SKYLIGHT’s Sara Topham, on Focus and Boundaries By Nicole Stamp
Actor Sara Topham is a mainstay of the Stratford Theatre Festival after 13 years of critically-acclaimed work in leading roles from Juliet to Gwendolen. She has chosen to spend 2016 away from Stratford, and this summer she’ll perform in Hidden Cove Theatre’s Toronto production of David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight.
Skylight tells the story of a dedicated and ascetic teacher named Kyra Hollis (played by Topham), and a wealthy entrepreneur named Tom Sergeant (played by Shaw Festival alumnus Lindsay G. Merrithew). For six years, Kyra worked for Tom, lived with his family, and the two had a long love affair. But when Tom’s wife discovered the affair, Kyra abruptly left the family and its comfortable lifestyle, and began a new life, living in a shabby flat and teaching difficult students.
For three years, their separation was absolute. Skylight begins on a cold winter night when Tom, now widowed, bursts into Kyra’s chilly flat, desperate to win her back. During their years apart, Kyra has become a social justice activist, but Tom is, as ever, a dyed-in-the-wool Thatcher-era capitalist. Though the pair is still deeply in love and drawn together, their polarized worldviews repel them from each other. The play is, at once, the tender love story of two wounded hearts wracked with guilt- and a lightning-fast duel of two fierce intellects debating socioeconomic morality with crackling wit.
Shortly after she was cast, Topham and I spoke at length about her impressions of the play. Once pre-production was underway, I spoke with Topham again, this time on a break from her third day of rehearsal.
Nicole Stamp: Sara, you’ve played so many iconic roles at the Stratford Festival- Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Rosalind (As You Like It), Laurencia (Fuente Ovejuna), Laura (The Glass Menagerie), Jessica (The Merchant of Venice), Gwendolen (The Importance of Being Earnest)… how does Kyra fit into that canon?
Sara Topham: Skylight is Greek in its emotional scale: the events of the play are a matter of life and death to Kyra and Tom, because they are the world to each other. The intensity of Kyra’s fight, to stay with this person who is her oxygen, makes her very much like Juliet, Rosalind, Laurencia, Jessica–in all of those great love stories.
And Skylight recalls a bit of Oscar Wilde, in the wit the characters use to deflect their feelings. The late Bernard Hopkins (a veteran Stratford actor and director, and Topham’s mentor and dear friend) once said, “Every play is a dance between concealing and revealing”, and I think that’s fundamental here. There are moments in Skylight when Kyra and Tom use humour and wit either to connect with each other, or to deflect the other person, and I find that very interesting. It’s very fundamentally a language play.
Skylight is an intimate love story about two people- and it’s also a high-level political debate about two worldviews. As an actor, how do you balance the macro view- the political argument of the play- with the micro view- the interpersonal concerns of the relationship?
In some ways, I don’t think about the macro at all in the rehearsal hall; that’s sort of profoundly not my job. To me, it’s a story about one evening in the lives of two people who love each other but who are at a final bridge in their relationship because they need different things in life.
I had a fascinating conversation about Skylight with psychoanalyst and author Dr. Donald L. Carveth, about the themes of guilt and shame within the play. Given his research into guilt, he had some interesting insights about Kyra, and I’d love to hear your take–
I’m going to stop you, and ask an acting favour: I’m at a place in the work where other people’s external assessment of Kyra is not useful to me. I need to work from the inside, not the outside, and so I’d rather avoid hearing somebody’ else’s opinion about her. Sorry if that messes up your question! (laughing)
Oh not at all, and I’m happy to respect that. Could we take a meta approach, and talk a little more about that boundary itself, and how it informs your process and your research?
Absolutely! You can’t play a character if you’re judging them externally- it’s your job to get inside. What’s important is understanding how that person believes that what they’re doing in each moment is going make things better for them. Whether that seems true to anyone else, from the outside, is not really the actor’s business. Of course, reading the play, I see the arguments—Kyra’s saying this, Tom has a great point about that – but my job over the next few weeks is to see that less and less, and to see only Kyra’s point of view more and more.
So in a way, your reading of the play actually narrows as you rehearse- as you choose to exclude the global symbolism of the play, and focus just on each personal moment.
Absolutely, because you can’t act a symbol. Our director, Larry Moss, said a beautiful thing: In every moment of the play, you’re doing one of three things: either trying to make the other person understand something, or make them feel something, or make them do something. So my job is only to focus on what she’s trying to make the other character do, or understand, or feel.
Let’s talk about Larry– he’s a world-renowned director and acting coach- he’s been thanked from the podium during Oscars and Tony acceptance speeches, and productions he has directed have won the Obie Award and Drama Desk Award; his reputation is tremendous. What’s it like to work with him?
He’s so wonderful! He himself has never stopped working and learning, and so when he requires that of you, he’s not requiring it from above you, he’s requiring it because he’s a student of the play too.
And he’s seen hundreds of actors, and so his ability to really see you is– you know, I always used to be amazed by high school band teachers who could play any of the instruments in the band. There are lots of directors who are really brass specialists, and if you’re a flute player, they don’t know how to help you. But Larry’s the kind of director who can help any instrument, any actor that might walk into his rehearsal hall. And that’s an amazing thing.
Your Skylight co-star is Lindsay G. Merrithew, and he’s also a part of the producing team, which echoes his interesting dual occupations in life—he is the co-creator of the global health & fitness phenomenon STOTT PILATES, so he’s well known as an entrepreneur, and he has a long list of acting credits, from television roles on shows like Traders and Suits, to stage work at the Shaw Festival. Can you describe your collaboration with him?
Lindsay’s level of passion for the project is enormous. I’m so grateful to him for putting together this group and creating a work environment where creativity is possible. And moreover– Lindsay really makes me laugh! Sometimes it’s Kyra laughing, and often it’s Sara laughing too, which is really the best case- when you can’t tell the difference between two characters enjoying each other, and two actors enjoying being together in the work. When it all becomes the same, with no blockade between the two aspects, it’s just great. It’s a really happy place to be, and I hope that it will yield something lovely in the end for the audience.
I just have to pause for one second- David, there’s a live grub in that… (laughing) Sorry, it’s just that this pack of chilis are going into the sauce we cook in the play!
(laughing) Kyra’s probably a vegetarian – save the grub! How does Skylight feel different from the type of work you’ve done at Stratford?
Well one thing that really made me hop up and down was the moment I realized I was going get to wear at-shirt on stage! Which I have never done in my entire career, not ever, not once! It’s really great to wear whatever I want to rehearsal- no corset, no big skirt. I suggested the slogan, “See Topham in a t-shirt!” (laughing)
You know, on a totally selfish level, I really miss the Stratford audiences. I miss their commitment, and I miss the ongoing relationship that I have with them because of all of that time we’ve spent together. I would just be so delighted to see any of them again.
Oh—and something else that’s new in Skylight—I’ve never cooked spaghetti sauce onstage. Interacting with the food will, by necessity, be a different interaction each night, because every onion is different and you have to peel it and chop it and saute it, and that’s a really wonderful gift and challenge.
What do you think audiences will appreciate about Skylight?
This play is a meaningful conversation, and I think audiences will really enjoy that part of it: being with two interesting, alive people, talking about things they really care about. I want the audience to walk out feeling that now they know Kyra and Tom, and to argue in the car on the way home, to passionately take the side of one- and then the other—of the human beings they met on stage that night.
Sara, thank you for speaking with me. And I want to say—I respect that you nixed hearing the psychologist’s take on Kyra. It’s admirable to see someone who firmly yet graciously enforces their own boundaries.
Oh, thank you. I’ve learned to set my own boundaries, for the protection of the work. I just can’t do it if I’m observing the work from the outside. It’s something I’ve learned is important for me, and I’m happy we discussed it. Thank you for the interview, Nicole- these conversations are a pleasure!
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