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Concordia theatre prof Jessica Carmichael directs The Clearing at the Shaw Festival

‘The play took my breath away when I first read it’
September 25, 2023
A young woman with long blonde hair, with a wolf superimposed over the bottom of her face, in a desert setting.
The Clearing, written by Helen Edmundson in 1993, is on at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, until October 6. | Image courtesy of the Shaw Festival

As an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Theatre, Jessica Carmichael can share her extensive background as a director, actor and creator with her playwriting students.

Carmichael, who’s of mixed Abénaki and European heritage, began at the university in 2017. Her impressive list of credits as director include The Rez Sisters at the Stratford Festival in 2021 and Middletown at Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada in 2023.

Her directorial effort, The Clearing, written by Helen Edmundson in 1993, is on now at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, until October 6.

A young woman with long, dark hair, wearing a grey winter wool coat and a black top Jessica Carmichael: “The play invites an audience to view colonialism as something that shapes our world to this day.”

‘The Clearing was a joy to direct’

Describe what The Clearing is about and how you came to direct it.

Jessica Carmichael: The Clearing tells the story of a group of people in the 1650s during the English re-conquest of Ireland under the brutal leadership of Oliver Cromwell. It deals with the subject of ethnic cleansing and the reverberations of difficult choices that divide and change people under the forces of colonization.

The play took my breath away when I first read it. Artistic director Tim Carroll had sent it to me after a lovely Zoom chat during the pandemic. We discussed my interest in examining my Indigenous and European heritage from a different theatrical point of view than some of the other works I had recently directed. How that might manifest between my Abénaki and Irish roots specifically, I could not tell.

Tim’s response was thoughtful — inviting me to direct this play that activates breath while it points to such subjects as colonization, fear, hatred, love, family, division, cycles of violence, slavery and the difference between it and indentured servitude, lost land, culture, human limitations and the limits put upon them. It made me consider new complexities in colonization’s troubling past and its reverberations to today.

Why does the story, written in 1993, remain relevant? How have audiences reacted to it?

JC: Playwright Helen Edmundson asks directors to consider that her plays “think about the world we’re living in,” and this continues to be the case with a play written in 1993. It invites an audience to view colonialism not in the past tense but something that shapes our entire world to this day. The play focuses on a particular group of people in Ireland — this specificity, however, allows one to consider the legacy of colonization across multiple ethnic groups and eras.

The Clearing is being performed at the Shaw Festival in Canada — a nation in tension with its own relationship to colonialism. Audiences have remarked on the ways the play holds history to account, that it asks important questions regarding the terms “civilization, “settlement,” “goodness” and “evil,” and what is worth fighting for.

For many audience members who have reached out with praise for the production, the starkness of Edmundson’s last moments in the play brings home the reason to view it: the daring reminder of the brutal roots of subjugation of Indigenous peoples and how that legacy lives on.

A young woman in period clothing — a bonnet and full length dress — kneeling on a stage. Ryann Myers as Killaine Farrell in The Clearing. | Photo by David Cooper

Describe the specific challenges of directing The Clearing.

JC: The Clearing was a joy to direct. It’s a challenging, emotional and thought-provoking piece. It requires care and time for deep research on the topics it presents. I spent almost two years on concentrated prep work to research and analyze the play. I think the challenge for me as a director, as with all plays, is allowing the heart of the story to come through and to bring a team of actors and designers around that same heartbeat.

The playwright also provokes directors of her plays to “recognize that it can’t be naturalistic. It has to involve really using the performer’s physicality… going to a place way beyond reality.”

What are you teaching now at Concordia? What has working on The Clearing and other projects added to your teaching?

JC: I am currently teaching Playwriting I in the Performance Creation BFA program of our Department of Theatre, and a special topic course I’ve devised in Theatre for Young Audiences. I always find while away on my creative research — like all my wonderful colleagues in the Faculty of Fine Arts and in my department — that I am thinking how I might bring what I am learning in my practice back into the classroom.

Working on The Clearing at the Shaw Festival, and such recent directing work like The Rez Sisters at the Stratford Festival, has allowed me, too, to deepen my directing and dramaturgical skills. I invite students to examine the ways I lead a particular production. I love when I can examine the work I am doing with the students, or get them in touch with other professionals working in the field, and get them excited about their own possibilities and the responsibilities and joys of storytelling.

The Clearing is playing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, until October 6. Learn more and how to get tickets.

Discover more about Concordia’s Department of Theatre.

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