Daniela Vlaskalic as Sister James. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
By Matt McGeachy
Last week, I sat down with Daniela Vlaskalic, who plays Sister James, a young, idealistic nun, in CanStage’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Vlaskalic is a newly minted Stratford veteran, a playwright, and a graduate of the University of Alberta. We talked about politics, religion, guilty pleasures, innocence, and, of course, Doubt.
MONDO: In the director’s notes for Doubt, Marti Maraden wrote that a good portion of play’s allure comes from the fact that it’s unresolved, and maybe can’t be resolved. Was it important for you to come to a resolution for this play? If so, what was it?
Daniela Vlaskalic: I think that Sister James really goes back and forth in the play. I really believe that after the scene with Father Flynn, she does believe that he’s innocent. But once again, Sister Aloysius puts doubt back into her mind — she can’t be certain. She’s left like the audience. Sister James tracks what the audience is going through a lot of the time. She is constantly pulled back and forth between these two strong forces. Someone described her as the child of divorced parents, and has great love and respect for both, and so she also is left with doubt. Her certainty is taken away.
MONDO: Is there any one character for whom you have the most sympathy?
DV: I think I have the most sympathy for Sister James, not only because I am playing her, but also because it is sad that we can’t live seeing only the good in people. I don’t think you can really live in the world that way, and it’s sad to watch someone have their innocence taken away. It does happen to Sister Aloysius as well but not really to the same degree.
MONDO: The loss of innocence is such an important character arc for Sister James. When you were working through this in rehearsals, and in your own mind, was there a tipping point for the character, where she realizes that the world is not what she thought it was?
DV: There’s such a constant pull back and forth. I think it starts to happen for me when she begins to question what she sees, and it all topples from there. I think what she ultimately wants is to say to Sister Aloysius, “I saw this thing with this boy,” and Sister Aloysius to say, “You’re overreacting, it’s nothing.”
She wants simplicity, but instead this scene sets in motion the loss of innocence. From there forward, everything she thought was supposed to be crumbles. With Sister Aloysius, she really tries to teach Sister James, and James almost goes against her for it. It becomes clear that she really cannot have certainty at all.
MONDO: It is a parable, but there are a lot of people who might say that this is a very accurate portrayal of the Catholic Church, especially with the gender dynamic. Was this something that you were able to use as motivation as a female actor?
DV: Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, I have never felt like I’ve come up against that in my life. Maybe that’s naïve of me, but I feel fortunate that I haven’t encountered that as much. In this business, there are obviously a lot more male roles and a lot of men who run companies, but I have worked with a lot of female artists. I’ve worked with Marti [Maraden] several times, and I really feel like the male dominance is changing, slowly, but changing. So I don’t know if that really motivated me as much as other things.
I did a lot more research in the time period, and the Church. It’s really intelligent for John Patrick Shanley [the playwright] to set the play in 1964, because in many ways it feels like that was America’s last “innocent” year: the death of John Kennedy the year before meant that Americans could no longer live behind this veneer of innocence — the world had changed. This helped me a lot more, by helping me to get into the mindset of someone who is innocent and loses that.
MONDO: Did the role require a lot of emotional vulnerability because of that?
DV: Yes, I think so. It did, and also a lot of energy caring about the other characters in the play. That’s where it comes from, a real concern for the kids. Although the kids are not in the play, they are a very important part of it. I felt like I could really latch onto that: having a great love for these kids and for the people that I’m working with. Then when everyone is not getting along and Sister James is stuck in the middle, it gets very emotional.
MONDO: You are also a playwright. Does this provide you with greater insight for your acting?
DV: It’s an incredible thing — when you actually start to put a play together and you realize how much work and thought has to go into it. I think it has informed my acting. You start to look at it from different places: not just from your character’s perspective, which is where you begin, but also from the other characters’ perspectives, and the audience’s, too. I really find it helpful and I enjoy writing as well.
This play is so well written; it’s fun to figure out Shanley’s thinking. He was inspired to write this play by news on the Iraq war. He didn’t write a huge political play, though this is a political play, but he wrote something that was more personal to him. He really loved these nuns from his childhood, and Sister James is the only real character in the play.
MONDO: Does writing your own work make you more critical when playing a role?
DV: Yes! This is such a well-written play that it’s hard to find fault. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been much more critical! But even in this play, we all wondered about things like punctuation. When you’re a playwright it’s so difficult to make people understand the little things: how do the lines look on the page? This is an indication of the tempo. We were all interpreting what he [Shanley] wanted us to do.
MONDO: So much of the play is written in rapid-fire dialogue between Sister James and Sister Aloysius. How did you and Seana McKenna develop this rhythm?
DV: That just came over time, really. Sometimes you come in and you’re already off book. With this play, we didn’t really do that. You really need the other person’s rhythm. We didn’t just come in and fire back and forth. We took it all apart and then put it back together to find the pace.
MONDO: Religion is one of the things you’re never supposed to talk about at parties, yet this play takes the business of the Catholic Church at this time head on. Do people have a strong reaction to the religious aspects of the play?
DV: No, the religious people I’ve talked to really like to come and see it. It’s not anti-Church or anti-religion, it’s more about an issue within the Church. Shanley’s beautiful forward to the play talks about his admiration for the nuns and a priest he liked; he really had a good relationship with them. I think that a lot of people in the Church have enjoyed seeing this play.
MONDO: How did the costume and habit affect your character and physicality on stage?
DV: Well, quite a bit. We had our bonnets early on, and they’re a stage version of the real thing, which are quite deep and wouldn’t work on stage with the lighting. We had those right from the beginning, and now it would be weird not to wear them. There is a real style, very humble; our hands are always hidden, really. It does inform how much movement you have, and it’s kind of oppressive. There is no skin, and even your hands are meant to be hidden. It informs the whole feeling and makes you feel different.
MONDO: Was it a lot of fun building this play?
DV: Yes, it was! It’s a wonderful cast, and everyone is really generous. We had a great time, really figuring it out. It appears deceptively simple: when you read it you realize how complex it is. There are so many years of experience between them, and it was great to work with more experienced, generous actors [David Storch and Seana McKenna]. They were great about helping to grow, and gave a lot of time and energy in rehearsals and on stage.
MONDO: Finally, do you have any theatrical guilty pleasures, and if so, what are they?
DV: Oh gosh — I guess it’s that I like to see plays by myself. I see a lot of theatre; some actors don’t like seeing plays, but I try to see everything. I don’t know if that’s a guilty pleasure of not, but there is something very liberating about it. I can think about it, spend some time with it, and form my own opinions.