Alice and the World We Live In: From Nascent Seed to Full-Grown Play

By Barbara Ford

“There is something magical about embarking on the journey to produce a new play,” said Eda Holmes, director of Alexandria Haber’s Alice and the World We Live In. “Armed with nothing more than a potent thought, a playwright faces a blank page. With diligence, hard work and a little luck, a group of artists gather to read a first draft and in that precious moment, one fleeting thought has become a reality. A new world is birthed in which the collective imaginings of the artists and the audience share in the exploration of something that might otherwise have been too potent to contemplate alone.” 

In Alexandria Haber’s case, the potent thought was a woman paralyzed with fear, stranded on a mountainside. That image, terrifying to the acrophobic Haber, haunted her and the only way to exorcise it was to talk the woman down, so she began to write.

“Writing this, I realized that I’m petrified of losing the people I love,” said Haber. “I’ve always been interested in grief and as a society; I think we are mourning the loss of a world we once knew, due in part to the rise in terrorist attacks, which by their nature are random. Death is very random; even when it’s expected, it’s sudden. One minute the person is there and the next they are gone. The world we live in is very different from the world I knew as a child. Similarly, when someone you love dies, the world you once knew is not the same anymore. Everything changes.”

Holmes, who at the time had just stepped into her position as Centaur’s fourth Artistic and Executive Director, was busily acquainting herself with Montreal’s thriving theatre community, wading through towers of scripts.

“I wanted to launch Centaur’s next fifty years with a new play by a Montreal writer, using a Montreal creative team and cast. I was looking for something that would resonate in a very contemporary way.”

Alice and the World We Live In originally examined the aftermath of a terrorist attack through two parallel stories: one in which the characters are survivors and another where a woman tries to overcome her grief by taking the trip to Italy that she and her husband had planned before he was killed. As the woman stands frozen on the side of the mountain, her life with her husband flashes before her and he suddenly appears to her. The first version of the script earned second place in Infinithéâtre’s 2017 Write-on-Q competition, where it received the prize of a public reading in The Pipeline series.

Holmes remarked that after reading the script, she found the Alice/Ever scenes very compelling. “Their story felt like a play unto itself, with its shifts back and forth through time, wondering if it would have been better for each of them if they’d never met.” Holmes approached Haber to ask if she would consider rewriting the script with a single story line. Haber accepted and the real work began in October 2017.

Just like raising a child, it takes a village to develop a play. As Associate Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival, Holmes’ primary objective had been to find a contemporary lens to reinterpret the classics while always honouring the playwright’s intentions. However, because this is the first production of this play, Holmes and Haber wanted to work with a dramaturg. They both felt that having someone who could keep a laser focus on Haber’s intentions as a playwright as the production evolved would be vital. 

Imago Theatre’s Artistic Director, Micheline Chevrier, who had worked with Alex and knew the earlier version of the play, came on board. In addition to Chevrier, Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal was also integral to the script’s evolution, holding three separate workshops of the play over two years.

The next important step was putting together the design team. In familiarizing herself with Montreal’s theatre community Holmes had met set and costume designer, Amy Keith, who was a friend and had worked with Haber previously.

“I saw that bilingual Montreal artists who had worked here their whole careers had a unique aesthetic and I was excited to engage with it. Having Amy contribute to the play’s development from the beginning was huge.”

Holmes discovered lighting designer, Julie Basse, when she attended La meute, the English version of which will play Centaur later this season. “Her work was incisive, beautiful, rhythmic, and had a European feel.” Also featured in La meute was music and sound design by Alexander MacSween. Holmes invited MacSween and his partner, singer/songwriter, Anna Atkinson, to design the sound for The Last Wife in the 50th season and felt they were perfect for this. Reinforcing the Montreal pedigree is Merissa Tordjman, who has stage managed many new works throughout Canada.

Finally – the cast. “Throughout the workshop process, we worked with a number of different actors who were all fabulous and helped advance the play immeasurably,” said Holmes. “However I knew that it was Jane Wheeler’s voice that Alex heard as she wrote the play. I directed Jane here at Centaur 25 years ago for my first professional gig. A sensitive, generous artist, I was excited to collaborate with her again.”

“There are many Montreal actors who could bring the role of Ever to life, but I’ve been a big fan of Danny Brochu since seeing him perform while I was at NTS.  During the workshop process of this play, he was incredibly rigorous and insightful. He is an actor who can live the act of loving someone on stage with authenticity and grace.”