Elephant Wake a “good, old-fashioned wake”: An interview with Joey Tremblay

Joey Tremblay in Elephant Wake. Photo credit: Cam Koroluk.

Joey Tremblay in Elephant Wake. Photo credit: Cam Koroluk.

It seems like it’s been the buzz of the city lately: Catalyst Theatre is closing its 18 years at C103 with Elephant Wake – the play that was, as former co-artistic director and co-playwright Joey Tremblay put it, “the catalyst of Catalyst”.

Debuting at the 1996 Fringe Festival, Joey says Elephant Wake is about “the last living resident of a small town in the middle of the prairies called Ste. Vierge. His name is Jean Claude and we interrupt him and he tells us the story of the town… It comes across as improvised in a way. It’s like the audience joins him one evening and he notices them and he starts telling stories.”

Joey says that audience engagement and involvement is key to Elephant Wake. “The character is motivated by wanting to tell a story and enjoying telling the story and responding to [the audience] in real time. The play itself is all about community: What is the meaning of community? Who’s in the community? Who’s out of the community? Who’s marginalized? It’s really interesting – when you get a group of people who are coming into the theatre, you are creating a community. The whole play is about a town that doesn’t exist anymore and his motivation is that he’s got an idea of how to make the town grow. In fact, he kind of achieves it the minute he opens his mouth and sees that there’s all these people there. I wanted to create an instant community with the people who come to the play. I’m not talking to a fourth wall, I’m actually talking to living human beings in the moment. It’s not that they alter the narrative, but every individual audience has a unique personality. Some are drawn to what is sad about the piece, some of them want to focus on the humour. I try to make the play a full, rich reflection of what humanity is and what a wake is – what it’s like to celebrate the life and death of something. If the audience is drawn to being sad, I try to lighten them up. If there’s an audience that only wants to see the humour, I try to bring them to experience everything that’s involved in it.”

A few years ago, while working in Regina, Joey was approached with the opportunity to rework Elephant Wake. “When I re-looked at the work I wanted to make [the interaction with the audience] a very important part. I wanted the audience to have a role in creating the world. It’s so empowering to the audience. For the most part I’ve never had this response from any kind of play. It’s a very minimal set, but people will go out and come out of the show and say, “Oh, I loved it! The elephant you made was so beautiful!” and I’ll say, “I didn’t make one”. It’s that thing where the audience fills in the blanks. It’s so engaging for them.”

Although the play doesn’t include audience participation in the traditional sense, Joey says on occasion he has the opportunity to engage directly with the audience. “I described a moment for Catalyst Theatre’s newsletter – they asked if there’s something that really stands out [from the performances over the years]. I was doing a matinee for students and at a very climatic point of the play there was a single young woman who laughed – I could tell it was a nervous laugh – and in character, I stopped and said to her, “I don’t think that’s funny.” and from the audience I heard, “I am so sorry, Jean Claude.” She used my character name and apologized to me. She was so wrapped up in the narrative and the story and she had been transported so much that she responded to the character… I think to me that is the crux of the magic of this piece. If the audience is willing to fall into the story and the magic of the night they are transported to a different world.”

Joey Tremblay in Elephant Wake. Photo credit: Cam Koroluk.

Joey Tremblay in Elephant Wake. Photo credit: Cam Koroluk.

Joey describes another moment when he was performing Elephant Wake in Quebec City: “… I hadn’t planned this or anything, but when I came out and I started the monologue I looked out and I was thinking they’re not English speakers, their first language is French. And they actually bent the language – it was a gravitational pull. I translated the entire play into French. There’s a lot of French in the play, but it’s probably 85% English and whatever’s left is French, but I reversed that so it was mostly French. That was happening in the moment and it made me realize that language in a way is as much in the listener as it is in the speaker. The speaker’s desire to communicate will bend towards the best way that will happen. Looking into the audience, it was like wow – I need to speak to you in your language. The dominant language of this particular piece happens to be French, you happen to be French so let’s go for it! It was a pretty profound moment for me.”

As part of the reworking process a few years ago, Joey also aged Jean Claude into an old man and clarified his position in the community. “For a lack of a better word, he’s the idiot savant so people look at him a bit differently. He’s aware of the fact that he’s quite different, but I wanted to give him the golden key into the community so he wasn’t just an outsider. So I created this part of the story – it’s very important – that he is the town singer…  He’s become the singer at all of the funerals in the town and so he knows all of the people who have died… His way into the community is that they can’t imagine anyone else singing “Oh Holy Night” on Christmas Eve – it has to be Jean Claude. It gives him a bit of caché in the community. I’m from a small town and I know that even the outsiders in the town, they your eccentric person that lives in the town. If anyone from another town came and tried to be mean to that person, the town rallies around them… I love that he’s the singer because it’s an art form that he’s valued for. He’s not a scientist, he’s not a genius, but he has a beautiful voice and that transcends everything. It was so important to give him that. The play in a lot of ways is about how we can find beauty in the most unlikely, remote places.”

“The other thing I wanted to work through was, we called it Elephant Wake and I wanted to set it up as a wake. I’m from a big Catholic French family, so when I talk about a wake, I’m talking about the whole week around when someone dies and around the funeral. They are as solemn and somber time as there will ever be. They’re also full of joy, full of laughter. The laughter is both bawdy and sublime and sometime grotesque and there’s often sometimes anger. I wanted Elephant Wake to reflect that full range of humanity that happens at these celebrations… Around the time I was writing it my father got really ill and died within 9 days of being diagnosed and I witnessed my family going through this profound death experience but also the celebration that happens after it. It reminded me, especially in this culture where we run away from death, that death itself has a ritualistic celebration around it. With every death comes the biggest celebration of life that you can imagine. I think that’s exactly what theatre is. Because we’re celebrating these little moments of creativity that come to life in that moment, we also watch them die and then they’re done. I think that’s why people are drawn to the theatre.”

With Elephant Wake closing out Catalyst Theatre’s time at C103, Joey has also reflected on the question of whether it’s possible to “go home”. “It’s nostalgic, it’s about trying to go back to great times in your own memory. And since I’ve been away and coming back with this piece – it feels like coming home. It’s been a profound reminder of how much I love this theatrical community. I went to the opening of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, written by Beth Graham, who is a really great friend of mine and opening night was a room full of my theatrical family and I remember from being here all those years ago. I thought, “Well, maybe you can’t come home to the home you remember but you can get pretty damn close.” That’s what I feel like coming back here. I am stepping into conversations with theatre people who I love and adore here and I could have had those conversations 18 years ago – it’s the same thing. On a very personal level, this return back here with this piece in particular, is really profound and it’s all about the heart. It’s so nice…. It’s like we’re having a good old fashioned wake.

Elephant Wake will run at C103 November 12 – 29. Tickets are $22 – $24 through Tix on the Square. November 12, 13, and 16 are pay-what-you-can at the door.

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