‘I don’t know what possessed me:’ How Patricia Rozema adapted the unconventional play Mouthpiece for film


Norah Sadava, from left, Patricia Rozema and Amy Nostbakken answer questions following an April 2018 performance of the play Mouthpiece in Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. (CBC)

Patricia Rozema laughingly admits it was crazy for her to think she could turn Mouthpiece, the award-winning experimental play, into a movie.

“I don’t know what possessed me to think that it could be a film,” she admitted.

Even the two Toronto actresses who created the stage production — Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava — laughed when the Canadian filmmaker first suggested the idea to them.

After all, Mouthpiece is unconventional for many reasons, including the central fact that the two performers appear together onstage as two sides of the same character. On top of that, neither Nostbakken nor Sadava had ever done any film acting or writing. 

But after attending opening night, Rozema was convinced.

Mouthpiece won best new Canadian play at the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards, two Dora theatre awards in Toronto and has had an extended tour across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. (Quote Unquote Collective)

“It’s just the purest essence of theatre, really. It’s so heightened and it’s so extreme in so many ways — and then so subtle and real,” Rozema recounted to a Toronto audience following an April 2018 performance of the play.

Mouthpiece, which debuted in Toronto in 2015, takes place over 48 hours in the life of Cassandra, a young Toronto writer who doesn’t exactly have her act together.

News that her mother has died suddenly forces Cassandra to reexamining her own identity as an independent woman and feminist. Her challenge to write a eulogy is clouded by mixed feelings about her mother — a woman who gave up her own career and aspirations as an artist to raise her children.

The minimalist original production saw Nostbakken and Sadava performing on a stage empty except for an old claw-foot tub. The duo shift from performing together to conversing with one another, allowing them to explore the idea of the inner voice and Cassandra’s inner turmoil. 

Patricia Rozema, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava on taking Mouthpiece from stage to screen

Rozema and theatre creators Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava explain how they turned the unconventional play Mouthpiece into a film. 2:01

Rozema — the filmmaker known for Into the Forest, Mansfield Park and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing — was so blown away by the show, she convinced her friend Jodie Foster to check it out during a visit to Toronto.

That, in turn, inspired Oscar-winning actor, director and producer Foster to bring Mouthpiece to Los Angeles for a run in 2017, when it played to an audience packed with Hollywood celebrities.

Mouthpiece went on to win best new Canadian play at the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards, as well two of Toronto’s Dora theatre awards. The production has also had an enviable extended tour across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Movie expands on play

Rozema’s new film version goes out on a limb in retaining the dual portrayal of Cassandra from the play. Both Nostbakken and Sadava are still together in every scene sharing the lead role, although the movie adaptation adds other actors, including Maev Beaty, who plays Cassandra’s mother, Elaine.

Mouthpiece, created and performed by Norah Sadava (left) and Amy Nostbakken, sees the pair onstage as the same character, shifting between performing together to conversing with one another to explore the notion of inner voice. (CBC)

As a study of inner conflict, grief and awakening self-awareness, the film is moving, funny, and — against all odds — it works. After the film’s 2018 Toronto International Film Festival premiere, Variety called Mouthpiece“a thoughtful interrogation of modern womanhood, leavened by gallows humour,” while the Globe and Mail said Rozema “lays bare the modern female condition in an epic battle that is by turns lacerating, soothing and heartbreaking.”

“I don’t know if anyone knew exactly how it was going to work, but we just threw ourselves in,” Nostbakken said.

“How exciting, innovative stuff gets made is when you don’t know how it’s going to end up, so I’m really excited.”

Sadava said she hopes the film will be successful in reaching audiences.

“I think it will work because the response to the play has been so strong — not because of the form particularly, but because of what it’s communicating, the truth that we’re telling about ourselves,” she said.

“Because we are telling the same truth about our experience as women in the world.”

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Mouthpiece, which received financial support from CBC Films through its fund for female and diverse Canadian filmmakers, continues its theatrical run in Toronto through June 20 and will also screen in Guelph, Calgary, London, Ont., and Ottawa this month. It will air on CBC and on CBC Gem in 2020.


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