Toronto’s Leah Cherniak directs Factory Theatre’s latest offering, the world premiere of 6 Essential Questions, Canadian poet, novelist and academic Priscila Uppal’s first play,
Based on Uppal’s 2013 critically acclaimed memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, the play 6 Essential Questions tells the tale of Renata as she travels to Brazil to see the mother who abandoned her when she was five years old. In fact, the character of Renata is based on Uppal herself.
“The play is a spiritual recounting of a young woman’s [trip] to Brazil to visit her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. Her mother ran away from their home in Canada and there was no contact between them. It’s a play that looks at what happens when family memory is repressed,” the multi-award winning director said.
Cherniak said she was drawn to the play because of its poetic language. “The play has the quality of a dream, it’s like Alice in Wonderland, where the daughter falls from somewhere and ends up in this strange country, which is Brazil, where she meets her mother and parts of the family, and how they respond to her.”
Much as she appreciates the poetic tone, she said, “there are challenges in directing this because it’s not your basic psychological realism, those sorts of plays you can work out in a specific kind of theatrical structure. It has much more poetic licence and dream language in it. It’s always challenging, but that is also what’s exciting about it because the world is rich, quite beautiful and funny. For me, it is a wonderful story… the story of a woman discovering something about herself and her family and [finally] giving herself… the freedom to move on.”
But despite the poetic quality of the play, Cherniak said 6 Essential Questions does not idealize mother-daughter relationships.
“We are actually saying that are we operating under a learned and habitual experience of how mothers and daughters behave and what happens if you don’t have a mother,” Cherniak said. “And what does it mean to be motherless, and can you get beyond that? I think this play says, yes you can, and that we shouldn’t assume that just because you don’t have a mother, your life has any less forward drive than if you had a mother.”
The cast consists of Mina James as Renata, Elizabeth Saunders as her mother and Maggie Huculak as the grandmother. Richard Zeppieri takes the role of Renata’s uncle. All of them have thrown themselves into the style of the play, grappling successfully with the issues and the language.
Cherniak said the actors have also tapped into their comedic side and captured the very funny moments in the primarily serious piece.
Having started her theatre career as an actor, Cherniak feels she comes to directing with an actor’s’ perspective. She was co-founder, along with Martha Ross, of Theatre Columbus, which has created more than 30 new plays and can boast about its innovative productions of classics. She directed many of the plays in the Theatre Columbus repertoire, including The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, Gynty, Twelfth Night, The Betrayal, Hotel Loopy, And Up They Flew and Dance of the Red Skirts.
She is also an associate artist and associate director with The Academy at Soulpepper Theatre Company and has many other directing credits. In addition, she teaches in the Ryerson Theatre Program and at the University of Toronto.
Cherniak who is a mother herself, to daughter Margaret Rose, 16, credits her family for her love of the arts, although she is the only one in her family to have pursued a career in the field. When not directing, she enjoys films, reading and dinners with friends and family.
For tickets to 6 Essential Questions at the Factory Theatre, March 1 to 30, call 416-504-9971 or go to www.factorytheatre.ca.