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By Karon Liu

While most directors have their actors meditate or read books in preparation for their roles, Liza Balkman had her fourth-year theatre students move furniture for 45 minutes.

“In the first day of rehearsal, there were random pieces of furniture everywhere. (Balkman) told us to build something out of the furniture, so we made something in five minutes. Then she told us to move it to the other side of the room and build it exactly like it was in 10 minutes,” says Daniel McPherson, one of 18 actors in the production.

“So we did, and then she told us to move it back to the other side in five minutes. We kept doing this for 45 minutes with less and less time to move the furniture. She then told us to imagine doing this for 12 hours and not getting paid for it.”

But there was a method to the initial madness as the actors were unknowingly getting their minds and bodies ready for Jason Sherman’s Enemies. Sherman, one of Canada’s most well-known modern playwrights, adapted the play from Russian author and political activist Maxim Gorky, who originally wrote the piece in the 1930s. Sherman wrote Enemies specifically to debut at the Ryerson Theatre School.

It focuses on the power struggles between the owners of a factory and the factory workers when one of the co-owners of the factory is murdered. “It’s about the split between social classes,” says actress Janick Hebert. “Does power come from being at the top or uniting with others? It happened in 1905, but it reflects what’s going on today because it’s still going on overseas with many workers still fighting for human rights. It’s all about the rise of the workers and turning the tables.”

McPherson plays Yakov, an alcoholic member of the bourgeois who sees the horrendous working conditions but feels like he can’t do anything about it. “He’s the fly on the wall. He sees everything happening in front of him, but can’t do anything because he’s drunk all the time,” McPherson says. “The whole idea is that talk is cheap. It’s one thing to complain, but it takes a lot of self-confidence to actually do something about it.”

Hebert plays Tatanya, Yakov’s wife and an actress who is fascinated with human behaviour. This bourgeois woman finds herself caught between the workers and owners when she is suddenly living among the workers. “The workers are a huge force in the play, but you never really see them,” Hebert says. “It’s interesting because much of the conversations in the play are about the workers.” Sherman wrote the dialogue like everyday conversations, with ramblings and incomplete sentences to create a sense of realism.

Audiences should expect a fast-paced, two-act play where characters with strong personalities interact around massive gates, symbolizing the division of classes where the rich try to keep others out, all the while keeping themselves in. McPherson says he felt like he had to step up his game when he did an initial read-through with Sherman last April, considering Sherman wrote more than a dozen plays, worked with the CBC, The Movie Network and The W Network, and won the Governor General’s Award for drama both times he was nominated.

“It’s funny because we studied one of his plays as one of the essential Canadian playwrights in second-year. It’s like working with Tennessee Williams if we were in the U.S.,” McPherson says. “It’s a blessing to work with the top Canadian writer at such a fresh level (in our careers).” Since January, the cast has been rehearsing eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week. “To see the play grow was amazing to see,” says Hebert.

“He’s a brilliant writer and writes everything that the actor needs. It’s exciting to be the first people being part of the play and it’s the perfect way to cap off the last four years (at Ryerson).” Enemies runs from Feb. 6-17, except Feb. 13, at the Ryerson Theatre.

Tickets are $12 in advance for students and $16 at the door.

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