January 21, 2013

Spotlight on Alumni: Amy Lee and Heather Annis, Morro & Jasp

Heather Annis and Amy Lee Heather Annis and Amy Lee

We talked with Heather Annis and Amy Lee (BFA2005), theatrical clowns Morro and Jasp, about their many successes since graduating from York. They share their thoughts on life at York, life beyond York, and how they've gotten where they are today (HINT: hard work! )

Please tell us about what you're up to these days, and about some of the most exciting work that you've done since graduating.

We just returned from Niagara-On-the-Lake where we were doing a Strategic Planning retreat to figure out the future of our company, Up your Nose and In your Toes (U.N.I.T.) Productions, the company through which we produce all of our Morro and Jasp shows. Sometimes it’s hard to believe where we are and what we’ve done when we look back on our journey after graduating from York.

Since graduating in 2005, we have created and produced four shows for young audiences (The Funtastical Friendship of Morro and Jasp, The Truth According to Morro and Jasp, Morro and Jasp Go Green & The Bully Show: Clown in the Round) and four adult shows (Morro and Jasp do Puberty, Morro and Jasp GONE WILD, Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself & Of Mice and Morro and Jasp). All of our adult shows have sold out at the Festivals they were at and garnered critical acclaim beyond our wildest dreams. We have been named “Outstanding Ensemble” and “Best Production” at the Fringe by NOW Magazine four times. We were nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award, a BroadwayWorld.com Award, 3 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, winning one for Outstanding Performance in an Ensemble.

So that’s all pretty cool. But our greatest accomplishment is probably that the three of us (Heather, Amy, and our director Byron Laviolette) have stuck it out for eight years and still love working together.

Morro and Japs Morro and Jasp

When we started playing with clown, none of us could have anticipated that it would be the thing that dominated our creative lives, and bring us, and many others, so much joy and reward.
But what keeps us motivated is always thinking about new ways that we can explore to keep ourselves on our toes, and what would challenge and delight our audience. Those tenants have led us to continuously cross our comfort zone and push ourselves to do things we never thought we could do.

We are currently getting ready to start development on our next show, and are actually able to do it with support and resources.

And we have no plans of stopping.

What was the most valuable thing you learned while studying in Theatre at York?

Having been in the Creative Ensemble class [the program that was the precursor to the Devised Theatre program that now exists—ed.], we learned to work with what we had. We were given very little in terms of time or resources and were expected to make lemonade with it. So we did. We also had to fight for anything that we got, so we learned to be scrappy and resourceful. When we graduated, we had no illusions that anyone would hand us anything, so we came out ready to work hard, knowing that the greatest reward would always be our own satisfaction with the work we created, not the hope that someone else’s approval would validate us.

What did you enjoy about York that was outside of the Theatre?

Residence life, Falafel Hut Village, Pub night…

Do you have any advice or tips for York students just entering the dept.?

Be open to every experience while you’re in school. It is a great time to experiment, fall on your face, and the consequences (while they feel like the only thing that matters in the world at the time) are very minimal. Embrace the mistakes, they are really the best way to learn.

We were both devastated not to get into the Acting Stream (Heather was on the waiting list, Amy didn’t even get a call back), but when we found out we got into Creative Ensemble, we both dove in fully and embraced that experience. If we had spent the next three years feeling sorry for ourselves, we would have had a terrible time. When we approached new lessons or assignments with open arms, we got a lot more out of it.

Say yes. We might not have studied clown had Byron not approached us with the idea. If one of us had turned down that offer, who knows where we both would be.

Morro and Jasp waiting... Morro and Jasp

Do you have any advice or tips for York students just about to graduate? about to join the job market?

Some teachers say (at least they said to us) “It’s so brutal out there.” And it can be, but we both choose to look at the light instead of into the foreboding darkness. Sure, it is really hard, but we like to look for opportunities and joy, and celebrate the amazing things we get to do. If you think it’s going to be brutal, it probably will be. On the other hand, if you think it’s going to be easy, it won’t be, but we just continue to work hard and stay positive, and always hopeful.

Byron Laviolette, our director, always says to us, “Play the game in front of you, not the one in your head.” Not only is that the most useful thing when we’re on stage, but it’s extremely useful in our careers and lives. We both thought we would be serious dramatic actors. Neither of us had aspirations to be in comedy, nor thought we were funny at all, but here we are making people laugh, and continuously surprising ourselves.

Sometimes when we finish a run of a new show, we just look at each other and say, “How did we do that?” Sometimes the amount of work we have to do seems impossible. But we always focus and work hard and don’t let anything slip through the cracks that isn’t as good as we think it can be.

Did connections, friendships, relationships you made at York help you afterward?

We are probably the poster company for nurturing our relationships made at York. The two of us met in performance class, we met Byron in Theatre Studies, and both our photographer and designer (who we have been using since the beginning of time) were people we met at York. We also continue to come across and work with other former classmates.

Amy Lee and Heather Annis Amy Lee and Heather Annis

Can you tell us a story of a moment where your training at York was clearly useful?

In our final term or our final year, we set out to make one giant collective creation with our entire class of eighteen, which hadn’t been done before in the program and seemed daunting, to say the least. Every single one of us put our blood, sweat, and tears into that project and were determined to make it work and make it work well. The night before we opened, after our dress rehearsal, our teacher and co-ordinator of the project, who we all loved dearly and respected to no end, said to us, “Well, it’s a failure. But it’s a remarkable failure.” I think for a moment it was a strange thing to hear, but it ended up being extremely liberating for all of us. We put all of our efforts into something and even if it failed, if it did so remarkably, then it was worth it because it meant we risked something.
The show did not end up being a failure, it was actually quite an achievement, and some of the York Faculty helped us produce it downtown where it had a very successful run.

But that has always stuck with us. We both believe it is better to make a remarkable failure, while trying to achieve something extraordinary and risking it all, than to do something that is safe and okay.

Before we open every show, we are not sure if it’s going to be a huge failure or a huge success and we hope that never changes.