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Artist Profile: Qasim Khan of Theatre Direct’s “Beneath the Banyan Tree”

Interview by Brittany Kay

A sit down with Qasim Khan is like no other. He radiates positivity and hilarity, making him perfect for Theatre Direct’s current run and tenth anniversary of Beneath the Banyan Tree.

With Britney Spears blaring over the radio, Qasim and I spoke about the reality of life after theatre school and how to persevere in order to succeed.

Brittany: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Your journey, as you will, to where you are now.

Qasim: I was raised in Newmarket, which was a great place to grow up. I moved there when I was 6 months old from Scarborough and went to school like normal people go to school. I guess I started doing music stuff in elementary school. I wasn’t a drama kid ever-ever. Even in high school I had the mentality that if I didn’t go into a theatre school, I was going to go into vocal jazz school.

Brittany: You don’t say.

Qasim: Yeah… drama kids were really loud and really confident and I was not. I was singing a lot. Started doing some theatre in the last couple of years of high school and community musicals. The first show I ever did was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and I played Benjamin, the baby brother. It was an amazing experience and they brought in an Equity choreographer and it was just…so fun. That sort of gave me the first taste of what doing this all the time could be like.

The show came at a time when my dad passed away in grade seven and I kind of feel like I had stopped talking to people. Being around people with the same interests and who were very nurturing, made me talk and communicate and be a human again. That was a really important thing for me to do. I then did more of it and then somehow got through high school and passed everything. Maybe it’s because I loaded my schedule with like every music class I could find.

I then auditioned into the circuit people do when auditioning for theatre schools. I had my heart set on going to the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts because it would be a musical theatre program. The only fight I’ve ever gotten into with my mom is about what school I would go to and she wanted me to go where I went – The University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM/Erindale) joint program with Sheridan College – and I wanted to go to Randolph and so we didn’t talk for a week and then we got over it.

Brittany: Yes, the parental debacle of what college versus university theatre school seems to be a very universal artist experience.

Qasim: Then I moved away to university when I was seventeen and did four years at “Sherindale”.

Brittany: haha….Sherindale nice.

Qasim: Had an okay time at Sherindale I suppose. Theatre school’s weird. Theatre school is weird when you’re seventeen. I graduated from UTM and started auditioning for stuff in my fourth year and got an agent. I moved to Toronto and then promptly didn’t work as an actor for like two years where I was working in the box office at The Young Centre for Soulpepper. Then I needed money, so I started working there full time. I did get to see a lot of the stuff that Soulpepper was doing. I didn’t know much about the company before working there except for the people – I knew I wanted to work with those people one day. I would do the odd TV thing. There was a lot of film and TV auditions and I was very unsuccessful booking most of them

Brittany: I hear that…

Qasim: Right!? I did get a couple. My first TV role was playing a terrorist on Little Mosque on the Prairie, which made my mom super proud.

Brittany: So how did you decide to audition for the Soulpepper Academy?

Qasim: There was a weird bridge into introducing myself as a performer at Soulpepper. The notice came out for the academy auditions and at the same time I was offered a promotion in the box office that would have been a great salary and great normal job. The message from my boss was that if you take the promotion, you won’t be taken seriously at your academy audition, but if you go to the academy audition we’re going to fill this position. So pick one. It was….terrifying. I said no to the job and yes to the audition.

Brittany: Talk to me about the audition.

Qasim: My first audition for the academy was hilarious. I knew all the actors in the building kind of casually… like I would book their comps.

Brittany: Haha.

Qasim: I booked off vacation time from my box office job before the audition and after because it would be very embarrassing if I did very poorly. I’d still be in the building and I’d still be booking their comps.

So Mike Ross came out to call the next person and when he saw me he was kind of confused as to what I was doing out there. When I came in they all asked if I needed something and I was like, “Um I just want to audition,” and they kind of chuckled. The audition went okay I thought, but I ended up getting a call back and eventually being a part of the Academy.

Brittany: How did your experience in the Academy shape your future as an actor and performer?

Qasim: Soulpepper came at the right time for me. I was burned out from auditioning all the time and, being close to so many ‘breaks’, was constantly questioning whether I should be doing this, and was also getting really unhealthily overweight from stuffing my face after bad auditions and working jobs I hated.

Brittany: Preach.

Qasim: My time in the Academy refueled me and gave me a year of not having to worry about auditioning, working side jobs, and I was able to get back in touch with my creativity and artistry, and get healthy again. I learned the value of mentorship at Soulpepper, which is sort of the foundation of the company. I was mentored by so many actors and directors whose work I grew up admiring. In many ways, it was a dream come true.

Part of the experience at the Academy is being cast in scene studies and productions in the season, and when this happened, my experience shifted a bit from what I expected when I entered the program. I could see my classmates being challenged and pushed and given opportunities to progress, and that was not my experience. Regardless, in the end, what I took away from Soulpepper when it comes to being in a production is how to be a great teammate. I learned how to support action on stage and how to be in an ensemble. It was humbling and I’m very grateful for that experience.

Brittany: And after that?

Qasim: I felt like I needed a bit more experience, especially when it came to Shakespeare, which I didn’t get to really bite into in the way I wanted at the Academy, and that lead me to pursue an opportunity at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, UK. In 2013, I did a Fellowship at the Globe, which is a short residency with the company – every two years they invite 20ish actors from around the world to come, play, learn, and perform. At the Globe I was given great roles to work on, great scenes to play in, and it was the perfect button on my two years of ‘upgrade training’.

Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Qasim Khan in Beneath the Banyan Tree at Theatre Direct. Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Brittany: What made you want to become an actor?

Qasim: In high school, one of the only plays I did was Morris Panych’s 7 Stories and it’s a very funny play and I’m a funny person.

Brittany: Really!? I didn’t know that…

Qasim: That was the first time I realized I could be funny and that I could control people’s laughter. I remember doing the play one afternoon for my school and immediately people were laughing at me. That moment was so exciting and truly eye-opening. I think I may have been good at other things but I didn’t pursue them out of fear that I would be really good at them and wouldn’t be able to do this. I kind of just always knew that this is what I wanted to do.

Brittany: So how did you get involved with Theatre Direct?

Qasim: Lynda Hill gave me my first professional theatre job out of university and it was a workshop. We added each other to Facebook and I really liked working with her a lot. She sent me a message about the possibility of a remount and I came in to audition for the part I have today.

Brittany: What is “Beneath the Banyan Tree” about?

Qasim: The play is about the story of a girl named Anjali and it’s the day of her 12th birthday. She has just come from India to Canada with her family. It sort of centres on her first day of school and on her birthday where her grandmother, Ajji wants to celebrate by putting her in this beautiful salwar kameez, which is this beautiful traditional dress. She doesn’t want to because she fears she will be made fun of at school. We follow her as she makes a new friend named Mason that encourages her to share her culture and to be confident about it. She realizes she can be Canadian and Indian at the same time and those things intersect in a really beautiful way.

Brittany: Tell me a little bit about your character.

Qasim: I play a character named Maitri who is the spirit of the Banyan tree, and also three animal characters from the Indian fables of the Panchatantra. The fables and stories provide the framework for the play. Maitri acts as Anjali’s confidant throughout the play and helps her along her journey.

Brittany: I know there is big element of the fantastical in this show, especially with your character. How are the elements of fantasy created on the stage?

Qasim: There is a lot of puppetry, which is gorgeous! When the play veers into the fantastical it’s done though movement. Our choreographer Lata Pada is an amazing and really well known Bharatanatyam choreographer. Cheryl Lalonde’s set design and Michael Kruse’s lighting really help create this fantastical world. The set is essentially a big tree and things can come in and out of it in really magical ways.

Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Brittany: This is a show that is primarily aimed for young audiences. What are the important lessons they are to take away from this play?

Qasim: Acceptance – that’s the biggest one. How can kids accept other people and feel accepted in their day-to-day lives. Friendship – which is how Anjali gets comfortable in Canada. Roots – which is a big theme because the focal set piece is a tree. The conundrum that Anjali is in is how to preserve the roots she has in India while being quote on quote Canadian and what is the right way to do that. She learns there is no right way to do that – she’s just doing it by being herself.

Brittany: How has it been having young people as the core of your audience?

Qasim: This is my first time doing a show for young audiences. It’s been a good lesson of how to preserve the quality of the show without playing to the ages of the children. You’re also always trying to keep everyone engaged. A lot of my stories are out to the kids. I get to connect to the audience in a different way than the other players do, which is kind of fun.

Brittany: Young audiences can be extremely vocal at times. Have there been any instances that stick out?

Qasim: One of the puppets I operate is an elephant and I need to make elephant noises with my mouth. When I did the sound a kid really loudly yelled, “Did you just fart?” And I wanted to be like, “No, I don’t do that… I’m polite,” but I couldn’t.

Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Photo by Naz Afsahi.

Brittany: That’s amazing. How has it been having Lynda as a director?

Qasim: She’s been with the show for ten years and originally helped develop it. The show means a lot to her. She’s taken a lot of care with the play while keeping the same solid work that has happened before. It’s been remounted several times for a reason – it’s a great show. We were still able to explore our artistry in the process and during the show. I love working with her because she gives us the frame of the show and because of the audience and specificity of the play, a lot of it works like clockwork. The fun thing for me is finding freedom within the constraints of the show. It’s been lovely to work with her and spending time with her again. She really knows how to curate a visual story for young audiences. And the cast is super fun.

Brittany: What do you want audiences walking away with?

Qasim: I want them to have just experienced a visual feast. I want them to laugh a lot. I want young people to have seen a play they can identify with. While the story is very specific about a girl coming from India, the stuff she deals with is the same stuff that kids deal with on a regular basis. When young audiences see their own experiences reflected on stage, they can relate and reflect it back onto their own lives.

Rapid Fire Questions: 

Favourite book: Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Favourite movie: Anne of Green Gables 1 and 2

Favourite musical: It changes everyday, but recently Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Favourite play: Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Favourite place in Toronto: King East, like Church and Parliament. The history and the architecture are amazing.

Favourite Food: Hamburgers. I love fast food.

Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten: Don’t quit and stick with it! Most importantly, surround yourself with people who can give you air.

 

Beneath the Banyan Tree

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Written by Emil Sher with choreography by Lata Pada
Directed by Lynda Hill
Costume and Set Design by Cheryl Lalonde
Lighting Design by Michael Kruse
Music by Edgardo Moreno

Recommended For Grades K – 6 | Ages 4 & Up


When: March 5 – 28

Where: Wychwood Barns

Tickets & Info: http://www.theatredirect.ca/

In Conversation: Magic, Music, Mimmo & Mona: Theatre Rhea’s OREGANO

Interview by Shaina Silver-Baird

In Conversation with:
Rose Napoli (playwright/ “Mona”)
Matthew Thomas Walker (director)
Diane D’Aquila (“La Strega Nera”)
Richard Greenblatt (“Mimmo”)
Beau Dixon (composer/sound designer)
of Theatre Rhea‘s OREGANO by Rose Napoli.

Shaina: How would you describe Oregano? What’s the show about?

Diane: There are moments in your life that define you. Often death is one of them. And this play is what grows out of that. For every death there’s a birth – it can be metaphoric. But I think when those moments happen, you not only have to face them, but you learn something about yourself. You learn to accept who you are. The play is about all that, in the format of a fairytale.

Rose: In the face of death, one finds their voice. We take that literally in this play, because we talk a lot about the power of the voice. Mimmo is the little boy with a special voice, and Mona is a young woman who wants to be a writer. So it’s very much about the importance of your own voice in connection to the people that shape you.

Shaina: What was your inspiration for writing the play, Rose? 

Rose: The last time I ever saw my dad was 12 years ago. It was his birthday. It was late and it was after an opening of a show. And he stayed up and waited for me and we had a very strange conversation. We were sentimental in a way that we weren’t usually. And in a way, a lot of the things he was saying to me (I didn’t know it at the time), were veiled preparations for me to live without him. I remember we said we loved each other, which we also didn’t do often. I went to bed and I thought: I’m never going to see him again. And he died shortly after that.

I think it was because of that moment, even though the realization came later on, that I started to believe in magic. And I started to believe that there are things that are bigger than us. And family is one of them. So, with Oregano I was writing my dad’s life and his death from my imagination. It’s not autobiographical in the sense that it’s not my exact relationship with him and it’s not the exact way he died. But this is the way I imagined it to be.

Shaina: Matt, you often work in a site-specific format. How are you finding the experience of creating for the Storefront, which is more of a classic black box? 

Matt: It’s definitely different and site-specific is something I’m going to have to branch away from any time I’m working in a space where I can’t control all of the factors. So I’ve been getting advice in terms of how other directors work in this situation. We hired a great set designer – Jenna McCutchen – she offered a world and I started using that. I refer back to her designs, the space she’s created, constantly and that offers information much the way a site-specific venue would. I use that for inspiration. Even though we don’t have all the time in the space that I would like, it’s our constraint and it guides the show. We’re using it expressively, much the way I like to do working in site-specific venues. It’s just a different way of working, but the space is still at the forefront of my mind all the time.

Rose: We’re also using it in a very different way than I’ve seen this space used before.

Matt: That’s something we all decided was very important to us from the get-go. We wanted to see this space used differently than audiences are accustomed to at The Storefront. We wanted to try to change people’s experience when they arrive at this venue.

And I think we are on track to do so. I think it’ll be magical.

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In Rehearsal – Rose Napoli & Richard Greenblatt

Shaina: Diane and Richard, I know you’ve worked across the country, across the continent, in huge theatres. What continues to attract you to indie productions?

Richard: The script. I’m interested in working on stories, on characters, on scripts – either as a director, or as an actor – that interest me. I also love working on new work and working with younger people who’re coming up. I do a fair amount of it, like Late Company, which we did a few years ago and are remounting this year. So you choose the project mostly based on the script; secondarily on who else is involved and certainly not for the money. If a project is interesting, and the people are too, then you go for it. I mean I didn’t know Rose, I didn’t know Matthew…

Shaina: But they’re pretty awesome.

Richard: Really?! And Diane I’ve known forever, but we’ve never worked together.

Diane: I have worked a lot of my life in big, huge, honking theatres where a lot of time’s wasted and a lot of egos get in the way. For me it’s returning to my roots. I started with The Free Theatre and Tarragon – they WERE the indie theatres in the 70s and late 60s. The Free Theatre had a dirt floor – it was FREE when I played there. So for me, it isn’t about the money, it’s about getting back to basics, it’s about working with people that I have respect for, that I want to work with, that I haven’t had the chance to yet. It’s about the challenge. And this is more challenging than some of the other stuff I get often in the big box theatres.

Shaina: What has been the biggest challenge?

Matt: The collaboration has been lovely. We have actors who have worked all across our country in these big theatres and I love that they’re coming back to work with us in indie theatre. It’s really refreshing and it’s really invigorating. So that hasn’t been a challenge.

With independent projects, it’s always scheduling. That’s always a challenge because everyone’s always doing so much. But for some reason, when you set that as the challenge that needs to be faced from the get-go, it just makes it easier. You embrace it and you approach that creatively with a good spirit and everyone has to invest fully when they’re here. That’s absolutely been the case.

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In Rehearsal – Diane D’Aquila & Richard Greenblatt

Shaina: Beau, what attracted you to the project? What’s the experience been like for you adapting this story to music?

Beau: To echo what Richard said, it’s first and foremost about the story. The most difficult thing, but it’s also the most enjoyable and challenging, is using sounds to make sure that the audience is in the world of the fairytale. I really have to marry the sounds with the text. That’s one of the magical things about theatre: using sounds, the different frequencies, the pushing of air (as I like to call it), to create a world. When you have accomplished actors, and a story that really speaks for itself, you don’t want the music to get in the way. So there’s a real push and pull that’s happening between the sound and the text. And once you get that tension and release with the sound, and once the audience is engaged and thrown into that world, it IS magical.

But the real struggle is making it believable – making the audience feel that they too are using their creative brains and are immersed in that world without feeling forced into it.

Shaina: What was the initial inspiration to make the play so musical? 

Rose: In the play, Mona, the main character, has the chance to meet her father as a young boy – a young boy who Richard plays. He plays himself from 8 years old all the way to his 50s – his whole life really. This boy has a very special ability with his voice. When he sings, he can relax the people who listen to his music so deeply, that they reveal their deepest fears.

There was always meant to be a component that brought us back in time – there are many memories in the play. The music is the thing that brings us to the different time periods in the play.

And then that concept went to the next level having Beau on board, a composer who is so versed in MADE scores. You can see his set up down there – he is making music with the strangest things! So why not take it a step further, to embrace the magic of this play and have the sounds (the rain, the thunder, all of the soundscape in the show) happen live rather than through a soundboard.

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In Rehearsal – Rose Napoli & Diane D’Aquila

 

Richard: Doing that also enhances the magic of the theatre itself. And the reason theatre is magic is because it IS imagination. And what the play is about, in a lot of ways, is the imagination, and how you can create your life as you imagine it, to a certain degree. You can certainly deal with things in your life through the way you imagine them.

If you want to make magic in the theatre, you do it by showing what’s up the sleeve. You don’t try to hide it, because we can’t do it that well in the theatre. You can do that on film, you have CGI, but we don’t. So you can make magic by saying: “imagine this is the planet earth in my hand,” and then you smash it. And everyone goes along with it because the theatre is essentially naïve. To see Beau create a storm sequence by using a tarp and a weird can with a string attached to it, is far more magical than the most realistic sound you can tape and play back over a sound system.

Diane: And you know, you get these huge budgets at these big theatres and all of a sudden it goes into another medium. To be able to use your imagination with nothing is more efficient. It’s better story telling, than when you keep throwing money at a play. Because eventually the audience thinks: “What a small battalion! They brought 50 people onstage and I don’t believe it.” But with two or three people making a lot of noise with a good folio I go: “Well there’s an army!”

There isn’t enough money in theatre to achieve what the imagination can. 

Shaina: If you could have anyone in the audience to see this show, who would it be?

Rose: My dad.

OREGANO

by Rose Napoli, presented by Theatre Rhea at The Storefront Theatre

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On stage at The Storefront Theatre

Previews – Wed. March 11 – Thurs. March 12

Opens Friday March 13 – Sunday March 22

Tickets: theatrerhea.ca/tickets

Full Dark by Sharron Matthews at the 36th annual Rhubarb Festival

by Bailey Green

I saw Sharron Matthews perform cabaret for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2011. Her incredible vocals, dynamite stage presence and the way she reached out to her audience completely captivated me. About two years ago, when Sharron began her artists residency at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, I witnessed the first incarnations of her new show, Full Dark. Full Dark had a different, gritty feel, and the piece dealt with themes of fear, loneliness and grief. Now, after several workshops and performances, Sharron is bringing Full Dark to the Chamber at Buddies for the Rhubarb Festival.

Sharron originally workshopped Full Dark twice before doing a full run at Sheridan College in the fall of 2013. After the Sheridan run, Sharron wasn’t sure she could return to the project. The subject matter had weighed heavily on her and writing the show, which had turned into more of a book show, had lost its joy. She sat down with Brendan Healy (Artistic Director of Buddies) for a long talk. Brendan suggested that Sharron bring in a director and a dramaturge. “I’d always been in charge of my own voice,” Sharron remembers, “but I’d thought about it. The distance [from the project], it helped me discover news things and be brave.”

photo by Mike Bickerton

Photos by Mike Bickerton

Sharron had seen The Gay Heritage Project in early winter of 2013 and had admired it for being moving and exciting work. Specifically she was drawn to how the creators, Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn & Andrew Kushnir, married storytelling and music. She connected with Andrew Kushnir and they set up a pair of three day workshops in March and October 2014 (attended by Sharron, Andrew, Brendan, with musical director Steve Thomas joining for the second one.) The workshops went well and Andrew Kushnir became the director and dramaturge of Full Dark at Rhubarb.

On working with Andrew, Sharron praises his intuitive nature as a dramaturge and his ability to stand even farther outside as a director to decide what serves the piece best. “Andrew sees what I’m doing and helps me find ways to get there when I’m not sure,” Sharron says, “I’m not giving away the steering wheel, someone’s helping me drive.” Cabaret is a meeting of minds, between performer/writer, director, dramaturge, musical director and musicians. Sharron raves of her team which includes Jason Chesworth on guitar and mandolin and Bob DiSalle on percussion. Musical director Steve Thomas has been her go-to chief arranger for many years and “is a really safe person to have on a trip like this.” Steve Thomas has a conflict with the run at Rhubarb, so stepping in to play piano is Wayne Gwillim.

As a constantly evolving artist, Sharron continues to push the her own boundaries as a cabaret artist. Earlier last year, she performed a Prince-themed cabaret at the Global Cabaret Festival at Soulpepper. And this past January, Sharron spent a month in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico hustling to promote her shows by day and performing two separate cabarets (made up of “previously loved material”) by night.

“I wanted to find new ways to tell a story, in cabaret,” Sharron says of her residency at Buddies. “For a long time I did the kind of ‘cabaret way’, essentially a lot of comedy so then I felt I’d earned myself a ballad. Now I want to tell deeper stories in the same format.” Of the process of rehearsing and creating a fresh production out of Full Dark, Sharron says “It’s very exciting and fresh and immediate. I get so excited about coming to work every day. I haven’t felt like that since I did Les Mis when I was 21.”

When asked about Rhubarb, Sharron expresses her excitement about a festival that celebrates pieces that are in transit, in action, in progress. Work that pushes boundaries and stories that are unique to the artists who tell them. As for the moment that Sharron looks forward to the most during Full Dark, she says it is right at the end. It’s a new mash up of “XO” by Beyoncé and “Glitter in the Air” by P!nk. “It’s a gift to myself because it’s right at the end. And I know it’s there,” Sharron says, “It’s a joyous song.”

Sharron Matthews: Full Dark

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What happens when Canada’s best cabaret performer assembles a three piece band and takes a walk on the scarier side of the street? Full Dark expands Sharron Matthew’s signature style to delve into the darker sides of storytelling – about growing up fatherless, about being bullied, about sexuality and danger, the unacceptable, and the unexplained.

When: February 18-20 at 10:00pm

Where: In the Chamber at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Artists: creator / performer Sharron Matthews | director / dramaturge Andrew Kushnir | musical director / arranger Steve Thomas | guitar / mandolin Jason Chesworth | percussion Bob DiSalle

Tickets: included in your $20 Evening Pass

Full Dark is being developed by Sharron Matthews as part of Buddies’ Artist Residency Program

In Conversation with Morro and Jasp – “Anything Goes” at the Rhubarb Festival

by Bailey Green

Clown sisters Morro and Jasp are trying out a completely new recipe for fun, exciting and unpredictable theatre with their new creation Anything Goes — part of Buddies’ Rhubarb Festival. Anything Goes is exactly what it sounds like. Audience members are in for a unique “one on one on one” experience (dubbed by director Byron Laviolette) as they will interact directly with Morro and Jasp for a little less than ten minutes. I spoke with Heather Marie Annis (Morro) and Amy Lee (Jasp) about their upcoming performance, their years of clowning together and being a part of Rhubarb.

Anything Goes is new territory for the ebullient and open-hearted Heather and Amy. “We call ourselves structure junkies,” Heather laughs. “People may think our shows are improv, and in some ways they are, but it is based on a very specific script and structure.” With Anything Goes, most of that is out the window. There are infinite possibilities for how any given interaction will go. The pair discuss the options with open excitement, describing how perhaps an audience member may bond with one clown and turn against the other, or what will happen if a small group wants to all interact. Heather and Amy are most excited to see the potential of what can happen when an audience member is free to play without being conscious of an external audience’s judgement.

When asked about the most challenging part of preparing, the answer comes quickly: they can’t actually rehearse. Morro and Jasp venture out into the world for adventures and interact with strangers, but beyond being present and open there isn’t much else to set in place. “My desire for control is being seriously challenged,” Heather says. The pair’s background is not based in improv either, they begin primarily with Morro and Jasp. “We can go outside the boundaries because we know what they are,” Amy says. “This [Anything Goes] is wide open. Our only structure is the human being and then we find a connection.”

So to prepare, Heather and Amy have continued to exercise their improv muscles, as well as coming up with ideas of props to have in the room and scenarios to offer. They’re both conscious of the constant assessment required for a performance of this focused nature. “If they want us to just take the reins and do something we have ideas for a jumping off point,” Heather says. Amy picks up Heather’s train of thought, “We’re challenging ourselves to do this because we really want to give each person what they need and want in that moment. The ball is in their court to decide what kind of experience they want.”

When I ask the pair what they’re most excited about for Rhubarb this year, their words tumble over each other as their enthusiasm bubbles:

Heather: It’s so inspiring to see artists who are coming up with things, and someone says an idea and you’re like “my brain!”

Amy: We’ve never done Rhubarb before. It’s an amazing festival! I love Buddies, the space –

Heather: A basement, events happen –

Amy: It’s a world of possibility –

Heather: A theatre carnival and you get –

Amy: a choose your own adventure

Heather: kind of everything!

Morro and Jasp were born during Heather and Amy’s time together at York University. The pair ended up working on a piece written by Heather about two sisters named Jamie and Mackenzie. They played multiple characters and Amy fell in love with the character work of physical theatre. Byron Laviolette was at York as well at the time and he saw the piece. Laviolette had studied Pochinko clown and was very interested in the style. He had written a turn called “Reflections” about two clowns named Morris and Jasper. He saw Heather and Amy and liked their connection. “We were saying yes to everything,” Amy says of their first years out of school, “we had no idea what we were getting into, nor did we think we’d be here ten years later.” The trio moved on to train with Pete Jarvis for two years. Their first few shows were mainly for children as part of FringeKids! The women laugh and cringe as they remember the early years where they were simultaneously figuring out how to write theatre and how to be clowns.

MJ Old Timey 2

Then they were accepted into “adult” fringe for 2009. “We wanted to write a show about our clown characters going through puberty, we needed to tell that story,” recalls Amy. “We wanted to write the show we wanted to make without worrying whether it was appropriate. And so in Winnipeg 2008, they premiered Morro and Jasp do Puberty! Amy remembers her nerves to perform the show in front of family members and Heather bursts into giggles, “she was nervous because she humped her stuffed animal in this show. But it was so scary! We were really putting ourselves out there. People responded like, yeah that happened to me! I just didn’t think I could talk about it. Like when you go to the grocery store and hide your tampons in your bag. Like why is that a bad thing?” And the rest is clown history with their other shows, to name a few: Go Bake Yourself, Gone Wild, Of Mice and Morro… In May, they’ll be premiering a new show at Factory called 9-5, and then in July they’re bringing Morro and Jasp do Puberty to the Toronto Fringe before taking it across the pond in August to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ten years of clowning with your awesome clown sister makes for a tight bond and it’s evident in the way Heather and Amy finish each other’s thoughts. “I don’t know anything like it in my life. When we become the characters there is this amazing intimacy that happens,” Amy says of her partnership with Heather. “The boundaries are gone. We can say and do anything to each other [as Morro and Jasp.]” Heather adds, “it’s such a freedom we have with each other that we sometimes forget about that when we work with other people.” It only makes sense, as Morro and Jasp, just like Heather and Amy, have grown up together.

Morro and Jasp: Anything Goes

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Clown sisters Morro and Jasp are looking for someone to connect with. Could it be you? Come and see what happens.

When: February 11-14 at 7:30pm

Where: downstairs at Buddies

Artists: creator / performers Heather Marie Annis + Amy Lee | director / dramaturge Byron Laviolette

Tickets: included in your $20 Evening Pass

 

“Ohio” and Tadeu end their lives in the Montague Parkette at the 36th annual Rhubarb Festival

by Bailey Green 

Director, composer and librettist Bruce Dow’s upcoming piece in Rhubarb Festival, “the one with the goddamn long name,” is a new opera (?) about young love and suicide that focuses on the romanticization of suffering and depression in LGBTQ teens. This theatre-with-music creation tells the story of Ohio, a pre-op trans woman played by Jordan Bell, and her suicidal bully Tadeu, played by Jordan Fantauzzo. The performance will be 25 minutes of what would be a 40 minute first act in a three act piece. “Truncated like mad,” Bruce chuckles.

The action takes place in contemporary Toronto. Tadeu works in the back of his uncle’s meat shop in Little Portugal. Tadeu is in love with a trans woman and cannot accept that he is homosexual. His self-hatred manifests in the violent bullying of Ohio (and presumably others.) The other characters include his girlfriend and members of his high school clique (played by Cassie Doane, Kayla Coolen and Danik McAfee.) The themes are current and relevant. “We pretend that here [Toronto] it’s very liberal and forward thinking, but there are still many old world areas in town where it’s primitive,” says Dow. “We hear of middle class kids thrown out for being LGBTQ, of them committing suicide even when they have resources to seek help. How much of this happens here in our own neighbourhood?”

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Photo Credit: Vince Ha

 

The piece originated from a performance Dow had seen as a child. The show was bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese theatre where three-quarter life size puppets play out the action. “You see the operators but you’re watching these amazing people, or puppets, act.” The plays have high emotion and drama, love and death. One particular bunraku writer completely captured Bruce’s fascination: Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote a play called “The Love Suicide at Sonezaki” which tells a very romantic tale of trapped lovers who eventually commit suicide. Bruce was drawn to the story and adapted it, re-configuring the courtesan as Ohio and the young merchant clerk as Tadeu. The structure shifted and changed beyond the original, but the framework remains.

As for the question mark next to the words “new opera” in the show poster, Bruce describes it as a marriage between opera and theatre with music. “It’s my idea of contemporary music theatre but the libretto is how people would talk,” Dow describes after delving into a brief history of verismo opera. “It’s very graphic in content and description and language, and they’re all singing, God bless Buddies.” The music is written for two pianos, though for Rhubarb they will be singing to tracks with the help of associate music director and conductor Mike Ross. Bruce says the experience of writing has been both vulnerable cathartic and has ultimately lead him to claim the title of composer with a sense of acceptance and joy. “Working through this libretto has been very personal. Even though I am not a trans woman, I know people who are,” Bruce says of creating the character of Ohio. “I will never know what the experience is like, but I’m coming to understand it more and empathize.” Bruce also found himself reflecting on his own coming out at the height of the AIDS crisis compared to the different, and yet similar, realities faced by young LGBTQ teens now.

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Photo Credit: Vince Ha

 

“The singers are incredible,” Bruce praises his cast. “Jordan Fantauzzo is a member of the Theatre 20 Emerging Artist Ensemble and he did his MFA at The Boston Conservatory. Jordan Bell has this kick ass voice, but I don’t think anyone quite knows how absolutely great of an actor he is. Brilliant.” The other three members of the cast, Cassie, Kayla and Danik are recent Randolph grads. Their characters’ presence in the show would expand as the show developed further and Dow describes them as “smart little actors” who are “fucking fierce.” Stage manager Katie Honek, who Bruce met while Honek was apprentice SM on Sextet at the Tarragon, is brilliant and completely on top of things. Associate Director and Dramaturge Isaac Robsinson is “a smart hothead who helps me make the libretto work.” Bruce laughs, “I’m having the time of my life working on this.” Bruce also credits Mel Hague for inspiring him as an artist to be brave and risk big.

As for Rhubarb, Bruce is thrilled to be a part of the festival. “Once you’re accepted you’re given carte blanche to go create. It’s really new work in the sense of the word. Raw, and not quite complete. I can’t wait to see what other people are doing.”

 

OHIO_banner

A new opera about the romanticization of suffering and depression in LGBTQ youth. This workshop presentation will feature early explorations of the music and writing for the first act of the show.

When: February 11-14 at 9:00pm in the Chamber

Artists: composer / libretist Bruce Dow | performers Jordan Bell + Jordan Fantauzzo with Kayla Coolen, Cassie Doane + Danik McAfee | dramaturge / associate director Isaac Robinson | production stage manager Katie Honek

Tickets: included in your $20 Evening Pass

Artist Profile: Sara Farb, Playwright & Performer of personal piece R-E-B-E-C-C-A at Theatre Passe Muraille

Interview by Brittany Kay

I had the utmost pleasure of sitting down with long time friend, Sara Farb, to discuss her new play, R-E-B-E-C-C-A, which opened this week at Theatre Passe Muraille. We shared our “somewhat” fondness of our suburban bubble and the journey into realizing that theatre is the fundamental lifeline that keeps us going.

Throughout the laughter and reminiscences, I couldn’t help but marvel at this woman. She is one of wit, talent and has created a truly remarkable play that shares a one of a kind story.

Brittany: How did you get to where you are now?

Sara: I’m originally from North York, so technically I’m from Toronto but my entire childhood was in Thornhill. A huge part of my childhood was spent at a community theatre program called Charactors Theatre Troupe. I went to Earl Haig Secondary School in the Claude Watson arts program as a drama major and then decided to go to the University of Toronto to get a normal person degree, because I’d been working as an actor and didn’t want to remove myself for too long. University was a constant struggle. I ended up doing really well, but it took me six years to finish. I don’t regret it for a second. It was a really good balance to exercise, especially entering a life where you know multitasking is sort of essential if you want to remain sane. 

For a while, I was working as an editor for on an online publication and the acting wasn’t really happening. At the age of 24, I made a decision to leave the business. 

Brittany: What made you come to that choice?

Sara: It was mostly musical theatre that I was doing and that’s already such a marginalized part of the arts community. What I offered was too astray from the norm that the musical theatre arts community is so devoted to here in this country. You know, not necessarily to its detriment, but very few risks are taken in casting. It was really hard to establish myself in any real momentous way. In like bits and pieces sure. It was just too much of a struggle… too frustrating.

I’ve always had an affinity for words and for literature and I had dabbled in online journalism. I decided that if I’m going to be unsatisfied in a profession, it might as well be one that is more lucrative, yields better results and where the competition isn’t as ferocious. I made the promise to myself that after I had a show in Halifax, that was going to be it. I enrolled in these courses to be an editor and my entire life perspective was going to be flipped after the show. This new re-focus would be in the middle and theatre would be its orbit. That’s the way it looked.

Brittany: That must have been an incredibly hard moment in your life.

Sara: I remember having this watershed conversation with my boyfriend where I felt like I was getting a divorce. I needed a clean break. It was such a huge decision and so monumental in my life. But the second I let it go, it just all came at me like I was a magnet. It was so crazy, but also very informative. I’m not an avid believer in cosmic anything but that’s the closest thing I can think of, of any universal involvement in ones’ life, it seemed. It’s inexplicable. So I decided to ride the wave, but I still didn’t take my foot out of the writing door.

It was evident that I obviously wasn’t ready to let go entirely. Eventually, it led to being asked to come in to audition for Stratford because they needed an immediate replacement. I got the part and that was sort of a no brainer.

Brittany: Well…obviously.

Sara: And so now I’m an actor. The feeling that this isn’t permanent never goes away. This always feels like a temporary fix and that’s why I still write and that’s why I’m very keen on exercising other skills. I am not delusional and I don’t in any way, shape or form think that this is going to stay as good as it’s been forever. That’s simply not realistic.

It’s important to pour everything you have into what you’re doing, but if that’s all you got then I think that’s a serious problem in this industry.

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Brittany: Let’s switch gears and talk about the play. How did this play come to be? What was the development process? 

Sara: The last possible year I could participate in the Paprika Festival, I decided to submit. I had sort of been musing about what a play about my sister would even look like because I didn’t really want it to just be a family drama. That wasn’t it. I was kind of more interested in people’s perceptions of people with disabilities and how they might be wrong, especially in my very specific experience with my sister. I know that it’s easy to look at someone like her and feel an overwhelming sense of pity, but in reality she’s actually probably the happier of the two because she’s not aware of the minutia of day-to-day struggle. It just sort of felt like a really interesting place to start. It developed into a 20-minute piece that examined her day-to-day existence. It built a foundation for the development and growth of the play to where it exists now – with a Rebecca that is portrayed in the present and a hypothetical Rebecca.

Rebecca was born prematurely and there’s been speculation in her life that her developmental delay has to do with that. It’s a theory. That sort of coincided with the big question of what you do with legal adulthood even though there’s no comprehension of what that is or any real way of manifesting that with someone who is a perpetual child. What would a hypothetical Rebecca, who was brought fully to term, look like if she were turning eighteen? The play looks at both of those worlds on each of their respective birthdays.

Brittany: How did it come to Theatre Passe Muraille?

Sara: Rob Kempson, who ran Paprika at the time, invited me to participate in the “Old Spice” program, which invites Paprika alumni to further develop their work with a mentor of their choice. Until then, there were a couple years where the development of the play was kind of dead and I didn’t really know what to do with it. This program really sort of kicked me in the ass and it was more due to Rob’s insistence that I applied because I was on the fence about it. It’s just been a really long line of very supportive people, encouraging me to do something about it. So I had my pick of mentors and Richard Greenblatt had been very interested in the play back when I was first doing it with Paprika, so I invited him to be my mentor and dramaturg. It was a really great match. I really owe this to Rob, who brought it to the attention of Andy McKim. It’s been very much on his radar for a very long time.

Brittany: Talk to me about you relationship with your sister.

Sara: It’s very very close in the way that it is. There are few people that she feels comfortable showing all of her colours to, a part from my mom. I may be the next person in line who knows as much about the parts of Rebecca. Her life and my life will really be fused for our entire lives. I adore her to no end. It’s very protective.

Brittany: Like any other older sister would be.

Sara: Pretty much. Obviously there are significant parts of sisterhood missing. It’s like having a four-year-old sister forever. That has its benefits and its costs, but I’ve never wished her to be anything else. I’m pretty aware that I’d probably be a different person if I had an ally in my sister. That’s sort of fodder for why one writes a play like this.

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Brittany: You play two Rebeccas in this play. Can you speak a bit about the two of them?

Sara: The characters’ names in the script are May and July. May is the Rebecca that exists and July is the hypothetical one if she were brought to full term. May is a pretty true to life representation that I’ve been able to master after all the time spent with my sister. It’s a little more articulate than she actually is, but it communicates what I perceive to be her thoughts and feelings. July Rebecca comes from the question of what someone would do if they had the deep feeling that they weren’t supposed to exist. The kind of person July is, is the direct opposite of May who’s fully unaware of her existence. Time is not a concept to May. July’s existence is constant. It is not supposed to have happened to her and therefore it’s always there.

Brittany: What has it been like being both playwright and actor?

Sara: It’s been extremely challenging. Richard gave me a week grace period of allowing the playwright into the room and then the playwright had to leave. It had to just be about performing the play. It’s mostly now about getting 80 minutes of theatre from beginning to end without worrying too much. Being able to treat the words like someone else wrote them is strange. Every now and then I’ll come across something and think, “I can’t believe I wrote that.” I’m trying to shelve those opinions. Not having an opinion on the writing has been a really difficult thing. 

Brittany: Richard Greenblatt has been a part of so much of this process. How has it been having him as your director?

Sara: It’s been outstanding. He’s such a champion of thought-provoking, unusual stories and his commitment to this one is humbling. Anytime my confidence has waivered, he’s there to slap me out of it. He’s just got such a keen eye for developing new work and his dramaturgy skills are unbelievable. I just feel so lucky. The whole team are masters in their field and the fact that they assembled because I wrote this play is a really gratifying thing to feel.

Brittany: Who does this play speak to? Speak for?

Sara: It’s an examination of our experience with people with developmental delay and what we project onto them. How we try to fit them into our world when they necessarily might not want to fit into it. The way they operate may be preferable or more natural. It’s sort of a look at everyone’s struggle of the idea and less about what somebody who is disabled struggles with. They could be the happiest people in life but because we know what they can’t do, that’s immediately a reason for pity.

As well as I know Rebecca this is all largely hypothesized. I’ll never truly know exactly how she feels about certain things because there’s a huge lack in ability of communicating. Even for me to impose all of this on her is sort of the point of what I’m trying to get across.

Brittany: What do you want audiences walking away with?

Sara: All I want is for them to be affected. I want them to like the play. I want it to not suck (she laughs).

It’s important to come to terms with these things and how we approach certain ideas and how much we force ourselves onto everything. How something isn’t necessarily a certain way because you feel a certain way about it.

The notion of the ease with which any one of us could have ended up with a genetic disorder. How easy it is for all of that to not go according to plan. If it does go according to plan is that necessarily better?

Rapid Fire Questions:

What is your favourite…

Book: Of Human Bondage.

Movie: Recently, Whiplash.

Place to write: Revel Caffe in Stratford.

Place in Toronto: I really like walking along Bloor Street.

Food: Lately it’s been Korean food. I cannot get enough kimchi into my mouth.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Don’t give up, get ready.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A

Written and performed by Sara Farb. Directed and dramaturged by Richard Greenblatt. A Theatre Passe Muraille production.

RBC TPM Cover Photo

Tickets: PWYC-$33  - Buy here.
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Length: 80 min
When: On now until March 1st.

Connect: Sara Farb @SaraFarb
Theatre Passe Muraille @beyondwallsTPM
Brittany Kay @brittanylkay

The 36th Rhubarb Festival – Young Creators Unit Preview

by Bailey Green

I met with the Young Creators Unit (kumari giles, Faith-Ann Mendes, Andre Prefontaine and Brian Postalian) at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre to learn more about their individual upcoming performances as part of the 36th annual Rhubarb Festival.

The four artists, along with YCU director, theatre-maker Evalyn Parry, and myself sat around a table in the Buddies Antechamber to discuss the challenges, origins and highlights of their individual creations over a 5 month-long process. Identity, ancestry and memory are some of the common themes that weave their way through the four distinctly different pieces of theatre. The following is drawn from the transcript of our conversation. 

BG: Tell me about your piece, where it began and what it’s about.

Faith-Ann Mendes – Justice Spelled with V(engeance)

I’m working on a show about a young, black woman and her experience at college. It’s a coming of age story about my character, Mia. She starts off trying to fit in, and then it turns into her seeking vengeance. She comes from my time, past and present, at Queens [University] – Super white, super wealthy, and it’s almost comical how extreme it is. I had this feeling like, this can’t be real. And it’s also very violent. I wanted to talk about that and what I would want to happen in a very “theatre” way. [The piece] explores fantasy, rape on campus and the culture of white privilege.”

Brian Postalian – There Was and There Was Not

“My piece started from a place of me not being sure of my history as an Armenian. There was a genocide in 1915 and over a million Armenians were massacred by the Turkish. My grandfather and grandmother were survivors of this genocide. My grandfather was a young orphan who was brought over from Lebanon to a farm in Georgetown, Ontario. However, my grandfather passed away before I was born. My grandmother also passed away when I was young. I didn’t know what the family stories were. The piece has been an exploration of this history that I feel I have been bereft of… that is lacking. It’s changing constantly, but at the moment it’s exploring the relationship between two Armenian orphans in Lebanon who are trying to make sense of the haunting the genocide has left and how they can recover, if they can recover.”

kumari giles – things i cannot speak

“My piece is about what happens when you listen to and uncover body memory. The story comes through a character named kumari, which is also my name, and their grandmother atchcha, their great-grandmother and a mysterious boy who comes in to play. It’s inspired by my own journeys of listening to different things in my body, the people who come to reside in them and spirits who reside around me. The messages that get passed through blood and body and the messages that get passed through voices when they can’t be passed through your body. It relates to queer history, as well as ancestral history, and a longing to find home in an in-between place.”

Andre Prefontaine – (mE)dith Piaf

“My piece is about… how does one find their artistic voice when they spend so much time listening to others? And when life presents you challenges do you succumb to them, or do you rise above? So I paralleled instances in my life to that of Edith Piaf. She’s like a guardian angel that shows up at the very end and gives a sense of purpose to it all. It’s about living your life in a way to find the true sense of your voice, living with no regrets. And then embracing the past, because it’s what gave you your present tense voice and how you use it to then shape what your future will be.

I asked the four artists to describe to me what has been some of the challenges and highlights of this intense creative process. Andre expressed his initial intimidation, coming from a slam poet background as opposed to a theatrical base: “It was equally as exciting because all of my comrades came in with nothing but ideas. Over the past five months it has been so encouraging to see the amount of growth. I’m not in this by myself. I see their pieces grow and that’s the strength I want to have for myself.”

Brian chuckled and revealed to me that Andre is the group’s resident astrologist: “He gives us our moon and star readings for the week.” All four artists smiled as Andre nods and laughs. “It’s nice to know you’re not alone,” Brian continued, “other people have been there and are still going through it. The energy we’ve all brought to the room on a consistent basis just reflects on each other.” Brian emphasized how comforting the shared energy of the group has been in supporting the creative work.

kumari cut right to the core of their challenges: “The whole process is challenging because you have to write a show in five months. I’m grounded in movement, so it was very challenging for me. When text is spoken out loud there’s the challenge of what folks are expecting and what you want out of it.” kumari discussed how in their personal movement practice they often write text, but then the words are translated into pure movement and therefore the writing is never revealed to the audience. For kumari, the most exciting part was meeting with the group and finding solace in shared experience as they delved deeper into the ever-growing, ever-changing work. “Putting this show on its feet and discovering more about the story while workshopping it has been very exciting,” kumari nodded.

Faith-Ann stared at the ceiling as she considered her challenges. “I guess…” she began before cutting herself off with a firm, “no, I know.” The group burst out laughing and I couldn’t help but notice the mutual respect and support shared between the group. Faith-Ann described her biggest adjustment, which was transitioning from a solo process to a collaborative process, with a full-fledged professional company on top of it all. Faith-Ann concluded the interview by saying, “Writing can be such a solitary practice, but theatre is so collaborative. To have that kind of impetus to come together and compare other voices makes my writing better. Less isolated.”

The 36th annual Rhubarb Festival runs from February 11th to the 22nd at Buddies & Bad Times Theatre. 

For more information about the Rhubarb Festival’s Young Creators Unit and the dates & times for each of these performances, please visit their website. 

 

 

 

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