Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Helen Humphreys: On stage

Find your own pack with Wild Dogs

An ordinary redbrick theatre isn’t the first place you’d expect to find hot lesbian action. But Wild Dogs is no ordinary play. Adapted from the Lambda Award-winning novel by Helen Humphreys, it’s the story of six disparate souls who lose their dogs to a wild pack in the woods. Two members of this accidental group, Alice and Rachel, fall in love. The push-and-pull between their growing desire and Rachel’s fear of commitment becomes the heartbeat of the play, and the source of some sizzling chemistry. “There’s some very sexy stuff happening in terms of how the relationship is playing out,” says director Kelly Thornton. “We’re like, oh my God, that is so hot!”

Wild Dogs makes its world debut at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Thu, Oct 9. It’s the culmination of a project that began as “a bit of a lark,” says scriptwriter Anne Hardcastle with a laugh. A prolific actor, director and theatre educator, Hardcastle read her friend Helen Humphreys’ 2004 novel, Wild Dogs, with a professional interest. Its poetic style was different to the author’s previous books. “I’d written two historical novels and I wanted to write something that was stripped down to its essence,” says Humphreys. “Just a handful of voices and a central metaphor.” The story was inspired by a newspaper report about a Detroit woman who was killed by wild dogs while jogging. The article went on to say that packs of wild dogs live outside most urban centres, a fact that piqued Humphreys’ interest. “I just started thinking about the relationship between the wild and the domestic,” she says, “and it all came out of that.”

Hardcastle was struck by the novel’s lyricism — a quality that she felt would translate well to the stage. Humphreys suggested that she work on something. “It took a while because I said no, no, no. I’m not a playwright,” says Hardcastle. “I initially did 12 pages to see what Helen’s response was, and she said, ‘Oh I like this.'” As Hardcastle became more engrossed in the project Humphreys stepped back, happy to watch from afar. Hardcastle set herself the challenge of retaining as much of the original text as possible. And she succeeded: All the words in the finished script are taken from the book. “Underneath all this incredibly poetic writing was a whole bundle of eroticism and violence and laughter,” says Hardcastle. “I wanted to reconstruct the book as a theatrical piece using this language.”

Once it was finished Hardcastle considered taking the adaptation to a dance company. But Thornton, artistic director of Nightwood Theatre, was given the script by a colleague and couldn’t let it go. “I was really astonished by it,” she says. “Because of the way it’s written in multiple narrative plains, the past, present and future all happen at once. Anne has done a brilliant job of breaking down and rebuilding what theatre can be.” The result is a naturalistic drama with benefits: The audience is drawn into the story through a mixture of dialogue and explanatory asides. “It’s like when you’re reading a book and you feel the protagonist is telling the story especially for you,” says Thornton.

Thornton wants the stage adaptation to give more focus to the lesbian relationship. “My big thing was that the audience should want that love to succeed,” she says. “We created a present tense so you see the struggle of the characters and root for that relationship.” After seven years at Nightwood — considered Canada’s national women’s theatre company — Thornton is no stranger to putting the lesbian experience on stage. But Wild Dogs is unusual because it’s a portrait of love that just happens to be between two women. There’s no angst-ridden coming out, no shocked family members, no political implications — just two human beings who gradually find themselves in a relationship. It’s a “no big deal” approach, and one that Thornton applauds. “Love is love and loneliness is loneliness and heartbreak is heartbreak, no matter who’s living through it,” says Thornton. “That’s what’s so great about this play: It’s not ‘look at how different these people are’, it’s ‘look at how they’re the same.'”

Unsurprisingly this groundbreaking production has attracted some serious acting talent. Toronto-born Tamara Podemski plays Alice. A member of the original Canadian cast of Rent, Podemski made history last year by becoming the first Canadian — and the first Native American — actress to win the special jury prize for acting at the Sundance Film Festival for her role as Miri Smallhill in Four Sheets to the Wind. That same performance also garnered her a best supporting actress nomination for this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Her Rachel is Raven Dauda, star of the Obsidian Theatre Company’s ac-claimed Intimate Apparel and the Mirvish production of da Kink in my Hair. “It was kind of like an arranged marriage because Tamara lives in LA so she never met Raven before rehearsals,” says Thornton. “But they’re gorgeous together; they have totally great chemistry and their interactions are electric.”

But it’s not just about the girls. Thornton has assembled a stellar ensemble that includes Steve Cumyn, the Dora Award-winning lead actor from the CanStage’s Angels in America, stage veteran Les Carlson and Tony Nappo, who has appeared in Da Vinci’s Inquest and Blue Murder. And despite all the femme frisson at its core, this is not just a play for women who like women. It’s about that most universal of de-sires: the need to belong. “Everyone will see themselves in it,” says Thornton, “because it’s a really human story. It goes deep into the core of our being: who we are and why we need to belong.” It’s a subject that’s particularly relevant to the queer community. Because no matter where gay men and lesbians grow up, finding a pack to run with can be pretty damn important in forming our identities. And, sometimes, the wilder the pack the better.