The Suburban Motel Series links six plays through a single motel
From a rented room
There’s something in the neutral nature of a motel that just seems dramatic. Maybe it’s the ease of access—anyone, poor or rich, can find reason to end up in one—or that the pleasant blandness of such a room leaves you with few distractions to hide from your own demons. Or maybe it’s that, despite the neutrality, its walls have witnessed an extremely varied history: there’s the lingering sense that you aren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to call the place home for a night or for much longer.
“The people who have been in that space before you leave their imprint,” Elliott James notes. “We’ve been doing tours a lot with [touring Shakespeare company] Prospero: we stayed in a real dive about a year ago, where every dish that was in the kitchen cabinet was dirty, put away. Cigarette butts burned holes in the little duvet. And everyone who was there when we got there was living there. We were there for a week; they were there for months. There’s no end-date to some of these things, even though everyone wants there to be one.”
James is returning to such a space, but this time in performance: a lone motel room plays home to all six plays in George F Walker’s Suburban Motel Series, which is being presented in full by the indie theatre upstarts of Punctuate! Theatre in a herculean, mind-boggling sort of theatrical feat. More than 40 artists are involved, from production work to the technical side to the performances—here, 15 actors play 20 characters (some of the same characters appear in multiple plays; other actors play different roles in different shows). Three directors helm a pair of the plays each: Jeff Page, on Problem Child and Risk Everything, Geoffry Ewert with The End of Civilization and Adult Entertainment and Liz Hobbs on Featuring Loretta and Criminal Genius.
James is sitting across a conference-sized table from Andréa Jorawsky—who, along with James, is part of that 15-strong cast—and Hobbs, two of Punctuate!’s other core members. Broaching the idea of producing six plays, they note, began when the company lost its home TACOS space last year, but still wanted to produce a season of sorts.
“We really didn’t want to lose that, working with a whole bunch of people and doing something that employed artists,” Hobbs says. “We were trying to come up with something that we could do that we didn’t have to rent theatre space for—which is also, y’know, impossible to actually book in this city.”
The Motel sequence came up in those discussions, but it didn’t find much traction at the time. Until Hobbs found herself unable to sleep one night; as she wondered what her company could do, her mind wandered to the Walker scripts.
“I started flipping through the plays, and making diagrams and flow charts of all the characters and all the requirements,” she recalls. “Is it even possible? A few hours later, I figured out how to rehearse all six of them in rep with the fewest amount of people possible, in a way that made sense.”
Doing the full suite of Suburban Motel plays has made all of Hobbs’s flowcharts into a nimble sequence of many moving parts: all six productions have been rehearsing in proximity, two to a floor, in the Eric Cormack Centre, itself a transient sort of space these days—a former psychiatric-care facility in Grandin, it’s currently finding ample use in theatre and television work.
Staging Walker scripts also marks a return of sorts for Punctuate!: five years ago, the company staged a Fringe production of The End of Civilization, just one the sequence of plays that, produced in full rep or no, have found their way in to the Canadian theatrical canon.
“I remember in theatre school, I feel like every acting class I did, someone did a scene from Problem Child,” Jorawsky says. “I don’t know if zeitgeist would be the right word, but I was familiar with most of the plays.”
The scripts run a gamut of character types, among Walker’s dark, sometimes comic writing: characters from all social strata find themselves among its six scripts, from criminals to the middle-class to white-collar lawyer types.
“You realize [the scripts] all sort of boil down to one of two basic things,” James says. “It’s a lot about justice and a lot about how the meek, lower people in society don’t get their dues.”
“All the characters are trying to get out of this space,” Hobbs notes later, continuing the thought. “None of them are setting up home in this motel; all of them are fighting for a better life, or something outside of it. That alone gives us immediate dramatic action for every single one of them. Because it’s not a permanent space, it’s a transitory space.”
“A waiting cell, almost,” Jorawsky nods.
The plays are being paired two per night, but Punctuate! is offering two marathon days, each Saturday of the show’s run, where you can take in all six in a single go, and have a catered meal and access to a bar thrown in. But if a six-play run of shows seems daunting, ask yourself: how fast do you burn through Netflix shows these days?
“From a fun standpoint, you get to binge watch,” Jorawsky says with a laugh. “You get to go, you get this catered meal, you can drink while you’re watching them, have a day of living in this world, observing these characters doing what they’re doing.”
Adapting the binge-watch cycle of modern TV consumption and applying it to theatre isn’t new to town, either: it’s happened most recently with the acclaimed Maggie-Now play cycle, and, a few years back, for a remount of Ken Brown’s hit Fringe series Spiral Dive.
But unlike those era-spanning shows, the Suburban sequence links itself mostly through location—that single, rented room—its characters all contemporary (the scripts were written in the late ’90s), and in that, it seems to offer curious insight into the extended history of such a transient space, and the people who find themselves occupying it, for better or worse.
“If you come to one play, you may not see yourself on stage,” James says. “But if you come to all of them, I’m guessing you’ll see yourself, in some way … no matter where you are on the spectrum. It’s kind of like being a voyeur for a week in a real dive.”
“We have cops, we have lawyers, we have a young girl trying to figure her life out, we’ve got criminals,” Hobbs notes. “People from everywhere end up in the same position.”
“They all touch the same remote,” James adds.