Handsome Alice Theatre’s Love Letter to Emily C renders questions about art and theatre on an engaging canvas

Theatre is an inherently collaborative art form — multidisciplinary by its very nature. Sometimes that means that separately adequate elements come together alchemically to provide a transcendent experience, and sometimes (as in this case) it means that a few excellent choices can elevate some less excellent ones to make for an interesting night of theatre. 

A Love Letter to Emily C at Handsome Alice Theatre is a stage biography of Emily Carr (Nancy McAlear), told with the help of her beloved pet monkey, Woo (Shawna Burnett). This seems like an outrageous choice, until you realize that the most iconic images of Carr include Woo and other animals, and that Woo’s own biography was published earlier this year. The story is told in retrospect — the Javanese macaque is ensconced in the Stanley Park Zoo after Carr’s death, having an existential crisis, surrounded by monkeys of lesser cultural sophistication, occupying themselves with “banana drama and throwing poo.” She visits Emily at her grave, which has become a pilgrimage of sorts for artists who see their own struggles in Carr’s. “You’re covered in the mementos of outcasts,” Woo observes. “They come and dump their crazy all over me,” Emily says. In Trevor Schmidt’s inventive staging, Emily C and Woo mirror each other throughout the play in clothing and movement and language, and if you close your eyes, it’s difficult to know where one stops and the other begins. 

The play starts with extensive exposition, outlining how unappreciated Carr was by the male-dominated art establishment (a point the artist made vehemently in her autobiographical book Growing Pains, written just before she died in 1945). Woo takes on the personae of various people in Emily’s past, including friends and family, as Emily reflects on the events that shaped her art. Playwright Sheri-D Wilson has extrapolated from the artifacts of Carr’s life that remain, and created vignettes that seem to illustrate not so much Carr’s actual life as the role she plays in Wilson’s life and career. 

The play posits the character of Nellie, a fellow art student whom Emily describes as her muse. They are in a life drawing class at the time, and Emily is scornful and dismissive of the value of drawing nudes until she has an opportunity to draw Nellie. Nellie takes on an epic role in Emily’s life from that moment, and at one point Emily insists that her entire body of work and her very life is “for her.” It’s debatable whether Carr scholars would agree with this reading — aside from the fact that there is some evidence that Carr had to advocate strongly to be included in her first life drawing class, the question of her sexuality has been extensively debated, with very little direct evidence to assist in a conclusion. She seems to have had few friends, although the friendships she did have were intensely important to her, so perhaps Nellie can be read as a composite of a number of female relationships, whether Wilson intended it so or not. 

The voice (whether Emily or Woo) is strikingly familiar, and if it is indeed Emily Carr’s based on a close reading of her written work, then it bears an uncanny resemblance to Wilson’s own narrative voice, which poetry-loving Calgarians will recognize. There is a driving pace and defiant tone that is characteristic of Wilson’s work, and perhaps less so of Carr’s. When she describes the Canadian trees in Kew Gardens as “harmonic like a botanical mnemonic” it’s hard to hear anyone but Wilson herself. This is really a staged reading of Wilson’s poetry, which takes her usual spoken word performances and kicks them up a notch, and will appeal to her fans on that level.

Schmidt as director and theatre veteran Kate Newby have dramaturged the play at various points in its development, and of course it’s impossible for me to know where their contributions to the final text lie, but I suspect it is in the narrative arc that links disparate episodes in Emily’s life with repetition of metaphors. There is still a bit too much explicit explanation of the metaphors, and characterization that is well-established via dialogue is often then restated in Emily’s monologue commentary, but on the positive side, the poetry-phobic will never find themselves lost. 

Burnett is playful and spontaneous as Woo, and smoothly takes on the challenge of the other shifting roles, although apart from Woo, the portraits are fairly superficial. McAlear has the more difficult task, as her poetic monologues are long, wordy and complex, and their impact lies in the rhythm of the delivery. There are times when she hesitates, and the momentum is lost. But the larger problem is that the character of Emily shifts quickly from naïveté and idealism to bitterness and anger and back to childlike delight (“I love everything terrifically,” she says near the end), and it is challenging to find a thread that connects it all. 

Schmidt’s staging takes place on a simple wooden deck with chairs haphazardly piled on either side, evoking the civilization that Emily ultimately left behind. Projection designer Amelia Scott provides a backdrop consisting of details of Carr’s sketches and paintings that shift with each scene. On this simple set, it is Sandi Somers’ expert lighting design that is perhaps the most evocative of place and tone. Together, they create a canvas that is itself engaging.

Some questions that swirled in my brain as I watched it: Is a viewer’s interpretation of art valid irrespective of the artist’s original intent? Does historical scholarship about an artist add anything useful to our understanding of their work, or can it be set aside in favour of a better story? Carr herself apparently took some liberties with the historical record in Growing Pains, seemingly in service of story. A Love Letter to Emily Carr raises some interesting questions about art and theatre, although it isn’t clear whether it does so intentionally. Maybe that doesn’t matter.

(Photo of Nancy McAlear as Emily Carr and Shawna Burnett as Woo in a A Love Letter to Emily C by Sheri-D Wilson, courtesy Citrus Photo. Projections by Amelia Scott, lighting design by Sandi Somers, and production design by Trevor Schmidt.)

A Love Letter to Emily Carr by Handsome Alice Theatre runs in the Big Secret Theatre at Arts Commons until May 11. 

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.