Something large is about to hit the stage: Matara by Conni Massing

A lot of good plays have been inspired by the relationship between animals and the humans they interact with. 

Sure to join those ranks is Matara by Conni Massing, which runs November 28 –  December 2 at the Backstage Theatre. 

Conni says her inspiration for Matara came jointly from the controversy surrounding Lucy, the elephant at Edmonton’s zoo, and her own relationship to animals. “I have always felt very strongly about animals, in particular, our relationship with animals, having seen everything out in the world from extreme empathy and caring – people who believe they can actually communicate with animals – ranging up to callous cruelty and everything in between… And a number of years ago, I became aware of Lucy, the lone Asian elephant at the Edmonton zoo and the incredible controversy around her presence there. There are vocal activist groups who have campaigned for years because they want her to be moved to a warmer climate and a place where she can be with other animals. On the zoo’s side of the equation, they feel I think that she is not well enough to make the trip.”

“It’s quite unique to take these wild animals from all over the world and put them in this setting where their closest companions are often humans. Some zoo animals are with a group or a herd, but in this particular case, it’s a lone elephant who’s closest associates are humans…  I am raising some questions that I hope will incite a conversation for people after they walk out of the show. One of the many issues that come up at zoos, and in particular with Lucy, is the very strong feelings supported by the scientific fact that elephants function much better in herds. In this case, it’s a very unusual case that this elephant is by herself. It’s just the way it worked out… But, it’s pretty clear that she is very well-loved. It’s clear that she has great affection, insofar as we can ever be inside an animals head, it’s clear she cares deeply for the humans who know her best. Is that enough? I was fascinated by that question.”

A man and woman stand against a fence speaking seriously
Elinor Holt and Minister Faust in Matara. © Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

But Matara is not a play about Lucy or any one particular elephant. Matara is about the inherent conflict when perspectives of Matara’s caretaker, the zoo’s marketing consultant and a security guard collide following the death of Matara’s elephant companion at the zoo and an oncoming flood. Conni explains, “Matara is grieving the loss of her only elephant companion and her health is deteriorating. Karen, her keeper, is doing everything in her power to help the elephant get better. That’s her drive through the play –  what can she do to help really the most important creature in my life, apart from her mother. Like a lot of keepers that I met, Karen has a much stronger relationship with animals than she does with humans. All three of these characters have different attitudes towards animals. The person Karen is most in conflict with is an outside consultant, who’s been parachuted in to help the zoo recover from this public relations disaster of having this elephant die. Her primary drive in the play is not only as she says, create a whole new narrative for the zoo, but also to raise money for conservation initiatives, but you have to sell tickets to raise money and the elephant is the number one attraction.”

As part of the process of writing Matara, Conni got to witness the relationship between zoo animals and their keepers up close and personal through the 2015 Workshop West project This Is YEG: New Plays for a Changing City, where playwrights were embedded in communities they were interested in creating art with, for and about. Conni says, “This is YEG was a dream come true for me. Vern Thiessen asked me if I was going to be embedded in the community, where would it be? I said I’d love to be at the zoo to research and be in the presence of these animals, but I hadn’t had any luck brokering that deal in the past… [Through the project] I got to spend time with Lucy and see the humans that care for her and to see how they interact with her.”

Three years later, Conni’s play opens Workshop West‘s 40th season, which includes a tour of Cafe Daughter (January 15 – 27, 2019), and the Canoe 2019 Festival (February 7 – 17, 2019).

The elephant in the room, of course, is just that… how Matara the elephant will be portrayed on stage. Conni says such a large (excuse the obvious joke) part of the show had to be carefully considered. “I’m aspiring to in a theatrical way help people feel, sense, and understand the presence of an awe-inspiring animal like an elephant. We’ve worked for ways to represent the elephant and ways that trigger the imagination of the audience so that they can feel the awe of being in the presence of an animal like this. I hope that people are able to imagine the elephant along with us and able to feel the bond between the elephant and the keeper.” 

Conni says Matara the elephant will come alive in the audience’s imagination, stimulated by sound design by Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil, projections designed by T. Erin Gruber, movement work by the actors (Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli, and Minister Faust star in Matara), and puppetry by Randall Fraser. “The elephant, of course, makes all sorts of wonderful noises. There’s trumpeting that people are familiar with, but also this very intense sort of rumbling noise that they make. The actors have also spent a lot of time on movement work. There are a couple of scenes where the elephant is walking, so the actors try to represent the feeling of that movement. 

Matara runs November 28 – December 9 at the Backstage Theatre (10330 84 Avenue). Tickets for preview performances (November 28 and 29) are $10 – $15, tickets for opening night on Friday, November 30 are $35, and tickets for the rest of the run are $20 – $27. Sunday matinees are pay-what-you-can at the door. All tickets (except pay-what-you-can tickets) can be purchased from Tix on the Square.

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