Lots of actors claim to have connections with the characters they play, but Celia Koughan may be more right than most.
The Charlottetown native plays Laura, who time travels between the ages of 15 and 25, in “Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells)” by playwright Rose Napoli. Now playing in Halifax on Neptune
Theatre’s Scotiabank Stage, it was premiered by Nightwood Theatre in Toronto in 2017.
“It was just one of those pieces that I feel most people — women, men, anyone — can relate to,” Koughan, 23, said during an interview at the theatre.
“But, especially me, I really related to this young girl of 15 as a lot of 15-year-olds are – just looking for a connection, just looking to feel love.”
The two-character play explores the power imbalance of an underage student-teacher relationship. Ten years after it happened, Laura revisits her high school English teacher as a published author with the book she wrote about them.
“Fifteen’s one of the hardest ages, you know?” said Koughan.
“There’s so much going on, and I really think that how Rose wrote this show is so beautiful. It sparks a conversation about so many topics, about consent, about power, about love, about passion, about vulnerability. And I love that this is kind of a feminist view on a student-teacher affair that happened and Laura at 25 in present day, which is how the show starts, has written a novel about her experience and she’s speaking out.
“I think that it’s really powerful, especially at this time when all the #MeToo movement is going on and people are speaking out and recognizing maybe stuff from their past, and they didn’t know what they know now.
“This process has been really interesting because it actually brought up kind of a lot of stuff that maybe I hadn’t even realized was still present. High school wasn’t that long ago for me, really. It’s an interesting time in my life to play this role because I’m in between 25 and 15.”
Dartmouth actor Josh MacDonald plays teacher Alan Wells. He found similarities with his character, too.
“I am a teacher in my 40s; I’ve taught playwriting at Dalhousie University, I’ve taught screenwriting at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, etc. It made sense to me,” MacDonald said during an interview.
“Because I could, in some ways, perceive how I would click in the role, I auditioned.”
The play has content warnings for explicit language, the depiction of underage sexual content and simulated non-consensual intimacy. The creative team brought in intimacy director Amanda Cutting to help them navigate past potential land mines in the production.
Cutting works out of Calgary and is an apprentice in the field, on her way to being fully certified through a two-year training program.
“It’s a new industry,” Cutting said during an interview.
“It was founded by Tonia Sina, who created the technique of intimacy choreography and direction back in 2004 from her master’s thesis.”
With only a handful of people in the country doing this kind of work, Cutting is in demand. While most projects only require her services for a limited rehearsal time, Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) was different.
“In this show, because the intimate scenes are so integrated within the show and there are flashbacks that happen, it wasn’t a smooth process of me being able to come in for a couple of days, help create these scenes and then go. I needed to be there for the whole process.
“And we’re also negotiating an age difference of the two performers, and with that comes generational expectations. It was really important that we set the whole team up for success, so I came in at week two.”
Koughan said Cutting’s input was reassuring.
“I can’t imagine this process without her. She choreographed every intimate moment so carefully, just like it would be fight choreography or a dance, so that everyone felt safe. ... It took away any worry or nervousness that I had about doing a show like this.”
The specialized coaching is ultimately freeing for the actors, said MacDonald.
“It’s a job like any other job, but I think an actor’s job is to risk and often to say, ‘Yes, I will dare to do something.’ But you want to do that in the healthiest of contexts, and I think having somebody like Amanda around has been a gift on this show because it means that Celia and I can test, we can dare, we can risk things that maybe we’d be too timid to do otherwise, but it’s also within a very clear structure.”
Directed by Annie Valentina, “Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells)” runs through Feb. 24. Tickets can be purchased at neptunetheatre.com, by calling 902-429-7070 or 1-800-565-7345, or at the box office at 1593 Argyle St.