Beatrice & Virgil: A Collaboration with Factory Theatre

Damien atkins, pierre brault photo by joanna akyol story
Damien Atkins, Pierre Brault in Beatrice & Virgil © Photo Joanna Akyol
Beatricevirgil pierre brault and damien atkins
Pierre Brault, Damien Atkins in Beatrice & Virgil © Photo Joanna Akyol

When the 2014-15 English Theatre season was announced last month, Artistic Director Jillian Keiley and Associate Artistic Director Sarah Garton Stanley highlighted the growth of The Collaborations, a unique partnership with theatre companies and artists across Canada. The goal of The Collaborations is to place different components of English Theatre resources in the hands of artists who are launching their own work, or honing their own shows, in various parts of Canada. 

Among the twenty different projects that Sarah has been working with, the list includes Factory Theatre’s world premiere of Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, adapted by Lindsay Cochrane.

We sat down with Sarah – who is also directing the production – to chat about this Collaboration.

Tell us a little about Beatrice & Virgil.

Well I should start by saying that Beatrice & Virgil is both very strange and very true. It is both a lament and a song that – at its heart – is an invocation to us all to meditate and perhaps take action in our daily lives by remembering and knowing certain truths about past events. Author Yann Martel is interested in the space between fact and fiction, but he is also interested in the glue that binds them. The twinning of these two often opposed and opposing ideas propels the narrative. Opposites don't just attract; they reveal unwished for similarities, and ask each of us to allow this to possibly be true.

In this story a novelist and a taxidermist both grapple with how best to tell a new story about factual horrors of the past. In this instance, the Novelist has been trying to tell a story that will keep the lessons and the horrors alive so that today's generations can take both solace and sustenance from the rememberings and the renewals. The Novelist wants to tell a story that we can hear. The Taxidermist needs to tell a story that can be heard, and Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a monkey, want to live in the knowledge that at every turn they did their best. And in this story they did. Beatrice and Virgil are courageous beyond all measure because they retain both imagination and heart and above all love for the world and for one another.

How did English Theatre become involved in collaborating on the production?

Iris Turcott, who is the company dramaturg for Factory Theatre in Toronto, was keen for me to direct it and I was excited about seeing this piece have a life. As well she added a conceptual framework to the piece that allowed Lindsay Cochrane more room to turn it into a stage adaptation. When Jillian Keiley and I arrived at the NAC, Jillian proposed a clear vision for English Theatre's role as investors in extending the lives of pieces being created right across the country. This piece was of real interest to us, and with a view to the long game, Jillian and I both felt it to be an exciting piece to invest in. It is not an easy story by any means, but it is a beautiful story ultimately, as it grapples to make us all feel closer to our capacity for both goodness and evil.

Can you describe the process of adapting the book for the stage?

Lindsay Cochrane read the book and thought this must be a play! This was long before there was any news about the film version of Life of Pi. When I think about it now, I am so glad she thought of it then. It would be so weighted to have to try to create something following the phenomenal success of Ang Lee's film. I loved the film and I have seen it more than a couple of times! She approached Yann and he gave his permission to her to make an adaptation. Lindsay was referred to Iris Turcott at Factory Theatre and the rest - as they say - is history. I have been attached to the project for about a year and a half now. But before I came aboard, Yann came to Toronto and worked with Lindsay and Iris and a couple of actors on the adaptation. The script that audience members will see now is very close to the decisions that were made during that workshop. Getting to speak with Yann throughout this process has been a tremendous gift. His intelligence and knowledge of modern literature and thought is astonishing and being given the opportunity to sit with him, as I grappled with certain ideas presented in the text, was amazing. 

On top of the Collaborations partnership, you are also directing this production. How has the rehearsal period been?

Rehearsals for this show have been wonderful. It is a pure and purely imaginative space. The entire company has contributed daily to the storied landscape we are building. I can honestly say that my hours in the rehearsal hall are the best, most exciting moments of each of my days. There is terrific generosity and hard work, but, and this is key, there is enormous brilliance that I get to sit at the feet of. And, literally at the feet of it, the rehearsal hall at the Factory is SO small, so we have the privilege at times of literally looking up the noses of the actors.

Also this piece is being performed by two of my favourite actors, Ottawa's own miraculous Pierre Brault as the Taxidermist and Toronto's gloriously tremendous Damien Atkins. I feel completely at a loss to speak to how wonderful each of them is.  I am also working with a dream team of designers: Amy Keith from Montreal is designing set and costumes. She and I have worked together on several projects and I am always delighted by her curiosity and realization of it. It is has been pure magic. The sound, light and video team are a Halifax, Prince Edward County and Toronto trifecta of brilliance and multiple talents. Christian Barry on sound is an award-winning director; John Thompson on lights is an award-winning set and costume designer; and Ken Mackenzie on video is resident set and costume designer (as well as occasional actor) for Soulpepper. Most recently, NAC audiences will have seen Ken's work as designer on Kim's Convenience. 

What are some of the next Collaborations NAC readers should be keeping an eye out for?

We are involved with a number of truly exciting collaborations. Top of mind is the staggering Helen Lawrence created by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock. This piece just completed a run in Vancouver at the Arts Club Theatre Company, and will be presented at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques in May, then at the Kammerspiele in Munich in June, followed by the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Next October it will open the Canadian Stage season in Toronto.

At the same time we are working with the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, The Banff Centre and the Luminato Festival on The Summit and The Study. This two-year investigation is looking at an indigenous canon of work being created in Canada. Also keep your eyes peeled for Crow's Theatre and Porte Parole’s Watershed, a new piece by Seeds playwright Annabel Soutar, set to premiere in Toronto as part of the Pan Am Games in July 2015.

As The Collaborations continue to grow, the hope is that the works in which English Theatre invests will contribute to the rich and evolving Canadian canon of theatrical work.

The world premiere of Beatrice & Virgil runs at the Factory Theatre in Toronto April 12 – May 11. For more information visit 

Join our email list for the latest updates!