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Artist Profile: Bilal Baig, Playwright

Interview by Hallie Seline.

It is an absolute pleasure to feature playwright Bilal Baig, chatting about what inspires him as an artist, the development of his current piece Acha Bacha, on stage this month with Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and on writing “the story you need to tell”.

HS: What inspired Acha Bacha and how did the piece develop?

Bilal Baig: I was sexually assaulted when I was seventeen. One of the first things that was irrevocably changed after my assault was my relationship with my mother. I began to think: I’m queer, I’m not very religious, I like to fuck with gender sometimes and now I’m a survivor of sexual assault – will my mother EVER think I’m good?

I sat on this thought for about a year before I took a playwriting class with Judith Thompson at the University of Guelph and under her guidance, the first draft of the play exploded out of me in a few weeks in April 2013. That summer, I was connected to Damien Atkins, who worked as a dramaturge on the play (and is still a current mentor in my life). Through the Paprika Festival‘s playwright residency program, I met, worked with and fell in love with Djanet Sears, which resulted in an excerpt sharing of the play at the festival in April 2014, where Andy McKim was present. From that point on in the play’s developmental journey, I worked predominantly with Andy, Jiv Parasram and Brendan Healy as dramaturges.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Tanja Tiziana

HS: I am very excited about the team working on the show. What has it been like working with these artists bringing your show to life?

BB: I am very excited about this group of artists coming together as well! There has been so much love in the room and a fiercely deep commitment to understanding the story and honoring it with such care, curiosity and empathy. I am in sincere awe of all the artists I get to work and play with every day throughout this process! So much love.

HS: What are you most looking forward to about sharing this show with audiences now?

BB: I’m really curious about what the conversations around power, sex and shame will be surrounding this play.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

HS: I know that you’ve both developed work with the Paprika Festival and worked with them. What has been the impact of this outlet on your growth as an artist?

BB: Paprika has been instrumental in my growth as an artist. It was a playground for me (for five years!) to explore my artistic obsessions and learn from what it feels like to put your work out there when it’s not ‘ready’. Artists who I met through Paprika five years ago have become friends I collaborate with today.

HS: What is best piece of advice you’ve received either in life or in art?

BB: “Write the story you need to tell”. That was actually the prompt given by Judith, which lead to the first draft of Acha Bacha. I think I use this advice in my life as well!

HS: What inspires you?

BB: I’m inspired by genderqueer Indigenous, black, people of colour living their truth. I feel like my art is probably inspired by shitty events happening in the world that devastate/confuse/terrify/arouse me to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore and I must write it.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

Rapid Fire Questions:

What are you watching right now? America’s Next Top Model.

If you could travel anywhere, where would it be? Fiji or New Zealand. Or Vancouver.

Favourite food: Mom’s chicken fried rice or biryani. Or pizza.

What other show are you most looking forward to this year? Trying everything in my power to catch Calpurnia before it closes. Looking forward to Prairie Nurse at Factory Theatre.

Current mantra or goal for yourself as an artist this year: You’re allowed to feel ambivalent about your work and this career you are pursuing. That is okay.

Acha Bacha

Co-Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Written by: Bilal Baig
Directed by: Brendan Healy
Featuring: Shelly Antony, Qasim Khan, Omar Alex Khan, Matt Nethersole,
and Ellora Patnaik
Set and Costume Design by: Joanna Yu
Lighting by: C.J Astronomo
Sound Design and Music by Richard Feren
Stage managed by Kat Chin

For years Zaya has balanced his relationships with his religion and his queer identity. But as secrets from the past reveal themselves, and crisis strikes his family, he is torn between loyalties, culture, and time. Written by Bilal Baig, and directed by Brendan Healy, Acha Bacha boldly explores the intersections between queerness, gender identity and Islamic culture in the Pakistani diaspora. The show uses both English and Urdu to tell a story about the way we love, the way we are loved, and how sometimes love is not enough.

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto

February 1-18, 2018




In Conversation with playwright/director Kat Sandler and dramaturge Donna-Michelle St. Bernard on BANG BANG at Factory Theatre

Interview by Bailey Green.

We caught up with BANG BANG playwright/director Kat Sandler and dramaturge Donna-Michelle St. Bernard to discuss exploring collaboration, the stories we tell, and how sometimes it’s easy to ask but not as easy to listen.

BG: Kat, your new piece Bang Bang was commissioned by Factory Theatre. When did you start writing it and what initially inspired the piece?

Kat Sandler: Well, I had written a little bit of it at the Stratford writers retreat. When I met with Matt McGeachy and Nina Lee Aquino, they were interested in it, and decided to commission it for Factory. The show is inspired by the debate around racism, excessive force and shooting deaths by the police. And, of course, true stories and how we as artists tell those stories.

BG: How did Donna-Michelle St. Bernard come onboard? What were your initial reactions to the script Donna-Michelle?

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard: It was the summer of 2017 when we had a conversation about the play. We talked about her impetus before I looked at the script and our relative experience around the themes. When I saw the script I was surprised! I didn’t think you could do jokes with a story like this.

KS: I think there was a meeting before too! When I met with Matt and Nina, Matt said you need to meet Donna-Michelle and ask her questions. We had a beer at Tequila Bookworm and I’d like to think we hit it off! Didn’t we?

DM: We did but, at that time, I wasn’t sure if we were going to [get the chance to] work together.

BANG BANG – Jeff Lillico, Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: What has challenged you the most in the writing of this play?

KS: It’s challenging to have your perspective shaken, to listen, and ask questions, and take constructive criticism, especially when it’s something outside your experience and a topic is controversial. There isn’t a correct way to write about it.

DM: And the other side of that is when you’re trying to bridge two diverse experiences. What can be assumed and what cannot be assumed and how to articulate that space between experiences.

BANG BANG – Sébastien Heins, Jeff Lillico, Karen Robinson. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: Were there characters you were developing whose voices you found more challenging to find?

KS: Well, the white writer is an experience I have and I can find places for humour and truth to make him multi-dimensional. And of course, the black characters have lives I have not lived.

DM: In working in the room that Kat assembled, what you get reinforced is there is no singularity of experience. The presence of Kat doesn’t represent all white writers and my presence doesn’t represent all black perspectives. And we have gender perspectives, generational perspectives and cultural perspectives that broaden out the characters as individuals.

KS: And then the actors have agency over the things they say and where they stand. They will go deeper in the psyches than I ever will.

BG: Did you have a piece of advice that resonated with you or helped unlock something in the piece?

KS: I don’t know. I think there’s been a lot of talk about asking the questions and listening to the answers. It’s easy to ask but not easy to listen.

BG: What do you hope your audiences walk away with?

KS: I think we’ve tried to create a challenging play that shows multiple perspectives and that is entertaining!

BANG BANG – Sébastien Heins, Jeff Lillico, Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: How was this new territory for you both, Donna-Michelle you’ve just come from Cake and Kat you’ve written about so many different topics, what was unique about this process?

KS: I have had a lot longer to sit with the ideas from years ago, and then the actual process of finishing the script, which was a full year. I want to defer more to other voices in the room… not feeling like I need to but wanting to. And having an institution like Factory behind you in this place of risk as a writer and director, it’s been nice for my process where those two things are very deeply combined.

DM: This is my first experience of production dramaturgy. I had a lot of guidance in terms of the parameters in this unique kind of work, and I’ve had an unexpected amount of voice in this process. I feel more embedded in this than I expected. The process has been surprisingly unsurprising in the things we have had to do with all of our stories—the amount of care and the immediacy of consequences needed.

BG: Any shows or creators you would like to shout out?

DM: Forbidden, which is a commissioned work for Tapestry Opera where I’m working with composer Afarin Mansouri. It’s an experiment with Persian music and opera and hip hop that runs February 8-11.

KS: I’m a big fan of Jordan Tannahill, so Declarations at Canadian Stage.

DM & KS: And Acha Bacha!


A Factory Commissioned World Premiere
Written and Directed by Kat Sandler
Performed by Sébastien Heins, Jeff Lillico, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah,
Karen Robinson, Richard Zeppieri
Set design by Nick Blais
Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Lighting design by Oz Weaver
Sound design by Verne Good
Dramaturgy by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

A white playwright uses the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a police officer as a “jumping off point” for his hit play that is soon to be adapted into a major movie. As Hollywood comes knocking for the writer, he makes a surprise visit to the home of the officer involved. With Sandler’s trademark wit, BANG BANG traces the impact of what it means to be inspired by true events.

Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst St. Toronto

February 1-18, 2018


Kat Sandler: @katsandler
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard: @BelladonnaNHP
Factory Theatre:
t: @FactoryToronto
fb: /FactoryTheatreTO 

“Race, Allyship & How the Past Informs the Present” In Conversation with Audrey Dwyer, playwright & director of CALPURNIA

Interview by Bailey Green.

I sat down with Audrey Dwyer, playwright and director of Calpurnia, to discuss race, allyship and how the past informs the present. Calpurnia, co-produced by Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre, is a courageous and explosive play that takes place during a dinner party. Julie, a screenwriter, attempts to re-imagine Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of Calpurnia—the Finch’s maid.

Dwyer began writing Calpurnia in 2012, some time after Trayvon Martin was killed. Dwyer was playing a maid in a show, and a cast mate remarked on how strong Dwyer’s character was. The cast mate was referring to a moment in the show where Dwyer’s character was silent during a racist attack on her character. Dwyer noted how the character’s silence was put upon them and how for many women, silence and strength is not always a choice.

The conversation prompted Dwyer to look deeper into mammy culture, domestic workers and how Black women as maids serve a function in literature. She was in a writer’s unit, working on a piece that wasn’t connecting, when she had a conversation with a friend about how the past illuminates the present. Dwyer remembered reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school: “It is such an iconic book, and I wondered is there a way for me to talk about mammy culture in the present, and hearken to the past, while examining a book that is Pulitzer Prize-winning and seen as the purest example of equality of how we should be in the world?”

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

Photo of Audrey Dwyer

BG: Do you feel that your relationship to the book has changed over time or do you feel those core reactions are still as strong?

AD: When I read it back in high school, I was one of the only Black people in my class and I remember feeling really isolated when conversations happened around the usage of the n word. That is one of the primary ways people analyze the book in schools, should we say the n word? And that conversation happening around me as the only Black person in my class felt shameful and embarrassing. It didn’t serve my needs and it didn’t help the racism I was experiencing while in school. Equality was another theme that was touched on and that conversation also felt awkward for me because I wasn’t being seen as an equal in that conversation. Years later when I approached the book I was flummoxed why this book was being taught in schools in this way […] The conversation about the book hasn’t changed. I think of things like how Tom Robinson was shot 17 times as he was running away from the cops… now you read that book and you’ve got young Black men in school, how is that narrative serving them? How is the narrative of a Black man seen as a violent sexual abuser, he’s innocent but he’s portrayed in that way, how does that help? In terms of rape culture you’ve got Mayella Ewell who is on the stand and she is being treated horribly by Atticus Finch. If I was a teenage girl watching that film reading the book and I had a situation I might have shared with a police officer or teacher or parent, this book tells me don’t do it.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BG: I was reading some Goodreads reviews last night for fun, specifically the one star reviews and I was surprised that people are still holding on to this incredibly problematic set of two-dimensional characters. One review said ‘this is a perfect example of a white guilt fantasy,’ would you agree with that statement?

AD: White saviour syndrome is definitely Atticus Finch. We can look at that lawyer and feel like he’s such a hero but when you dig through it, he was just doing his job. And you can look at what the time period was and Black men were being lynched left right and centre. Black men, Black boys, Black women, Black elderly people, the atrocities that Black people were going through were so abundant. So to have a book about a white man who was trying to save the day through the legal system definitely perpetuated that white men can save the day. I’m not entirely convinced, especially when you look at our laws, that the character of Atticus Finch actually promotes change. I think that he makes us feel good, or some of us feel good. He talks to Scout and explains to her that the men who want to lynch Tom Robinson are men who simply have a blind spot. But we can look at what happened in Charlottesville, those men with torches… can we say that they had a blind spot or can we say that they were an organized group of educated men who had a mission? Can we say that some of the alt right groups here in Toronto, do they have a blind spot or [are they] well-intentioned in their minds? And the way we teach young white people about racism, we can’t say someone had a blind spot. We have to crack that open and talk about systemic violence, power, how to stand up for marginalized people in the moment. And not just about Black people, all people. There are too many people who don’t feel like they have a voice, too many groups that don’t have a voice. And I think that To Kill a Mockingbird describing violence as ‘folks aren’t seeing straight’ is harmful.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BG: Absolutely, and how Atticus speaks to Scout about race reflects a culture with white children being told that everyone is the same, that you don’t see race. […] Do you show that kind of relationship in the play, with Atticus and Scout, or do you diverge from that?

AD: A lot of the characters in the play are inspired by TKAM and how they speak to each other, allyship is a huge theme. We have examples of when allyship works out and we have examples when it doesn’t work out and I definitely wanted to show all of it. In some cases, some people don’t even want allyship. I’m trying to address what it looks like when you want to help and you fail, when you want to help and you think you succeed, and when you’re helping but your help isn’t necessary. It’s so complicated. This time in our lives is full of people wanting to know how to be better, but I think the key is obviously empathy but also listening. Checking yourself and just listening, spending more time hearing where people are coming from. If you feel the anxiety that you’ve done something wrong, listen to that, why do you feel so guilty if someone is telling you a hurt or an injury they have? You will see elements of Atticus and elements of the innocence of Scout but who it comes from is also very interesting too.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BG: I love the trailer, and in it you mention how allyship is a hot topic and people think they know exactly what it means.

AD: Allyship is an everyday practice. Another danger in TKAM is that [it says] racism looks like X. Ignorance looks like X. And the thing is what one person finds harmful and painful, another person may not. People end up feeling like well, I’m a good person and what hurt? You didn’t hurt my friend so what is your problem? Listening and understanding that there is not one single definition.

BG: We’re at a dinner party, who are the guests? Where do we find the characters?

AD: We’ve got Julie, a screenwriter. We’ve got Thompson who is a lawyer and has his own law firm and we’ve got Mark who is Julie’s brother and Christine who is Mark’s girlfriend. Christine is also Julie’s best friend, although they are not as close as they used to be. And Lawrence is Julie and Mark’s father. And Precy is their Filipina maid.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BG: What did you find the most challenging in the adaptation or in the process? What challenged you the most as a writer with this piece?

AD: I think the thing that was the most challenging and at the same time the most rewarding was each character, getting into the mindset, and making them be as warm as I possibly could make them but also as flawed. When I say warm I mean everybody thinks that their intentions are good. Making characters that are authentic and recognizable […] The book, to me, has a number of stereotypes. I wanted to take those and have them be recognizable in the play without being so pointed. I play with stereotypes but they are not exactly what you expect.

BG: How was the shift from writer to director?

AD: Really good. I was quite firm with myself as a playwright/director. It’s very easy to want to make cuts but I’ve had a lot of opportunity via Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre to workshop it so I felt quite ready. One of the things that I did was make a conscious choice to work on the dialogue with the woman who is playing Precy, because I am not a Filipina woman and I wanted to make sure that I was checking my privilege as a writer. Over the drafts that I have written, I have given drafts to other theatre artists, dear old friends, and every time I have “gotten this character right” is a sign that I am probably making a mistake, and now in the rehearsal hall, it is great that I am working alongside the actor that I have chosen so that she can tell me directly, ‘I wouldn’t say that here.’ It’s a lot of fun to put it up on its feet. It’s an honour to have this opportunity and the actors are awesome.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BG: You’re partnering with the AMY project. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

AD: So we’re looking for some donations to help us throughout the run, and I’ve been a mentor with the AMY project for a few years over their long, long history, and I really love the AMY project. I love what they are providing to the community, I love that they’re trying to give voice to young women and non-binary youth. They give young artists the opportunity to create pieces with mentors. They are an under-served group of people who really need it.

BG: Any shows you’d like to shout out that are coming up?

AD: The Rhubarb Festival, everyone should go and see Rhubarb shows.

BG: Lastly, did you have any advice from someone you loved or a colleague that helped awaken something in the play?

AD: Kelly Thornton gave me a quote, but it’s about writing the thing that makes you the most uncomfortable and in writing Calpurnia I felt very, very uncomfortable and that if you feel uncomfortable, that your audience will also feel that and that discomfort can offer some insight from time to time:

“When starting a play, I ask myself, “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?” Then I force myself to write it. I do this because I’ve found that the best way to make theatre that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable. I work with stories that I find trite and embarrassing, I keep the development of the text as open and unstable as possible throughout the rehearsal and performance process, and I emphasize rather than hide problems in the text and production. I’m constantly trying to find value in unexpected places. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure and incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and awkwardness involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.” – Young Jean Lee


Written and Directed by Audrey Dwyer
A Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre Co-Production
Don Allison
Matthew Brown
Carolyn Fe
Natasha Greenblatt
Andrew Moodie
Meghan Swaby
Tsholo Khalema – Assistant Director
Anna Treusch – Set Design
Jackie Chau – Costume Design
Bonnie Beecher – Lighting Design
Johnny Salib – Sound Design
Christine Urquhart – Props Coordinator
Megan Cinel – Assistant Set Designer
Emma Welsh – Assistant Costume Designer
Christina Cicko – Stage Manager
Neha Ross – Assistant Stage Manager
Suzie Balogh – Production Manager
Adriana DeAngelis – Assistant Production Manager

A classic novel turned on its head. A dinner party gone wrong.
A hilarious and provocative look at class, race and family dynamics under the roof of a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian home. As screenwriter Julie seeks to redress To Kill a Mockingbird through the perspective of Calpurnia – the Finch family maid – her tactics meet with explosive results at an important family dinner party. A brave, insightful, and outrageous new play.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
12 Alexander Street

January 14 – February 4, 2018


t: @nightwoodtheat
fb: /nightwoodtheatre
ig: @nightwoodtheat


2018 Next Stage Festival Profile: Leila Live!

Interview by Brittany Kay.

It’s easy to fall in love with Leila. She will have you giggling the second you meet her and will probably add herself into your contacts before you leave. If you haven’t seen her Formation video, you are missing out. I had the distinct privilege of talking to the Persian Princess herself about her show Leila Live! at The Next Stage Festival.

Brittany Kay: Who is Leila?

Leila: Hi there! My name is Leila and I am a real-life Persian Princess. I am originally from Tehran, Iran and have been performing my solo shows Love With Leila and A Very Leila Christmas across Canada (and one time in America before that disgusting monster became president) for the past three years. The critics have named me the ‘Persian Judy Garland’ but I self-identify as the ‘Persian Ariana Grande’ (as you will see in my show). People may also recognize me from my hit YouTube videos such as: The Fresh Queen of Tehran, My hijab brings all the boys to the yard, and my own take on Beyonce’s Formation.

My biggest dream—other than being a broadway star and having my own Netflix series—is to date Zac Efron. I think he is so talented, good looking and I believe we have a lot in common so we would be a really good match.

I have been quite active on Tinder lately – I am single and ready to mingle, looking for the right guy! No on has matched with me yet but I am staying optimistic and know that it will happen soon.

BK: What inspired you to create this story?

L: My newest show Leila Live! is my first venture into the world of CABARET! I wanted to start off this new year by trying something completely different. In this show, I am not only acting and telling a story, but I am showcasing a big variety of my talents such as: monologuing, dancing, original singer songwriting, stand up, impressions, sound effects and puppets. That’s right! There is a lot going on in this tight 30 minute show. We are really hoping to find potential agents, producers and boyfriends after one of the performances. If you are interested please email me:

BK: Where else can we see some of your work? I see you have quite the social media following! How did that happen?

L: You know it really just happened naturally. I love to be social and I love to take pictures so Instagram is really the perfect platform for me. I am also on Twitter but I don’t like birds that much. On Instagram I am trying to show what it is like to be a touring performer but also to give advice to my internet friends – #tiptuesday and #wisdomwednesday have been quite popular posts. But none are nearly as fun as #mancrushmonday – I have to start posting about some guys other than Zac Efron though because I think he blocked me but my mother is looking into it for me. You can expect to see some new YouTube videos later this year as well as the launch of my very first album!

BK: Why is this show and more importantly Leila as a person, important for our community today?

L: Earlier this year someone told me that they had never seen a show with a Middle Eastern character who is portrayed as a nice and fun person. That made me really sad!!! We are not just the terrorists and angry cab drivers—we are real human beings with families, personalities, dreams, ambitions and are usually really freaking funny and full of joy. I want people to have fun with me! I want my audience to laugh and feel like they are just hanging out with me and not watching a ‘show’ in a theatre. Like we are friends, because we are friends! And in the end we get to see a little bit of ourselves in one another.

I just finished a run of my show A Very Leila Christmas in Kitchener with an amazing theatre company called Green Light Arts. We packed the theatre for 5 nights and even got the Mayor of Kitchener to come and sing a duet with me. The night was full of so much joy and laughter (and a few tears because let’s face it the holidays aren’t fun and games all the time) but so many people said that they have never smiled so much, that they didn’t know they could laugh so hard and that this kind of laughing was therapeutic. I mean, what is better than that really?

BK: Talk to me about Leilas Girlfriends?

L: Leila’s Girlfriends is one of my favourite projects I have ever done. It was a partnership program with the Immigrant Working Centre and the Good Shepherd in Hamilton. I hosted a storytelling workshop for newcomer women to help them share their own stories of being in Canada. The ones who felt comfortable enough joined me on stage for a performance on International Women’s Day. It was so empowering to watch these beautiful women stand up in front of sold out audiences and share their voice for the first time. I had shivers each night and had to hold my tears back. Some of these women are still very good friends of mine.

BK: Why is The Next Stage Festival the perfect platform for you and your work?

L: Well this is quite literally the next stage for me. This is the first time that I am performing a cabaret show. I am trying out never before seen material in a different style than I am used to and I get to do it 12 nights in a row! My mother and I have been rehearsing this showcase in our living room for a few months now and we are so excited to share it with an audience.

BK: Are there any other shows that you are excited to see in the festival?

L: My friend Christel Bartelse is performing her new clown show The Surprise in the same venue as me (Factory Antechamber). We did a Double Bill of our shows Love With Leila and All KIDding Aside last year at the Toronto Centre of the Arts and I am so happy to share a space with her again. She is so talented and funny and she has the most beautiful hair. Really, go check out her ginger locks – they are gorgeous.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

L: My Instagram account on their phone.

BK: Anything else we need to know?

L: My venue is the warmest one in the entire building… so… that should be enough of a reason to buy a ticket.

Leila Live!

Photo Credit: Tanja Tiziana

Written and Performed by me (Leila)
Directed by my mother (Farideh)

Real life Persian Princess seeking a real guy who is trusting, healthy, and has his Canadian citizenship. Must enjoy authentic middle eastern cuisine, hypnotic dance moves, and little bit of fluff and scruff. No smoking, drinking, or drugging allowed! If my parents don’t like you chances are I will 😉 Swipe right for singing, dancing, acting, joking, and modeling my me (Leila).

Factory Antechamber
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto

January 3rd – 14th
January 10th – 5:55pm
January 11th – 8:40pm
January 12th – 8:40pm
January 13th – 5:25pm
January 14th – 3:55pm


fb: /badgirlleila
t: @_badgirl_leila
ig: @_badgirl_leila

NSTF Artists take it to the “Next Stage” in 2018

As one year ends and a new one begins, The Next Stage Festival is a time that we always look forward to over here at In the Greenroom. The festival offers a space for the Toronto theatre community to gather, re-connect, re-charge, and re-inspire themselves as we collectively re-focus on community, development, and growth in this first wintery month of the new year. What an incredible GIFT because DAMN it’s real cold and dreary out there and we all need a little reason to leave the house and RE-CONNECT with art, artists, ideas and create the space to experience something new!

We had the pleasure of connecting with this year’s NSTF artists to discuss their work, the importance of the festival, and we asked them to reflect on their hopes/goals/mantras for themselves as artists and for the Toronto arts community for 2018.

We hope this may help to inspire you as the year kicks off. Go out, see something new at Next Stage, and let us know what your hopes/goals/mantras are in 2018 in the comments below, or by connecting with us on facebook, twitter and instagram!

A very HAPPY NEW YEAR beauties. See you in that sweet sweet heated beer tent!

– Hallie

Hallie Seline
Co-founder & Editor in Chief

In the Greenroom

Good Morning, Viet Mom

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

Good Morning, Viet Mom is a hilarious and moving solo show by me, the devilishly handsome Franco Nguyen, that explores family created through my stand-up sets and storytelling circles. From our sold-out run at the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival, we’re taking it to the “next stage” with a revamped production including a new script and additional design elements and a larger creative team.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

Next Stage audiences are extra crazy and dedicated. They head out in the dead of winter to see theatre…and to drink beer in a tent. They’re essentially winter camping. That fiery spirit is so important for any community. It allows for inspiration, conversation and it keeps things lit.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

We’re looking forward to new voices in Toronto’s arts community. We want to see more work by and for Toronto’s unseen communities. Work that pushes the boundaries of what Toronto, Arts and Community mean. You know, stuff that’s accessible to people who work in factories and at McDonald’s. And people who regularly check World Star Hip Hop online.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

To be more honest and present, and also to make that paper, baby!

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

We’re looking forward to seeing the work of our #NSTFunny partners – The Harold Experience and Sex T-Rex’s SwordPlay

fb: /Soaring-Skies-Collective

For show dates, times and tickets for Good Morning, Viet Mom, click here. 

The Harold Experience

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

The Harold Experience is a completely improvised comedy show featuring some of Canada’s best improvisers and produced by Toronto’s newest improv company, The Assembly. Using suggestions and stories from the audience, the performers create an entire show with intertwining plots that come together for a satisfying conclusion. The show is based on one of improv’s oldest forms, The Harold. Typically, this form comes with some hesitance because it’s so difficult to perform, but our cast is up to the challenge of pulling it off. We’re taking it to the “next stage” by upping the polish while keeping it fun, funny, and interesting for general audiences.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

The Next Stage Theatre Festival is important because it’s the first big show for The Assembly. The Assembly is less than a year old and has made such great strides in these past months – starting with a collective of improv teams, moving into offering classes, and now, producing a show at the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Showcasing our art form and continuing to legitimize improv (and specifically this type of improv) is incredibly important to us and our community, and being part of Next Stage really confirms that.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

We would love to see improv (specifically, long-form improv)! Improv exists within its own community, and our brand of improv (long-form) exists within its own even smaller community. It would be great to see more of long-form and all types of improv throughout the entire arts community.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

Major goals for The Assembly include continuing to grow our classes (we currently have seven classes with almost 90 students), continuing to develop and showcase talent at our monthly shows, moving into new spaces in the city (we offer classes in three different locations and have shows at three other locations), and persevering as a very young, very niche improv company!

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

We’re so looking forward to seeing Franco Nguyen’s Good Morning, Viet Mom (Franco is actually a member of The Assembly on the incredible team TallboyzIIMen and his show is an amazing mix of funny and touching with really cool audiovisual elements) and Sex T-Rex’s Swordplay (Sex T-Rex is so funny and their productions have their signature cinematic style, which is so cool and unique).

fb: /theassemblyimprov
ig: @theassemblyimprov
t: @TheAssemblyTO

For show dates, times and tickets for The Harold Experience, click here. 

Birthday Balloon

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

Birthday Balloon was first commissioned by Rising Tide Theatre Company in Newfoundland in 2016 and presented as a part of their festival in Trinity, NL. I read Steve Cochrane’s play and felt it absolutely needed to be done off the island, on the mainland we’ll say. I felt there was an audience here for it and a need for it to be done and so I decided to produce it. The Next Stage Theatre Festival felt like the perfect place to do such a thing. The NSTF provides a perfect platform to produce a new work. It is an extremely respected festival which provides an enormous amount of support to companies, especially ones like my new venture, Mauzy May Productions. The application fee alone of $30 instead of hundreds of dollars was such an appealing factor. The NSTF makes it possible to produce works of a high-caliber that will be seen by your respected peers because it is an extension of the Toronto Fringe which is such an institution in the Toronto community. The NSTF makes the prospect of producing affordable theatre quite plausible. The NSTF has made it possible to present Birthday Balloon with the hopes of getting an opportunity be programmed by an already established theatre company.

Birthday Balloon is a universal story of loss and perseverance, yet very specific to Newfoundland and its new identity after an economic crisis that threatened the very existence of rural NL. After the fall of the cod fishery and the cod moratorium, rural Newfoundland, as we knew it, changed drastically. We saw men, many men, leave their homes and head off to Fort McMurray, AB to try to make a living for their families. This came at a cost to many families. Through the lens of a dying marriage after a tremendous loss, Birthday Balloon tells the story of the enormous cost to one family.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

As stated above, the NSTF provides a tremendous opportunity for artists. The entire vibe, if I can call it that, since being accepted into the festival has been nothing but support and encouragement. In a word: community. My company and this production have been embraced by the Fringe and many other theatre people and companies simply by association and the festival hasn’t even started yet! I have felt guidance as an artist and received help throughout the past few months from the NSTF company, which obviously helps me, as a producer, feel really strong and positive about the production I am presenting. The sense of community with all the shows is tangible. It’s present. And it’s comforting. We are all in this together, as a community, and we want to present something special together to the Toronto theatre community at large.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

To be honest, I would like to see even more affordable opportunities, like NSTF, for independent artists, for new voices, for groundbreaking material to have a place to be seen. With NSTF, for example, it costs an audience member $15 to see a show of a high-caliber. Outside of their own personal expenses, it costs a producer $30 to have a venue, a well-known venue in the city, to present their piece. It’s a win-win situation! People in the city and outside the city get to take a chance on seeing some culture without breaking the bank. This is always appealing for an audience member and it provides so much exposure for many that wouldn’t get it otherwise.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

Be brave, tell your stories the way you want to tell them. Tell the stories that you want to hear. Don’t wait for the chance, keep making it happen. Give a voice to women, a voice that is often not heard.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I am most looking forward to seeing Rumspringa Break… for two big reasons! My dear friend, Matt Murray (who wrote Myth of the Ostrich that I was in in the 2015 NSTF) wrote it AND my director, Steven Gallagher (who also directed Myth!) is directing it!

For show dates, times and tickets for Birthday Balloon, click here. 


Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

JONNO is a fictionalized retelling of a true sexual assault case that shocked Canadians back in 2014, when the news first broke about a beloved radio host’s violent and predatory behaviour towards women. The play was first produced by Echo Theatre at the 2016 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. When we initially decided to bring it to Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, we were a little worried that the story might be a little dated, and that the play’s angry and aggressive retelling of the assault might do nothing more than re-open old wounds. Little did we know that, in a matter of weeks, the media would be flooded with new sexual assault accusations and #metoo stories from countless women around the world. Our Next Stage production of JONNO isn’t just about one man and the women he assaulted— it’s about how we as a society seem to keep letting these incidents happen, and what we are going to do to hold each other accountable and move forward.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

JONNO was a difficult play to stage — both because of the show’s content, and because of today’s heated political climate. And yet, those are also the same reasons that made us feel certain that this show needed to produced HERE and NOW. Being a part of the Next Stage Festival gave us access to the resources and support that we needed to bring this work to life in a safe and accessible manner. It’s thanks to festivals like these, and thanks to the fabulous staff hard at work behind the scenes, that new and challenging pieces of theatre like this one are given the space they need to thrive.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

Theatre is great when it is bold, innovative, and urgent — but, more importantly, it is great when it kickstarts a conversation and creates a dialogue with its audiences. We are really excited to hear what people think about JONNO. We know that we as artists are fallible: we don’t expect everyone to love the work that we produce, and we don’t expect everyone to agree with the stance that we take on a particular subject. But when we create avenues for further discussion, what begins as simply criticism can morph into an opportunity for growth and change. Then, instead of simply telling or retelling a story, our art is actually paving the way for real progress. (If only EVERY production had a beer tent for its audiences to stay and chat after the show!)

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

We’re very excited for that F word by SaMel Tanz! It promises to be another bold, dynamic, and fearless exploration of feminism, performed by a cast of talented and diverse female artists.

fb: /rabbitinahatproductions
t: @RabbitinHatProd

For show dates, times and tickets for JONNO, click here. 

Leila Live!

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

Hello, my name is Leila! I am a real-life Persian Princess and have been touring my plays Love With Leila and A Very Leila Christmas across Canada for the past three years. With Leila Live! I am presenting my very first cabaret show where I will perform monologues, dance numbers, original songs, stand up and much more.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

What a gift it is to start a new year by performing a new piece of work amongst other talented and inspiring artists?! For me, this is such a wonderful opportunity to push myself and grow – 12 nights in a row!

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

I want to see more diverse artists in leading roles (and I want to see myself in a big musical… maybe the will cast me as a Schuyler sister in Hamilton??)

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

I am currently reading ‘the subtle art of not giving a f*ck’ – I want to do that.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I am most looking forward to seeing my friend Christel Bartelse as Ginger in The Surprise – also in the antechamber space. This is the second time in the past year we are sharing a venue together!

fb: /badgirlleila
ig: @_badgirl_leila

For show dates, times and tickets for Leila Live!, click here.

Moonlight After Midnight

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

Moonlight After Midnight is a two-person love story about a couple who meet in a hotel room. They begin to role-play a relationship, but even within their play-acting, nothing is as it seems. As multiple layers of reality play out against a shifting landscape of time and space, a puzzle emerges about love, loss, and who we really are to one another. We hope the Next Stage Festival brings the show to the hearts and minds of a an audience beyond those who already comfortably attend the fringe.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

Unlike the Toronto Fringe, the Next Stage Festival is curated. For those that love independently produced and created theatre, but who are uncertain about taking a chance on a fringe show in which the entire program is selected by lottery, the Next Stage offers a fantastic 10-show roster of amazing productions. For the 12-day length of the festival, the arts community of Toronto can focus on this handful of shows that represent the very best of what’s happening in the world of independent theatre.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

Intrigue, entertain, and excite by providing a window into the universal truths and enigmas inherent in the human experience.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I’m really excited to see Birthday Balloon. It looks like it’ll be a well-written & acted piece of drama about a couple dealing with, well, being a couple – which is to say: our kind of show.

fb: /concretedrops
t: @concretedrops
ig: @concretedrops

For show dates, times and tickets to Moonlight After Midnight, click here. 

Rumspringa Break!

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

Rumspringa Break!  has been in development for two years. In 2016 we workshopped and presented the first 45 minutes of the show at the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College. In the Spring of 2017 we returned to Sheridan with a completed draft for a second workshop, followed by a staged reading at Theatre Passe Muraille as part of Sheridan’s “Off Sheridan” initiative. In the Summer of 2017 we had the opportunity to spend ten days at Theatre St John’s for their Newfoundland and Labrador Musical Theatre Writers Retreat, allowing us to incorporate what we’d learned from the Off Sheridan presentation. We are now excited to take our show to the “Next Stage” at the festival, stepping out from behind the music stands for the first fully staged production of Rumspringa Break!

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

This festival truly gives artists an opportunity to take their work to the next level. The Toronto Fringe provides a vital platform and support system that allows us to focus on the work and to present our piece in an affordable way. When trying to produce indie theatre at a grassroots level, having the support of an organization like the Toronto Fringe is such a help. It also benefits the community because it provides theatre-goers an accessible chance to experience quality theatre for minimal expense in the coldest months of winter.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

We would love to see Canadian theatre companies continue their support of new works by Canadian musical theatre creators. We also hope the audience base for new Canadian musicals continues to grow.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

We are devoted to telling compelling stories that promote compassion and empathy. We hope to reach out to audiences who may not be familiar with contemporary musical theatre, introduce them to the art form, and let them fall in love with the medium.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

We are excited for the wide variety of shows presented at the Next Stage Festival, in particular Birthday Balloon directed by the brilliant Steven Gallagher (who also directed Rumspringa Break!) and Leila Live! by the hilarious Izad Etemadi who has previously collaborated with Colleen & Akiva.

t: @ColleenAndAkiva, @mattymurmur
#RumspringaBreak #NSTF

For show dates, times and tickets to Rumspringa Break!, click here. 

The Surprise

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

The Surprise is an immersive clown experience where Ginger, my clown, throws a party for a surprise guest, and you, the audience are all guests at the party. This is my 5th solo show, and first time working with Dora Award winner Andy Massingham. Despite 15 years as a working performer, it’s my first full-length clown show (And the only clown show in the festival!) The Surprise explores the universal experience of celebrating a birthday, as well as the fear we all have in making another trip around the sun, and the expectation of where we think we should be with every age. This show was originally created in 2011 as a birthday present to myself. It ran as a ten minute piece. After performing it at a few cabarets, I really wanted to expand it into a longer show and Next Stage felt like the perfect festival. The ante-chamber venue is so intimate, which makes it really fun.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

I think the Next Stage Festival is important because it gives artists opportunities to take their work to the next level, whether it’s a new piece or idea you are trying out, or an already existing show that now gets further development. I feel fortunate that I get 12 shows during this run, to really hone my piece and myself as an artist. Also, I think the winter months can be tough in Toronto. This is something that brings the community together for 12 days and theatre warms everyone hearts. And the heated steam whistle tent is a fun hangout.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

I think a new year is always exciting because artists are either busy creating, or taking some time to percolate new ideas. I would love to continue to see fantastic provocative work, from many diverse artists. I’d love to see more collaborations from different arts communities. A dancer teaming up with a comic or some cool project like that. I hope to see women really pushing the envelope and I think social and political issues will continue to be tackled. Most importantly in the growing trend of Netflix, and right now extremely cold weather, I’d just like to see people continue to support each other and the arts. Just get out and see stuff. Art, now, is more important than ever. So many issues to tackle, or a much-needed escape from the world.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

I’ve been so busy creating and performing over the past years that I would actually like to take some time to rest and generate some new ideas. I want to write more… just put pen to paper daily. My goal is to continue to perform the solo shows I’ve already created, to collaborate with an artist or artists I haven’t worked with before, and to continue to go out and support theatre. And to be kind to myself and be proud of what I’ve created. I need to be a kinder artist to myself. This feels like a big resolution.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I’m most looking forward to my sidekick, double bill buddy Izad Etamadi in Leila Live! We’ve been super supportive of each other, and I’ve seen other Leila shows that are a riot. I’m happy to share the venue with him and can’t wait to see his piece. I’m also excited for SwordPlay because I couldn’t get a ticket during it’s sold out run at Fringe. So I’m so happy I can get a chance to see it now. Really, I’m going to see as many shows as I can.

t: @cbartelse

For show dates, times and tickets to The Surprise, click here.


Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

SwordPlay is a swashbuckling physical comedy set in a retro video game. After performing this show in six cities across the country and earning five-star reviews and multiple comedy and theatre awards, we are so excited to take the show to the next level. We’ve given ourselves a little extra breathing room with a 75-minute time slot, spruced up the props, and added in a whole new scene, more jokes, and more swords for the Extended Cut of this fan-favourite show. 2018 marks Sex T-Rex’s 10th anniversary as a comedy troupe, and we’re thrilled to kick off this landmark year at the Next Stage Festival!

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

Sex T-Rex has participated in a total of 18 Fringe Festivals over the past decade. The Fringe has helped us cultivate our style and given us a platform for our unusual, modern approach to theatre. After all the support the Fringe offers to self-producing artists, the Next Stage Festival provides a vital platform for artists to be able to develop their work even further. This festival also offers the community an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of all that rad theatre, at affordable prices, and during the frigid time of year when laughs and heartwarming art come most in handy.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

It’s such an exciting time for the Toronto arts community right now. We’re not shying away from the important issues, and we’re seeing our art really make a difference and reach new eyes and ears. We can’t wait to see what the city’s artists have up their sleeves for the year ahead, but if Next Stage’s lineup is any indication of the excellent variety of theatre we can expect in 2018, then we’re in good shape: you’ve got your finger-on-the-pulse, issue-driven theatre (JONNO); cultural voices in storytelling (Good Morning, Viet Mom); brilliant improv comedy (The Harold Experience); a rich, layered musical (Rumspringa Break!); mind-bending romantic comedy (Moonlight After Midnight); moving drama (Birthday Balloon); stunning dance (That “F”Word); hilariously inventive one-person shows in the Antechamber (Leila Live! and The Surprise); and of course you’ve got goof-ass comedy like SwordPlay with hidden feminist and LGBTQ-positive messages (shhh, don’t tell anyone there’s some depth to our work too.)

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?

In 2018, Sex T-Rex’s goal is to reach as many new audiences as possible and to lay the foundations for our first non-festival tour. Winning the B.C. Touring Council Award at the 2017 Vancouver Fringe gives us a huge leg up in this goal and will take us to the West Coast this Spring to start promoting Sex T-Rex to theatres and schools. Meanwhile, we’re pursuing fresh audiences closer to home with our new show for 2018, which weaves together three short plays under the theme of CRIMES (a film noire, a heist and a buddy cop story) and will be more digestible for sketch festivals than any of our previous, hour-long plays. And finally, alongside all of this, we’re breaking into the comic convention circuit with our delightfully nerdy improv hit D&D Live! – a staged, improvised game of the world’s most popular role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. Our resolution is to eat less red meat and our mantra is “Calidi Lapis Iocus” (Rock-Hot Jokes).

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?

We’re most excited to see our pals from the Toronto Improv Community rock The Harold Experience! We’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with a lot of the fine folks in The Assembly before, and can tell you audiences are in for some guaranteed laughs.

fb: /sextrexcomedy
ig: @sextrexcomedy
t: @sextrex

For show dates, times and tickets to SwordPlay, click here.

That “F” Word

Tell me a little bit about your show and how you are taking it to the “Next Stage” with this festival.

that “F” word is an invigorating and comedic performance that fearlessly explores the struggles of feminism, specifically gender, class, race, body image and tradition. These issues are brought to life through a fusion of Contemporary, Latin and Hip Hop dance forms. We have taken our production to the next level by having a larger cast of dancers, exploring deeper into the themes of our show with new choreography and movement, further developed the transitions between ideas and improved the emotion and intention in all the work.

Can you speak a bit about why the Next Stage Festival is important for both artist & community?

The Next Stage Festival provided us with a theatre platform and challenged us to become more interdisciplinary. It gave us artists the opportunity to build upon and improve a previous production and the opportunity to reach a new and larger audience. It is important for the community because it offers entertainment with powerful messaging right at the beginning of the year when there is usually nothing to see during this slow, cold time of year. It gets audiences out and about and increases tourism in the city.

With the theme of “Next Stage” in mind, what would you love to see from the Toronto arts community in 2018?

Our hope for 2018 would be more funding for the arts community paired with better integration between the different genre of arts. Having festivals like the Next Stage and Toronto Fringe connecting different companies expands the community and everyone’s audiences.

What is your goal/resolution/mantra for yourself as an artist in 2018?


We have a voice, the experience and the talent and we are ready to share all of it with the world. In 2018 we are going to claim space, share what is exclusive to us with everyone.

What other show are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?
The Harold Experience – we love comedy/improvisation
JONNO – similar theme to our show, different perspective

t: @sameltanz
ig: @sameltanz

The Next Stage Theatre Festival hosted by The Toronto Fringe

The Next Stage Theatre Festival is the premiere winter theatre event in the city. Produced by the Toronto Fringe, Next Stage is a platform for past Fringe artists to take groundbreaking work to the next level – and a gathering place for discerning culture lovers in the city.

While some of the shows have appeared at previous Fringe Festivals, most are new works by established Fringe artists who have demonstrated the passion and tenacity to take their work to the next stage.

Factory Theatre
125 Bathurst Street
Toronto, ON

January 3-14, 2018

Tickets & Info:




“Environmentalism, Playwriting & Taking Your Time” In Conversation with Rosa Labordé, playwright of MARINE LIFE

Interview by Brittany Kay.

Rosa Labordé is one of the finest examples of a multifaceted, multi-talented, many-hats-wearing fierce female artist working in this city. Her work as a playwright, actor and director is highly praised and respected in this theatre community. We sat down to talk about her current production Marine Life, playing now at the Tarragon Extraspace only until December 17th. We spoke about how she approaches environmentalism, playwriting and the importance in taking your time with your work.

Brittany Kay: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Rosa Labordé: Mostly, from the experiences that I have in life or what I perceive or observe going on around me. I’m usually interested in how we’re functioning as a greater society, as a greater whole and how that ties into how we treat each other as individuals. I don’t think they can be separated. I like to look at very big issues and then bring them down to their most essential level of human beings interaction with each other. In a world where can bully each other, I want to know what that looks like in the grand scale, like corporate bullying or the presidency right now in the United States and how that all ties in together and how they can’t be separate. Like the family is not separate from the greater society within which it lives… that’s usually what interests me most.

BK: How did you first get into playwriting and what brought you to where you are now?

RL: I always wrote when I was little. I think my first poem was published when I was seven in the local newspaper. It was always my thing and I always put on shows since I was really, really young. Then as I grew up, I got more into acting and I went to theatre school and they always said, “You know, it’s good to still write.” I kept writing and I found the playwrights who I most loved and I started to just do exercises in writing plays. I had a drawer full of plays that nobody ever saw that were just about differentiating character or how people speak to one another. I never went out and said “I’m going to be a playwright”, I was just like “I’m going to make a thing…” and that’s how it started.

BK: You’re also in television right now. How did that all happen?

RL: Well I was interested in it, for sure, and then I wrote my first pilot and my TV writing agent at the time said “You don’t write a pilot, you sell an idea.” Well how can I sell an idea? I need to know how to write a pilot. So I just wrote it and that went really well and CTV at the time bought it outright. We started going through development on it and then everything changed at the company. It didn’t end up going through but it was amazing to go “I’m just going to write and see what happens” and then it went somewhere.

From there, I went to the Film Centre. All of it ties into storytelling, whether it’s acting, writing, directing, writing for plays, writing for TV, it’s just about telling a story and the different medium that it works for. It’s all connected to story, even a voiceover job, you’re telling a story. That’s all my life has been, stories.

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

BK: Tell me about Marine Life? Where did the inception first happen for that idea?

RL: Aluna Theatre was the company who originally commissioned it and I wrote it in my residency with them with grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. They really wanted me to make a piece that I would direct. They wanted me to make a piece that was completely mine. I didn’t listen to that for a bit and I did some early workshops with other people directing the readings and presentations, until, I went “Fine, I’ll direct it”.

At the time they were looking at a lot of work around water and also human rights. I just started thinking about our relationship to the environment and our relationship to water and our seas. That got me into the world of the plastic ocean, the islands made of plastic, pollution in the ocean and what it’s doing to the fish and the marine life. And because it relates back to the way that I see things, I started exploring the question – what is the self-destructive path we’re on? What is it in humans that have the desire to self-destruct just on a personal level? I kind of put these two things together. The characters are allegorical. They are representative of aspects of our humanity that move in a direction that is not always healthy for the whole. They can be quite toxic and some of what we’re doing to our planet is quite toxic, so I wanted to explore that, but in a way that was playful and fun. I think as soon as you get that didactic about environmentalism people turn off.

BK: Some political and environmental theatre isn’t for everybody. If you find a way to present the information in a humanized way, I think it could be more accessible for audiences.

RL: I think when you get someone to leave their house now, when they are so busy (technology seems to have made everyone busier) and they can stay in to watch Netflix in pajamas, is it because you want to teach them a lesson? I don’t. I like to be entertained. I like it to be a fun thing, that even if it’s a sad play, I like it when there’s a little bit of kissing or love or levity. That’s my hope, that someone can come to the show and see all the deeper meaning in the allegory and then if they don’t want to, they can also just enjoy some of the “play” and what I mean by “play” is in the playful sense.

BK: Who are the characters in your play and what is their story?

RL: Sylvia is an environmental activist but her activism has moved into the world of fanatic because she’s so upset about what’s going on that she’s taken it quite far. She falls in love with a corporate lawyer, who is basically on the other side of the spectrum of what she does. She also has a very co-dependent relationship with her sibling, which gets in the way. It becomes a strange kind of love triangle.

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

BK: There’s also music in this show? How does that play a part?

RL: I almost always like music in my plays. I had a play True and written right into it was a piano player. I love it being a part of the world and not just added on, but it being a part of the experience. I think playwriting is music. It’s all rhythm. It’s a score, basically, that you’re writing. It’s inextricably connected to have both actual musicians combined with this world that is already living in a rhythmic musical place.

BK: That’s so beautiful. What are you, a writer or something?


BK: This play went through several development stages in different festivals over the years. How did it grow from those first iterations to where it is now?

RL: Where it started was at Buddies’ Rhubarb! Festival and it was like 20 minutes, so it was just a look at these characters and who they might be. It built and moved from there. I was always working towards a flood in the first incarnations and then I’ve moved past that into, well, what now? We’re flooding all of the time. It’s a reality right now. In Quebec, there are still people dealing with the fallout of it. These people are literally homeless because floods destroyed their homes. Their homes were underwater. The water damage is insane. They can’t live there again and they’re just at a point where the Quebec government said we will pay. For a while, they were paying for housing, subsidizing hotel days and now they’ve pulled out of that. There are people in Quebec who are homeless because of flooding and it’s something that we’re not talking about. Climate change deniers are saying that it’s not us, it’s just the weather but it’s actually not just whether it’s a real thing and I find that really interesting and sad. It’s directly related to our overconsumption as a society, which, in a sense, the lawyer in my play represents – that kind of corporate desire to make more make more make more, sell more sell more sell more, but it’s a destructive act.

BK: Why is development and workshopping beneficial for any type of play?

RL: I think it’s so important to develop pieces and take your time figuring out what it is. The development process for this piece has been over 5 years and, in that time, I’ve also had two other plays produced and written on numerous television projects. It’s not like you’re just writing all the time for one piece. You put it aside and go, “Okay, I don’t want to let that go because I think it’s really important for us to think about these things, but how do I see it differently?” Whenever you get a chance to have an audience and have a response you can kind of connect to what is it that’s working and what is it that isn’t. It’s really useful to have “the what isn’t”. Here in Canada, we don’t quite have the structure that some other countries have in terms of developing something over a longer period of time. It can be so beneficial, even at Tarragon we get a week of previews, which is amazing. Whereas in London or New York, sometimes you get a month to 5 months to really go “what’s working and how is it working?” I think stretching it out a little bit and trying to learn the piece is a really helpful. 

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

BK: You are both playwright and director of Marine Life. How has that been difficult and helpful to wear both of those hats? How do you work between both?

RL: It can be a challenge. I really, really love directing and creating a world but where it can be challenging with new plays, is that if something is not working, the writer needs to rewrite it. Sometimes you actually just need to spend the time making it work. If everyone did their first few Shakespeare rehearsals and were like, “Ugh, it’s not working. We’re just going to have to cut those bits”, well, it’s not working because it’s really hard and you have to define every single moment of communication or it falls flat. One of my favorite Shakespeare productions was this group from the States who were dressed in all black clothes and wearing Keds. I saw them in high school and they were so great because all they did was play the action and make the story clear. Sometimes even with myself as a director, when we’re rehearing and something’s not working, I just say I’ll cut it. Only to realize later that, no, that was just a part of the process. We had a joke where I’ll say, “remember those lines I cut, you have to put them back in”. Most times you have to respect what the playwright is trying to say, but when I am both and I can be really self-critical, I go “It’s bad, what I was trying to say, I’m just going to change it.” To later think, no it’s pretty good, let’s make it work… that’s the challenging part of it.

BK: Why is Tarragon Theatre the right platform for this show?

RL: I love Tarragon and I think their audiences are really great and excited about going to the theatre. I think there’s already a lot of knowledge about environmental concerns for their audience, but this show does that in a playful way and allows them the space to think about it a little bit differently. It’s a smart audience that’s already thinking about these things and hopefully it allows their thinking to move in a bit of a different direction.

BK: Why this story right now?

RL: I think it couldn’t be more relevant because we are living our lives in a really dangerous direction and there’s a point at which we will not really be able to turn back. The depressing thing about doing the research for this project was talking to academics and environmentalists who are studying the effect of micro plastics on us. I was thinking this could get better and they would say no, it could be mitigated. That seems to be the overall place we’re at is this mitigation. It’s no longer reversible. It’s just what can we do to mitigate what we’ve done. A lot of it is about massive shifts in infrastructure and those shifts create massive economical shifts that people don’t want, especially the people who are sitting at the top of the economy where they’re benefiting from mass production.

BK: Are you an environmentalist?

RL: I care about our environment very much. I care about the world we live in. I kind of think I’m not anything. Am I a feminist, humanist, environmentalist? What am I? I can see all sides of a thing, which can be a blessing and a curse.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

RL: I hope that they’ve had an enjoyable time. I hope that they’re left with some beautiful images and thoughts about where we are and thoughts about the good in us, you know to realize our potential for change. I hope it makes you think more about the changes in policy that need to happen to make a difference.

BK: Advice for other artists?  

RL: Don’t compare yourself to other people, just be on your own trip. Be yourself, that’s all you really got. All that really matters is what your personal experience is with the people in your life that you love and what difference you can make in that and being more connected to each other. We all want community and connection.


Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre

Produced in collaboration with Aluna Theatre
Written & Directed by Rosa Labordé
starring Nicola Correia-Damude, Justin Rutledge & Matthew Edison
sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne
lighting & set designer Trevor Schwellnus
projection designer Trevor Schwellnus
costume designer Lindsay C. Walker
stage manager Robin Munro
surtitle translator Bruce Gibbons Fell
surtitle specialist Sebastian Marziali

Save the world or save yourself? This romantic comedy sees Sylvia, an ecological activist, caught between her own environmental extremism and falling in love with a man who has a secret dependency on plastic. When the rains come and the flood water rises, who will survive the deluge?

Tarragon Extraspace
30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto

On Stage now only until Dec 17, 2017


“Breaking out of the Ingénue” In Conversation with Eliza Martin: Playwright/Performer of “O”

Interview by Bailey Green.

We spoke with playwright and actor Eliza Martin about her upcoming solo show O, playing for two nights only at the Artscape Wychwood Barns on November 28 and 29. The play tells the story of Leigh, who is donning her flower crown to play Ophelia. During a tech rehearsal the day before opening, Leigh speaks to the audience about her experiences as the ingénue—namely crying and dying. Through Leigh, Martin challenges the notions surrounding these iconic roles for young women. We spoke with Martin about breaking out of the ingénue, her fascination with Ophelia and discovering her voice.

Bailey Green: Tell me about the genesis of the project.

Eliza Martin: So I started working on O in 2014 when I was about to graduate [from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College]. It was an Independent Study Project led by David Matheson, and I was interested in the character of Ophelia, perhaps for the reasons we all are. There’s that image in our head of the woman floating in the water, this history of all those famous paintings and I wanted to do a project exploring her.

BG: What else drew you to the character of Ophelia, what qualities did you want to explore more deeply?

EM: As a young woman in theatre, we think of ‘who I would play in that show’. We look at plays with the lens of the part we might be considered for. So for me, I recognized this frustration in this tiny, tiny role [Ophelia] and these limited situations that we see her in. We get her being a pawn for her dad and brother, her briefly talking to Hamlet and then as Mad Ophelia. Which is beautiful in its own right, but still—in a play that is three hours long, she only has these tiny moments, whereas Hamlet deliberates about one decision for pages. Yet for this one young woman, we get only a few glimpses into what she’s going through and hardly any text at all. At the time of my ISP, a friend of mine mentioned that she took a Shakespeare course in university and the professor spoke about the origin of Ophelia’s name—he said O is a nice emotional sound, and O is also a zero and it means nothing. I was enraged by that notion, so I called it O. I wanted this moment of defence – I just can’t let a female part mean nothing.

BG: How has this draft changed from previous drafts? Do you find your focus has changed?

EM: I think the focus has changed. It’s very much the same spirit. And a lot of the work Ali [Joy Richardson] and I did as co-creators has stayed in tact from when we workshopped O at the Paprika Festival. This time we’re digging a little deeper into the heart of both the character and the actor, Leigh. It’s a longer version and there’s a bit more darkness and ambiguity. We only had 30 minutes at Paprika, so it’s been great to be given more time to dig. I’m working with Rebecca Ballarin, who is new to the project, and our team is just amazing.

BG: How have you broken out of the ingénue role in your own career?

EM: It’s something that has always been kind of assigned to me? And because of that I used to view parts and opportunities through that lens. I’d approach Hamlet and think Ophelia and I would immediately slot myself into those expectations. And now, I have arrived at this crossroads, because if we’re going to play these parts we need to play them differently. Or perhaps they don’t belong anymore, and they need to be adapted. Or how can someone else play them to make them more compelling? Maybe I’m not the right person to play these roles anymore. I think we need to move forward with that knowledge, that these roles need to be changed or played by other people. There need to be new voices.

BG: What challenges you the most about this project?

EM: I think bringing my own self into it has been challenging. It started as a project where I wanted to explore Ophelia and Hamlet as a play and I wanted to do so with distance and from an academic perspective. But when I was working with Ali, she encouraged me to bring my own story which was very challenging and scary to do. That opened the door for the work we’re doing now, and collaborating with Rebecca, has moved the piece further in the direction I was going.

BG: Who or what is currently inspiring you?

EM: I’m very interested in the conversations being had about consent. I don’t think that was a conversation that was in O in the previous versions, but there’s a lot to be said about the power dynamic between a young woman and older man. I’m inspired by the women coming forward and talking about their experiences. It’s not something that goes very far in the show, I wouldn’t say that we really tackle issues of consent, but there’s a lot to be said for decisions we feel we need to make because we’re part of this big system. This is Leigh’s first real Equity gig, and she’s working with a well-known director, and she doesn’t feel that she is able to express herself or ask for changes that should be made.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Go-to cafe: Bloomer’s.

Album on repeat: Christmas music…don’t judge me!

Best time to write: Late at night—so toxic, so tempting.

Current favourite tea: Earl grey, any day.

Late night snack: Popcorn


Written and performed by Eliza Martin
Directed by Rebecca Ballarin
Sound Design by Nick Potter
Lighting Design by Steph Raposo
Production Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Script Advisor: Rachel Blair
Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

With Ben Hayward as Rod
and Lucy McPhee as Carol

Hamlet opens tomorrow night and Leigh is ready to make her debut as Ophelia: wigged, primped, and donning her flower crown. During a brief hold in her tech rehearsal, Leigh takes the audience through basic acting skills for the ingénue and shares candid personal anecdotes, sparking a series of unsettling realizations.

O examines the stage life and death of the ingénue – the stories they tell, and the women behind them. Will we continue to accept that success for an actress means crying and dying through a career? Or can we find a way to keep our heads above water while turning the tide?

Artscape Wychwood Barns

8pm November 29th & 30th 2017

$15, online & at the door