Second-year theatre student Tamara Lagrandeur was lounging in the Grey Nuns residence when she overheard a conversation between people discussing Concordia’s purchase of the building. “Wow, you know the last nun? Someone should write a play about that!” they were saying.
Cue the “Eureka” moment.
A year, one playwriting class and a lot of work later, Lagrandeur and close friend Kyle Purves are co-directors of The Motherhouse, a Student-Initiated Production Assignment (SIPA) about Sister Constance McMullen, a Grey Nun who refuses to leave the building.
Lagrandeur, who “usually writes for women,” said that the conversation set her imagination in motion. “What if there was this one nun who did not want to go?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically. “What would she do about it? What would be her actions to counteract that?”
After writing the script for a class, she asked Purves, who is studying performance, to co-direct with her.
“We have similar senses of humour,” she said about her decision to approach her friend with the offer. “I figured he would be the perfect person to balance me out, and bring in new ideas. He is definitely better with the whole performance and working with actors.”
That sense of humour, influenced by a shared love for Saturday Night Live-style comedy, infuses the script, but it also shines through in the acting and stage direction. Purves praised the comedic chops of Amanda McQueen, who plays Sister McMullen, describing her as “reliable, physical and funny.”
The notion of having a nun at the centre of a comedy isn’t new, and the co-directors are well-versed in previous incarnations of the genre. Purves mentioned they had The Sister Act and the “80s TV sitcom The Flying Nun on the mind while rehearsing. “That kind of schtick still is [in the play],” he acknowledged.
However, while writing the script, Lagrandeur revealed that she had another type of character in mind. “I had thought of Scarlett O’Hara saying, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,’ for some reason.” she said. “[Sister McMullen] definitely has a moment like that in the play, where she says, “I refuse to go down quietly! I will do something about this!'”
They also drew inspiration from comediennes such as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, whose characters, like that of Sister McMullen, were “brassy, and fiery.”
As Purves and Lagrandeur pointed out, depictions of nuns in the media are usually one-sided. Purves stated, “It’s like when you think of a nun –” “You think of the habit,” Legrandeur finished.
In reality, there’s more to the women of the Grey Nuns building than the “caricature of a nun.”
“They have a sense of humour, at least the ones that we met. They’re pretty funny ladies,” she added. The directors aim to bring that nuance to the audience, so that they can more fully understand the complexities of the women who do wear the habit.
With that being said, however, the play is entirely fictional, a fact the directors emphasized. Even though they are “not totally hamming it up” according to Purves, the character is one that that breaks the mould.
The set was created with the intent of emphasizing the character’s feisty nature. Lagrandeur described it as monochromatic, so as to make the character stand out. “She will bring colour and life to the set,” she explained.
The first-time participants in the SIPA festival are confident about the reaction their play will provoke. “I really think people are going to fall in love with this character. I think people are going to root for her and I hope they just let themselves go along for the ride with her.”
The SIPA festival runs Nov. 11 to 14 at the F.C. Smith Complex on the Loyola campus, 7141 Sherbrooke St. W. For information and showtimes, visit www.theatre.concordia.ca/news-and-events/events/fall-sipa-short-works-festival.php.