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Kristen Thomson at Glendon’s bp Nichol Reading Series


Canadian actor and playwright Kristen Thomson came to Glendon as part of the bp Nichol Reading Series on April 6. Invited and introduced by Professor Cynthia Zimmerman of the College’s English Department, Thomson spoke about her 2001 creation, I Claudia, which she wrote and gave in solo performance. It was widely acclaimed and garnered her a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and Best Performance.

I Claudia is a brilliant, funny, deeply moving exploration of the inner life of a twelve and three quarters-year old girl on the cusp of teenagerhood. In addition to the usual insecurities and identity-crises every adolescent has to deal with, Claudia also has to come to terms with her parents’ divorce and her father’s imminent remarriage. Her understanding of her world and her teetering from childish simplicity to world-weary resignation are the stuff of great humour and deep pathos. The title is a play on I Claudius, English writer Robert Graves’ 1934 novel on the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who also had much to work through in his family relations.

Right: The poster of the current production of I Claudia

I Claudia has gone through several transformations since 2001 and has been performed by Thomson and others across the country to glowing reviews, including Liisa Ripo-Martell in Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company (2008), and Michelle Polak in the Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre in Montreal (2008). The play was adapted into a movie in 2004, with Thomson performing all the characters once more. It was named one of Canada’s ‘Top Ten of 2004’ by an independent national panel of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.

I Claudia’s four characters are represented by four different masks – which Thomson brought along for the Glendon talk. She first encountered mask work in the National Theatre School’s acting program, of which she is a graduate. The program used 26 masks made of black latex material to teach character work. “You start shaping your body around these masks, and they lead your responses and take on personalities of their own”, said Thomson. She discovered the ‘Claudia’ mask during this exercise, found clothes for her and worked with her character. “But it’s the character itself who leads this creative activity, with its own voice, vocabulary and emotional attributes.”

Left: Kristen Thomson at Glendon with the Claudia mask

A native of Toronto, Thomson has always wanted to be a writer since she was a little girl. She is also an award-winning actor who has garnered an ACTRA Award for her performance in I Shout Love (2001), a short film directed by Sarah Polley, and three Dora Awards for her stage work. She has a long list of outstanding performances in films and on stage.

“Finding your voice on stage is a very challenging process”, said Thomson, “and nerves are part of this process.” In fact, she becomes almost physically ill before each live performance. But when Urjo Kareda, then artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre invited her to participate in the now defunct Spring Arts Fair featuring emerging artists, she discovered that she loved talking directly to the audience. She started using copies of some of the National Theatre School’s collection of masks, those “… which would agree to collaborate with me in the play“ and found several that worked. Over time, after hundreds of improvisations with each, four of these took on the roles of the different characters she plays in I Claudia. “Each of these characters emerged with their own distinct voices, idiosyncratic speech and character traits”, said Thomson. “They existed inside the situation rather than being developed independently.” The final script of twenty-five pages was boiled down from hundreds of pages of notes and dialogue. The challenge in this was creating a whole big world and then distilling it without losing what was essential.

Right: Thomson displays the masks for the four characters of the play

Thomson paid tribute to Chris Abraham, artistic director of the play, who was essential to the creative process and who pushed her to trust her improvisational instincts. “ I became Claudia”, confirmed Thomson, “ whose voice is immediately her own – that wounded, insecure little girl whose view of the universe is intermingled with the injured voice of a child whose life has fallen apart.”

Thomson has personal experience of the loss involved in the dissolution of the family unit. Her parents divorced when she was seven years old and she only realized in her twenties how much she had to grow up as a result. “Children of divorce go through a grieving process not too different from a loss through death”, she said. “They develop uncanny wisdom but at the same time lack experience, and lack language and understanding of their own feelings. In a divorce, everyone focuses on the parents’ problems, but the impact on the children is often neglected.“ Thomson found that writing about divorce was both therapeutic and also an opportunity to explore what she wanted to communicate about it – her own perspective.

Tarragon presented her new play, The Patient Hour, in its 2008-09 season this February to enthusiastic reviews. It is another play focussed on family life, this time around illness and death and how that experience galvanizes family members.

Left: The poster for the 2001 production of I Claudia

I Claudia is being re-mounted by Crow Theatre Company at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts from April 24 – May 23, 2009, with Kristen Thomson in performance once again. She has not performed this play for a number of years and wondered whether she would still have the same commitment to Claudia’s character. But the play’s profound emotions and personal meaning, with Chris Abraham’s renewed support as director of the new production, confirmed her attachment to the characters and to the play as a whole. “The new mounting of the play brings out different aspects of each character”, said Thomson. “I am more comfortable in inhabiting them and worry less about the lines themselves. [The new Claudia] is more bubbly, more readily available, more spontaneous.”

About Glendon’s bp Nichol series
The Glendon English Department has been presenting a reading series for Canadian writers, sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, since the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the distinguished and much-loved poet, bp Nichol taught creative writing in the department and after his tragic and premature death in 1988, his colleagues named the reading series after him. In this series, several Canadian novelists, poets, short fiction writers and playwrights come to Glendon each year and read from their work. The readings are open to the public and are very popular with students and visitors alike. The format typically includes a reading by the author from a new or unpublished work, followed by a question period.

Article by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on April 20, 2009