Flares of Life in The Big Smoke : An Interview with Amy Nostbakken

It was instantaneous – the moment I saw Amy Nostbakken enter the stage of Factory’s studio space I knew I was meeting a force. There is something unassuming about a person that gently makes their presence known – however in this delicateness exists a courageous and originally ensnaring power. It is Amy’s unique embodiment of life that makes Natalie’s fight in The Big Smoke so compelling.

It is evident that Amy is able to disclose the beautiful and vulnerable aspects of herself – making her performance boldly elegant and gritty – no matter what adjectives I use to describe her performance, they all point to one result: you cannot look away.

It was no surprise to me then, that Amy was a dynamic, generous, and thoughtful person to interview. Her answers are direct, stemming from her pure and self effacing heart. I hope you enjoy her sincere and clear answers about the fight for life that inspired her to create The Big Smoke.

Tell me about Toronto Theatre scene and what it was like for you to move here.

I was initially afraid to move back here after being in London – I imagined that it would be grey and overly corporate, and then I got here, and I was surrounded by all these artists. And I thought: what is this? what is this city? And then, five minutes from where I live there is this massive lake which might as well be an ocean, and then there all these young people around. I discovered there were so many people concerned with creating spaces that were very unique, spaces that are always becoming and feel so alive. There is this feeling of constant movement. So when I got into the theatre world here, I thought well, this is fantastic. Especially in comparison to London where you feel you are entrenched in this historical tradition of the theatre. In a way you are limited by the long held constructs of these institutions, whereas here there is so much room for change, there is a lot of need and desire for change. So when I got here I had this feeling as a theatre-maker that I had the ability to make change.

It’s funny too because in England people always refer to us as the New World. It is exotic in a way – and what I get from it is that it is new, it is fresh, it is so alive.

How did the story of The Big Smoke first appear in your mind?

It began first because I wanted to do a show that was sung, and I wanted it to be a woman that did it.

I also began developing this story soon after a close friend of mine had experienced a tragic loss – it was the kind of loss that made me ask myself what it meant to be a woman, and what womanhood is. It struck me, especially after experiencing with my friend this movement through loss and tragedy that I wanted to create something with this kind of fight for life. This also went well with what my director wanted, which was to tell a story about a strong female character. A female character that struggled with the question of how she fit into society.

So then when I began thinking more of these kinds of stories I immediately thought of the poets Plath, Sexton, and Woolf. I was especially inspired by them because as poets they are able to speak to women’s experiences of masturbation, miscarriages, and blood.

So you believe that women’s particular experiences of darkness and death still need to be explored further in the theatrical space.

I approach the story from a woman’s perspective because I am a woman. I am interested in the darkness that comes from having infinite choice – it can be insulating and suffocating – obviously, it is great to have freedom and to deal with these choices, but I have also become curious about the darkness that underpins these options. I like investigating this notion of infinite opportunity to show how the result is more complex than how it appears.

Why did this story have to be sung?

Music has this amazing ability to capture us immediately. One single note of the trumpet can unlock all sorts of things. There is a huge difference between telling some one a story when you are speaking and when you are singing – for example if I told you a story while singing in a major key, or a minor key, I’d achieve immediate control over your emotions. Especially in relation to the show producing different melodies represents different memories at different moments.

What was the moment for you that made you realize that this show was clicking?

It was when we did our scratch performance – and the reaction we got from it was beyond what we could have imagined. It wasn’t just, well that’s great, it was people weeping in the aisles, it was especially rewarding because as a performer you want to communicate, and it was during that performance in particular where I got that connection.

Explain The Big Smoke’s creation process.

Nir and I co-devised the whole play. Essentially I was the person that improvised the material, while Nir, the director continuously narrowed and crafted and focused the rehearsals, and the story. We were playing with the idea of me using a guitar and a looping peddle which would create the effect of a one woman symphony, but we realized soon into the process the more we added the more was lost. After improvising and narrowing the pieces we liked in rehearsal we would then write it down. This was challenging because I had never once had to write down what I had done – I had never worked with a pen- I had always been working on my feet. At the end of our rehearsals Nir and I would part ways, I would write the music and Nir would write the story, then we would come back with the materials and work.

What central questions do you think The Big Smoke is asking?

How does one define oneself? You know for example, in the play, when Natalie looks around and she says, everyone around me says I am an artist, I am defining myself as an artist, I clearly am an artist, I paint, and I am really good at it, but inside I get no joy from it. So, what am I? And, Natalie is very fortunate, she has a loving family that supports her. She is surrounded by the glitz and the glamour of it all. But even with that, everyone thinks she has everything to live for, but then she realizes it isn’t for her – I think I am just telling a real story, over and above asking questions. It is letting people know that in many parts of the story you can relate, and your are not alone. Especially because loneliness is not something people easily admit to.

What is your explanation of the title The Big Smoke?

Well on the surface both Toronto and London are referred to as The Big Smoke. That title originally came when I was just describing Natalie. She is in this glossy-eyed state, and at the end she is talking about how she can’t see properly, and how her eyes are full of smoke. I focus on this image – and how one can feel so lost.

Did you feel weighed down by the heaviness of telling a story that discussed suicide?

Well – it is not about suicide. It is about the struggle for life. I never feel weighted down. I don’t feel the death. She does have a lot of life in her. She is fighting – she is a fighter. I remembered during the third time we did the Fringe that Natalie is not nice, she is a fighter, she is fierce. The moment you stop fighting the play does not happen. So in a way, the idea of the suicide cannot affect you. You are owning the life and you are going through the life, so then, it does not matter what happened.

How do you think Natalie would describe herself?

She says in the play: I am a little bit lost at the moment.

What kinds of projects has this play inspired you to do?

It made me realize that I do not want to create theatre that does not pose the fiery question: why I am making theatre? Because if you cannot answer that question – then you certainly are not going to satisfy the audience.

I also realized I am really excited about playing further with the performance style used in The Big Smoke, except with a bigger cast. I would love to explore the possibilities of that. I am certainly inspired by purely telling the story with music.

Discuss the role of Love, Passion, and Celebration in The Big Smoke.

There is a lot of love passion and celebration in the play. I hope that it gets the audience to ask that question – where is the love, the passion, and the celebration? Those are three carefully chosen words. Natalie does at one point get asked by her doctor: when was the last time you felt happy? And this is a standard question doctors ask their clients. Which is absurd- but then, Natalie doesn’t know, she doesn’t know what happiness means. Which is ok too. The love, the passion, and the celebration is witnessed by the audience, even if Natalie herself does not know completely that she has it.

Story By: Hannah Rittner