Backstage drama in the spotlight

She may be a rookie director, but at the helm of a show about backstage drama at a summer theatre, Mairi Babb is in her element.

“It’s a world I know,” said Babb, who is making her directorial debut with Early August from June 12 to June 29.

The play by Kate Lynch sees four actors and a stage manager at a summer theatre not unlike Lighthouse navigating relationship problems and other backstage disasters while the show goes on around them.

“I loved the characters. I think all these characters are so wonderful and richly developed,” Babb said.

“I loved how Kate captured everything about a long run … It’s the tiny dramas and the big dramas. And also just being able to show the audience what it’s like (offstage) when they’re watching. They’re seeing a polished thing, but what’s happened backstage is often just a disaster. People have falling outs or never got along in the first place, and you just have to push through. So I loved the idea of Lighthouse audiences getting to see their actors stripped down a little bit.”

It was during Babb’s first season acting in Port Dover that artistic director Derek Ritschel approached her about one day directing a show of her own.

“And I was like, oh, come on!” she laughed.

But the idea stuck with her. Babb has long been interested in directing, dating back to her university days when she coached younger actors in the art of interpreting Shakespearean dialogue. Later stints as a voice and text coach in Winnipeg, assistant director under Marti Maraden at Drayton, and puppet captain for part of the national tour of War Horse only whetted her appetite to give the top job a try.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching things in rehearsal and figuring out how people solve problems – bringing all those technical things and making them into artistic choices,” she said.

After a few more years acting at Lighthouse and observing what goes into staging a show, Babb decided it was time to make the leap from performing in and critically watching other shows to directing one of her own.

Ritschel gave her a handful of scripts on his shortlist to bring to Lighthouse and she gravitated to Early August.

“For people who aren’t involved in the theatre, it’s getting to peek behind the curtain,” she said. “It’s madness backstage, and I think people are fascinated by what goes on in the dark spaces.”

She admitted to some nerves heading into her first day of rehearsal, but was confident in the team around her, starting with Ritschel himself.

“Derek is just unflappable, which is an amazing quality to have. And he’s so incredibly kind,” Babb said.

“He said to me, ‘I’m going to give you the best stage management team, because I want you to be taken care of,’” she continued, referring to the veteran stage management duo of Daniele Guillaume and Meghan Speakman.

“He gave me people that he knew I could be free to ask questions of at any time,” Babb said, which proved invaluable as she collaborated with set designer Bill Chesney to get the look and feel of the actors’ common area backstage – called the green room – just right.

Having Lighthouse mainstays Wendy Lundgren design the lights and Roni Clark imagine the costumes also put Babb at ease.

“There’s been nothing but support and confidence from every side,” she said. “Coming back here for my fourth season, it feels like coming home. I know that I could ask for help at any time, from anybody, and I would feel supported. That’s a rare thing in a theatre community.”

Ritschel said he could tell right away that Babb was destined to direct.

“The mark of a great director is not just one thing … it is tackling numerous components such as lights, costumes, sound, set, props, the audience experience, and the actors’ performance, and seamlessly focusing them all towards one vision,” he said.

“It takes confidence, passion, leadership skills, and flexibility to another level. I see these qualities in Mairi. I have from the day I met her. I know she would thank Lighthouse for giving her the opportunity to direct her first show professionally, but the truth is we are grateful she said yes.”

As for choosing who would populate the world of Early August on stage, Babb said certain roles immediately brought to mind actors she knew, either through performing alongside them or by reputation. With those roles locked in, she went through her first audition process from the other side of the table.

“For me it was really important to have good team players and good people,” Babb said. “They’re together for a long run, so I want good people who are not going to create any drama offstage.”

The drama was reserved for the rehearsal hall. Once the actors knew more or less where to stand and when to move, Babb and the cast set about “ripping it all apart.”

“We have a rough template, and now we’re going to pull it apart and see the essence of what needs to stay and what needs to change,” Babb explained.

That’s the fun of rehearsing, she added – finding the little moments that add up to big emotions and big laughs.

“It’s all about layers. So by the time you get to opening, you have all of these different layers of impulses and things that make everything fuller, rather than just walking around (the stage) and going ‘this is my blocking.’”

Inspired by directorial mentors like Maraden, Ritschel, and Marcia Kash, Babb’s mantra during rehearsals is collaboration.

“I don’t really dictate a lot before we get into it (at rehearsal). I watch to see what the actual actors bring to it,” Babb said.

“Everyone has answers. I’m here to shape. We do have time in this rehearsal process to listen and see where everyone’s coming from, and not just say ‘we have 10 days, so there’s no room for messing around.’

“You have to have someone who makes final decisions, but if you get a good group of people together, collaboration is what’s going to give you the best product.”