Remember 2008, a Barack Obama–led time when the future seemed bright and a new era of peace and interracial understanding was about to set in?
It seems like eons ago to Vancouver director Keltie Forsyth, who is helming Superior Donuts at this year’s Ensemble Theatre Company summer repertory festival. Penned by American playwright Tracy Letts, it focuses on a former ’60s radical who owns a rundown Chicago doughnut shop and the young African-American employee who wants to help him turn it into a hip hangout.
“The play was written and takes place after Obama’s inauguration, which was a really different time in terms of American political life,” Forsyth tells the Straight from the Vancouver home she’s just returned to after a two-year stint in the U.K. “There was hope at that time that a harmonious world was possible. And I think it still is—even though it doesn’t feel like it with Trump in office.
“The other thing is it’s a play about hope and how you can regain hope out of hopelessness,” she adds.
Superior Donuts isn’t as sugary sweet as its title might suggest. Anyone who’s seen Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County or the even grittier Killer Joe knows the playwright’s work can be dark. But this show is different, Forsyth says. For a start, it’s funny, mostly due to the banter between its two leads, David Nykl and Chris Francisque.
Rehearsals, she explains, have focused largely on how they interact with one another.
“It’s really centred on this friendship, these two intelligent human beings who find kinship despite their differences,” Forsyth says. “They’ve both had difficult relationships with their fathers and reacted in different ways.…And they both have a love of literature, and being intelligent people they both love to read. And then there’s that ineffable chemistry. So it’s about friendship, with the backdrop of racial tensions in America.”
Aside from tapping the characters’ depths, there are practical issues to contend with in staging a play in a doughnut shop, Forsyth admits.
“We have the big counter with a lot of doughnuts, and some are real and some are props,” she begins. “There are certainly edible props on-stage. And the challenge is making sure that when actors are eating doughnuts we can still hear their lines.”
Forsyth wielded a very different mix of humour and social commentary in In the Next Room…or The Vibrator Play at ETC’s 2017 fest. Superior Donuts marks her return to Vancouver after living in London while her husband was doing his master’s. She brings back a wide range of new experiences and inspiration—not to mention a new family member.
“I was freelance directing and writing projects and I had a baby,” she says. “I was directing an opera for dementia-care facilities and also a bicycle-powered musical for kids that toured outdoor festivals. I was touring England in the hottest summer on record—which was not the most fun thing!”
But Forsyth is thrilled to be back at the repertory festival by Jericho Beach, staging something that’s a little different from the series’ mix of historic works and serious contemporary plays.
“The best thing about it is the festival feels like a group effort, where everybody’s really pulling together and you feel this community atmosphere,” she says. “Everybody is there because they’re passionate about what they’re doing and everyone puts in an immense amount of blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. Especially as a director, you get to be part of this community—and as directors, we’re so often on our own.”
Ensemble Theatre Company presents the opening of Superior Donuts at the Jericho Arts Centre next Friday (July 19). It runs until August 16.