Behind the Curtain: Cultivating Confidence with Gabriel Maharjan, director of Gruesome Playground Injuries

By: Caleigh Crow

For Playground Productions, new swingers on the Montreal independent theatre monkey bars, there’s only the future ahead, laid cleanly before them like white-painted hopscotch squares, still un-scuffed by sneakers and loose pebbles. Their first kick at the can (last playground joke), Gruesome Playground Injuries, offers the story of two characters brought together by injury and illness. The show spans their entire lifetimes and see-saws back and forth in time, and the audience too takes a spin on the merry-go-round of life (okay, that’s enough, for real).

The company was founded by a group of five emerging artists, including Gabriel Maharjan, director of Gruesome Playground Injuries. “It’s really important to the play, the reminder that we all have flaws, and we can all love and be loved despite our flaws,” Gabriel says. “Sometimes we do things we don’t want to do or we do the opposite of what’s best for us. We push people away when we should be letting them in. It’s those kinds of things. It’s not a play of good decisions and bad decisions, but hard decisions for the characters,” Gabriel pauses. “I think everyone’s made a hard decision in their life.”

Gabriel hopes audience members come see Gruesome Playground Injuries to catch a glimpse of the human condition. “I like when a play shakes my perspective of life a little bit, and takes me out of balance, and I feel a little less comfortable on the ground,” he says. The play is “almost existential in the sense that it’s about life. No matter what age you’re at, you always aging, and that’s something that everyone has in the back of their mind, the fact that we’re constantly getting older and nearing a certain end point of life.”

We spend some time talking about the Montreal English theatre community, which Gabriel describes as a “small and feisty”. He’s eager to see the community grow, and has already recruited new member into the fold, Emon Barua, sound designer, who had never worked on a theatrical production before. When reading the script, he asked Gabriel what the playwright meant by ‘beat’ – is that a sound design note? Gabriel counts Emon’s curiosity and willingness to try an entirely new artform as a step in the right direction, saying, “I think it’s important that since we’re quite contained and we like to work amongst ourselves, we need to make sure we get people outside the community in, and part of that is by reaching out to other artists who haven’t worked in theatre, like Emon.”

Working with characters whose entire lives are laid bare onstage and shared with the audience out of time can be a challenge for an actor, as it requires a lot of setting the record straight within the production, another place Gabriel can lend his director’s eye. “We had to make very concrete decisions for ourselves what have the characters going through that is not said. You do that for any show, you make those decisions, but this show has thirty years of making life decisions for the characters,” Gabriel says.

Gabriel and the Playground team have made use of movement in their transitions between scenes, giving the rearranging of furniture and passage of time in the play a performance-based aspect, and to help guide the audience through the misfiled scenes. “For the actors to be able to jump from eight years old to twenty-three to thirteen and back and forth, these transitions help them use the limited time onstage to help switch their acting styles and the characteristics they’re playing with,” Gabriel says. “The transitions offer an opportunity for the audience to reflect on what just happened because what happens next is not a continuation of [the characters’] lives, it will be another side of the story, but it’s not linear in that sense.”

The heightened elements of the show aren’t strictly relegated to scene transitions. There’s a scene towards the end of the show that takes place in a mental facility, and the play didn’t call for much more than chairs, a desk, and some dialogue – a typical meeting setting. “It felt a little empty,” Gabriel admits. “It felt like there could be more for this, we could do something more to represent the characters and what’s going on inside them. So, we decided to play with that and turn that whole scene into a movement piece, and no other scene is like that.” The creative choice to elevate one scene stems from the group’s rejection of style markers as rigid categories that must apply to the entire play. “I like being able to branch out and let the show be more than just one style. I think it makes it a lot more interesting for us as creators to spread our wings out and stretch and feel the different possibilities,” he says, “but also for the audience not to expect the rest of the show.”

It’s a director’s choice to elevate one particular scene in such a way, and though he might not have made it completely alone, it’s up to Gabriel to turn his and his creative team’s visions into reality. As a first-time director, getting used to leadership is an exercise in cultivating confidence. “If anybody who doesn’t do theatre were to watch a rehearsal, they would probably think, what is any of this?” Gabriel refers to common rehearsal hall exploratory exercises, such as “walking around throwing balls around, walking around picking blocks up while turning around, just weird stuff” that might not be instantly recognizable as craft-honing drills but that nevertheless have a place in many actors’ and directors’ toolkits. “As an actor, I love doing the weird stuff, I think if it’s useful let’s do it, but as a director now I definitely have moments where I wonder if the actors will think it’s too weird to be useful.” He explains, “That’s where the confidence comes in. You have to make the decision of what’s going to happen in rehearsal. It’s the difference between being told the wackiness and actually deciding the wackiness for the group. You have to let go of any inhibitions in that sense, and any sort of insecurities about your ability to foster creation.” He pauses to reflect, “It’s a very different role.”

I leave you with a final thought from Gabriel on theatre: “Stories are wonderful, but the story needs to pull at the heartstrings a little bit, or the brain strings or any strings in the body, it could pull at anything depending on the show, but it needs to pull.”

Gruesome Playground Injuries runs from September 22 – 26 at the Harold Greenspon Auditorium, 5801 Cavendish Boul, Cote Saint-Luc. For more information and for tickets, please click here.