From comic super-villain to master’s degree

- Max Johnson

Christine Willes has been a doctor, a demon and a DC Comics super-villain—and this year she can add “director” to the list. Willes, an actor well-known for her appearances on shows like Smallville, Dead Like Me and Emily Owens MD, came to UVic last year for her master’s in fine arts in directing. Now, as part of her final thesis, Willes is directing her fellow students of the UVic theatre department in Reasons to Be Pretty (Feb. 14–23).

The play, written by Neil LaBute, is a blue-collar black comedy about the relationships of four friends and lovers, and the perils of contemporary society’s obsession with beauty. Typical of LaBute’s work, it’s very four-letter friendly. Willes, also known for her work as an acting coach, has used scenes from this play and other works by LaBute to teach university actors in the past. She even appeared in LaBute’s 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, which he wrote and directed.

What is it about LaBute’s writing that speaks to her?

“LaBute doesn’t sugar-coat human nature,” she says. “In theatre, we hold a mirror up to nature... and just as sometimes it’s very difficult to see our own reflection in the mirror (because it’s seven in the morning, you haven’t had any sleep; or with me, I don’t have any makeup on, my hair’s a mess) sometimes I just don’t want to see that. Coaxing the audience to look at something that they know intellectually is true, but don’t want to get all stirred up about without being gently guided... is a task.”

For the past month, Willes has been focusing on gently guiding the student actors of the production through rehearsal. “They’ve been engaged very deeply, in ways that I haven’t seen before.” She thinks it’s because of the contemporary nature of LaBute’s script and themes—and because the actors contributed to which themes Willes chose to highlight in the production

“I put two on the table that were not negotiable,” she says. “One was ‘appearances,’ and one was ‘the battle of the sexes.’” Both are topics Willes is passionate about (when she sends you an e-mail, her signature is automatically accompanied by a quote about how women “constitute half the world’s population, perform two-thirds of the work, but earn just 10 per cent of the income and own only 1 percent of property”). But the student actors found significance in other themes as well, and the production examines them too: for instance, the story’s coming-of-age nature, and the questions it asks about “the slippery nature of ambition.”

It’s a storytelling process that Willes hasn’t had the luxury of experiencing in the more fast-paced film and TV world. “Collaboration there is: ‘You hire me to do a job, and you are paying me... to show up with a performance intact that you can tweak—but that’s all you're going to have to do.’ That’s it... That is the process.” At UVic, theatre allows for the kind of collaborative and organic working environment Willes doesn’t often see as a screen actor. “I’ve been surprised by joy, working on this. Because the people I’m working with also enjoy working in this way... that’s been very, very rewarding.”

“I use the metaphor of ‘performance as a garment,’” she says. “As an actor, I wear the garment one way. As a film and TV actor, I wear the garment another way. And as a director, I turn the garment inside-out. I have to approach it from a completely different point of view, even though the tasks are the same.” Audiences can see the benefits of her approach when Reasons to Be Pretty opens at the Phoenix Theatre on Valentine’s Day.


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Keywords: theatre, teaching, film

People: Christine Willes

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