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We are pleased to share with you a letter written by playwright Simon Stephens to director Matthew Jocelyn regarding our recent production of Simon's play, Harper Regan.

We hope this letter will add to the important discussion about theatre practice in our country today. Don't hesitate to join the discussion via the Facebook link below, or tell us your thoughts on Twitter @canadianstage #csHarper.

Dear Matthew,

I wanted to thank you for inviting me to Toronto to see your production of Harper Regan at Canadian Stage.

To be really honest I wasn’t looking forward to it. This is nothing whatsoever to do with you, your theatre or your beautiful city. I was just exhausted. I’ve had a frenetic six months and was working in Sao Paulo of all places before my arrival. I wanted to go back to my family much more than I wanted to fly a 13 hours diversion home.

I have been very lucky with North American productions of my plays. They have often been quite brilliant. I tend, though, to know what to expect when I watch my work in this remarkable continent. It will be directed with nuance and detail and care and acted with clarity and dexterity. But it is unlikely to surprise me. In North America, like in the UK, the playwright is so central to the work of producing new plays that, however much I love the work done on my plays in this continent, it tends to confirm or reassure me rather than startle me. I’m left grateful but rarely thrown.

I had no idea that you would blow all my preconceptions away about how directors work in your continent with quite the force that you did.

I found your production of Harper Regan remarkable.

The decision to stage it on your main stage was bold. Bolder still to open that stage up with the daring that you did. I love a bare stage! So much work is done getting in the way of quite beautiful theatres by mimetic design that I was sitting chuckling to myself at the grace with which you opened my play up the back walls and high arch of your auditorium.

I loved the precision and balletic use of the chair as a counterpoint to Harper’s rootlessness. This was direction that was not mimetic or illustrative but metaphorical. It was also quite beautifully poised. I loved the force and drama of the sound score and how that was expressionistic and dramatic rather than mimetic.

I understand that you are an opera director of some experience. That you had the faith to find the operatic heart of what I was trying to explore with play moved me. For me Harper Regan, however successful or unsuccessful it is as a play, is not a piece of mimetic naturalism. It’s a play, however flawed it might be, that tries to make connections between personal morality, families, a state in the warfare of our “War On Terror” and the wanton absence of Gods. That you understood that and found a sculptural way of staging it moved me.

It was also quite brilliantly acted. The whole ensemble was terrific. Their sense of rhythm and understanding of my characters was extraordinary. Molly Parker’s return to stage moved me with the force and precision of her engine.

I don’t read critics so haven’t read the reviews of your production. I gather from several people that concerns have been raised about your decision to have your actors act in Toronto accents. Critics, I am told, are concerned that my play has been abused by this decision. This is kind of them. Its good to know they’ve got my back.

They are, in my opinion though, quite wildly wrong. I loved hearing my play spoken with Toronto accents. It freed your actors to inhabit their characters and imagine their worlds without panicking that they were pronouncing their consonants right. German actors performing my plays never worry about getting a Stockport accent. Portuguese actors don’t. Spanish actors, French actors, Scandinavian actors. It would be an absurd idea.

That isn’t the actors’ work. Actors aren’t mimics. Their work is not to get anything RIGHT. It’s to attempt to inhabit a stage with as much commitment and care as they can. On so many occasions attempts to get accents precise are an obstacle to an actors fearlessness and commitment. Last year the Lyric Hammersmith, where I am Associate, staged a production of Streetcar Named Desire. I encouraged the Artistic Director to have his actors act in their own accents. It was remarkable. I loved hearing Williams’ idiom in Sheffield and London and Mancunian accents. What was revealed was that Williams’ linguistic choices were not a product of his “ear for idiom”. They were conscious poetic decisions and the dislocation between accent and idiom released the poetry of the line writing far more than in any other productions of his plays I have seen in England.

It bewilders me that actors feel beholden to celebrate their range of accents on their CVs. It exasperates me that actors in different English speaking countries should waste so much rehearsal time erroneously pursuing an elusive accuracy of accent and either obstructing their freedom of acting by trying to achieve it or congratulating themselves for their precision if they get it right.

I would like nothing more than every North American production of my plays to be spoken in the actors’ own accents. Thank you for affirming that instinct in me.

And thank you for the ferocity and boldness of your vision. You GOT my play, which is all a writer can ask for, and, more, you pushed it to places I had never imagined possible.

Some critics may have missed what you were trying to do. That’s their shame. Don’t let them distract you. Your audiences, your country and your theatre culture won’t miss it.

I would be happy for you to share this letter more widely should you ever think it would be of interest to anybody.

Simon Stephens


Download a pdf of this letter here.