Backstage drama in the spotlight

The stressed-out stage manager (played by Madeleine Donohue, far right) has her hands full keeping her cast of misbehaving actors (left to right, Caroline Toal, Rachel Delduca, Monique Lund, and Thom Nyhuus) in line backstage while the show goes on around them. Photo by Melissa McLay

Showboat Festival Theatre press release – She may be a rookie director, but at the helm of a show about backstage drama at a summer theatre, Mairi Babb is in her element.

“It’s a world I know,” said Babb, who is making her directorial debut with Early August at Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne from July 3 to July 14/2019.

The play by Kate Lynch sees four actors and a stage manager at a summer theatre, not unlike Showboat navigating relationship problems and other backstage disasters while the show goes on around them.

“I loved the characters. I think all these characters are so wonderful and richly developed,” Babb said.

“I loved how Kate captured everything about the long run … It’s the tiny dramas and the big dramas. And also just being able to show the audience what it’s like (offstage) when they’re watching. They’re seeing a polished thing, but what’s happened backstage is often just a disaster. People have falling outs or never got along in the first place, and you just have to push through. So I loved the idea of Showboat audiences getting to see their actors stripped down a little bit.”

It was during Babb’s first season acting at Showboat’s sister theatre, Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover, that Artistic Director Derek Ritschel approached her about one day directing a show of her own.

“And I was like, oh, come on!” she laughed.

But the idea stuck with her. Babb has long been interested in directing, dating back to her university days when she coached younger actors in the art of interpreting Shakespearean dialogue. Later stints as a voice and text coach in Winnipeg, assistant director under Marti Maraden at Drayton, and puppet captain for part of the North American tour of War Horse only whetted her appetite to give the top job a try.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching things in rehearsal and figuring out how people solve problems – bringing all those technical things and making them into artistic choices,” she said.

Ritschel gave Babb a handful of scripts and she gravitated to Early August.

“For people who aren’t involved in the theatre, it’s getting to peek behind the curtain,” she said. “It’s madness backstage, and I think people are fascinated by what goes on in the dark spaces.”

She admitted to some nerves heading into her first day of rehearsal, but was confident in the team around her, starting with Ritschel himself. “Derek is just unflappable, which is an amazing quality to have. And he’s so incredibly kind,” Babb said.

“He gave me people that he knew I could be free to ask questions of at any time,” which proved invaluable as she collaborated with set designer Bill Chesney to get the look and feel of the actors’ common area backstage – called the green room – just right. Having Showboat mainstays Wendy Lundgren design the lights and Roni Clark imagine the costumes also put Babb at ease, as did being able to lean on veteran stage managers Daniele Guillaume and Meghan Speakman.

“I know that I could ask for help at any time, from anybody, and I would feel supported. That’s a special thing in a theatre community,” Babb said.

Ritschel said he could tell right away that Babb was destined to direct. “It takes confidence, passion, leadership skills, and flexibility to another level. I see these qualities in Mairi. I have from the day I met her,” Ritschel said. “I know she would thank us for giving her the opportunity to direct her first show professionally, but the truth is we are grateful she said yes.”

As for choosing who would populate the world of Early August on stage, Babb said certain roles immediately brought to mind actors she knew, while others impressed her during auditions.

“For me, it was really important to have good team players and good people,” Babb said. “They’re together for the long run, so I want good people who are not going to create any drama offstage.”

Inspired by directorial mentors like Maraden, Ritschel, and Marcia Kash, Babb’s mantra during rehearsals is collaboration.

“I don’t really dictate a lot before we get into it (at rehearsal). I watch to see what the actual actors bring to it,” Babb said. “Everyone has answers. I’m here to shape. We do have time in this rehearsal process to listen and see where everyone’s coming from, and not just say ‘we have 10 days, so there’s no room for messing around.’

“You have to have someone who makes final decisions, but if you get a good group of people together, collaboration is what’s going to give you the best product.”

Early August is on stage at Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne from July 3 to July 14. For showtimes and tickets visit showboattheatre.ca.