On November 23, McGill’s Moyse Hall will welcome audiences to attend its latest student production, “Pomona” a haunting, disorienting, and dark journey through a concrete wasteland, in search of a missing person. Written by Alistair McDowall in 2014, “Pomona” is a contemporary play that draws upon popular culture references, such as the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
Directed by Sean Carney, Associate Professor in the Department of English, the play brings together undergraduate students from across various academic disciplines at McGill, such as Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry, as well as students from the Department of English with majors or minors in Drama and Theatre and Cultural Studies.
Although the Moyse Hall Theatre is housed within the Department of English, students from across the university are implicated in the shows that are performed. From open casting auditions to credit courses such as ENGL 368 – Stage, Scenery and Lighting and ENGL 377 Costuming for the Theatre, Moyse Hall gives students the opportunity to participate in a creative group project and to engage in meaningful discussions about the world and our society through the medium of theatre.
“It’s a really diverse group of students,” Carney says. “That’s part of what’s fun about it… these projects bring together students from different parts of the university. It speaks to the fact that these plays are of interest to the larger McGill community.”
The Power of Theatre… From Shakespeare to Pomona
Moyse Hall Theatre generally puts on several productions per year, ranging from Shakespeare plays to contemporary plays and original productions, such as Fall 2021’s production of “Fashion Follies”, directed by Professor Myrna Wyatt Selkirk, which was a satirical critique of the fashion industry.
Drawing upon his own experience as an actor and director during his undergraduate and graduate studies, Professor Carney welcomed the challenge and responsibility of directing plays and mentoring students through the processes of directing, acting and learning skills such as stage management.
“I’ve directed a variety of plays,” Carney says. “We often do Shakespeare because it’s fun and appealing and it gives students a great opportunity to discover the language, the poetry and the energy that comes from Shakespeare.”
But occasionally, Carney likes to shake things up a bit and dips into his extensive knowledge of contemporary British drama, his area of research and expertise.
In its language and subject matter, Pomona is perhaps closer to students’ sensibilities than the iambic pentameter verses of Shakespeare, and it speaks directly to the sensibilities of a younger generation.
“The play features references to contemporary culture,” Carney says. “The play’s social conscience, which is tucked away inside the story, sneaks up on you as it’s going along. When students read the play, they recognize a message of some sort, a message about the world that has been created for us, what we are finding ourselves in and how we negotiate a path through a world where stuff seems to go wrong, all the time.”
Thinking back to the first play he’d seen, a revival production of “Dracula”, Carney says, “You can use the theatre to create a suspension of disbelief in a way that transports people into a story that doesn’t have to be realistic in order to have a point to it.”
“The power of theatre,” Carney says, “is its ability to draw us in, and to get us to, for a little while, believe in things we know are impossible.”
On Stage – The Challenges of Characterization
Described as both a mystery and a thriller, students on the production have praised the play’s darkness, ambiguity and non-chronological timeline that lets the spectator piece the story together.
“Pomona is an usual play in terms of its structure,” Carney says. “The scenes don’t take place in linear or chronological fashion, so it contributes to the mystery of the play.”
In the play, Pomona is a concrete underground city, more or less based on Alistair McDowall’s hometown of Manchester, UK. Pomona, an ancient Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, is a poignant and ironic foil to the concrete wasteland that characterizes the imaginary setting of “Pomona”, where one of the play’s characters, Ollie, goes looking for her missing sister.
Ollie, who is portrayed by Momo Burns-Min, a U2 English Drama and Theatre major, finds herself drawn into a nightmarish underworld and coerced into taking part in a role-playing game in order to find her sister.
Working through Ollie’s character, Momo found herself identifying more strongly with the character’s flaws, rather than her merits. “But the biggest connection for me,” says Momo, “Is her love for her sister and her determination to find and protect her.”
The love that tethers Ollie to her quest to find her sister is an easily recognizable emotion audience members will identify in the play. And while that familiar trope may sound comforting at first glance, the darker reality of the play’s other characters and their motivations, quickly disabuses audiences of any illusion that they are in safe and familiar settings.
A challenge for any actor is understanding the darkness of one’s character. Sam Snyders, a U0 student who has yet to declare a major, plays the role of Moe, the security guard stationed outside of Pomona.
“Moe has a troubled past and he has a fairly stony exterior for much of the play, so developing nuance for the motivations behind his words and actions has been a journey,” says Sam. “I had to break through to a core struggle that isn’t explicitly shown to the audience and figure out how he uses it to justify his choices.”
Indeed, finding ways to “tap into” his character’s darker side has been a learning curve for Sam. “The play’s complex storyline is coupled with equally complex characters,” Sam says. “To bring that to life was an enticing challenge.”
The play’s complex set of characters also features Zeppo, portrayed by Spencer Geddes, a U2 student in Mathematics and Physics, and Charlie, portrayed by Aidan Robb, who is studying Biology.
“Zeppo is a very eccentric character whose personal philosophy is one that is difficult to come to terms with,” Spencer says. Portraying Zeppo has given Spencer a very interesting perspective that he hopes others watching the play will share.
“I think the average audience member can often find [non-contemporary] plays difficult to resonate with,” says Spencer, “but I feel that Pomona will resonate a lot, specifically with people of our age.”
In portraying the character of Charlie, Aiden found that the character’s depth was relatable to most, if not all, audience members. “A lot of the issues [Charlie] faces are universally felt,” he says. “His character is hard not to love. My main issue is going to be playing him so that everyone can feel some sort of [recognition] of relativity to him.”
Behind The Scenes of Pomona
Students working on technical aspects of the play can find themselves in a wide range of roles, such as being part of the set crew, which builds and mounts the sets and props for the production, Lighting Board Operators, Assistant Stage Managers, and Sound Board Operators. Although their work is largely done behind the scenes, the fruits of their labour are conspicuously present throughout the play.
Guiding them through this process are Ms. Corinne Deeley, Theatre Production Manager at Moyse Hall, who teaches the student Stage Managers and Mr. Keith Roche, who teaches the students about set, lighting, props and sound within the framework of ENGL 368 – Stage, Scenery and Lighting.
“I learned that it really does take a village to bring a production to life and that a lot of logistics and management happens behind the scenes,” says Mai Kutsuna, a U4 double majoring in Drama & Theatre and Chemistry. As an assistant stage manager, Mai’s tasks involve attending rehearsals and taking block notes, line calling and making sure actors know their call time.
Indeed, teamwork is essential when putting together a play, and like a puzzle, everyone contributes a piece that when put together, makes up a whole.
“Theatre production has taught me the importance of working as a team, especially since other art forms are often more solitary,” says Aurore Mombelli, who will soon be switching from a Bachelor of Arts to Architecture.
As part of the set crew, Aurore and Nathan White, an undergraduate student in Physics and Math, help create the stage and structures that visually frame the play and its story. Among his tasks, Nathan has been called upon to exercise his skills in carpentry and painting to bring the world of Pomona to life.
“Working behind the scenes has taught me just how much consideration and labor is necessary to put on a production,” says Nathan. “There were many things I’d never considered as an audience member.”
Lighting and sound are perhaps another area that audience members may not initially think of. While audience members may get caught up in the dialogue between characters, lighting and sound are indispensable ingredients for any theatrical experience.
As a Lighting Board Operator, Lana Ptaček, who is pursuing a double major in English Drama and Theatre and German Studies, is in charge of making the light changes or effects that will be seen during the play.
“The creative and technical work I am performing at the moment is mostly a collective effort,” says Lana,” therefore our entire crew is working together on any of the basic necessities that are needed for the set and stage.” Tasks include rerouting electric wires, and setting up lights according to the needs and vision of the director.
May Galligan, who is studying English and Cultural studies, works as the Sound Board Operator and is tasked with finding and choosing different sound cues that align with the script.
“This production has taught me a lot about all the different stages a production must go through to get to its final product,” says May.
The students behind Pomona will undoubtedly draw great satisfaction from their ‘final product’, as audiences can begin to venture into the world of Pomona on the following dates: November 23-25, November 30, and December 1-2 at the Moyse Hall Theatre, at 7:30pm.
You can purchase tickets for the performances here.