Driven to unconventional theatre

“Your job is life and death.”

Given six words, that’s how Rosamund Small gets at the heart of her new play, Vitals.

Rosamund Small wrote the play Vitals, which brings its audience to a private home, where the action follows a paramedic on-site for an emergency call. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Rosamund Small wrote the play Vitals, which brings its audience to a private home, where the action follows a paramedic on-site for an emergency call.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Given two more words, Small might have added “and traffic.”

Set in Toronto, Vitals dispatches the audience into a real house where a fictional paramedic, Anna, is on a 911 call.

The one-woman play is based on interviews with Kaleigh O’Brien, a long-time paramedic who told Small what it’s like to work emergencies in this city.

“She’s driving an ambulance with the siren on, and people are jaywalking,” said Small with a wry laugh.

“It was kind of like she was just complaining about traffic, but she is trying to get to someone who’s having a heart attack.”

Even before it opened yesterday, Vitals extended its run by a week.

And that was before the Globe and Mail ran a preview calling the 23 year-old Upper Beaches resident the next big thing in Toronto theatre.

That morning, she woke to a proud voicemail from Marguerite Campbell, her Grade 2 teacher at Beaches Alternative School.

But Small credits a lot of the buzz to the play’s director, Mitchell Cushman.

“He’s really good at turning everyday objects into magical things,” she said, noting how he timed musical kids’ toys to run on stage in a recent show.

Cushman also co-founded Outside the March, the site-specific company that is staging the play with support from Theatre Passe Muraille.

“They do theatre in unexpected ways and unexpected places,” said Small, recalling a recent play, Terminus, where the audience sat on stage, and the actors performed on the stage edge with empty seats behind them.

Small set her first hit play, a 2009 Fringe Festival comedy called Genesis and Other Stories, in a church. It was partly inspired by the zany Noel Coward comedies her mom took her to as a girl.

“We gave the whole audience juice boxes halfway through the play — it was just a fun time, and really suited to the Fringe.”

Small’s next production was a verbatim work, Performing Occupy Toronto, where actual dialogue she recorded at the Occupy Toronto protest was performed right where it happened, in St. James Park.

While she grew up going to traditional theatre and loves it, Small enjoys the extra “live” feeling of a play performed off-stage.

“The authenticity of it is really exciting,” she said. “We see so many amazing movies and TV shows, but they’re always at a distance.”

Small also gets a kick from interviews.

Unlike Performing Occupy, in which she transcribed interviews with some 125 protestors, Small said she took no notes while talking with Kaleigh O’Brien about being a paramedic – she was looking for insights, not accuracy.

She heard from O’Brien how paramedics need to improvise, but also follow EMS protocols, and always with the stress of a potential legal action in mind. And she learned how busy a shift feels for the 900-odd paramedics serving a city of millions.

“It’s not even that I didn’t know about medics, I didn’t think about them,” Small said. “I didn’t think about them the way you do about doctors – they have this whole specific world of intense, focused pressure.”

After two years of work on Vitals, Small is in the playwright’s sweet spot – she gets to watch a director make it come alive, and is stepping in only when the crew needs coffee or batteries.

She continues to work for the Paprika Festival, a mentoring program for playwrights 21 and younger that was a huge help to her.

In a bit of a departure, Small is also writing prose, but she does have another play in the works too – one that ventures into a children’s imaginary world.

Small said there’s a lot of similarity between plays and children’s playing.

“The line between playing house, and then bossing everyone around and making them make a play about a house is very close.”

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