the director) wore Mary Bennet’s costume and bonnet and I wore my lace-trimmed brown ballgown as Mrs. Hurst.  I delivered the novel’s memorable opening line (actually spoken by Lizzy Bennet in the stage version), and Jane provided Mrs. Bennet’s interruptions:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune –”

Mrs. Bennet:  “His name is Bingley!?”

Lizzy: “– must be in want of a wife…”

 Bec Brownstone wore Hedda’s stylish black dress from Hedda Gabler (2010).  Her line included the snarky: “We’re going to have problems with that maid. Look. Here. She’s left her old hat.”

PJ Hammond portrayed sociopath Cherry, wearing mob cap and beribboned yellow dress (sadly, minus the hula-hoop underpinning!) as the devious maid Despina in the comedy Così (2012).  Her speech exhorted her mistresses to “enjoy yourselves” while their men were away at war.  “Men only want to get into your pants,” she advised.  “Once they’ve had us, they despise us.”

Amid the eating and drinking, Jayne Patterson facilitated an open mic, for guests to tell anecdotes about Margaret.  Molly Thom read a lovely tribute faxed in by a longtime friend, Martha Mann, who could not attend.   PJ described how Margaret knows exactly where to find anything in her domain.  English bobby hats?  Third aisle on the left side, upper shelf.  No, wait: I need French Foreign Legion hats!  No problem – second aisle, right side, third box from the end.  Victorian gowns?  …  (I’m paraphrasing those locations, but you get the drift.)

Martha Spence noted that when she (as a toddler) and her mother (then Theatre Manager) toured the recently-acquired building in 1971, Margaret eyed the former firehall’s cavernous basement and remarked, “Oh, we’ll never fill that up!”  Well, that basement is now jam-packed: it houses a huge wardrobe room, a carpentry workshop, dressing room, props room, the legendary “Shoe Room”, and the boiler room.

 Alumnae Theatre Company President Barbara Larose, who as an actor has been costumed by Margaret, and as a director has worked with her many times as a costume designer, gave a heartfelt speech and presented Margaret with a beautiful bouquet of roses.  Her daughters Catherine and Martha then presented the special award “The Judy”.

Here’s a photo of me (L) and Laura Vincent in Margaret’s delightful faux-opera costumes for Così (April 2012).   Cosi -  Ruth & JulieBy the way, (plug, plug) Laura and fellow Così actor Mike Vitorovich can be seen at the Toronto Fringe (July 4-14) in Jesus Jell-O: The Miraculous Confection, written and directed by yet another Così castmate, Joanne Sarazenhttps://www.facebook.com/events/375986825834814/

Post-event, Martha reported that although her father had joked that Margaret was probably going to divorce him for keeping the secret so well, her mother “has just been floating around the house” and was so grateful, “amazed and delighted by all that transpired and so touched by all who took the trouble to come out.”   It was, as Martha also said, “a bang-up do”.  Yay, us!    We love you, Margaret.  xxoo


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Ah, you hi-jinks “Così” guys / graffiti a go-go

I love getting submissions for this blog.  Have mentioned several times to the cast and crew of Così that they should send me any thoughts, anecdotes about funny incidents in rehearsal, etc.  The delightful James Warner, who plays drug-addled Zac, has risen to the challenge once again (see previous post about his nipples and accordion…)  Here’s what he sent me this time:

 After break time last night, I came back into the theatre with my shirt completely undone, and, trying to get a laugh (not that I ever do that), loudly announced to all present: “Well, I suppose I have to put some clothes back on”.  At which point poor Margot [stage manager Margot Devlin] scuttled over and started frantically covering up my body. She’s such a nice lady – and an example to us all.

It should be noted that costume designer Margaret Spence has garbed James in one of those 1970’s shirts open to the navel  (I have just learned the term “man cleavage”!) and accessorized with a big medallion – that’s when he’s not wearing lederhosen for the opera scenes.  Last night the cast donned costumes for a photo shoot with Dahlia Katz (www.dahliakatz.com) – the results soon to be posted on Alumnae Theatre’s website.

In other news, set designer Ed Rosing and scenic painter Cathy McKim have now added genuine Australian graffiti from the period (early 1970’s) on the theatre walls.  Slogans like “Nuclear families have fallout”, “Dick Nixon before he dicks you”, and my favourite, “Real punks can’t spell capocino”!  And this morning, Cathy tweeted:  “A disco ball & a smoke machine. Coming soon to the @alumnaetheatre main stage. The Così set design plot thickens…”  One of her Twitter followers commented:  “that’s an instant party, right there.”

We’re doing a rough run of the whole show tonight.  Opening two weeks from tomorrow – on Friday the 13th!    No friggatriskaidekaphobia here, nope.


Filed under 2011/12 season, Cosi

Fun in “Così” rehearsals: nipples, nose-breaking, mayhem, etc.

Fight Director Paul Babiak attended our all-day rehearsal last Saturday (yes, it was St. Patrick’s Day too) to work through the fights and general mayhem that ensues in Così. In this play we’ve got tripping, choking, head-swatting, head-banging, nose-breaking, slaps, fisticuffs, knife-wielding, falling to the floor in a faint – all those moves require a Fight Director to teach actors to perform them safely. But it’s hardly dry, technical stuff. PJ Hammond (Cherry) tweeted on Saturday that one of Paul’s instructions to Zac when he gropes Ruth was to “let that hand say ‘TIT’!”

At last night’s rehearsal, Paul returned to coach Ryan Kotack (Nick) in a couple of fights with Henry (Chris Kelk) – Ryan’s just finished a sold-out run in Let My Mind Run Dry in Week One of the New Ideas Festival.  Week Two (a whole different lineup of short plays) opens tonight – make your reservation ASAP at reservations@alumnaetheatre.com, and check out the play synopses, etc. at http://alumnaetheatre.com/ideas2012-2.html

Movement Coach Jen Johnson also returned on March 17 to observe us in rehearsal. Her previous visit was on March 3, when she taught us how to walk like our characters and find the internal rhythms and tics that individualize us. This time, she approved what we’d incorporated, and encouraged us to go even further with the tics!

We got our first look at the set – some elves (aka set designer Ed Rosing, master carpenter Lionel Boodlal, LifeWithMore Cowbell blogger Cathy McKim, and a very helpful fellow named Doug, who was recommended by Alumnae’s Subscription Manager Lynne Patterson) had been hard at work on Monday night doing some building and painting. Thanks, folks – it looks great! Well, actually it looks decrepit and destroyed, but it’s supposed to – hole in the ceiling, discarded set pieces and all. Love Henry’s chair/throne! Disclosure: Matt Brioux got a little carried away in his final scene as angry firebug Doug, so if you notice a chunk missing from one of those Styrofoam columns…

Costume designer Margaret Spence and assistant Razie Brownstone were also around last night, and borrowed a couple of actors when they weren’t needed on stage so they could try on costumes. We all applauded Laura Vincent’s (Julie) delightfully awful Così Fan Tutte opera costume in a vile shade of pink, and a high wig made of toilet paper rolls. They’re supposed to look like they were constructed by the inmates of the mental asylum in the Occupational Therapy class, and boy do they ever! Chris Kelk (Henry) tried on a tricorne hat with attached periwig (again, more cotton-covered toilet paper rolls), which he will wear in his opera role as cynical aristocrat Don Alfonso.

Bet you’re wondering about the reference to “nipples” in the headline of this post, aren’t you? James Warner, who plays drugged –out musician Zac, is an experienced keyboard player, but is not familiar with the accordion. In Così, Zac has to play Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on the accordion, so James has been practicing at home with the instrument. He reports that neighbours in his apartment building are “looking forward to a cabaret recital”, but that his playing tends to be interrupted by his own howls of “Bloody hell – me nipples!” as he pinches his nipples in the folds of the accordion. James didn’t want me to tell this story; I can’t imagine why: -)

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