Between a school gate and a hard place

By Dionne Christian

Canadian play an opportunity to explore issues of motherhood

Beth Allen and Jennifer Ward-Lealand will star in the New Zealand premiere of Between The Sheets.
Beth Allen and Jennifer Ward-Lealand will star in the New Zealand premiere of Between The Sheets.

The well-appointed library of Te Wananga o Aotearoa tertiary institute in Mangere is a strange place to meet actors Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Beth Allen.

Usually, interviews are done in rehearsal rooms - and they can be community halls, scout dens, dance studios or even suburban garages; if not the rehearsal room, it's usually a cafe at lunch time.

But today it's Te Wananga o Aotearoa where Ward-Lealand spends most of the working week studying towards a Diploma in Te Ara Reo Maori. Allen, who plays Dr Brooke Freeman on Shortland Street, has a break from filming so has driven over to join us.

You would think both women have enough to keep them occupied without producing and starring in the two-person play, Between the Sheets, but, as Ward-Lealand says, sometimes a play comes along that is so compelling you have to make room in the schedule for it.

So it is with Between the Sheets, the debut work of Canadian playwright Jordi Mand.

It is set in the confines of a classroom and makes our interview location apt indeed. Young teacher Teresa (Allen) is finishing parent-teacher interviews when Marion (Ward-Lealand) arrives late to discuss her son who's one of the year three pupils in Teresa's class.

It's a fair bet their talk is going to run much longer than the standard 10 minutes parents are usually allotted, covering issues that extend well beyond the school gates. That's because it's a psychological drama with a battle-of-the-sexes kind of vibe, although the play also debates what it means to be a woman in contemporary Western society.

When the play debuted at Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, the local newspaper, The Globe and Mail, declared "if you handed out report cards for shows, Between the Sheets would get straight As".

"For a short play [it's about 70 minutes long], a lot happens," says Ward-Lealand. "The parent-teacher interview is a situation which is common to many of us, but rarely seen on stage. It's a great setting to canvas a lot of issues and do it in a way where your moral compass swings both ways. It's compelling and just when you think you have things figured out, there's a twist. I like that in a piece."

She saw the debut production when she was in Toronto as a delegate at the International Federation of Actors World Congress. She recalls looking around the theatre and seeing an audience transfixed by the on-stage drama.

Recognising how easily the play would travel to New Zealand, she secured the rights as soon as she arrived home. As with its premiere season, the production features an all-female cast and creative team. The in-demand Sophie Roberts directs and Jane Hakaraia designed the lighting and set.

Allen says they decided to make it an all-female effort after reading Herald arts columnist Janet McAllister's column last December on how Auckland's theatre scene is dominated by men. "We were reading the play, which is about women's roles in society, when the column was published so, yes, we read it and talked about it and decided this was the way to go."

Allen says aside from the thorny subject material the play deals with, she liked the idea of playing Teresa because she's far removed from the Shortland Street character she's portrayed for five years.

"I love Shortland Street, but it's nice to do something different now and again. Teresa is a young woman who thinks she has things all figured out; Marion is an older working mother.

"I think Teresa is perhaps more naive about families and the impact of motherhood on women's lives."

She was also happy to be working again with Ward-Lealand. The two met 20 years ago on the set of local feature film The Ugly; Allen was just 11 years old and played a school girl who faced off against Ward-Lealand's mother-from-hell character.

"Jennifer had to push me down the stairs but she was so kind to me when we weren't filming; she even made a point of going to meet my parents to discuss the scene with them. It's great to be reunited 20 years on."

Performance

What: Between the Sheets
Where and when: The Basement, November 19-30

- NZ Herald

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