I, Kristen: Actor Kristen Thomson talks about her award-winning play

Canadian actor and playwright Kristen Thomson spoke at York’s Glendon campus as part of the bpNichol Reading Series April 6 about her one-woman play, I, Claudia, which she wrote and performed. The widely acclaimed play garnered her two 2001 Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Principal Role.

I, Claudia is a brilliant, funny, deeply moving exploration of the inner life of a 12-and three-quarters-year-old girl on the cusp teenagerhood. In addition to the usual insecurities and identity crises every adolescent has to deal with, Claudia has to come to terms with her parents’ divorce and her father’s imminent remarriage. The title is a play on I, Claudius, English writer Robert Graves’ 1934 novel on the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, who also had much to work through in his family relations.

The play has gone through several transformations since 2001 and has been performed by Thomson and others across the country to glowing reviews, including Liisa Repo-Martell at Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company (2008) and Michelle Polak at the Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre in Montreal (2008). The play was adapted into a movie in 2004 with Thomson performing all the characters once more. The film was named one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2004 by an independent national panel of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.  

The four characters in I, Claudia are represented by four different masks – which Thomson brought along for the Glendon talk. She first encountered mask work in the National Theatre School of Canada’s acting program, of which she is a graduate. The program used 26 masks made of black latex material to teach character work. “You start shaping your body around these masks, and they lead your responses and take on personalities of their own,” says Thomson. She discovered the Claudia mask during this exercise, found clothes for her and worked with her character. “But it’s the character itself who leads this creative activity, with its own voice, vocabulary and emotional attributes.”

Left: Kristen Thomson at Glendon holding the Claudia mask used in I, Claudia

A native of Toronto, Thomson has wanted to be a writer since she was a little girl. She won a 2003 ACTRA Award for her performance in I Shout Love (2001), a short film directed by Sarah Polley, and another Dora Award for Outstanding Performance for her work in Problem Child in 1998. She has a long list of outstanding performances in film and on stage.

“Finding your voice on stage is a very challenging process and nerves are part of this process,” says Thomson. In fact, she becomes almost physically ill before each live performance. But when Urjo Kareda, then artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre, invited her to participate in the now defunct Spring Arts Fair featuring emerging artists, she discovered that she loved talking directly to the audience. She started using copies of some of the National Theatre School’s collection of masks, those “which would agree to collaborate with me in the play” and found several that worked. Over time, after hundreds of improvisations with each, four of the masks took on the roles of the different characters she plays in I, Claudia.

“Each of these characters emerged with their own distinct voices, idiosyncratic speech and character traits,” says Thomson. “They existed inside the situation rather than being developed independently.” The final script of 25 pages was boiled down from hundreds of pages of notes and dialogue. The challenge in this was creating a whole big world and then distilling it without losing what was essential.

Right: The poster for the 2001 production of I, Claudia

Thomson paid tribute to Chris Abraham, artistic director of the play, who was essential to the creative process and who pushed her to trust her improvisational instincts. “I became Claudia, whose voice is immediately her own – that wounded, insecure little girl whose view of the universe is intermingled with the injured voice of a child whose life has fallen apart,” says Thomson.

She has personal experience with the dissolution of the family unit. Her parents divorced when she was seven years old. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she realized how much she had to grow up as a result. “Children of divorce go through a grieving process not too different from a loss through death,” she says. “They develop uncanny wisdom, but at the same time lack experience and lack language and understanding of their own feelings. In a divorce, everyone focuses on the parents’ problems, but the impact on the children is often neglected.” Thomson found that writing about divorce was both therapeutic and also an opportunity to explore what she wanted to communicate about it – her own perspective.

Tarragon presented her latest play, The Patient Hour, in its 2008-2009 season this February to enthusiastic reviews. It is another play focused on family life, this time around illness and death and how that experience galvanizes family members.

Left: Kristen Thomson displays the four masks used to portray the four characters in I, Claudia

I, Claudia is currently being re-mounted by Crow’s Theatre at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts from April 24 to May 23 with Kristen Thomson in performance once again. She has not performed the play for a number of years and wondered whether she would still have the same commitment to Claudia’s character. But the play’s profound emotions and personal meaning, with Chris Abraham’s renewed support as director of the new production, confirmed her attachment to the characters and to the play as a whole. “The new mounting of the play brings out different aspects of each character,” says Thomson. “I am more comfortable in inhabiting them and worry less about the lines themselves. [The new Claudia] is more bubbly, more readily available, more spontaneous.”

About Glendon’s bpNichol Reading Series

The Glendon Department of English has been presenting a reading series for Canadian writers, sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, since the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the distinguished and much-loved poet, bpNichol, taught creative writing in the department and after his tragic and premature death in 1988, his colleagues named the reading series after him. In this series, several Canadian novelists, poets, short fiction writers and playwrights come to Glendon each year and read from their work. The readings are open to the public and are very popular with students and visitors alike. The format typically includes a reading by the author from a new or unpublished work, followed by a question period.

Submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny