The creator of the hit play-turned-film I, Claudia talks about mid-life crises, onstage meltdowns, and why it can be useful to hide behind masks.
She wants to use the audience as a therapist.
For theatre buffs, the name Kristen Thomson may evoke images of a chipmunk-cheeked 12-year-old in a red beret. That’s not the adult actor-playwright, of course, but her masked alter ego, the eponymous heroine of her breakthrough hit I, Claudia. The solo show, in which Thomson played a precocious kid dealing with her parents’ divorce, has had a long life since its triumphant premiere at Tarragon Theatre in 2001: It has been revived at Soulpepper Theatre, toured across Canada and abroad, and was made into a Gemini Award–winning CBC film. In Thomson’s new play, Someone Else, she puts away childish things—along with the cherubic mask—to explore mid-life crises and a souring marriage. The dark comedy, presented by Crow’s Theatre and Canadian Stage, stars Thomson as Cathy, a standup comic whose career is in crisis, and whose doctor husband Peter, (Tom Rooney), may be having an affair with a troubled teenage patient (Bahia Watson). Thomson says the play was inspired by an image she had of a couple in a therapist’s office, talking to the audience as if it were the therapist. “I liked that idea because I’m interested in the stories that are happening inside of people’s unconscious and their inner worlds, more than the stuff that’s happening in their outside worlds,” she says. “And I also like to make a direct connection with the audience.”
Her latest character is a comedian who would make Sarah Silverman blush.
When imagining her latest show, Thomson wanted to explore self-destructive behaviour and was fascinated by comics who implode onstage, à la Michael Richards. “You hear about these crazy comedians having meltdowns—for whatever reason, they can’t quite hold it together,” she says. “I was interested in seeing what would happen if she drove herself off a cliff like that.” But rather than unleashing a Richards-style racist tirade, Cathy directs her venom at her unfaithful husband and their failing marriage. Thomson sees it not as career suicide so much as catharsis. “I’m interested in the urge to self-destruct, but also in how that urge can be an attempt to clear the field for something new to happen.”
She’s a writer who thinks on her feet.
Thomson, who began her career as an actor before taking up playwriting, likes to create a script by improvising characters and scenes. “That’s how I tend to work,” she says, “not necessarily sitting at a desk, but standing up, moving around.” And while she hasn’t performed a play with masks since I, Claudia, she still finds that they can be useful tools when she’s writing. “[Working with masks] is a more fruitful way to get started,” she says. “It opens up little doors into my unconscious that, for me, the process of sitting down at a computer doesn’t.”
Her work is autobiographical—and it isn’t.
Thomson says that I, Claudia, while fictional, was an “emotional autobiography” that drew on her feelings about her own parents’ divorce. Audiences may be tempted to see Someone Else as personal, too. After all, Thomson, like Cathy, is middle-aged (she’s 47), married, and a mother—in her case, to a pair of twin eight-year-old boys and a five-year-old girl. In fact, she laughs, her husband, Mongrel Media founder Hussain Amarshi, recently expressed his horror that people might assume he’s the model for Peter. “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, that would really suck if they thought it was him!’ But,” she adds softly, “the truth is that Peter is kind of me, actually. All the characters are, in the same way that when you play a character it becomes you. You put yourself in those situations and [that role] becomes a dimension of yourself.”
Someone Else runs to Feb. 2 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., 416-368-3110, crowstheatre.com.