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A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo courtesy Maria Vartanova.

An interview with Sarah Hearn, director of the Ottawa Little Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire

By Chrissy Steinbock on March 28, 2018

If you like your theatre strong, make sure to catch the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire playing at the Ottawa Little Theatre through to April 7.

It’s a rare chance to see such an iconic play on the live stage. This, after all, is a script that won the Pulitzer, got Marlon Brando his first Oscar nod and whose famous Stellaaa! scene inspired its own annual shouting contest.

In Streetcar, it’s a steamy New Orleans summer when plantation-raised belle Blanche DuBois goes to live with her pregnant sister Stella and her brutish husband Stanley Kowalski in their tiny apartment. The situation is a ticking time bomb. Blanche, clinging to her former glory, sneers at Stanley every chance she gets though she’s living off his charity. Stanley has a wild temper. Stella is caught in the middle. As director Sarah Hearn puts it: “It’s doomed. All these people are completely doomed. It’s really very sad.”

Apt613 got in touch with director Sarah Hearn to learn more about trigger warnings, intimacy coaches, and why Streetcar is a must-see.

As Hearn tells it, the choice to take on directing Streetcar was a bit of third time’s a charm. The script had come up for consideration in the season planning committee a couple times before it was chosen this time around and after reading it a third time, she thought to herself, “I want to do it. Now I’m ready.”

Dan LeMarbre and Laura Hall in Ottawa Little Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo courtesy Maria Vartanova.

Apt613: What are some of the challenges that were intimidating the other times you read the script?

Sarah Hearn: It’s a really difficult set because if you look at the original set and the way it’s described, the Kowalski apartment is down an alley and between two streets where you see people passing. I think it’s interesting to have that to see that the apartment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Then there has to be a second floor apartment for Stanley to yell up to in the play’s famous “Stella” scene.

It’s also an extremely proppy play. You have plates broken, you have costumes torn, you have to have Chinese lanterns torn down and thrown to the ground.

So it’s a very technically complex play and of course, then you have to find the right actors. These are iconic characters. Everybody knows Stanley Kowalski, everyone knows Blanche Dubois and the lines they have to say so you have to find actors who can actually do this. I was absolutely beside myself worried that no one would turn up at my auditions and of course, there were a billion people there. Everybody wants to be Stanley Kowalski, everybody wants to be Blanche Dubois. The guy I cast as Stanley, Dan DeMarbre, said “I don’t know what the hell you were so worried about. It was the play everyone was waiting for.” Parts like this don’t come around that often.

Not in Ottawa, at least. Why is that?

In professional theatre partly because they’re expensive because they have big casts. The reason a community theatre can do it is we don’t pay our actors so I can get sixteen people in the cast and not think about it but if you pay all your actors you can’t do that anymore.

Another reason plays like this aren’t done that often is they’re long and they demand a lot from your audience and from the actors.

In this particular play, I made use of an intimacy coach for the first time. It’s a new thing coming up in the theatre. They use them at Stratford and the NAC. It’s really because the four principal actors are dealing with extremely difficult subjects, spousal abuse, aggravated sexual assault, mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and it’s really very difficult, on an emotional level to do that every night without figuring out a way of either decompressing after the show or getting to the point of trust.

I worked with a woman called Tanya Carriere to talk about things like how it feels to slap somebody. Here’s a man who never slapped a woman in his life has to haul off and slug somebody, that’s difficult. It’s really building trust and a safe space. I have fight coordinators come in and teach how to do a convincing slap for example. Intimacy coaches come in to work with the emotion that goes with that physicality and that drives it.

For example, in the scene where after a night of poker and drinking Stanley flies into a fury and goes to slap his wife, the intimacy coach can show the actors how to control it so that you, the person inside the character is not slapping her, it’s the character who’s slapping her. In this scene the coach helped the actors get to a point where they’re comfortable with what the other is doing and they have this trust that the emotion involved is under control.

The thing that concerns me is there’s a lot of potential triggers in this play for people who have experienced abuse or know somebody who’s experienced abuse and I think the potential for people having to leave and not being able to take it s there. It’s something you have to think about but there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s a play, it is what it is.

And what is theatre if it’s not more extreme than everyday life?

And edgy. I wouldn’t call this edgy in the way we call a modern play edgy but it’s edgy because it talks about a lot of things people don’t want to talk about.

So for people who have heard references to the play but don’t know it, at its core what is is about?

If you looks at the plays Tennessee Williams has written like The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Tin Roof, they’re all about the Old South, the old Southern Belle, Southern gentility, the gentry who have reached the end of that lifestyle and they’re having to face up to the New South and the way the world is moving forward. It has no time for plantations and cotillions and women in pretty dresses and men being chivalric, the world is moving too fast for that now.

There’s definitely that sense of faded glory.

Yes, and when you look at Stanley who works in a factory versus Blanche who comes from a plantation, it’s two different worlds.

Even more than 70 years later, why is this story still speaking to people?

Interestingly, we had our preview on the Sunday before opening with a program called Options Bytown which works with the homeless and I was speaking to a couple gentlemen afterwards and one of them said to me it’s still so relevant, it’s talking about subjects we’re still talking about like spousal abuse, and sexual assault and emotional abuse, and PTSD and I said yes, unfortunately we are still talking about it and I don’t know if there will ever be a time when that isn’t relevant. What I think makes this play timeless no matter what time period you set it in is that the themes are timeless, like in Shakespeare.

In spite of all the heaviness, why is this a must-see?

It’s a must-see because it is a powerful piece of theatre and I’m not speaking specifically about my production, though I think my production is pretty powerful. It makes a statement that I think everyone could value hearing. In my production, I’ve got a great set, the costumes are fabulous, and the performance are mind-blowing. I look at them and I go wow, I believe everything that’s coming out of their mouths. And God knows I’ve read this play more times than God’s got little green apples and I still am blown away every night.

I think if people want to come see an amazing piece of theatre this is the play they should come see.

It makes a statement that I think everyone could value hearing.

What did you find most fun about the whole thing?

The joking around. It would get so heavy and then somebody would say something completely ludicrous or someone would start quoting from the Simpsons version of Streetcar. The guy who’s playing Steve would run on wearing just his underwear, and it was like why? Cause it’s funny. It would cut that intensity and you’d think we can all laugh and move on. That made it really, really fun.

I mean there are funny places in the play but I think people will go “oh, can I laugh?” Tennessee Williams had this ability to put in a funny line just when you needed it.

A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the Ottawa Little Theatre (400 King Edward Avenue) through to April 7, 2018. Tickets are available online