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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ford's Focus: Gabrielle Soskin

Gabrielle Soskin in The Loves of Shakespeare's Women 
(Photo courtesy of Persephone Productions)

Risky Woman
Working with the actors, giving notes, blocking, etc. felt right but she let the stirrings lie dormant until 1996...
by Barbara Ford
Gabrielle Soskin was born in a little cottage on a farm in Bedfordshire in the East of England region. Once WWII was over her family, who had evacuated London during the worst of the air raids, moved back to the war-ravaged city.  Coming from an educated Russian Jewish family, the Soskins were passionate theatre-goers. Throughout high school Gabrielle participated in many plays, the bulk of which were the Bard’s. 

From an early age, Soskin knew she wanted to work in the performing arts, but growing up in an era when women were groomed for marriage and motherhood regardless of their higher educations, her ambitions were not taken very seriously by her family, despite the fact that Soskin’s own mother was a drama teacher. Nonetheless, Soskin attended the renowned Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, founded by Sir Laurence Olivier, where the likes of Miranda Richardson, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Stewart trained.

“I just didn’t have the confidence to embrace the profession.”

Today Soskin humbly admits that she was probably “a pretty good performer”, she also confessed that she suffered from debilitating self-doubt and stage fright. Part of the Old Vic training was a year in repertory, but even after her apprenticeship in Derby in the midlands of England, she was still haunted by her insecurities. In the end, she realized she couldn’t do it. “I just didn’t have the confidence to embrace the profession.”

Soskin switched from performing to teaching, beginning with elementary and high schools. England still had a very rigid class system at the time, so Soskin was clearly way outside her comfort zone when she got a job teaching at a tough boys’ school, but she persevered. Soskin grew a a few extra layers of thicker skin and slowly but surely built up her confidence. Though she wasn’t aware of it at the time, Soskin must have had a positive impact on her students, foreshadowing her future, sharing with me that very recently one of her young ruffians had taken the time to look her up on Facebook…aaah the wonder of social networking.  

In her late twenties, Soskin left her family and England to come to Canada. From what she’d heard, it sounded different enough that she felt she was starting a new chapter in her life yet similar enough that the differences wouldn’t paralyze her. What a shock when she arrived in the middle of the October Crisis!  

With encouragement from both Murray Napier (founder of John Abbott’s Theatre Program) and Ian Smith, she applied for the position and got it.

She taught classes at Dawson College and contributed to Roslyn’s after-school drama program. She was excited by this new identity that was emerging but she was also terribly homesick. She had studied ballet between the ages of ten and sixteen, loving the discipline and technique but struggling with her lack of flexibility. In 1975, she was able to put her training to good use teaching creative dance and movement to theatre students at John Abbott College.  

A Room of One's Own (courtesy Persephone)
Since there were virtually no female directors in her day, (for an update on the status of women in the arts refer to this blog’s article by Joel Fishbane) the idea of making it a career never crossed her mind, that is until... One day in the late 80’s when a colleague at John Abbott was off sick, Soskin had to fill in for rehearsals of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, (a play she knew very well). Working with the actors, giving notes, blocking, etc. felt right but she let the stirrings lie dormant until 1996, when that same colleague retired. With encouragement from both Murray Napier (founder of John Abbott’s Theatre Program) and Ian Smith, she applied for the position and got it.

John Abbott links students with professors for the entire three-year program, cultivating intense, highly creative relationships that encourage students to trust and take risks. Soskin’s new responsibilities included the direction of one production annually with her graduating class and a student production with her second year class. Her virgin voyage as a director was Sarah Daniels’ Gut Girls, a play about strong, independent Victorian women working in an East London slaughterhouse. She poured her soul into that first production, feeling she had to prove herself, and it was a great success. Needless to say, she has been a valued member of the Theatre Department ever since.

Watching students come and go through the John Abbott program, her heart bled to watch them hit a brick wall, coming face to face with the soaring lack of work in their new profession. As the energetic, pro-active woman she had become since those days when women were best kept pregnant and in the kitchen, Soskin addressed the problem by forming Persephone Productions in 2000, a company whose mandate is to provide professional experience to new artists. Considering that the Greek goddess Persephone is associated with spring and the fruits of the fields, the name is apt. Not only does Soskin hire seedling actors attempting to lay down roots in the theatre community but also grants opportunities to struggling new designers, musicians, directors and stage management.  

Soskin took to the boards herself, tossing aside whatever stage-fright still lurked in the pit of her stomach...

The first Persephone production was Anna Karenina at Théâtre Calixa-Lavallée with Dawson grad Anana Rydvald in the starring role. Since then, Soskin has gradually developed a solid foundation of loyal followers, boasting an unheard of sixty percent mean attendance at least (!) for every single production. (Most small companies aren’t able to project more than a thirty percent ticket sale average and are over the moon if they surpass that). Never one to be left behind, with the onset of new media and social networking as marketing tools, Persephone hasn’t missed a step with an active Facebook page, Twitter account and an informative website, updated well in advance of coming events.  

For a company that receives no corporate support or government grants, fundraising is paramount. Door prizes are as much a part of opening nights as jitters and annual campaigns are conducted either electronically or by snail-mail. Soskin took to the boards herself, tossing aside whatever stage-fright still lurked in the pit of her stomach to raise money for her baby, first in 2005 as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own and again in 2007 and 2008 in The Loves of Shakespeare’s Women, all one-woman shows. The tenth anniversary gala in 2010 featured performances from Soskin and several devoted actors who benefited from their time with Persephone.

Facebook and Twitter aside, old-school personal networking is still high on the list for selling tickets and Soskin never leaves the house without a bundle of promotional flyers, printed months before her next production, and is only too willing to talk up the company to anyone within hearing distance. She makes no apologies for her dedicated brazenness: “One just has to do it!” and her solid box office record is proof in the pudding.

In the eleven years since its inception, the company has created several hundred work prospects in the Montreal theatre community and every member of every show has received an honorarium since 2004. “I feel it’s important to recognize the professionalism.” With new theatre companies popping up all the time, only to wither and die after a few short years, Soskin is thrilled that Persephone is still alive and kicking, giving young grads challenging roles and designs to cut their teeth on and Montreal audiences large-scale productions that the bigger houses can’t afford to stage, such as Shakespeare’s Henry V or Othello. 

“never assume I’m a woman who doesn’t take risks.”  

Now that she’s hit her stride, Soskin is no longer afraid to blaze a trail. In fact, she warned “never assume I’m a woman who doesn’t take risks.” Her criteria for choosing a play vary but overall it must speak to her heart; she must feel connected to it in some way. She is most exhilarated about a project when she has no idea how it will turn out, the mark of a true adventurer. Persephone’s diverse repertoire reflects her audacity, addressing a myriad of controversial themes such as racism, women’s rights, sexuality, the cost of war and the corrupt use of power and Soskin tackles these timely issues from vastly differing viewpoints, affording introspection and debate not only for the audiences but for the artists involved as well. The eclectic roster of playwrights spans the classics, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, and contemporary works, from provocateur Eric Bogosian to Canada’s own David Gow.

Over the years Soskin has contributed to the careers of such John Abbott grads as Gareth Potter (leading Stratford actor), Adrian Burhop (of the Gravybath gang now working in film/TV), Aaron Turner (Henry V last fall, opening in Cowboy Mouth next week at Espace 4001), Christopher Moore (notably Iago in Persephone’s 2008 Othello and co-director for Henry V), Dan Jeannotte (nominated for 2008-09 Best Actor MECCA for Persephone’s Cherry Docs and co-founder of the improv group Uncalled For) and Rebecca Croll, who received the 2009 Elsa Bolam Award for the most promising newcomer in recognition of her work with Persephone, particularly as Emilia in Othello. Rebecca most recently made a splash in the Indie Canadian film, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom.  

Persephone's 10th Anniversary
(l-r Aaron Turner, Christopher Moore,
Soskin, Rebecca Croll, Ian Smith)
Other outstanding Montreal actors who received a leg-up from Persephone and have gone on to accomplish great things are Paul Van Dyck (see last week’s Ford’s Focus here) Glenda Braganza, Timothy Diamond, Tristan D. Lalla (his first Persephone role was Herr Gabor in Spring Awakening and in 2008 he played the title role in Othello) and Stephanie Breton. To watch their careers flourish is extremely gratifying for Soskin.  

Persephone Productions, and the artists it showcases and develops, has garnered critical acclaim in addition to box office success. Neil Napier was nominated in 2003 for a MECCA Best Male Actor award in West while Glenda Braganza took the MECCA that year as Best Female Actor for her work in both Jane Eyre (also nominated for Best Semi-Professional production) and West.  The following year, SubUrbia took the Best Production MECCA with Soskin taking home the MECCA for Best Director of the same play. In 2006, To the Green Fields Beyond won the Best Ensemble MECCA but the cherry on the sundae was the Myron Galloway Award of Distinction to Soskin for her tireless contribution to Montreal theatre.

Mecca … schmeeca! Awards aside, Soskin sets the bar high for herself as well as for her company (or as she puts it, “is quite obsessive”) and just as daring. About twenty years ago, she took up piano, and is presently preparing for her first conservatory exam. In addition, she ardently follows a Yoga path to which she would devote more time if it weren’t for Persephone. She sometimes substitutes as an instructor at the nearby Westmount YMCA and whenever possible, uses it in her rehearsal process. It brings focus to the work, invaluable breath control, and the relaxation it affords allow the creative juices to flow while keeping the stress levels down during those chaotic tech weeks.  

This girl riddled with self-doubt but drawn by the magnetic allure of theatre, disregarded the mores of her time...and became a leader in her theatrical realm.

Looking back on her career (so far) Soskin said, without a doubt, the pivotal moment was that class she rehearsed for The Cherry Orchard, though she also admits that the rush she experienced that day might have dissipated had it not been for the support of her family and colleagues. She gives full credit to her husband, Raymond, who was duly informed by Soskin early in their courtship that if he was in the market for a conventional wife, he wasn’t going to find one in her.  

At some point, Soskin will give up her role as producer.  She looks forward to the day when she doesn’t have to concern herself with money worries but can devote all of her efforts to directing. She hopes the company and its mandate will continue, not unlike the seamless transition of Geordie Theatre from founder Elsa Bolam to Dean Fleming. Soskin couldn’t say exactly when that event will take place but, she confided, “It’s in the pipeline.”

This shy, delicate girl riddled with self-doubt but drawn by the magnetic allure of theatre, disregarded the mores of her time to strike out on her own with no idea how it would turn out (say … that sounds familiar) and became a strong, self-reliant leader in her theatrical realm. It’s no wonder that the daring Soskin is so committed to providing new and aspiring artists the fertile ground they need to discover and grow their unique skills.

Mary’s Wedding, a tender love story with WWI as the tumultuous backdrop, opens April 28th at the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique Henri-Julien (4750 Henri-Julien, 1st floor, Metro Mont-Royal) and runs until May 7th.  For tickets call (514) 790-1245 or visit Admission

You can also read Ms Soskin's first person piece about Mary's Wedding here.

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