TORONTO – Acclaimed Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan says he loves the “luxury” of working in the theatre, where he got his start as a writer and director.
Not only can he sit down with his entire cast and talk about things collectively, which rarely happens in film, it’s also a much less lonely experience than directing for cinema, when the overall look of the project “only ever exists in your own mind” while on-set, he says.
And with his latest play, Martin Crimp’s “Cruel and Tender” in Toronto, he has an added bonus — he and his actress-wife, Arsinee Khanjian, get to enjoy a normal work schedule together.
Egoyan has collaborated with Khanjian on several of his films before, including his two-time Oscar-nominated “The Sweet Hereafter,” but this is his first time directing her onstage and “It’s crazily different because it’s a lot more sane,” he says.
“We get in a car in the morning, we drive to work together, we rehearse and then we drive home, so it’s like a 9 to 5,” Egoyan said recently during a break from rehearsals for the play, which opens Thursday at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
“Filmmaking is not like that at all. First of all, I have to be there way earlier than she does, or sometimes she has to be there earlier to get into makeup, and it’s so much more stressful.
“These last couple of weeks have been really blissful and you could go, ‘Wow, if it could always be like this, it would be amazing.’ But it’s rare.”
The Victoria-raised Egoyan met Khanjian nearly 30 years ago when she was in a theatre production in Montreal and he asked her to be in his movie “Next of Kin.”
Egoyan has been writing and directing plays since his teens and feels theatre has had a big influence on his movies.
But while he’s directed productions for the Canadian Opera Company and stage shows in Europe and New York in recent years, he hasn’t helmed a play in Canada since about 1989, when he had a production at Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival.
It’s not because he hasn’t wanted to direct a play here, he said — it’s just that his film schedule hasn’t allowed for that to happen.
“I guess there’s another thing, too — honestly it’s that I also feel that there are people who dedicate themselves to doing theatre and they should be given opportunities, right?” added Egoyan.
“I’m very aware, honestly, that I’m also taking work that some other aspiring theatre director in the city might really welcome. So I’ve been very choosy, because there have been offers for sure.”
Egoyan came into “Cruel and Tender,” which began preview performances on Saturday, when he Matthew Jocelyn — artistic and general director of Canadian Stage Company — agreed to collaborate on a project that “wouldn’t be an expected thing to present here,” said Egoyan.
They then honed in on British contemporary playwright Crimp and his drama “Cruel and Tender,” a reimagining of Sophocles’ ancient Greek Heracles tragedy “The Trachiniae.”
Khanjian plays Amelia, the wife of a military general (Daniel Kash), who is going stir crazy at home with their teenage son (Jeff Lillico) while her husband is fighting a war on terror in Africa.
When the general sends home Laela (Abena Malika), an African teenager who survived one of the general’s attacks, Amelia begins to question her husband’s motives for war.
“What Crimp has done really brilliantly is he has actually said that terror is very much like the Hydra, which is that you cut off its head and it’ll just grow another one,” said Egoyan, who consulted with Crimp via email during rehearsals.
“It’s just all very interesting looking at it from the point of view of a family, but then superimposing it against this political reality that begins to kind of merge in. And It’s also quite darkly funny as well.”
Other cast members include Nigel Shawn Williams, Thomas Hauff, Cara Ricketts, Brenda Robins, Andre Sills and Sarah Wilson.
The setting is a warehouse that’s been transformed into living quarters and is close to an airport in an unidentified location. The entire set is white, save for symbolic splashes of blood here and there. Props include a hand-assembled chandelier with over 350 pieces of crystal, and a hand-held camera, which will record a cast member during the show and project the image onto a screen.
Egoyan moved to Toronto around his late teens to study political science and international relations, “so this play is dealing with a lot of themes that I’m really close to,” he said.
Those themes include crimes against humanity, the notions of destiny and fate as they relate to the war on terror, and “When do we actually understand that something has gone outside the bounds of conduct?”
“The play was written in 2004, of course, at the height of the Iraq war, but it still is really relevant because it’s dealing with a way in which regimes are deposed of, in which things are broken down, and we’ve seen that over the past year,” said Egoyan.
“But this is looking at what happens from regime change from a domestic point of view. What’s actually happening in those houses? What is the nature of the conversations that are happening as the world is changing?”