Local actor and producer Katherine McCallum swings on the set of The Syringa Tree during rehearsal at the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre in Whitehorse on Oct 27. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)7.

One woman, 24 characters: The Syringa Tree comes to Whitehorse

‘This is, to date, the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to tackle as a performer’

Pamela Gien’s award-winning one-woman play The Syringa Tree is coming to Whitehorse this November, thanks to a bold new performance by local theatre company Larrikin Entertainment.

The play — which originally opened in Seattle in 1999, with the playwright as the performer — has been staged by major theatre companies across North America and Europe. The work centres around Elizabeth Grace, a young, white, British girl living in South Africa during the apartheid era, and her relationship to the political and social tensions rising around her. A syringa is a species of lilac, which, while not native to South Africa, was introduced to the region, where it thrives.

Interestingly, the play contains 24 characters of multiple ethnicities — Sotho, Afrikaner, Zulu, Xhosa — but is designed to be performed by only one actor with minimum props and staging.

While the play has been adapted to be performed with multiple actors before, Larrikin Entertainment has stayed true to the original concept, said director Laura McLean. There are no costume changes and the set — a giant wooden swing anchored into the floor suspended by a black metal frame meant to represent the namesake syringa tree — remains constant, she said. All roles are played by local actor/producer Katherine McCallum and the characters interact with each other simultaneously, despite being played by only one person. This means that to properly portray each role, McCallum must rely entirely on her body and voice.

So, how does that work?

“Very well,” said McLean with a laugh.

“Sometimes, things get moving so well, you forget there’s only one person on stage,” she said.

“This is, to date, the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to tackle as a performer, but it’s a fun play,” McCallum said. “It’s part of the joy, the challenge.”

McCallum said she hired trainers and took classes to help her master the bouquet of accents she has to work in. As the only one on stage, she doesn’t have a choice but to speak in the accent of the character she is playing at that moment, in order to help differentiate between roles.

“I studied with some amazing accent and dialect coaches,” she said.

“Discovering the unique physicality, voice and nature of each of these 24 characters has been both a challenge and a delight,” McLean said. “Each character has their own backstory, their own joys, desires and anxieties.”

McCallum first saw the play during its run in New York and said it stayed with her, even years later, she said.

“It was one of the most magical theatre experiences I’ve ever had,” she said.

With nine local production companies calling Whitehorse home, the town is definitely theatre-centric — but what does a play set in South Africa have to offer residents of the North?

“I don’t think we always need to do ‘North’ things,” McLean said. “There’s something so magical about going someplace different in theatre…. I want people in Whitehorse to feel they’ve been to South Africa (after seeing this play).”

The play, which focuses strongly on the injustices of apartheid, contains messages which are relevent today, she said.

“Fear is universal and love is universal, being challenged by scary things and the way they effect you is universal.”

McCallum said she was in her 20s during the apartheid era, and, although she herself is not from South Africa (playwright Gien, however, grew up there) she remembers it as something often discussed among her peers.

“No matter where you live, scary things can happen,” McCallum said. “I think we can all imagine a world where our civil rights are restricted.”

Larrikin Entertainment has been working on getting this production off the ground for nearly a year, McLean said. Even though there’s only one person on the stage, she said, the play is a production of many people working together, from set builder to stage manager.

“This is a solo show, but it’s never just that one person on said. It’s all of us, a dozen artists all working together,” she said. “This ensemble is critical.”

“We’re in that exciting place where everything is just starting to come together,” McCallum said.

The Syringa Tree opens Nov. 8 at the Courts Theatre in the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre, with shows Wednesday through Saturday until Nov. 25. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ticketstripe.com/ thesyringatree.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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