Shawn Macdonald and Amy Rutherford play siblings in Michele Riml's The Amaryllis. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Shawn Macdonald and Amy Rutherford play siblings in Michele Riml's The Amaryllis. Photo by Emily Cooper.

The Firehall Arts Centre continues its fall season with the world premiere of Vancouver playwright Michele Riml’s The Amaryllis.

The second outing for Vancouver indie theatre company The Search Party, it turns its attention from a family dealing with dementia in the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Father to the world of siblings grappling with growth and change in The Amaryllis.

The Story

The Amaryllis tells the story of a brother and sister living together in a co-dependent and somewhat dysfunctional relationship. She is a voice-over artist, he’s an agent, and she is his only client.

“The theme of the play is about change and how difficult it is to make a change in your life,” explains playwright Michele Riml.

“It’s also a piece about how we grow and how relationships grow,” adds director Mindy Parfitt.

The Inspiration

Noting that her new play is not autobiographical, Riml’s inspiration for The Amaryllis came from a photograph she saw of a man carrying a pot with an amaryllis bulb into an apartment. The picture left her with a feeling that nothing had changed in the occupants’ lives and they were stuck.

“I was curious about what happens when you bring this new presence, which is this live plant, into the apartment,” she says. “I really wanted to write something where it felt like a bit of a mystery without a lot of exposition and where we discover as we go along what the meaning of this amaryllis is.”

The Pandemic Silver Lining

Bringing a new work to the stage can be fraught with challenges, something Riml and Parfitt know firsthand as they saw the production of another of Riml’s plays cancelled due to the pandemic.

Written with her husband, Mike St. John Smith, The Cull was to open at the Arts Club in September and directed by Parfitt. When The Cull got cancelled, the two seized on the opportunity to produce The Amaryllis at the Firehall.

“Given the scale of the play with only two actors, it just felt safer with all the pandemic restrictions,” says Riml. “It became a bit of a silver lining to the COVID cloud.”

Past Meets Present

"It's not so much about the event as about the impact and how we heal and deal with that impact." Mindy Parfitt on The Amaryllis
“It’s not so much about the event as about the impact and how we heal and deal with that impact.” Mindy Parfitt on The Amaryllis

For Parfitt, the attraction to The Amaryllis came from Riml’s exploration of change. Careful not to give away the mystery that unfolds on stage, Parfitt says it deals in the past and present relationship between the siblings and how it has affected their lives without being heavy-handed about their history together.

“What she deals with are the waves and ripples and how this has affected and created these people and the dynamic between them,” says Parfitt. “I really loved that a lot and think it is a really beautiful way of addressing healing.”

“The Faulkner quote ‘the past is not even the past‘ inspired me,” adds Riml. “I was curious how something from our childhood comes out in our mid-40s and is somehow twisted by our past. It’s not like we go around talking about it all the time; it’s just there with us.”

In The Rehearsal Room

Going on to call Riml’s writing layered and filled with humour, Parfitt says she and her cast are benefiting from having the playwright in the room for rehearsals.

"One of my beliefs about a play is that if you're an architect then the script is the blueprint for your house but it is in the rehearsal room that we're building the actual house." - Michele RIml
“One of my beliefs about a play is that if you’re an architect then the script is the blueprint for your house. But it is in the rehearsal room that we’re building the actual house.” – Michele RIml

“Michele is the expert on the play,” says Parfitt. “She’s written and lived with it for such a long time that it is great to have her in and be able to ask questions when things are unclear or get a deeper understanding of moments if we’re not getting them.”

Riml’s presence in the rehearsal hall has also provided the playwright with an opportunity to see her work come to life, relating a story of watching actor Amy Rutherford wearing a sweater on stage that Riml had worn while writing her play.

“I literally had this feeling of having conjured something, and there it was in front of me,” says Riml. “Every writer will talk about the idea that you create something, and then you give it away. It becomes this new thing when you have the actors and director and everybody involved. That is what I get to witness in the rehearsal hall.”

“I think we have a lot of respect and trust for one another,” adds Parfitt. “And also a good sense of humour, so we’re having fun and laughing behind our masks.”

Rehearsing in a Pandemic

Of course, the mention of masks brings up the issue of rehearsing in the age of COVID-19. For Parfitt, it hasn’t been without challenges.

“Part of the way I make a space that feels comfortable and safe in which people can be vulnerable is in a physical closeness that I create with people in very gentle ways,” says Parfitt. “I think not being able to do that creates a formality in the room, and that formality was something I hadn’t expected. I’ve had to think a lot about how to loosen up the room in different ways.”

Parfitt says she has done it in the past through food and drink, but even that is not possible now.

“We are sharing recipes,” interjects Riml with a laugh.

“That is true,” responds Parfitt. “Food has entered the space differently. Sharing food for me is such a beautiful way to build connections with people. I miss that. But we are indeed sharing recipes, which is great.”

The Missing of Connection

For Riml, The Amaryllis is an opportunity for audiences to be in an intimate space and to feel connected while still feeling safe. “And isn’t it nice to be in somebody else’s world and relating our shared humanity?” she says.

Parfitt agrees, going further to say we must remember the importance of being together.

“In this time, when our fear is building, we need to push ourselves to participate in opportunities to be with one another and experience things together,” she says. “People obviously have to feel comfortable doing that doing, but if people feel that they can, I think it is really important to come together and share together.”

“This play is about tiny acts of courage, and it takes an act of courage right now just to put on a play and come to see a play,” adds Riml. “There are those everyday acts of courage that happen, and this is a celebration of that.”

What’s in a Name

Founded by Parfitt in 2019, The Search Party‘s official mandate is to “bring emotionally powerful and aesthetically rigorous productions to Vancouver stages.” Its inaugural production of The Father was not only a critical success but took home six Jessie Awards including best production in the small theatre category.

“What The Search Party means to me is a group of trained people who are going out and seeking something, they are finding something that is lost,” explains Parfitt. “They are working together and there is trust amongst them as they are work to find something. For me, that speaks a lot about where I want my company to go and the sense of community, rigour and professionalism I want my company to have.”

The Amaryllis plays the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) November 12-22. Tickets are available as part of the venue’s recently announced COVID compassion pricing structure. Visit firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.