Play exposes Toronto’s seedy underbelly

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By Amy Kenny

What comes to mind when you read the words “Toronto’s seedy underbelly”? Sherbourne and Shuter? Any corner on Yonge Street? How about the Ryerson Theatre School?

On October 16, the Abrams Studio of the Theatre School becomes the squalid setting for Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel – the first of six shows scheduled for the Ryerson Theatre Company’s 2001-2002 season.

The play is directed by Toronto-based Marianne McIsaac and runs from Oct. 16 to 20.

Suburban Motel is a series of six mini plays, two of which will be performed by the third-year acting company each night. Although connected by theme and setting, each play is its own separate tale.

Suburban Motel is about lower class misfits drifting through a downtown motel room on various nights. McIsaac says the characters live on the fringes of society. “These are the people you walk past in the street and have preconceptions about,” she says. “These are people on the outs, people that are losers in life.”

The characters struggle with problems involving social services, prostitution, drugs and crime.

“It’s taking everyday characters to the extreme,” says third-year actor Robert Gontier, who plays Stevie in the mini play Criminal Genius. “It’s about life – the passion for, the passion against, getting through the day.”

Suburban Motel is a dark comedy about the lower class struggle – an issue assistant director Eugene Slonimerov doesn’t think the theatre explores often enough.

“I want people who would usually judge to see in a different light, to understand that we’re all human,” says Slonimerov, a fourth-year technical theatre student.

McIsaac hopes audiences leave the theatre thinking about the social issues raised, and wondering how they can help.

Perhaps that’s what Walker intended when he based the play’s characters on the tenement housing residents of his neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end.

Three of the Suburban Motel plays debuted in New York in 1997 and all six ran at Toronto’s Factory Theatre during the 1997/98 season. Ryerson’s adaptation is the first time the plays have run simultaneously.

McIsaac thinks the play will appeal to Ryerson students partly because of the university’s location. “Just walk over a block and you’ll find half the people in the play,” she says. “You’ll recognize the characters.”

The characters are another reason she chose this play. It was difficult finding a play with enough parts for everyone, but Suburban Motel has as many large roles as cast members.

“To most of these actors, this is the most difficult experience of their beginning careers,” says Slonimerov.

In addition to rehearsing a main role and an understudy role, the 25 actors learned a new approach to studying characters. McIsaac taught the actors physical scores (movement and use of props) before they rehearsed their lines. She believes props create real circumstances, adding, people in the real world are constantly in action so why shouldn’t the actors be?

She learned this technique while attending the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York.

The prop-based acting has meant the play’s 35 technical  theatre students spent September “…just trying to survive,” says McIsaac. Though the setting never changes, props. clothing, music and lighting were organized without pre-production time. Technicians usually have time to plan and crew started work the same day.

Organizing six separate casts is chaotic, especially since the director and assistant director can’t be with all of them every day. Twice a week, McIsaac rehearses and compares notes with each cast, giving suggestions for reworking. She says it’s exhausting and feels like a merry-go-round, but letting the actors work through their own ideas saves time and gives them freedom to learn.

This privilege hasn’t gone unappreciated by the cast who, in downtown Toronto, are surrounded by ideas for their characters.

The people of Suburban Motel “are more like you than you want them to be,” says McIsaac. “It makes you feel not so secure about your own little world, and maybe a little more compassionate.”

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students ans senior, $8 each for groups of eight or more and are available through the Ryerson Theatre Company Box Office at (416) 979-5118.

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