Audrey Amar knows that it’s up to her to create her own theatre opportunities.
When the 24-year-old Thornhill, Ont. native decided she wanted to try her hand at directing a play, she did exactly that, bringing to life Cyrano de Bergerac, a French play she had loved for more than a decade. She formed her own production company, Seventh Method Productions, and put herself in charge of the costumes and set design as well.
And she did it all despite being legally blind.
“In my own circle, I’m the only director I know that has a visual impairment,” she said. This posed challenges that most first-time directors wouldn’t have to overcome. Cyrano, in particular, was a very physical piece, she said. “It was difficult to try to figure out exactly what worked for me.”
She eventually settled on watching the performance through a digital camera, zooming in on actors from a distance to better direct them.
That was last year. Now, with one successful run under her belt, Amar is gearing up to open her production company’s second season with off-Broadway hit Private Jokes, Public Places, written by Oren Safdie, son of Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.
The play takes a satirical look at “academic pretension,” and although the younger Safdie wrote it while studying architecture at Columbia University (from which he later dropped out), it has been altered to take place at the University of Toronto, where Amar went to school and where it will be performed – a concept that is an ongoing tradition with this play.
“It’s fascinating to see these academic ivory tower stereotypes go at it,” she said. “We see this play as much more than a critique of pretentious professors. It’s more of a look at finding oneself and discovering your own character within these very strict guidelines of theoretical knowledge.”
She said it’s particularly relatable to students or post-secondary graduates. They chose the venue to better bring the play to life – it’s being performed at the University of Toronto in the John H. Daniels faculty of architecture just in time for the end of the exam period.
Amar discovered the play in her third year studying at U of T, when she had to perform a monologue written by a Middle-Eastern Canadian or Asian Canadian for a course. She chose one from Private Jokes, Public Places.
“But just doing a monologue from this funny, exciting play didn’t quench my thirst for it,” she said. “It had to become a project for me.”
This play is much more calm – physically – compared to her last one. This time, she found it was easiest for her to watch the actors rehearse from up close, often from about two feet away.
“I always make sure to let the actors know that I might not necessarily be able to see what they’re doing sitting out in the audience,” she explained. By standing close to them, she can overcome that hurdle.
Her cast has adapted to her style, and she said they joke that she’s a very “visionary director.”
Although she doesn’t know any other directors with the same type of impairment, she sometimes refers back to lessons from her role model Jamie Graham, her high school drama teacher.
“As anyone gets older, their vision starts to waver in their reliability. Having him call an actor forward and saying ‘do that again’ so he could see it, worked for him,” she said, adding that there’s no blanket solution, but seeing him overcome his own needs showed her that anything is possible.
At that time, she was not considering becoming a director, and her teacher had even jokingly warned her against doing so. He had died while she was in the early stages of Cyrano, and so he never got to see her efforts come to fruition, but she did tell him when she was first thinking of trying her hand at directing.
“He sent me a vicious email saying, ‘You know what kind of controlling, egotistical person you become when you direct,’” she said, referring to her high school drama classes – and assuring that she has changed her style since then. “And he said, in short, ‘of course you should.’”
One of her professors at U of T told her that most theatre companies would likely be hesitant to take her on as either an actor or director because of her vision challenges, but it hasn’t stopped her. She has even studied stage combat – she just has to observe a few times before joining in.
That’s why she instead took another professor’s advice to heart.
“Instead of waiting to be hired as a director or approached to be a director for a certain play, which granted someone might be hesitant to take someone who is visually impaired, I chose to make my own opportunities,” she said.
She described the experience of directing as both exciting and thrilling.
“I had never experienced being able to see a vision become materialized,” she said. “Taking something you have in your head, soul or heart and watching it come to be in front of you, is a jarringly beautiful experience.”
She said she loves how many Jewish artists have been inspired by Jewish history, taking often painful stories and turning them into something beautiful, whether as a tragedy or drama, or even comedy.
“I’m glad I get to uphold that tradition in my own small way,” she said.
Private Jokes, Public Places will be running from April 24 to 27 at U of T’s faculty of architecture at 230 College St. For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or purchase at the door.