BF23: Jackson to direct 'Liars at a Funeral' in Blyth Festival debut
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
The hotly anticipated farce, Liars at a Funeral, is slated to open at the Blyth Festival on June 14 in Memorial Hall. Directing the story about a scheming grandmother trying to reunite her fractured family is award-winning actor, dramaturge and director Krista Jackson.
Jackson’s contributions to Canadian theatre are myriad. She is the current Artistic and Executive Director of Imago Theatre, and has worked in the Grand Theatre, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Shaw Festival and Thousand Islands Playhouse, to name just a few. She is the winner of the Gina Wilkinson Prize and the Jean Gascon Prize, and has been called one of the busiest people in the business. In fact, Liars is just one of three plays Jackson will be lending her directing talents to this year.
Despite her jam-packed résumé, Jackson is a fresh face for the local Festival scene. “This is my first show in Blyth. I haven’t been here before as a director or an actor but I’ve seen shows here and I’ve always wanted to work here,” explained the assiduous artist. “The very fact that the Blyth Festival exists with new Canadian work in the small place - it’s a pilgrimage for many people year after year to come and see the work and support Canadian plays and it’s just incredible.” A lot has changed since her last time here, and Jackson is impressed with the latest developments. “It’s survived, it’s thrived and now there’s an outdoor stage!”
This season, the outdoor Harvest Stage will be playing host to Gil Garratt’s adaptation of The Donnellys: A Trilogy - a three-night abridged tour through Middlesex County’s seedy historic underbelly. It’s the job of Liars to fill Memorial Hall with a counterbalance of brevity and levity to the Donnellys' length and gravity. Jackson is confident her team represents a winning combination. “The cast is incredible and Sophia is a firecracker of a writer, and the design team and the production team in Blyth are just ahead of the game. Liars is fast and fun, but it also has the heartbeat of family.”
In the lead-up to opening night, Jackson and playwright Sophia Fabiilli have been working out a lot of little details. “Sophia’s here and we’ve been doing little cuts and finessing things.” One of the things that helps guide those cuts is seeing hints at how the play will look in its future form. “We immediately got all the actors on their feet and did a walking read-through with the rehearsal doors set up. Everybody had their scripts and read the play through as they did their exits and entrances. Sophia was able to not just hear it around the table but see it in space.” This kind of rehearsal is especially beneficial for a comedy like Liars - much of the humour depends on well-planned door choreography and accurate timing. Another key to success for a classic farce - the ability of actors to change clothes rapidly. “We have a whole track of costume changes to factor in,” the director confided.
Jackson has also been making the most of making the most of her time outside of the rehearsal space. “Blyth is so awesome… living here I feel like I can take a breath. Or go to the brewpub or the Blyth Inn for some social time. Also, the Festival has a great space where all the cast and crew from the different shows can meet for lunch. Everybody is just excited to be here and bring back plays into an inside space.”
Jackson’s turn at the helm of Liars has been many years in the making. “Liars at a Funeral came to me as a script when I was working as the Associate Artistic Director at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. I didn’t know Sophia - the script was in its early stages, and I was reading the drafts and loving it, and thought it was wonderful.”
“Fast forward to 2019 - I was directing a show for Thousand Islands Playhouse, doing auditions, and Sophia was the Associate there at the time, and she said to me ‘Do you remember my play, Liars at a Funeral? Gil Garratt has programmed it for next year in Blyth.’ I was so excited!” When Jackson enquired as to who the director was going to be, Fabiilli asked if she was interested in the job.
From that moment on, it seemed like things were meant to be. “Gil e-mailed me the next day, and he wrote ‘The stars have aligned - I was going to suggest you to Sophia!’ it was just such a beautiful moment!”
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed production, slated for the 2020 season, but work on the family-oriented farce never really stopped. In 2021, there was a small workshop of the play done in Gananoque, Ontario, in partnership with the Blyth Festival. Fast forward to 2023 and the desire to stage the play has just kept building. “In a way this play is going to be more than just a funny show - we’re craving it! I think coming together and laughing in a space is something we took for granted before. It’s such a uniting thing to laugh, and to be in space together in real time. We need comedy and we need to laugh together. Plus, I hear tickets are selling like hotcakes!”