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“Recovery from Trauma, The “R” Word & the Power of Being A Storyteller in This Moment” In Conversation with Actor Tamara Podemski on THE MONUMENT at Factory Theatre

Interview by Bailey Green.

We spoke with award-winning Ojibway actor, dancer and singer/songwriter Tamara Podemski about playing the role of Mejra in Colleen Wagner’s Governor General award-winning play, The Monument. The Monument tells the story of a soldier, guilty of war crimes and fleeing from a death sentence, who gives himself over to a woman who has endured the horrific trauma of war. Factory Theatre’s production, directed by acclaimed Métis director Jani Lauzon, frames the play within the context of the centuries long war against the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. We spoke with Tamara about recovery from trauma, ‘the R word’ (reconciliation) and finding joy in darkness.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bailey Green: What was your relationship to The Monument prior to beginning this production? Had you seen other productions?

Tamara Pondemski: It was a brand new experience. I had heard it referenced as it is a famous play but I had never seen it, so I didn’t know it well enough to know what indigenizing The Monument meant, when it was presented to me.

The Monument – Augusto Bitter and Tamara Podemski – Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: Tell me more about your reaction reading the script for the first time, looking at the play through the lens of the war against the Indigenous people of Turtle Island.

TP: It’s very current. As an artist, an activist, and working in the Native community, this is the work I have been doing with Native youth, Native women, and conversations in my family. So there was nothing brand new but what was most exciting was that we would be able to explore this alternate method of storytelling. And through this transmission of knowledge, we would be able to shift this colonial narrative. The theatre just offers this beautiful alternative way to communicate really complex ideas without people feeling that it is stuffed down their throats. The power of the text is the power of the text, but what we are infusing into it is that different perspective, an indigenous injection into the work. The play wasn’t meant to be about war against Native people, but I believe it really does work and Jani [Lauzon] and Factory believes it works. It isn’t really a far stretch when you understand that a 500 year silent genocide has happened. When that is your experience, it’s not hard to see how The Monument fits. What is going to be really interesting is to see how ready people are to accept that that is what has been going on.

The Monument – Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter – Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: Absolutely, I feel theres a resistance among settlers to revisit this history, theres willful ignorance there.

TP: Yes, and the sales pitch of Canada to the world is that we are this peaceful, equal, human rights focused and forward-thinking country. So it’s disrupting these notions to remind people that blood has been spilled here and it has been going on for longer than 150 years. We need to shake up their concepts of what it is to live in a country of war, the last place in the world people would say had participated in a war like this, and it’s an active war.

The Monument – Elahe Marjovi_s set design for The Monument incorporates conceptual imagery from The REDress Project. (Founder Jaimie Black www.theredressproject.org) – Photo by Joseph

BG: Tell me more about your character, what about her do you identify with?

TP: Mejra is a mother whose daughter has been murdered. She wants answers, she wants a resolution, she wants to find a place in her heart where she can reconcile the pain, anger and forgiveness with the perpetrators. I relate to her on so many levels because mostly in her application of how she tries to get the answers. She is so emotionally raw, she is very triggered and I relate a lot to that trauma response. I don’t often have the advantage of well thought-out behaviour or response. It’s very reactive and I understand that very well. As the granddaughter of a residential school survivor and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, they passed that knowledge down to their children and we as a second generation of survivors have inherited that trauma. And we have the luxury to talk about it, my parents didn’t have that. We have a safe space to be able to process it. Recovery is more acceptable now and that wasn’t the experience of my parents.

I’m slightly different from Mejra, as she is very isolated in her grief and trauma. And in that one sense [she] isn’t reflective of how we grieve as Indigenous people – it is very communal. In a way that allows Mejra to be even worse off because she doesn’t have her community and is cut off. She is going through the grief on her own, which is why the need of another person with Stetko and also why they are perfectly matched. There’s a form of reconciliation, oh there’s the “R” word, but it is a beautiful example of it. And it’s a lot uglier than people want it to be. It’s ugly and messy and very triggering.

The Monument – Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter – Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

BG: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on this production, with triggering subject matter?

TP: This might sound a little weird…but nothing. I had prepared for a very difficult rehearsal process but what Jani has created is one of the safest spaces of creation that I have ever experienced. We start with each day with a smudge, as we are working with spirits and we’re asking the murdered and missing spirits of our sisters to be with us onstage. We have a responsibility to do that work in a respectful and culturally appropriate way. We’re considering our role as storytellers, the connection with each other and with our Creator, however you may define that. There is a safety that is created and it allows the strength and security to go to those places. For me, I’ve never done a two-hander so the stamina required, it’s more lines that I have had to work with, more time on your legs. You’re going non stop for the whole play. But that is just practical. Emotionally/spiritually I have been very supported by Jani and by my brother Augusto [Bitter, who plays Stetko]. Every day is joyful and an incredible experience. We are really privileged to be actors at this time. It’s a critical time as story tellers, to have this other access point to people’s minds and hearts when people are zoned in to their phones, tuning out of a quite oppressive world. It’s our job to crack open people’s hearts and minds.

The Monument

Who:
Written by Colleen Wagner
Directed by Jani Lauzon
Starring Augusto Bitter & Tamara Podemski

What:
The Monument tells the story of a soldier desperate to escape death for his war crimes who agrees to give himself to the complete servitude of an unknown woman. A harrowing and visceral journey of two people forced to confront the atrocities of war, this Governor-General’s Award-winning play asks questions that remain painfully familiar on our front pages today.

Re-imagining the conflict as the silent 500 year war that has been waged against the people of Turtle Island since European colonization, Lauzon’s lens on Wagner’s classic play will confront many of the dark and uncomfortable truths of Canada’s complicity around missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto

When:
March 15-April 1, 2018

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

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A Chat with Charlie Kerr, co-writer and actor in AFTER WRESTLING

Interview by Bailey Green

We got to chat with Charlie Kerr, co-writer and actor in After Wrestling, on stage now at Factory Theatre. We spoke about his collaboration with co-writer Bryce Hodgson, how he navigates working with two different creative hats, and on ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Bailey Green: How did you and co-writer Bryce Hodgson meet? When did you start writing together and what’s your process like as co-creators?

Charlie Kerr: Brycey and I met when we were ten and twelve years old. I was home schooled until the fifth grade when I started public school. Bryce and I were actually both in the program for kids with learning disabilities together. As we grew up, we played in punk bands together and have always been collaborating on one thing or another. In 2014 he suggested we write a play together and something clicked. Two plays later, it’s still the same process of getting in a room together, talking things through and trying to make each other laugh.

After Wrestling – Charlie Kerr – photo by John Gundy

BG: What was the genesis behind After Wrestling? Was there a particular event or incident that inspired the story or did it grow from exploring broader themes?

CK: Yeah, Bryce and I had a friend die by suicide about seven years ago, and it shaped our lives in a really unique way. One day Bryce came to me with this concept for a play of a young man named Hogan whose life is falling apart because his best friend died by suicide and his sister, Leah, who is forced to take care of and live with her wacky, grieving brother. And from there it just grew and evolved.

BG: What has the transition from co-writer to performer been like for you?

CK: Anthony Shim, who also stars in the play, took me aside pretty early on and told me not to be a writer on stage and that was incredible advice. I really took it to heart. So yeah, during the rehearsal process I had to let go of the fact that I co-wrote the thing and approach the character like anything else I would act in. It’s been incredible and surreal to do it for an audience because I have been saying Hogan’s lines for like three years now.

After Wrestling – Leah Osler, Gabe Grey – photo by John Gundy

BG: There’s been a shift in the conversation around mental health in the last few years. Do you feel the stigma is lessening? What do we still need to focus on?

CK: It was less than a hundred years ago when Sigmund Freud first suggested that human beings’ best bet for dealing with their mental problems was talking through them, until then hypnotism was the gold standard for mental health issues. So I believe we are progressing bit by bit everyday. Like, I am twenty-six and when I was a kid struggling and I was self-harming and having panic attacks all the time, I had no idea what was going on. I just thought I was bad at dealing with life. I had no concept that I had a chemical imbalance that could be treated. Ten years ago. there was not nearly the open mental health discussion there is today. While writing this play, I took a mental health first aid course. I think getting educated the best you can on the subject is one of the most productive things you can do. I mean, in all walks of life we need to focus on empathy love and kindness. Something I think we should focus on is the stigma against getting medication. That stigma, in my opinion, is particularly toxic because for some loved ones of mine it makes the difference of life and death.

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

CK: I hope they laugh and I hope they are entertained. And ideally I would hope they would leave having compassion for those who struggle with mental health issues and empathy for those who are grieving a death of someone close to them.

After Wrestling – Gabe Grey, Leah Osler, Charlie Kerr, Anthony Shim – photo by John Gundy

BG: Tell me about Blood Pact Theatre and about partnering with Storefront and Factory Theatre.

CK: Blood Pact Theatre was created and founded by Bryce, Libby Osler, Bri Proke and I. We created it in Vancouver and put up our first play that Bryce and I wrote in 2015. And then we brought our company out to Toronto for our second show after it was selected from Storefront’s open submissions and that turned out to be a great partnership. Then last year Factory Theatre asked Storefront if they could recommend any plays for their new season and they suggested After Wrestling. That’s the coles’ notes version, at least. But yeah, it’s an incredible team! We couldn’t be happier to work with this many talented kindred spirits. It’s a dream-come-true.

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

CK: Sorry, I have such After Wrestling tunnel vision right now because we just opened so all I can really shout out is like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, which I binged on netflix and loved. I saw Kat Sandler’s Bang Bang on my day off, which I thought was cool and made me laugh. Black Boys looks really good, Bunny looks awesome. I have seen two shows that Unit 102 put on and I love their work. The thing is Toronto is a city filled with great culture and a vibrant theatre scene. So you can’t really go wrong!

After Wrestling

Who:
Produced by Blood Pact Theatre with the generous support of Storefront Theatre in association with Factory Theatre
Written by Bryce Hodgson and Charlie Kerr

What:
When your best friend kills himself and Facebook stalking your ex-girlfriend just ain’t what it used to be, look no further than rolling in duck feces and living in the park. Unfortunately for Hogan, his sister and the cops don’t share his same enthusiasm for DIY self-help.

After Wrestling is a slacker-comedy turned suicide-mystery that finds itself in a booze- and grief- fuelled magic realism debate on love, life, and after-death.

Where:
Factory Theatre – Studio Theatre
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto

When:
March 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

“Fempocalypse 2018” In Conversation with Lauren Wolanski on Nightwood Theatre’s Young Innovator’s Unit’s Upcoming Event

Interview by Bailey Green

We had the pleasure of chatting with Lauren Wolanski, one of the artists in Nightwood Theatre’s 2017/18 Young Innovator’s Unit about their upcoming event, Fempocalypse 2018. We spoke about the importance of welcoming mentorship that challenges you, partnering with Sistering for their event, and the importance of “finding your people” and advocating for the value of your work.

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Bailey Green: What was your first memory of Nightwood Theatre? do you remember a show you saw produced by Nightwood that stood out for you?

Lauren Wolanski: I was in university working on a project for my professional practice class. We were asked to get in contact with a theatre company that we admired and interview them (classic theatre school assignment, right?) Truthfully, I saw it as the perfect excuse to get in touch with women who I was, and still am, huge fans of. I was nervous as hell. But from the get-go the team at Nightwood proved to be incredibly approachable and generous with their time. Beth Brown spoke with me on the phone and answered all of my questions about the inner workings of the company, from their season selection to their emerging artist and community outreach.

Kelly Thorton also came to visit my class to do a workshop. I had the chance to work with her on a monologue I had prepared and I’ll never forget it—she was candid, honest, brazen and persistent. She was able to really challenge me while at the same time convince me that I was capable of more, which is something that’s rare to find in a mentor.

Asking for It, written by Ellie Moon and presented as a part of the Consent Event at Nightwood this past fall, completely blew my mind. Here was a young woman, no more than a few years older than me, doing a show that really spoke to what we needed to hear NOW. It covered all the things I’ve wanted to talk about, but never had the guts to. It was relevant and daring and deeply personal. It changed my perception about the possibilities for women on stage, and reminded me that audiences do in fact want to listen to our experiences as young women—that our perspectives are valuable and not to be overlooked.

BG: Tell me about your experience in the Nightwood Theatre’s Young Innovators Unit, what’s the process been like? How often have you met throughout the year and how is your time together spent? 

LW: The Nightwood Young Innovators Unit is a group of young emerging artists, ranging from producers to stage-managers and playwrights to actors, that are being trained by the team at Nightwood to be ambassadors for Canada’s National Women’s Theatre. After our first meet up, the staff at Nightwood asked each of us what our interests were so that they could notify us when any related opportunities arose. In this sense, it is a completely individualized program that lends itself to the particular skills you wish to nurture. So, that could mean that you get asked to help Kelly Read with applicants in the audition room for the Lawyer Show, or that you spend the day assisting in the Groundswell Festival, when the Write From The Hip artists share their work in front of an audience for the first time. The variety of opportunities they offer to us is so vast. And what’s best is that they’re always just an email away if we ever want to touch base and go for coffee.

We meet about once a month for workshops with different team members from the company to learn about the essential skills to running a theatre company. Some of the workshops focus on development, marketing, grant writing and more. Of course, we are also tasked with planning Fempocalypse, which is the event we are currently in the thick of preparing for. Nightwood has given us a space, tons of guidance in regards to curating and organizing this event—but they’ve pretty much given us the freedom to take the reins on this project. And when we hit little technical bumps, the company helps us get back on track. It’s our special project to navigate on our own, and I love that Nightwood is giving us total liberty to create this thing!

I also love that I feel like a valued artist at Nightwood. When I’m in the company’s presence, I never feel like I’m being schooled, per-se, even though I am in a sense. I don’t ever feel the pressure of being one of the youngest, or least experienced one in the room. I always feel accepted and encouraged by the team at Nightwood, and that feeling of true support is not always something you’re lucky enough to find in this industry.

BG: With part of the Young Innovator’s Unit focused on learning how to run a theatre company, what was one the most valuable insights or pieces of advice you received during your time in the unit?

LW: Kelly said something along the lines of, ‘yes, this is about making art but this is also a business’. We women have to be able to make a living off of the work we do. And I think that’s incredibly important to keep in mind. In order to do good work, we have to have the means to do it in the first place. So as much as we young dreamers like to believe that networking, marketing and funding aren’t as important as the art, and that passion alone is enough to fuel our careers, that’s not necessarily so.

Another piece of advice we got that I found of particular use was to find your people. Theatre is so much of a collaborative process, and it’s important to find the people who share a passion for telling the stories that you want to tell.

BG: Fempocalypse 2018 is coming up tomorrow on March 9th, how did the group decide or discover the quote that inspired the theme of this year’s cabaret? Courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own Michelle Obama

LW: It was really important to us that this be an uplifting night of celebration. It seemed appropriate then, that we choose a quote that would elicit a similar response. As much as we’re all frustrated, saddened, and frankly just pissed about the work that still needs to be done, we’re optimistic that bringing artists together to share words of hope will put the Toronto community on the right path this year. We want to celebrate how far we’ve come, and the amazing group of people we have brought together that will help lead the way into a better future. ARTISTS, lead the way!

BG: You have some incredible folks performing at the cabaret, could you give me a sneak preview of any of the acts?

LW: Yes yes yes! We’re SUPER excited to have such an amazing line up of female-identifying or gender non-binary artists this year. Up-and-coming Somali-Canadian writer Fatuma Adar will be sharing a musical piece that she wrote (Music by Fatuma and Alexa Belgrave) which we are SO looking forward to seeing. We’re also going to be screening Julianna Notten’s film Erins Guide to Kissing Girls. We also have Brefny Caribou, a Cree-Irish Canadian actor, creator, and writer, who will be performing a piece. Honestly, I want to list all of the artists we have because they’re all so darn amazing and talented and inspiring… but you’ll just have to wait! I can promise you however, that it will be a night full of diverse artists from all kinds of artistic disciplines—and that we are incredibly excited to be hosting all of them!

BG: The cabaret will raise money for Sistering, a local Toronto agency for at risk homeless or precariously housed women, can you tell me more about the work they do?

LW: As Canada’s only 24/7 women’s shelter, located right here in Toronto, Sistering has a lot of important work to do for the women in our community. Not only does Sistering warmly welcome any woman at any hour of the day with a meal, a place to sleep and clean clothing—Sistering focuses on providing women with the support they need to find jobs and suitable housing in Toronto. A doctor, mental health professional and counselor are available on a regular basis, and staff are at the ready to help any woman with resume and job application assistance. Sistering goes as far to offer women work experience on location in the kitchen and other in-house facilities. 

A few of us Young Innovators, Bryn Kennedy, Justine Christensen and Samantha Vu, had the chance to visit Sistering to speak with some of the hardworking staff, including Fund Development Associate Marian Lupu, to tell us more about the far-reaching initiatives and programs that Sistering takes on. First, we were taken to the Inspiration Studio: A space for the women to hone their artistic skills, whether it be beading or pottery, in regular workshops with artistic professionals. We had the chance to see some of the impressive, beautiful work that the women are making at Sistering on a daily basis, which then go on sale for purchase. Beyond the work that they are doing on-site, spending countless hours making approximately 10,4000 harm reduction kits per year and providing an array of recreational social gatherings, Sistering is also fighting for the rights of these women within the broader Toronto landscape. Sistering staff publically advocate for more harm reduction shelters, programing and greater funding for the opioid crisis in our local government and social action rallies.

We’re really excited to be hosting a Sistering staff member at the event so that our guests can experience learning more about Sistering first-hand. If people can’t make it to the event and would still like to get involved, we’re encouraging everyone to check out their volunteer opportunities here. If you’d like to honour a woman in your life while contributing to this incredible cause, you can also check out this page.

BG: What or who are you currently drawing inspiration from?

LW: SO MUCH. There is no denying that there has been a major shift this past year. A lot has happened that has made us stop, re-evaluate, and reconfigure the direction we’re heading in. People across the globe are no longer willing to stay silent. We get our inspiration from the galaxy of voices that ignite change. That includes the incredible artists we have invited to this event, and the powerful staff at Sistering who work endlessly to better the lives of our women. It is the presence and impact of these fierce, determined and unabashed people—their words, their songs, their art, their hearts and their actions—that have made this event such a pleasure and ease to produce.

We hope to see everyone there to celebrate how far we’ve come.

Fempocalypse 2018

Who: Nightwood Theatre’s 2017/2018 Young Innovators Unit cordially invites everyone to FEMPOCALYPSE 2018:

What: LET’S CELEBRATE. BECAUSE THERE’S A WHOLE LOT TO CELEBRATE.
International Women’s Day. Let’s hear it for our sisters, right?

A cabaret night that is jam-packed with performances from an array of female-identifying or gender non-conforming artists, covering a range of different viewpoints and experiences that respond to the following prompt: “Courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own” – Michelle Obama.

After an incredibly successful event last year, with over one thousand dollars in proceeds being raised for Native Women’s Association of Canada, Fempocalypse will return this year under the leadership of the this year’s Young Innovators.

FEATURING WORK FROM: Monica Garrido, Parmida Vand, Ansley Simpson, Mayumi Lashbrook and Lisa Emmons, Form Contemporary Dance Theatre, Belinda Corpuz, Brefny Caribou, Emma Houlahan, Athena Kaitlin Trinh, Fatuma Adar, yes the poet, Julianna Notten, Claren Grosz, Allison Price and Becky Johnson, and Gay Jesus.

When: Friday, March 9th starting at 8:00 p.m. Doors at 7:30pm

Where: Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District.

Tickets: Pay-What-You-Can donation in support of SISTERING: a local, multi-service agency for at-risk, socially isolated women in Toronto who are homeless or precariously housed. A representative from the organization will be present at the event to tell you more about the amazing work that they do and how we can get involved. All proceeds from the night will be given to this fantastic organization that is changing the game for women across Toronto.

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

Who:
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

What:
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.

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto

When:
February 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
artsboxoffice.ca

Connect:
@beyondwallsTPM
@buddiesTO
#AchaBachaTO

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!

BANG BANG

Who:
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

What:
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.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst St. Toronto

When:
February 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

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

“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

Calpurnia

Who:
Written and Directed by Audrey Dwyer
A Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre Co-Production
CAST –
Don Allison
Matthew Brown
Carolyn Fe
Natasha Greenblatt
Andrew Moodie
Meghan Swaby
CREATIVE TEAM cont-
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

What:
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.

Where:
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
12 Alexander Street

When:
January 14 – February 4, 2018

Tickets:
nightwoodtheatre.net

Connect:
t: @nightwoodtheat
fb: /nightwoodtheatre
ig: @nightwoodtheat
#Calpurnia

 

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: salam@laughwithleila.com

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

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

What:
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).

Where:
Factory Antechamber
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto

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

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

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