BNE Theatre presents its inaugural season with John Patrick Shanley's 'Doubt: A Parable'

Church of the Holy Trinity (19 Trinity Square) behind Toronto Eaton Centre

L-R: Brian Bisson, Emma Nelles and Deborah Drakeford by David Leys

Joe Szekeres

(Updated and revised October 19, 2022)

BNE Theatre opens its inaugural show with John Patrick Shanley’s conversation-starting ‘Doubt: A Parable’

What an intriguing acronym for a new theatre on the scene – and it stands for ‘Breaking and Entering’.

BNE Productions will soon present John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Doubt: A Parable’, one of my favourite plays, at the Church of the Holy Trinity behind Toronto’s Eaton Centre. A clever idea to immerse the play in a Church, but not a Catholic Church.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview via Zoom Brian Bisson, Emma Nelles, and Kim Nelson who will play Father Flynn, Sister James, and Mrs. Muller. The Director of the production Stewart Arnott was also present. Deborah Drakeford who will play Sister Aloysius was unavailable for the interview.

I had a wonderful conversation speaking with these four articulate artists and am keen to see what they will do with Shanley’s story, which is highly relevant and appropriate in our world. Arnott mentioned how extraordinarily timely the relevance of ‘Doubt’ is and how its influence resonates today.

Brian Bisson is one of the founders of BNE Productions. When I asked why he selected the name ‘Breaking and Entering’, it was an homage to his father, a retired 29 years Ontario Provincial Police officer and to Emma Campbell, a (reformed) juvenile delinquent. Bisson also feels that in this inaugural year of BNE, the company is entering the 175-year-old Church of the Holy Trinity (which has welcomed the production with open arms). He also joked that BNE is breaking and entering the professional theatre scene with this first production.

‘Doubt: A Parable’ takes place in 1964 when so many changes occurred worldwide and there were strong feelings of uncertainty and wondering where one turns. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There were changes in behaviour, dress, morality, race, culture, and religion, especially in the Roman Catholic faith with Vatican II. The Catholic Church opened its windows to the modern world, updated the liturgy, gave a larger role to laypeople, introduced the concept of religious freedom, and started a dialogue with other religions.

What was originally thought to bring people together in its search for truth created a vast schism in its early years, leading many people to experience forms of doubt in their own lives. Shanley states in the preface to his play: “It is Doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things.”

And what is the cost of this moment of Doubt? Are we as an audience and as humans ever certain of anything in search of the truth? That is the reason to see the play.

Shanley’s play introduces Sister Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford), a Bronx school principal, who takes matters into her own hands when she suspects the young Father Flynn (Brian Bisson) of improper relations with one of the male students. A turning point in the play occurs when we meet the young lad’s mother (Kim Nelson). We also meet the young lad’s instructor, Sister James (Emma Nelles), who loves teaching but is at a crossroads of doubt when she learns of this possible indiscretion between Flynn (whom she highly respects) and her pupil. Emma stated that Sister James changes the most throughout the 90-minute story.

Why was the decision made to open a new theatre company and introduce its inaugural season with ‘Doubt’?

For Brian, place and play go hand in hand for him. He thought about special productions of plays in the past he has witnessed that were site-specific and that thinking outside the box encouraged him to keep looking. Brian has always liked ‘Doubt’s’ story and says the script is far better than the film. He has also loved playwright Shanley’s visceral writing that spoke to him in line and truth. Although raised Roman Catholic, Bisson now considers himself lapsed in the faith and his connection with the Catholic Church skewed since his teenage years for personal reasons. For Brian, ‘Doubt’ has allowed him to come to terms with some of the issues he has personally faced for a long time regarding the faith.

How is the company feeling about this return to the theatre when we are still in the throes of Covid? The one common element between all of them is they’re looking forward to returning to work.

Emma Nelles has found preparing for this production “an absolute joy. Everyone has been welcoming and generous and positive in the way the work has been approached.” Kim Nelson “feels excited because this [preparation time] has been a highly collaborative process. The four of us have been working with a piece of great writing under Stewart's direction who has been very open to play and exploration, allowing us to fail and discover gems in the process. Brian feels “this is the right time to return led by other exciting theatre companies in Toronto. People are ready to return and the stars are aligning.” Director Stewart Arnott has attended other theatres over the past few weeks and has been “heartened by the number of people in the audience…it’s been wonderful to engage with these great people and script.”

Rehearsals have been intensive in another church in preparation for the opening. Arnott is feeling positive but, in the magic of live theatre, sometimes things might not be where artists want them to be at this moment, and for Arnott that’s fine.

As of this article, the play has just moved into the Church of the Holy Trinity, and the creative team is ready to start putting all the elements together and look at what needs to be re-examined again.

On a personal level, I have always found ‘Doubt’ one that deserves discussion later either through a talkback with the actors or over a coffee or beer with others who might have questions. Canadian Stage produced ‘Doubt’ several years ago and I had seen the production with a former student who is now a priest at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary. Father Kevin (studying Drama before entering the priesthood) said every practicing Catholic should see ‘Doubt’.

Why?

He and I both agreed the play involved searching for the truth, not certainty.

Additionally, there are scenes where the play might trigger some audience members. There could also be the possibility that audience members leave the show with the understanding that all Catholic clergy are not to be trusted which is simply not true at all. Would someone be present during the talkbacks who has an educational background in the faith and who might clarify perhaps any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the role of the Catholic clergy?

Bisson stated talkbacks were planned for the production. Some of the ensuing points that followed from those present intrigued me. Nelles pointed out, and rightly so, the play ends with questions as there are no absolutes at all. For her, this puts the onus on the audience to question and think about what has just played out and perhaps examine what it’s like not to be certain, but to engage with the questions that are raised rather than adhere to the certainty they came in with before the play begins.

Nelson concurred with Nelles. For her, the play does not take any sides as it tells a story about something very difficult that has occurred in the Catholic Church.

Kim then stated the following with which I strongly agree:

"Although it will undoubtedly raise confusion and righteous rage, 'Doubt' raises issues that are meant to be examined and reflected upon on a deeply personal level. The play puts human behaviour - how we navigate doubt - on the hot seat, not the Catholic Church per se. I think an array of resources should be made available to assist with questions and/or difficult feelings, secular or religious."

She further added:

"In our search for certainty, we often turn to people for a quick definite answer. Yes, we should consult various people and listen to different opinions, but then I think there's greater value in sitting with the deep discomfort of uncertainty as we pursue our own answers; especially as there is often no one answer, and whatever answers we believe we've found will likely be challenged."

I do find Kim's comment extremely beneficial to understanding the intent of the play in my opinion. 'Doubt' is not meant as any form of Catholic bashing or assuming the worst for the individual behaviour of a certain few. The Catholic point of view and discussion always involves the search for truth. The Church becomes a vehicle in that search for Objective truth.

I am looking forward to seeing how the production tackles these questions and strongly encourage people to attend.

‘Doubt: A Parable’ presented by BNE Theatre runs October 26 -November 13 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 19 Trinity Square, Toronto (behind the Toronto Eaton Centre). Performances run Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm.

For tickets, email bnetheatre@gmail.com.

To learn more about BNE Theatre, visit bneproductions.ca

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