At 24, Tannahill is already an award-winning writer and director, the artistic director of his own theatre company, Suburban Beast, and one of Canada’s most promising young independent theatre artists, with a solid resume of acclaimed projects under his belt including the 2010 Summerworks hit Post Eden. With his newest play he’s taken a turn for the darker: inspired by intense two-handers such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Feral Child is about an unusual encounter between an isolated teenage boy and his family’s cleaning lady, who lost her own son in the Bosnian genocide. The play is set entirely in a suburban bedroom, and staged in the round in the Canadian Stage Company’s rehearsal space — the first time the space has been used for public performance. There is room for only 40 audience members at each performance, and Tannahill hopes that this intimacy will add to the intensity of the play.
“His experience — without giving too much away about the piece — over a two-year period he came to realize that this academy was essentially conditioning the students to commit acts of ethnic cleansing,” says Tannahill. “The conversation happened on the last day of school — he called me into his office and we were talking and he essentially said ‘you’re very fortunate to have had the education that you did.’”
The other teacher crucial to the existence of Feral Child is Cynthia Ashperger, who stars in the show, but never actually taught Tannahill. Tannahill studied film at Ryerson, but many of his close friends studied theatre under Ashperger.
“She was revered and spoken very highly of, but I’d never seen her act before,” he says. She spoke at his graduation, and was a strong presence at the school, so he always had her in mind while he was writing Feral Child. “I really needed a very special, specific person to do this, and I can’t imagine it with anyone else. Cynthia was always this imperious woman at Ryerson theatre school. . . and although this character is in a role of servitude in the play, she is a very powerful, very intelligent woman.”
Ashperger is the director of the acting program at Ryerson University and an acclaimed actress in her own right. She also happens to be from Croatia, so she knows something about the trauma that Tannahill is writing about.
“I relate to Feral Child on many levels,” says Ashperger over a pre-rehearsal soft drink at a bar on Church St. “In 1991 when the war started in Yugoslavia I permanently decided to live here in Canada. It was a crazy time, when the war was going on, of being in two places at once in my head; being sort of here in body, but in spirit somewhere else, which is somewhat what’s happening to this woman (in the play).”
Although Ashperger was safely in Canada for most of the war, she had a harrowing experience driving down Spadina Ave. one day listening to the radio. “I heard my friend’s last gasps played on the radio,” she says. Her friend was a reporter in Croatia, and she recognized his name when it was announced that he had been killed in an explosion. “They played the explosion and they played his screams, and they played his last gasps. . . to drive in this peaceful surrounding and out of the blue to hear — literally hear — your friend’s last gasps after an explosion, that was very strange. Traumatic. I had to pull over and I was sobbing for awhile.”
Ashperger avoided plays about war for a long time after that. The topic was too personal, too close to home. “But this summer they’ve found me again,” she says. Enough time has passed now that she’s ready to engage in such material again.Like most of Tannahill’s work, Feral Child is set in the suburbs, in Oshawa, which Tannahill refers to in the play as “more of a trauma ward than a city.”
“The suburbs have always been portrayed somewhat as this kind of homogenous white affluent expanse, but my experience growing up in the burbs was a bit more nuanced than that,” he says. “Now, the ’burbs have some of the highest populations of new Canadians settling in them and a lot of people come to settle in the ’burbs with a lot of trauma in their past. They harbour a lot of painful narratives.”
Just the facts:
When: Sept. 7 — 22
For tickets, call 416-368-3110