Theatre Canmore’s latest offering is something of a study in contrasts – younger man and older woman, new age blogger and traditional novelist – and will be just the second staging of the play in Canada.
Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers features Canmore actor and author Nikki Tate and Calgarian Ben Francis in a play that explores how far someone will go to attain what they want.
Sex with Strangers will be staged Feb. 2, 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. at artsPlace in Canmore and Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. in Banff in the Seniors’ Centre on Bear Street.
Directed by Maxine Bennett, Sex with Strangers spans a couple of years in the life of sex blogger Ethan (Francis) and gifted novelist Olivia (Tate); taking the audience from a quaint bed and breakfast in Michigan to an apartment in Chicago.
For Tate, playing an author is far from a stretch as she’s written children’s books, works as a storyteller and has a screenplay of her own in the works.
After moving from Australia to Banff when she was seven (and performed in the Margaret Greenham Theatre), then living in numerous locations while performing in many different venues, she’s recently back in Canmore and wanted to get into the local theatre scene.
“I wanted to re-connect with the theatre community, took a one-day workshop with Pine Tree Players and ran into Maxine, who was in the middle of casting this show,” she said. “I thought I should brush up on my audition skills and gave it a go. Before I went, though, I got a copy of the script and loved it.
“It’s a fantastic script and I thought this would be a really juicy character to play. Then I got serious about the audition and got the part. It’s so exciting and the part is so cool; complicated and interesting.
“It’s such an interesting, multi-layered relationship (with Ethan) and I could relate to some of what she says as a writer myself. There are lines in this play that I’ve actually said in real life. I can really relate to this woman and I love the dynamic between the two characters.
“And I love that she went after what she wants. She’s a little uneasy about the age difference, but she goes for it anyway and I love that about her.”
For Francis, who recently played Alfred Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank at artsPlace, Sex with Strangers is a departure from that dark and heavy atmosphere.
Francis is a relatively late addition to the cast as he replaced another actor, but luckily he was an understudy with a production in Calgary (DIY Theatre) last year and familiar with the script. It’s also a gig between Anne and an opera he will perform in in February.
“It’s great. Nikki and Maxine have been very welcoming,” said Francis. “And the character is completely opposite to my own demeanor, which is always fun and a bit of a challenge at times. Ethan is 28 and he’s been portraying a character since he was 19, which is a long time to keep up this schtick.
“He’s a player who finally meets his idol, in terms of literature, and she sort of brings a real, vulnerable side of him out. The book she wrote struck a chord with him and was life changing for him. So she’s not the type of woman he’s used to; she challenges him and he wrestles with his alter ego.”
Bennett, who also directed Ghost Walks at Halloween in Canmore, is a freelance artist who’s moving to Canmore this spring.
“They (Theatre Canmore) were planning on doing this show for a long time and Melanie was looking for a director. I read the script and loved it and it’s not like anything that’s been done in Canmore for a long time,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the community responds to it for content. Most of what’s done here is comedy and older comedy. There’s not much contemporary drama done and I think broaching that genre is going to be really exciting.
“If it’s well received, I’d love to do more in that vein as well.”
The cast and crew have been working hard since the new year, with Francis involved for about a week, and Bennett is happy with the way things are progressing.
“They both have a really good understanding of their characters and they both have amazing instincts for what their characters would do in different situations,” she said.
Bennett would rate the play 14A, as there are mature topics and some scenes where the actors are scantily clad. “So it would depend on the parent and on a child,” she said. “There might be some interesting conversations that come out of it.
“It’s really pushing the envelope for Canmore, which I’m so excited about.”
For Melanie Des Roches, a Theatre Canmore founder, the intimate scenes in Sex with Strangers make it stand out for Canmore.
“I think it’s been going great. The actors have great chemistry and our biggest challenge is this is a real change for the Bow Valley. It’s not your usual British comedy; it’s not comedic, it’s serious. It has comedic moments, but it’s a serious play, which I think is very timely right now with all the issues of what’s appropriate behaviour.
“From a producer’s perspective, this is the biggest risk we’ve taken. This is the second time it’s been produced in Canada. It’s been produced hundreds of times in the U.S., but we like to try different things. There was no point in starting Theatre Canmore and doing the same things others were doing.”
Laura Eason is a screenwriter and playwright best known for four seasons on the Netflix drama, House of Cards.