A few months ago I was traveling with a friend to Norval, Ontario where L.M. Montgomery lived from 1926 to 1935, and was told that there was a woman organizing a theatre company in the St. Paul’s Anglican Parish Hall where Montgomery used to participate and direct theatrical productions with her church and a youth organization.
Now, I must admit I was weary. It seems that plays, musicals, and more plays are the chosen medium to celebrate Montgomery’s life and works. And while some of them are quite good and even intriguing and I can appreciate how someone considers adapting a work, I have still sat through some simply dreadful productions.
A few weeks later, Patrick Cook (yes, that one) messages me on Twitter to tell connect me with this person he knows who is doing some with Montgomery. Turns out that they know one another through Sheridan College. And now I’m intrigued because the close network of theatre people has given me that all-so-familiar feeling that there is something extraordinary afoot. And I was right.
I’ve been to two productions of Marion Abbott’s The Spirit of Maud Theatre Company, and I’m definitely seeing something original. The first production was a series of monologues from the novels featuring characters such as, Philippa Gordon, Diana Barry, Mrs. Cornelia Bryant and (of course) Anne Shirley. Montgomery’s novels tend to have long sections of text (something we don’t really see anymore) of people telling stories and these do seem to be quite adaptable for the stage.
In the second production, A Kindred Spirit Christmas, Abbot connected four scenes from Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories: “The End of the Young Family Feud,” “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket,” “Matthew Insists onPuffed Sleeves” (from Anne of Green Gables) and “Katherine Brooke Comes to Green Gables” (from Anne of Windy Poplars). As these stories stayed true to the original material, they were a pleasure to watch and we saw some strong performances. I particularly liked Matthew Yipchuck’s interpretation of Matthew Cuthbert. He played him with such perfect physicality and simple shyness without being too over the top (as I’ve seen in some other productions.) Matthew Cuthbert is a personal favourite and I feel very protective of him so it is nice seeing him done well.
It is my pleasure to introduce to you Marion Abbot and The Spirit of Maud Theatre Company. This delightful and very energetic writer, producer and director has some intriguing ideas and I’m thrilled that we have become acquainted through our mutual
obsession interest in Montgomery.
Marion Abbott is a graduate of the Musical Theatre Performance Program at Sheridan College and has a Piano Performance A.R.C.T. from the Royal Conservatory of Music. As a performer, Marion appeared in Bye Bye Birdie, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood and Into The Woods. Marion has been teaching musical theatre to children since she was 16, later opening the Marion Abbott’s Performing Arts Studio in Brampton, where she produced over 30 productions, including Seussical, Anne of Green Gables and High School Musical. She recently co-created The Confidential Musical Theatre Project, preparing for their third installment in January 2015 (www.confidentialmusicaltheatreproject.com). As a dramatist, Marion has created No Safe Harbour, a play about the Halifax Explosion, based on the book by Julie Lawson, which appeared in Brampton, and Halifax. She is currently working on dramatizing a piece written by Jean Little and an adaptation of The Blue Castle. Marion is married to Giancarlo Piccin, a visual artist and they have a nine year old son, also named Giancarlo. Her favourite books are Anne of the Island, Anne’s House Of Dreams, and The Blue Castle.
Melanie: How did the idea for The Spirit of Maud Theatre Company originate?
Marion: The joke in my house has always been that my mother, a brunette, read Anne of Green Gables so many times, she ended up having three children who were natural redheads, myself included. I first read Anne of Green Gables when I was 10 and was hooked forever. Every summer, as long as I can remember, I’d re-read all eight Anne books, writing notes in the margins.
For the past four years, I’d been giving pieces from her books to my acting students to perform at recitals and competitions. Working on those pieces, and hearing Maud’s words performed never failed to inspire me and make me determined to somehow bring her work to the stage in a more significant way.
I arrived at the Parish Hall by fluke. I had two pieces I’d created based on Montgomery’s books and wanted to stage them near her former residence. I had no idea that she had actually performed in that building, let alone, frequented other events there on numerous occasions. I was pretty flabbergasted to find that out! One of my career goals is to promote Canadian talent, so providing constant productions based on Montgomery’s work just made sense. To be completely honest, I’m not sure. One morning I knew nothing about Montgomery and the Parish Hall, the next morning I was starting The Spirit of Maud Theatre Company; and yet, when I look back, it seems it was always meant to be.
Melanie: I love how one stumbles into opportunities. And now you have put together two shows, “The Spirit of Maud” and “Maud and Anne.” What is it about Montgomery’s characters that make them so easily adaptable for the stage?
Marion: Montgomery’s characters, particularly the female characters, are second to none. There is no such thing as a one-dimensional character in her books. They always have some quirk or trait or kernel of truth that makes them so interesting and so much fun to bring to the stage as both a dramatist/director and as an actor.
Her writing is unique in that although these characters ‘live’ in a different time period, they are so rooted in the truths of humanity and vulnerability that they could be someone who you work with or are related to. Her writing reminds me of the great jazz standards like “My Funny Valentine” by Rodgers and Hart or “I Got Rhythm” by the Gershwin Brothers – written a long time ago but still as current and relevent today.
Melanie: The evening at the hall is certainly reminiscent of perhaps one of the Literary evenings or church events Montgomery would have been involved in during her time in Norval. You provide tea and sweets in home made cups. Is this part of your intention?
Marion: A long time ago, I learned the hard way (!!) that you should just work with what you have. Don’t try to force elements that don’t belong. The Parish Hall is a very charming, very quaint, very old venue; therefore everything we, as a theatre company, bring to it should fit within those parameters. It was a lucky coincidence that the hall had china cups and saucers and I love to bake! But on a serious note, what we’re finding is that our patrons are really enjoying taking a break from the rush of 2014 with a simpler approach to theatre and Montgomery’s work. And the unlimited coffee and tea refills are a huge hit!
Melanie: What are some of the themes that you noticed about Montgomery’s writing while you were adapting them? And,what are some of the things you have learned about Montgomery and her work that surprised you while doing these adaptations?
Marion: Re-ocurring themes that she touches on over and over are the pursuit of higher ideals and a higher calling. Working for truth, beauty and love, rather than settling for that which is easily attainable and not long-lasting. Maud grew up at a time when religion was very ‘heaven or hell’ and ‘good or bad’ – the term ‘bible thumping’ comes to mind! As a long-time ‘church girl’, I find her perspective and views on spirituality extremely wise and refreshing, but surprising given the environment in which she grew up in and lived as a minister’s wife. I was also surprised at how much they weave in and out of every single book, every single story line. What a brilliant, brilliant woman she must have been to have such a compassionate and wise view of spirituality.
Another thing I’ve learned is just how incredibly prolific she was. As a child, reading her books, I took a lot for granted. Now, having typed out endless words and sentences she created, I’m blown away by how much she left us – and all by hand! The novels, the short stories, the poetry, plus her personal correspondence and her journals, with no typewriter for most (all?) of it? Unbelievable.
The sheer physical stamina, not to mention the never-ending wealth of creative ideas, is absolutely astounding. We are so blessed to have received so much from one person.
Melanie: How did you determine the flow of the dialogues between Maud and Anne? Did you outline before you approached them?
Marion: Well, I definitely didn’t map it out! I tend to ‘skim read’ the books I’m dramatizing for the second or third time before I actually begin the ‘typing’ and then I just dog-ear pages that contain pieces I want to use. Then, when I’m putting it all together or reading it over for editing purposes, I ‘listen’ for the rhythm of the piece as a whole. I think part of that is the musical theatre grad in me and part of it is the trained musician but it’s definitely all instinctual. And sometimes I don’t notice bumps or blips until I start putting the piece on its feet with actors – at which point I usually laugh myself silly at my errors and make crazy jokes about my ‘artistic vision letting me down’. Teehee!
Melanie: How has your theatrical background helped our hindered your creative process?
Marion: Oh, it definitely has proved to be a huge help. Although, not necessarily the training as much as the hands on experience. Of course I’m very grateful for my training and it has taught me excellent theory and technique. However, it’s the endless productions I’ve been putting on since I was a teenager that have proved the most valuable for this process. Big productions and small, flooded theatres, theatres with no stage left exits and shows where there were more cast members than audience members. And sadly, I must admit, it’s all the hilarious mistakes I’ve made in the past that have help guide me in this new project the most.
Melanie: You are currently working on two shows, A Kindred Christmas (now playing) and The Blue Castle. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Marion: A Kindred Spirit Christmas is the dramatic staging of four short stories about Christmas by Maud. Two are about Anne and two are based on short stories she wrote for magazines. They are charming and lovely and full of all the delights of the Christmas season.
The Blue Castle is the story of Valancy who starts out with nothing, finds out she has very little time left to live and decides to throw all caution to the wind and follow her heart. It is one of my all-time favourite books by Montgomery and it is SUCH a fan favourite. I’ve been blown away by the amount of interest already expressed in this piece by all kinds of different people in my life. I hope my dramatization honours their great affection for this wonderful, wonderful book.
Special thanks to Marion for agreeing to do this Q&A. A Kindred Spirit Christmas is still playing this week. You can purchase tickets through The Spirit of Maud website or at the door.