Behind the Curtain

Amelia Sargisson & The 39 Steps

by Caleigh Crow

The 39 Steps, playing at Centaur Theatre until December 10, is a theatrical retelling of the Alfred Hitchcock film, which itself is an adaptation of the novel by John Buchan. It’s a noir-thriller-farce-spy-spoof. If that’s one ridiculous sentence after another, so be it, this is a show that embraces ridiculousness. There are over one hundred characters, the bulk of which are played by Lucinda Davis and Trent Pardy, two actors – actually, here the correct terminology is ‘clowns’ not ‘actors – whose performances Amelia Sargisson describes as “virtuosic”.

When I met Amelia, rehearsals were in full swing, and Amelia graciously made time for me on her lunch break. It’s no joke, this acting business, and yet the cast and crew that emerged from the rehearsal hall were all smiles, still finding the energy to kid around together on their own time.

“This show has been done all around the world hundreds of times, and the success of any one production lives and dies by the chemistry and dynamic of the foursome of actors who are inventing it,” says Amelia. “It’s hugely creative and we’re making up the rules of the world and the rules of the games we’re playing in each scene. It’s one of the happiest rooms I’ve been in ever and it’s a real joy.”

The “rules” are determined in a rather democratic way, with all the players free to experiment and be generous with their ideas, though Amelia wouldn’t liken the process to a collectively created or devised piece because The 39 Steps team have a backup – the script. “If you can’t think of anything clever, or silly, or delightful or unexpected or surprising then go to the script,” she says. “In some ways it’s de-constructivist: we have this script as the template, now how do we pull it apart and put it back together in a way that makes sense for these four bodies in this room, and in this moment?”

It’s a theatre practice that can be daunting. I ask Amelia if she considers it a treat, especially considering she’s coming off a summer of Shakespeare. She says, “My favorite kind of atmosphere is one in which the actor is recognized as being a creator and not simply a conduit or an executor of somebody else’s will or words.”

We chat over a piping hot bowl of soup (it’s November, it’s winter, it’s soup time, you need soup) and tea with honey. What’s it like working with Eda Holmes? This is Eda’s first stab at directing since she took up the post of Artistic and Executive Director at Centaur after Roy Surette’s departure earlier this year, and she comes with heaps of experience. Amelia summarizes, “Her reputation precedes her as a very illustrious and celebrated director.” A glance at Eda’s resume shows a varied, expansive career, with something there for nearly every sort of theatre goer in different parts of the country. It’s her first time working with Eda, and Amelia offers this assessment: “She is a totally vibrant leader, intelligent, detailed, and wildly creative. What I find especially helpful in the creation of this show is her innate and refined musicality and physicality.” Eda started her career in the performing arts as a dancer, so that’s no surprise, but Amelia elaborates, making connections between comedy and choreography. “Comedy, you might argue, is like math,” she observes, “Fun math, but the precision required for the beats to line up and for the joke to land is all about the math and the music of it, and she gets it really intuitively.”

Amelia says she usually gets cast in serious tragedian roles, nothing like The 39 Steps. When I ask her how she’s managed to adapt, she passes along a pearl of wisdom which was in turn shared with Amelia by a comedienne friend of hers. “She told me when you’re doing comedy you’re a puppy, and you have to go out there and wag your tail, and you have to shake up your champagne bottle and pour champagne all over the scene,” Amelia explains. “In this bit my hand has to go behind left knee and my right knee has to get over my left shoulder-  the mechanics of it can also get terribly boring. That’s when I think to myself ‘I’ll just pour some champagne on it’, just to keep it light, flexible, and alive.”

As we sip our soup and tea, I consider this and the altogether sulky looking November sky. The novel was written in 1915, one year after the first world war broke out. Hitchcock presented his film adaptation in 1935, twenty years later and the western world was once again on the brink. Both were immensely successful. The novel marked the advent of the man-on-the-run thriller story, and Orson Welles considered Hitchcock’s film a masterpiece. Bringing us back to the café in Griffintown, Amelia says, “Now we find ourselves in these frightfully precarious times. We’re desperate for a hero.” She doesn’t go into any more detail than that, and she doesn’t have to. The present seems precarious to everyone living it, and it’s only once it’s become the past that anyone can sort out what it all means. In the meantime, The 39 Steps is here to wag its puppy dog tail, and pour champagne all over the city.

“I hope people will come and laugh their butts off and have a huge release of endorphins and joy.” Amelia says, “and the story is of good triumphing over evil and a man discovering he’s a hero, and two unlikely candidates finding love. It’s the perfect salve for what we deal with every day.” She pauses, and gives a little shake of the head, “All that to say the show is going to make us laugh, but it’s also going to remind us that it’s worth it to fight for what’s good in our world.”

The 39 Steps plays at Centaur Theatre until December 10. For more information and tickets please click here.