Director Shana Carroll spoke with us about train travel, the contradictions of the world, and the creative process.
Where did you get the idea to work with the world of trains?
The creative process involves a lot of mechanisms. I’ve always been attracted to trains because they are a reminder of past times and lands, but also a step towards the future, since they lead us to countries we have not yet visited. I’ve always been interested in the symbol of the train. When I was young, there was a train that ran about 10 kilometers from my home. Every time it went by, it was like a call, something deeply powerful. You couldn’t hear anything else. And when I was in my twenties, I did a lot of shows in Europe, so I spent a lot of time on trains. Many pivotal moments of my life happened there. I was fascinated by the different contradictions that train travel involves: the feeling of not moving at all, of being stuck in a box while moving at a crazy speed, and the juxtaposition of the landscape and the reflection of one’s own face in the window. There is also the element of chance: we take the decision to get on a train, but at the same time we are stuck in it, without knowing the people who accompany us, and we have no control over the sequence of events. I have so many incredible stories in trains, talking for hours with strangers of all ages, geographical origins and social backgrounds.
How did you apply these ideas on stage in Passagers?
There are always different layers in a creation. What I do is that I let the idea simmer slowly, to get to its essence, which can be summed up in one sentence. In this case, the death of my friend and collaborator Raphael Cruz [in January 2018] was determinant. I had started writing a few months before, with the intention of making a more narrative show, like the Crime of the Orient Express, with different narrative arcs for each character. Then Raphael died, and I was in mourning, I was in pain. I had the feeling of having lost my accomplice, my compass. And I believe that creation is the antidote for getting through the darkest matters. Only this time, I said to myself that nothing made sense: this young man had died so early. There was no possible antidote, no solution. Then one day, a few weeks after Raphael’s death, I told Sébastien [Soldevila, another co-founder of the 7 Fingers] that I wanted the world to be a magical place again, not a place where young men who are dear to me die. He answered me with this decisive sentence: “The world is both at once.” And that’s it, for me it was the sentence that would summarize my project. Suddenly all the contradictions implied by trains came back to me. So yes, sometimes people die, but sometimes there is magic too. There is no path that is necessarily happy or unhappy; we are on two parallel tracks, and we try to follow both at the same time. This is how the train became a metaphor for this notion, a reflection on this dichotomy. Then I wanted to apply chapters: departure, transit and arrival, in all their forms, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Hearty farewells, happy departures, a trip stuck in the middle of perfect strangers, sleeping on a train (there is something magical about sleeping on a train). For music, we added a song that Raphael wrote two years ago that we had never used. There is a passage where he plays the piano, so in a way, he is part of the show.
Did you also draw inspiration from the artists in Passagers?
My original idea forms half of the show. The other half is carried by the artists and what they bring to it. I am convinced that to get the best out of them, you have get to their essence. They must appropriate the show. They are much better when they invest in a project they feel deeply connected to. Starting from my basic idea, we add their suggestions, and that’s how together we give birth to our baby. Improvisation plays a key role in this process. We start with a theme, a general idea, a motivation or a theatrical context, and they improvise starting from these bases. There is usually a moment of “ah” when the improvisation touches the right string, and from that moment on, the essence I talked about appears. From there we can create anything. The artists learn things from each other, which allows us to put together a common, instinctive vocabulary.
How do you choose the artists you want to see in your show?
I choose artists I know and really want to work with. I met some at the National Circus School of Montreal. I was in contact with others after having worked with them before. I particularly appreciate when an artist has multiple talents, when she or he knows how to move and play comedy well. I also want an artist who is good person, with a good soul. I like working with these artists for who they are as people as well as artists., what Another interesting element in this show is that we have artists with disciplines never seen with The 7 Fingers like Russian cradle and tight wire.
Now that you’ve seen the whole show, how are you feeling?
I’m nervous. But this is always the case for a live show. I am especially happy about one thing: that essence I spoke about — I feel it when I watch the show. We’ve really touched what I wanted to achieve. At one point, when you create, you have to be your own audience and love what you put in place. I love seeing my artists on stage. The most important point, and also the most worrying, is to be able to stay true to what we wanted to put in place. To stay the course as the show goes on, to keep the original vision. Because we can certainly create beautiful images, but in the end, if we do not tell anything, it does not serve much. That is why we must also know how to sacrifice certain things for the good of the work as a whole.
How do you think circus from Quebec differs from the rest of the world?
Quebec circus is a precursor in the field of modern circus. In other parts of the world, modern circus can be seen as a counter-movement of traditional circus. There are two very separate, irreconcilable movements, as if they were Democrats and Republicans. In Quebec, people do what they want with the circus, traditional or not. It’s very fluid, fusional. Quebec is a very fertile and creative land with a very supportive community. For me, one of the reasons Quebec plays such an important role in the circus world is that there is a strong desire for non-spoken art. The question of language in this province is a very sensitive subject, a source of division. Circus, on the other hand, unites people from all walks of life. The circus is recognized as an art form by the government here, which gives it legitimacy and power. This is not the case in some parts of the United States, where circus is more stigmatized.
Have you been given more resources to reach your objective in Quebec?
That’s exactly why we are based in Montreal. Gypsy and I are American, and Seb is French. There are few places in the world where a circus company is given the opportunity to perform a show for a run of two months, as we have been able to do on many occasions at the Tohu. It’s a mix of support and openness. Quebecers are enthusiastic people. Some environments are dominated by criticism and competition. Here it’s the opposite, and it’s liberating.
What do you wish for the Tohu for its 15th birthday?
Long live the Tohu! Since the Tohu opened fifteen years ago, we have been present every year, and the growth of our company has been on par with that of the Tohu. It’s an incredible institution, which has given me lasting memories. This is a unique case in North America: a theatre built specifically for circus artists. I really hope they will continue with this momentum for a long time. It’s an incredible chance for us. I was talking about the Quebec circus earlier, and I do not know how it would have evolved without the Tohu. If audiences here are educated about circus, it’s also because they have access to this kind of platform.