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In Conversation with Scott Emerson Moyle, director of Dauntless City Theatre’s TWO GENTLEWOMEN OF VERONA

Interview by Brittany Kay.

We sat down with Scott Emerson Moyle, director of Dauntless City Theatre’s Two Gentlewomen of Verona, to discuss the necessity for inclusive casting in Shakespeare, adaptation, and making the Bard more accessible for audiences and actors alike. 

Brittany Kay: What first drew you to the original text of Two Gentlemen of Verona?  Why is this comedy rarely staged? 

Scott Emerson Moyle: This is the third play I’ve staged in Berczy Park, but the first since a recent renovation that installed the notorious dog fountain. A site-specific staging has to respond to its location, and there was no avoiding the aesthetic of that gigantic fountain… and Shakespeare only put one live dog onstage, so there we were. I’d guess that the text is rarely staged because it has some serious problems with internal consistency (it often reads like a sloppy early draft), but I’d personally written it off because it normalizes misogyny and rape culture with its awful handling of Silvia’s story arc.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Those normalizations obviously led to a much-needed adaptation, one that is an intersectional feminist reimagining. Talk to me about your process of adaptation and why you saw the play in this way?

SEM: Wanting to do the fun stuff in the play without the baggage was always going to require an adaptation of the text, which is often necessary when trying to argue for Shakespeare’s modern relevance. Since the original text largely treats the female characters as property without agency, I figured a good starting point was casting the two title characters as women. From there, the adaptation kind of took care of itself; the characters and relationships are mostly exactly as Shakespeare wrote them. The biggest change comes at the end, where Shakespeare’s original is unpleasant and unsatisfying for no apparent reason, and where the wrap-up feels forced and inauthentic. I’ve borrowed bits and pieces of text from a few sources to fill out the end of Proteus and Valentine’s story, and that involved a lot of digging around through plays and sonnets for the right fragments to borrow.

Another interesting aspect to the adaptation is in the character of Julian: the source’s character is a girl named Julia who disguises herself as a boy to follow her love Proteus to Milan. I cast a transgender non-binary actor in the role without a clear idea of how that gender-as-disguise narrative would play out, and that actor brought a handling of the character’s arc that feels much more deeply nuanced than the original play’s fairly simplistic proto-Viola story.

The “why” comes from a need to normalize female protagonists and complex relationships between female characters, which Shakespeare’s work rarely has space for. Countless men have had the chance to play Valentine and Proteus, and I wanted to do something new.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: That’s really incredible. In your audition call, you asked for people who felt unwelcomed or alienated by Shakespeare. Why this choice? What did this do for you in terms of casting and how has this brought success or challenges to the process? 

SEM: Everyone has the tools to speak Shakespeare – but I think we get hung up on a particular supposed “correct” approach. It can be challenging text to tackle, but there are lots of tools that can help actors navigate the technical stuff. Lots of very talented actors have so much potential in this work, but they’ve been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t belong in Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare doesn’t exist to tell their stories. If we’re going to keep asserting that Shakespeare is universal, we need to stop only letting one kind of voice be heard. We have to back Shakespeare’s purported universality up with a diversity of voices.

It’s really simple: a cast with a wide range of life experience makes for richer art. The more actors have space to reflect and represent their audience, the better.

BK: I feel like this has a lot do with who you are as a company. Who is Dauntless City Theatre? What makes you different from other Shakespeare companies in Toronto? 

SEM: Dauntless City Theatre has been in operation since 2009, formerly under the name Urban Bard (with a rebrand as Dauntless in 2014). There are certainly other site-specific/immersive companies in town (Outside the March and Convergence Theatre, for example), and other companies doing classical theatre with a focus on inclusive casting (like Shakespeare in the Ruff or Theatre Why Not’s recent Prince Hamlet), and amazing groups like Buddies in Bad Times and Maelstrom Collective making theatre that centres marginalized voices, but I think we’re the only folks trying to work at the intersection of all those ideas. I want to take these great old plays and make them approachable and fun to engage with while creating room for a diversity of voices in the work.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: You have just been accepted into Generator’s Artist Producer Training program for the coming year. Congrats! What does this mean for the future of your company? 

SEM: I’m excited to work with a class of brilliant and talented humans, and I look forward to learning how to produce riskier and more progressive theatre in sustainable ways. This, of course, means that I will bring those skills and connections I’ll develop with Generator back to Dauntless.

BK: How has it been working in Berczy Park? What makes Shakespeare performed in parks desirable as a theatre maker and also for audiences coming to watch? 

SEM: Berczy Park can be a tricky space! We’re very close to traffic, and it’s always a challenge to get the audiences to move around and get close to the action. It’s also a highly visible space, and that means the audience always grows over the course of a performance. Working in a park is a great way to find an audience of people who, for a range of reasons, might not go to a traditional theatre space.

BK: There are elements of live music in your show (I saw some very cool Facebook videos!) Can you talk about how it is used in the performance?

SEM: The music in The Two Gentlewomen of Verona is performed on boomwhackers, which are a series of hollow plastic tubes that each produce a particular pitch when struck. Each of the ten actors has two or three of them, and they get played together to create some fairly complex music. The boomwhackers also become other items in the world of the show, the outlaws’ weapons, the Duke’s staff of office, and so on, which let our composer David Kingsmill compose a rich soundtrack that integrates tightly with the play.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: There’s also a real dog on stage! How has working with this cast member added to the show? 

SEM: Starbuck, who plays Crab the Dog, is actually a fantastic scene partner – attentive, present, and willing to roll with anything. Her human, Leslie McBay, plays Crab’s owner Launce, and their existing relationship translates well in performance. She’s also very patient about wearing a tiny cowboy hat, which is pretty important.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with? 

SEM: The play talks a lot about loyalty, about honesty, and about how tough forgiveness can be; I’d love for the audience to still be thinking about how they’d handle those situations themselves. I also really value how many audiences seem to be taking at face value that Shakespeare wrote a play called The Two Gentlewomen of Verona – I hope this leaves them questioning the amount of space that male characters take up in classical theatre.

Two Gentlewomen of Verona

Who:
CAST – Uche Ama – Antonia/Thuria
Eric Benson – Lucetto / Eglamour
Tallan Byram – Outlaw Captain
Naya Guzman – Valentine
Isabel Hornstein – Speed
Jordy Kieto – Silvio
Jesselle Laurén – Proteus
Leslie McBay – Launce
Christopher Mott – Duke of Milan
Jordi O’Dael – Julian
featuring Starbuck The Dog as Crab The Dog

Scott Emerson Moyle – Director
Lucy McPhee – Stage Manager
Stevie Baker – Producer
Annelise Hawrylak – Assistant Director
David Kingsmill – Music Director
Christopher Mott – Fight Director
Stevie Baker – Costumes
Dahlia Katz – Poster Design

Where:
Berczy Park

When:
August 18, 19, 25, 26 at 7:30 PM
August 19, 20, 26, 27 at 1:00.

Tickets:
All performances are Pay-What-You-Can!

This is an immersive performance, so wear comfortable shoes! The entire show is accessible to wheelchair users.

Connect:
dauntlesscitytheatre.com

 

Talking Connection, Reality and Structure with Rebecca Applebaum, Director of REALITY THEATRE at SummerWorks

Interview by Madryn McCabe

MMC: Tell me a bit about the show.

Rebecca Applebaum: Reality Theatre is unlike any other show I’ve ever seen or been a part of. It has four storylines all split in two and it’s almost structured like a palindrome, which I love. Every storyline is different: in length, in how the characters relate to each other, in the worlds that they live in, and in many other ways as well. With each story having two separated parts, there’s a sense that time has passed in each world while we’ve been away from them watching the others. And we get to tune back in just at the right moment.

MMC: What drew you to this show?

RA: I casually mentioned to Julia (Lederer, playwright of Reality Theatre) that I wanted to be a director during a period of time when we were working intensively together on two projects. She casually replied that I could direct her next play (I know, Right!?) And then she sent me the script for Reality Theatre. I read it and thought it was great. And as I’ve spent more and more time with the script, from that initial reading, to auditioning actors, to rehearsal, to performance, I’ve found myself discovering more and more how truly brilliant the writing is—how insightful, how hilarious, and how truthful it is about human vulnerability, relationships and our need for connection, as well as how misguided we often are in our attempt to figure out what to do with our lives.

MMC: Reality Theatre is made up of eight, smaller plays. How do they all connect with each other and what was it like directing eight smaller plays as opposed to one long one?

RA: A couple of themes that connect the plays and come to mind right now (and there are many) are human fallibility and the absurdity of a lot of human endeavor (be it an online quest to find a YouTube guru or selling your soul for eternal youthfulishness). And then on another side of that coin, there’s the process of facing reality after not looking at it for so long. And of course, the plays are all connected by Julia’s unique and wonderful voice, language, and ingenious comedic sensibility.

In terms of directing different plays within one piece, one of the first things that I started thinking about was how to differentiate each world. I started thinking about how each world could have a distinct relationship to the space of the theatre. So that was my initial approach to how to stage the show. One of the worlds plays with distance, one plays with vastness, another with confinement, and another with connectedness.

MMC: The plays talk about maintaining human connection in a world where communication technology is always evolving. Some would argue that all of these different technologies are better for connecting with each other, while others find it impersonal. How do you feel about all of the different ways we are able to communicate with each other? How did that affect your approach to directing?

RA: The pair of plays that are most clearly about our relationship to technology are both written with the three characters on stage together but in their own technological silos—connected but disconnected, staring intently at their screens or interfaces but blind to their surroundings. Seeing them all together like that let’s us see ourselves in relationship to each other despite the isolation we often inadvertently impose on ourselves. And with all of Julia’s brilliant humour and it being in a theatre with people laughing all together, I think it grounds us back in a shared reality and places us in a collective experience that gives us some space and perspective on our relationship to technology.

MMC: This year’s SummerWorks programming is based on the question “how do we come together?” How does Reality Theatre fit into that idea, or answer that question?

RA: Theatre is how we come together! Also, all the stuff I’ve mentioned about how the play shows us our need for human connection and brings us to an experience of shared reality.

MMC: Is there anything you want to tell the audience before they see Reality Theatre?

RA: Some trivia that people might be interested in:

  1. Originally the show was written for two men and one woman. We cast the show with two women and one man and completely changed how the roles were distributed between the actors.
  2. This may be obvious, but my generally very observant friend didn’t see it, so I thought I’d mention it just in case: the set’s backdrop (designed by Christine Urquhart) references and is a recursive copy of the exposed archway over the Factory Mainspace stage (which is usually covered by masking).

Reality Theatre

Who:
Company: QuestionMark-Exclamation Theatre
Directed by Rebecca Applebaum
Written by Julia Lederer
Performed by Akosua Amo-Adem, Krista Morin, and Andy Trithardt
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Costume Design by Brandon Kleiman
Lighting Design by Claire Hill
Sound Design by Andy Trithardt
Produced by Stephanie Jung

What:
Reality and fantasy blur for a woman playing a spoon in Beauty and the Beast. A man reconsiders a contract signed in blood. And the world wide web disappears into thin air. Reality Theatre is a fast moving collection of short, interwoven plays that explore our anxieties about change, the acceleration of technology, and maintaining human relationships in a world quickly becoming less human.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Saturday August 12th 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Sunday August 13th 8:00pm – 9:00pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

“Universalism vs Pluralversalism and Exploring Voice” In Conversation with Jivesh Parasram & Tom Arthur Davis on THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard are three incredibly talented theatre creators and performers. Each have their own unique and important voice, which they bring to The Only Good Indian running at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival. We sat down with Jiv and Tom to discuss the major narratives and ideas explored in this piece: identity, occupation and personal history.

Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show.

Tom Arthur Davis: It’s hard to talk about without giving things away about it.

Jiv Parasram: Uh… fuck. Our tagline is “part lecture, part meditation, part threat.”

BK: Yes and what does that mean?

JP: Can’t tell you too much about it.

(Laughter) 

JP: It’s roughly half pre-written material that deals with issues of occupation, colonization (and decolonization, depending on your angle of it) and some pretty dense political theory, but told in a pretty interesting way. It’s specifically about the lives that we value and the lives that we don’t. The other half of it is written by the performer who’s doing it that night through a series of guided prompt questions that ask them to mine parts of their own living experience and identity. People play a version of themselves, I would say, and there is a spectrum of that depending on who is doing it, some of it is a little bit more autobiographical, some is less. If that makes sense?

BK: That makes sense. Do you want to add anything Tom?

TAD: Yeah, it’s also a pluralversal exercise, to show that many parts make the whole, specifically in regards to, I guess, what we are calling “Indianhood” and what that means. Where are we indigenous to who are the Indigenous people where we are now and how do we try to find some sort of empathy or connection.

JP: It’s kind of how you find your way into the story. A lot of it has to do with how you experience homogenous otherness, or that you witness it, or that you’ve felt it on yourself. Tribalism is part of that, where you associate with and where you don’t.

Pluralversal is not a term many people are waxin’ around with.

BK: No…

JP: It’s a bit of an antithesis to universality.

BK: Expand on that.

JP: The principal of universalism means that there is one universal truth and often that tends to just be the dominant way of thinking about that. Often it’s a Eurocentric kind of truth related to structures of power that have been there a long time. But Pluralversal thinking comes from like Zapatista philosophy […] there are multiple universes and multiple universal truths all informed by different cosmologies too, so different ways of thinking about the world. Those all come together to make up a whole truth and they don’t always have to agree, so it’s not binary.

BK: Very interesting.

JP: So that’s why we are getting different people to do it and look through it. Hopefully through that we will, maybe, find some commonalities with it. I don’t know. We’ll find out!

BK: Where did this idea first come from to create this show? What was the inspiration behind this work?

JP: Basically, I spent five years researching the politics of death… and that kind of fucked me up, like real bad. Then I started writing a couple of different pieces all dealing with it […] I wrote this piece, a piece called The Only Good Indian, which got published by Playwrights Canada Press in a ten-minute anthology. Which was different from what we are doing. That’s a two-hander play where some of the themes are still there.

It was based on an article about liquidity and identity in South Asian males in the U.K during the War on Terror, where it was saying that there are fewer options and representation for them. The twist of it was that they were identifying with these terrorists back ‘home’, talking about Pakistan and India but one is from Guyana and one is from Trinidad, so they are not actually from there but they have still internalized it. Then we got accepted to the Rhubarb Festival to expand it, which was the original idea. We were trying to figure out an interesting way to do that. There was so much going on at that time in the world.

TAD: That Turkish ambassador was assassinated in Russia and we just thought that the piece would be about a standoff between two brown guys wearing vests, one being a cop wearing a bullet proof vest and the other with a suicide vest on and he’s trying to talk him out of it. We didn’t know if it would make sense to have a South Asian body wearing a suicide vest in a naturalistic context for this Rhubarb performance after that had happened.

JP: It just seemed like it was supporting the mainstream narrative to a certain point. The central theme that I had trouble with, was saying that I can’t ever represent one voice on this. I asked Tom to do it with me and we came up with a process for writing somewhat different but related pieces. I think it was super brave of Tom to do it…

TAD: Oh shucks.

JP: …because, you know, if I’m in a piece that’s called The Only Good Indian versus if Tom is, it’s going to be differently received just off the bat.

BK: Totally. Let’s talk about the different voices in this piece. You have Donna Michelle St. Bernard also speaking the same text?

TAD: Some of it. The pre-written part yes and the other half depends on the performer and what they write based off of the given prompts. It’s quite different hearing different bodies saying the text that each of us share in the show. You will get a different reaction to what Jiv is saying than if I’m saying it, whatever that reaction might be, positive or negative, for either of us.

JP: The first line of the play is “Can I say Indian?” which is quite different when I say it, versus when Tom says it. It’s an interesting thing to have to mitigate. We had a lot of discussions about how to do that, trying to figure out how to not make an audience shut off.

BK: What kind of reactions do you want from audiences? I heard there were some people walking out at the Rhubarb performance. Is that what you want?

TAD: No, we don’t want that. We want them to listen.

JP: And a negative reaction is valid too. We understand why people might want to walk out, but I think that if people can listen, the intention is to get them to rethink some of these perceptions towards identity. The SummerWorks performances will all be followed by long table discussions, which is one of the things that we didn’t have at Rhubarb, that ability to talk to the audience. We couldn’t talk to them beyond just chatting with them after if we saw them.

TAD: Also very few people at Rhubarb saw both performances to see the differences between them and see what that means.

BK: So it’s advantageous for audiences to see all three performances at SummerWorks?

JP: Absolutely, it’s a different show each time. I think it would be cool. Even if some of the text is the same, it’s radically different depending on what has preceded it and what follows it. The meaning can change.

BK: Why is it important for audiences right now to see this show?

JP: For me, it’s for the politics of representation right now. If there was going to be a central lecture in this piece it would be discussing the division of what we are calling a “Death World/Life World” perception. There are parts of the world where it’s expected that people live and parts of the world where it is expected that they die. Our tolerance for death is different depending on where you’re at. I think part of it is the debate of appropriation right now, which I think comes from not having any connection or knowledge of your own story. People have all sorts of histories that they need to mine.

TAD: My piece is about losing that sense of identity and being white washed quite literally.

BK: What about Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s?

JP: She’s talking about Grenada. She has a very different spin on occupation. She’s really running with the material and basing it a lot off of setting up the lectures. She doesn’t go directly for something, but has this articulate, subtle way of talking around it. A big factor of hers has to do with success and choice. Accepting and loving certain labels that have been colonially put on you, but then acknowledging how fucked up those labels might be.

BK: I want to see how all three collectively intersect!

TAD: Eventually the hope would be that we could have a different performer every night, not just three. Put it out into the ether and then people could just do their own.

JP: We would like to be able to tour and just show up somewhere and be like, “We would like to employ seven of your local artists.” It’s more interesting to me that way.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

JP: I want them to engage in the conversation. Maybe rethink some of their perceptions.

TAD: It’s hard to say, because we are three different performers. What do we want them coming out with from my piece or Jiv’s or DM’s? If they see all 3 then they are getting the pluralversal idea. Some pieces might make you angry and some might make you reflect and others might make you need to talk about something. It will really differ.

BK: Do you have other SummerWorks shows you’re excited to see?

TAD: Explosions for the 21st Century.

JP: I also want to check out The Chemical Valley Project. There is the Amy project Almeida (The Glorious).

TAD: Boys in Chairs.

JP: The Smile Off Your Face, very curious about that. The Archivist.

BK: It’s a very good year! Anything else we need to know?

JP: The only thing I would say is that some of the content we do can be pretty disturbing and we’re in discussions right now about what warnings we need to put up and also to let people know that they can leave and we won’t be offended. It can be pretty heavy. It also will be different for each show, so if people want to write to me and say I need to know what I’m walking into, I’m happy to write to them and give them a heads up and let them know what they are going to see.

The Only Good Indian

Who:
Company: Pandemic Theatre
Project Design by Jivesh Parasram
Co-Created by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.

What:
Part lecture, part meditation, and part threat, The Only Good Indian takes a shockingly raw look at where our similarities begin and where they end. Each night a different performer straps themselves into an extreme situation – forcing the audience to ask – what would you die for?

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

When:
Friday August 11th 8:45pm – 10:00pm
Saturday August 12th 9:00pm – 10:15pm
Sunday August 13th 3:30pm – 4:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

“A Vaudeville of Ionesco meets 30 Rock” In Conversation with David Bernstein on creating “surrealist hoedown” NASHVILLE STORIES at SummerWorks

Article by Megan Robinson

David Bernstein is sitting across from me in my living room and being delightfully self-deprecating and candid about his current production Nashville Stories at SummerWorks. “Oh, you’ve never heard of me? Well here is my original 75 minute, ten person musical! […] I’ve had to really interrogate my desire to make things this big.” He is joking but also not. He considers the production his “cold open” to the Toronto theatre scene, which is a lot for someone taking on the roles of writer, director and actor. As the opening was creeping up and nerves were beginning to take over, David lets me know he is seriously considering his therapist’s recommendation that he get Beta Blockers.

“What are those?” I ask.

“They slow down the heart,” he says.

Having studied at NYU, David is now working in Toronto where he is building his reputation for making bold and out-of-the-box choices, despite the fact that networking is not what he considers his strong suit. A performance artist, his first Canadian production Cherry Corsage was an original piece co-presented by Videofag. He is also a creative associate for the dance company Rock Bottom Movement, where he works closely and collaboratively with choreographer Alyssa Martin.

His newest beast Nashville Stories is what he describes as a “surrealist hoedown”, and is the result of seven months of work starting back in December when he and Jake Vanderham (co-writer, producer and actor) pitched it to Summerworks.

The show is inspired by Garth Brooks’ strange turn into Chris Gaines back in 1999, an event David says he knew nothing about at the time. “I liked country music but like… Shania Twain.” When Liza Kelly, costume designer, posted an article about the phenomenon on Facebook, David took the click bait and discovered his newest show.

As we discuss the event, David puts real emphasis on the incredulity of Garth’s choice. “He was the biggest selling artist of that time and he decided he was going to make himself into this weird sleazy rock star character. We use one of the songs from that album in this show and it sounds like Boyz II Men. Not only is it not what people paid to see from him, historically, it also calls into question the sort of constructed aspect of the rest of what he’d done.”

Pop culture and celebrity has been a staple in all of David’s original work so far, “Every time I find something that I want to make something about, it’s always about a real person, a celebrity, and it usually involves something about how they make their art.

His first show, which was created while he was living in New York, centered around Lena Dunham. The show was inspired by the strange results of Dunham’s rise to fame, which put a unique stamp on “the millennial creative woman trying to figure out her shit”. This archetype became its own cliché that then trapped a lot of the women he knew who were trying to make art from their own lives. And so birthed the show, Too Many Lenas.

Next up: Cherry Corsage, about Isaac Mizrahi on the shopping channel, and the very real segment where he argues about whether the moon is a star or a planet. David was a sales person, himself, when he saw the clip and was fascinated with the showmanship of sales, “Sales is just this weird extemporaneous monologue with this thing at the end where you try to get people’s money. So I was watching this person perform in this mode that I was performing in and I was thinking, “Great! I’m going to do that.”

So how does a country singer creating an alter ego as a rock star with a made up back story hit a personal chord in David’s life?

Well, the show is trying to grapple with that tension of creative fulfilment and success with that romantic, social side. David was going through a breakup, himself, and used the creative process to bolster where he was in his own life.

“When you hear about Garth’s story and you get that Wikipedia epiphany of “Oh! Chris Gaines is what he did after he got a divorce,” you get this sense, and it’s the one we end with in the show, of this bittersweet moment of somebody fixing what they thought was an inadequacy in them based on a romantic failing, with a creative change that forces them to leave something behind. Where I was socially, romantically, I could feel all those holes he was trying to fill. And feel what he would have had to push out to fill them.”

This, David says, is what’s underneath all the colourful flourishes “if you really are sinking your teeth into it.” But most of the time, the nonsense and the fun is what prevails. David’s work leaves people with questions. Mooney on Theatre reviewed Cherry Corsage and said “Despite the research, and having no clue about what on earth I just witnessed, I still enjoyed myself, and the show. It was really funny.”

Which makes sense to me even more as David unravels his creative process of scriptwriting, which starts out with a point and ends in a joke: “A lot of the script is found material. There’s a Bette Midler stand-up special, then three lines I’ve written and an inside joke from rehearsal. We stage it, then I’ll cut what was the heart of the piece, and the inside joke might stay. And then it becomes a transition for the next scene.” As a result, the final script was really only solidified a week and a half ago. “There are just too many options,” David says, about creating his own script.

Nashville Stories is ambitious and in the interview it’s almost like David is struggling to get a baby tiger to cuddle with him, as he explores the various elements of this fun and fluffy but wild-spirited piece.

There is a lot at stake, and to trust in your own vision can be hard, though David is getting better at that. “I’m not afraid of people being like “WHAT THE FUCK?” I’m afraid of bored, polite digestion.” There’s also apprehension of making those final leaps in rehearsal in order to sew it all together, “I trust the cast to get there, but it requires a real acrobatic ability from the performers. I think it’s pretty close.” Then there’s the weight of bringing in the audience: “I feel such a responsibility throwing the cast out there in front of people, so what I’m creating and the structure of the piece has to serve them. I can’t let them go out there with something I know I should’ve cut or put in a different spot. “

When I ask David a final time to give me a sense of the show or to describe it (which I’ve done a lot already and it is probably annoying) he leaves me with, “A Vaudeville of Ionesco meets 30 Rock.”

Nashville Stories

Who:
Written by David Bernstein and Jake Vanderham
Directed by David Bernstein
Produced by Jake Vanderham
Performed by Cynthia Ashperger, David Bernstein, Stephanie Cozzette, Kaleigh Gorka, Brendan Flynn, Teresa Labriola, and Jake Vanderham
Choreographed by Alyssa Martin
Costumes by Liza Kelly
Lighting Design by Eric Bartnes
Stage Managed by Scott Phyper

What:
Garth Brooks is sad. His divorce is final, his album is not. With the help of his famous friends, Garth tries to make himself disappear. But nobody is prepared for who replaces him. Based on the infamous 1999 album The Life of Chris Gaines, performance artist David Bernstein and writer-performer Jake Vanderham conjure a surreal hoedown featuring a live bluegrass band. Surf’s up!

Where:
The Theatre Centre – Franco Boni Theatre
1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON

When:
Thursday August 10th 8:30pm – 9:45pm
Friday August 11th 4:00pm – 5:15pm
Saturday August 12th 8:15pm – 9:30pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

In Conversation with Kevin Matthew Wong, Co-Creator of THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Kevin Matthew Wong is known to have his creative hands in a lot of things. A creator/actor/director/musician/producer/artistic director/environmentalist… this man is one of the busiest working artists in the city and for good reason. The environmental work and passion he brings to the Toronto theatre community is incredibly important, urgent and inspiring. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Kevin to discuss his current piece The Chemical Valley Project on stage now at the SummerWorks Performance Festival.

Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show.

Kevin Matthew Wong: The Chemical Valley Project is a show about the Sarnia Chemical Valley and its impact on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve, which is a community of 800 people that is surrounded by Canadian and American petrochemical factories. On the Canadian side, those factories represent 40% of all of the petrochemical industry in this country… so it’s a very small community with huge health impacts from these factories.

BK: How did this project come about?

KMW: I’ve known about the Chemical Valley for 3 or 4 years now. I’ve thought about creating theatre about it, but I didn’t know if it was right. I didn’t really have an “in”. What did I have to say about it?

I had also been thinking about documentary theatre recently and from our last show Bite-Sized, I think the strongest parts of it were the parts that were based in docu-theatre. I was lucky enough to meet with Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, who are two climate activists but also land defenders and water protectors from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. They’re incredible and they do such important work. I met them last year on my first visit to the Chemical Valley. I went to talks that they were on the panels for and did my research on them. Finally I got the courage to contact Vanessa and say, “Hey, do you want to just chat about what you do and your work?” I didn’t know it was going to be a theatre thing yet.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: It never hurts to reach out. It can create relationships and new working opportunities.

KMW: Exactly. Now we’re good acquaintances… I daresay friends! That was only just a year ago.

BK: Wow.

KMW: Yeah. it’s crazy. It’s been so fast. It’s a piece about so many things beyond just that base narrative… It’s about reconciliation of how this community gives people an in for understanding wider things about how Indigenous people and settlers interact in this country. How this story, in a settler or white community, would be totally different than what it is right now with an Indigenous community. There are tons of these stories that we aren’t able to tell in the show as it’s only 30 minutes long.

BK: It’s only 30 minutes?

KMW: Yeah! We’re in a double bill with a comedy magic show called Perfection, but for us it’s a step. We didn’t know that we were going to get into SummerWorks. We didn’t know that the piece would develop as quickly. We didn’t know that people would respond to it so strongly. People who I’ve never met have come up to me and said, “I saw your piece and I remember it and it’s making me think and want to do more.” It’s really timely.

BK: How has Vanessa and Lindsay Gray helped your piece dramaturgically?

KMW: They are a part of it. They appear through the show. You hear their words and see them. They have advised on the way that this story should be told and what’s missing. Every time we have a new version of the piece, we show them. We want to honour their words. The climate right now, artistically, is so much about voice. Of course co-creator Julia [Howman] and I are hyper-conscious of that.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: How did you first discover The Sarnia Chemical Valley?

KMW: I’m going to preface with the fact that I think a lot of our conversations on environment are very vague. They’re about degrees of warming and CO2 and methane and those are sort of abstract. A lot of the coverage we get on the environment is very American still. America pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and we’re all doomed. Per capita we have a huge impact in this country.

I stumbled upon a Vice documentary that talked about the Chemical Valley and Vanessa Gray was actually in it, but I didn’t put two and two together until we met. I also learned about the Valley following this major legal battle that Vanessa and two of her friends were involved in – she was dealing with it when I reconnected with her. I wanted to make sure people in the theatre community knew about this issue and unjust charge. That story is part of the show so I don’t want to give too much away.

BK: And what are petrochemicals for some people that aren’t as environmentally savvy?

KMW: They are compounds that are created from petrol. Chemical compounds made from petroleum.

BK: How do they affect our health?

KMW: They’re used for tons of things. In part of the show, there’s like a Ted-Talk-y/info-graph section describing and educating about different petrochemicals. For example, there are chemicals called styrene, which is used for Styrofoam and plastics. Petrochemicals are everywhere and in our everyday lives. Part of the show is about the way that we live our lives and how the way that we live creates a necessity for these products. I don’t imply that they’re essential. I think the playwriting is sort of cautious and conscious in that way. I don’t want to suggest that there’s no way to get away from them. It’s a big issue.

BK: An issue also affecting the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve?

KMW: Yes. It’s about the settlement and placement of this community in one location, when, historically, they are traditional people of the water. They’re not stationary. But with the Reserve system, Indigenous people are told to stay on the land that “we tell you that you own and furthermore the traditional lands that you take care of, we have treaties that you might not have even understood when they were signed, that form the legal basis of this country” which are also are very manipulative and sneaky.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Why is being close to these factories unsafe?

KMW: In short, it has to do with leaks. I bumped into Trevor Schwellnus, the lighting designer, the other day and I mentioned this project to him and he said, “ Oh yeah, when I was a kid one of my buddies swam in the Sarnia blob.” The Sarnia blob was this oil spill into the water that took a lot of lobbying to clean up and it was there for years. That’s just one example of a very obvious spill. Spills are also not just liquid, there are also airborne spills.

It’s very hard for these chemical factories to track these spills and very often it is the community that tracks them and warns everybody else. One of the most tragic and impactful stories that I learned about was this spill of benzene into the air. They didn’t let people know about it and kids that were playing outside were affected by the spill and one child developed leukemia and passed away. It’s frightening when it’s the job of the Chief to go house to house to say what is happening, to stay in your house and to listen to the radio for the code for what type of spill it is, what the direction is, and the wind speed. All of those things impact your day-to-day life.

BK: That’s really scary.

KMW: The Chemical Valley is the sight of chemical activity AND legal action. It’s not only about the health effects but also about inequity.

BK: Yes, you use a wonderful term in your show description: Environmental Racism.

KMW: It’s not a term that people are using right now very often. It is quite particular in this country.

BK: Your piece uses projections and miniature object puppetry. Can you talk about this a bit?

KMW: I think people are interested in this visual style. It’s something I’ve been working on for the past three years and refining until this point. I’m very lucky to have Julia Howman as my co-creator and as the person who is creating these visuals with me. All of the projections take place on only two surfaces. One is the back wall of the theatre and the other is a sheet. The sheet is completely moveable. I manipulate it in different places in the theatre and different orientations. I’m not interested in seeing something on a screen. I’m so tired of people projecting something on the cyc and it’s flat. I can go home and watch a video on Vimeo. That’s not interesting to me. There are a lot of projections that are unsatisfying. Instead, what is it about the liveness of it that you can play with? The visual style, I hope, is augmenting that liveness and also giving you projections in a way that you don’t usually see them and also giving them to you in a way that they’re interacting with physical objects.

A projector is a light. We love staring at campfires. We love moving light. Moving light is this primal thing. Moving light and movement is a way for us to incorporate elemental things and even though you’re in this black box theatre space, we want you to have a little hint of the magic of nature.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

The miniature objects are different important objects that we interacted with on our way to creating the piece. Those are about scale. I’m always interested in seeing things in two scales at once, if possible, because to put claim to being environmentally conscious is about seeing things in a different scale.

BK: Oh, that was a beautiful line you just said.

KMW: It’s not just that these objects are cool, but it’s about us begging you to see things and re-examine them differently.

BK: How did you get into environmental theatre?

KMW: It depends how far you want to go back… like [back when I saw] Pocahontas?

(Laughter)

BK: What made you want to create and learn more and develop a whole theatre company based on environmentalism?

KMW: I think it started in high school. I ran both the environmental club and the theatre club. Very nerdy. But they never crossed paths. One very formative part of running the environmental club was going to town hall meetings and hearing about this thing called the Food Belt in Markham. That was about trying to protect land north of a certain street and make sure that further housing development didn’t happen because the best farmland in Canada is found half an hour away from Toronto. It was hearing the two sides of the coin at these meetings that made me realize that any piece of art that relates to the environment can’t be this one-sided thing.

In my second year at UofT, I had a conversation with a peer of mine, Nathaniel Rose, about making art that was based on environmental issues. We were in acting class and we loved the training that we were doing, but the Canadian classic plays where our scenes were from didn’t relate to the issues we found most urgent, which were environmental issues in this country. From that, we created our first piece, which was called The Broadleaf Plays. We’ve always had shitty titles (he laughs). They’re very blatant.

That became a project called Bite-Sized, which we presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year. The concept of that was how do we connect with younger, millennial audiences in presenting short bits of engaging stuff, which became 18 plays in 60 minutes with all things that related to Canadian environmental issues.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: What and who is Broadleaf Theatre?

KMW: Broadleaf Theatre creates works based on local, national and global environmental issues. Broadleaf Theatre is whoever’s interacting with the company and whoever has interacted with our company and really all of the people who come to see the work. One thing about the environmental movement is that it’s very disparate. It happens in little chunks of leadership and community. You know… grassroots. When everyone is doing their own thing, that’s the movement. It’s not some top-heavy thing. What Broadleaf Theatre is, and who it is, is changing a lot. Of course I would definitely shout out Mirka Loiselle who is our associate producer and Angela Sun and who does the social networking for the company.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

KMW: Conversation… Conversation. I would love for them to join us at the Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering.

BK: Tell me more!?

KMW: It’s a beautiful event. It’s a weekend in Aamjiwnaang. There are classes on Anishinaabe culture and beliefs and the sacredness of water. It happens on August 18th-20th. It’s all free and accessible…they even provide free childcare. You can camp if you want to. It’s also where the Toxic Tour happens, where you go on a school bus with Vanessa or Lindsay and they will tell you about all the factories and history of the land.

BK: Damn.

KMW: It’s a wonderful event that I can’t stress enough. I think one of the big things about this show is that it’s always related to a real ask in the world. It doesn’t finish. One of the parts of the show that I’m still writing is this sort of meta thing… it’s not finished because it’s not. We want to have a longer version and more of the threads to go further, but it’s also not finished until you do something and even when you do something it’s still not really finished. That line is so blurry. Now that you know about this thing, the show is you, isn’t it? The show is whatever you make of it, whatever you do with it. Hopefully people engage with us, support Vanessa and Lindsay and learn about the traditional keepers of this land and the protocols of the land.

BK: Any shows you are looking forward to see at SummerWorks?

KMW: What Linda Said, The Only Good Indian, Divine, Perfection…you know there are so many good things to see this year.

Rapid Fire Question Round: 

Favourite food: Sushi

Favourite movie: Whatever documentary I’m thinking about in the moment.

Favourite play: Cock by Mark Bartlett.

Favourite book: The Giving Tree.

Favourite place in Toronto: The waterfront.

Inspiration when creating: Visual Art and just seeing as many plays as I can.

Best advice or mantra: Just do it. Just do the work.

The Chemical Valley Project

ChemicalValleyProjectJULIAHOWMAN1

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Who:
Company: Broadleaf Theatre
Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Dramaturgy by Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Gray
Produced by Kevin Matthew Wong
Associate Produced by Mirka Loiselle
Music by Minha Lee and Michael Henley.

What:
Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin and Julia document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial past and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.

Chemical Valley Project is part of a double bill with Perfection.

Where:
Pia Bouman – Scotiabank Studio Theatre
6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 11th 6:00pm – 7:15pm
Saturday August 12th 1:45pm – 3:00pm
Sunday August 13th 6:30pm – 7:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

 

A Chat with Jason Maghanoy, Playwright of THE NAILS at SummerWorks

Interview by Shaina Silver-Baird

SSB: Is this play inspired by true events? If yes, how so?

Jason Maghanoy: This play is like all of my other plays: it’s all true but none of it is true.

SSB: Where does The Nails fall on the realism spectrum?

JM: It’s like real life… which sometimes doesn’t feel real, you know?

SSB: Where does the title The Nails come from? 

JM: There’s a line in the play that explains it and I don’t want to give it away.

SSB: Have you worked at SummerWorks before? Why is this festival a good match for your play?

JM: This is my fourth time doing SummerWorks. I always have fun doing it. The Nails is the most ambitious project I’ve ever had as part of the Festival.

SSB: What did you take into account when assembling your team?

JM: Tanya Rintoul built the team. She was the first person I brought on-board and she has been amazing. Rigorous. Ambitious. Smart. I love what she has created.

 

SSB: The play addresses family issues, racism, homophobia… Did you set out to write a piece that dealt with these things?

JM: Yup.

SSB: The play takes place in America. Is it specifically American or is that just the setting? How does it relate to Canadians?

JM: My dad lives in Texas and Houston is like… my CITY, you know? But the themes of the play are universal.

SSB: What can people expect from The Nails?

JM: A good time. Hopefully you’ll want to talk about it after.

SSB: Describe the play in 5 words. 

JM: Faith. Freedom. Love. Cruelty…Four words is enough.

The Nails

Who:
Company: jsquared.theatre
Written by Jason Maghanoy
Directed by Tanya Rintoul
Performed by Jeysa Caridad, Jake Runeckles, Alexander Thomas, William Ellis, Ellie Ellwand
Stage Management by Meghan Froebelius
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Lighting Design by David Costello
Sound Design by Jaiden Davis-Jones
Costume Design by Claire Hill
Production Management by Alanna McConnell

What:
Ally and Josh spend every summer with their father as he goes from small town to small town working for a construction company in America. But this summer is different. This summer they grow up. This is the summer that everything changes.

The Nails is a play about family. It is a play about faith. And it captures a world of freedom and extremism in all directions; love and cruelty exist within the same space here. Sometimes they feel like the same thing.

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

When:
Tuesday August 8th 10:00pm – 11:15pm
Thursday August 10th 7:30pm – 8:45pm
Saturday August 12th 4:15pm – 5:30pm
Sunday August 13th 1:00pm – 2:15pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

“It’s Mad Max meets The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Performers Amanda Cordner, Christina Bryson & Director Claire Burns on DIVINE at SummerWorks

Interview by Megan Robinson

When I walked into the rehearsal space for DIVINE, the women of the cast were already in costume. I caught sight of holsters and cow hide wrapped around their waists. Two actors were clasping plastic bottles molded into the shape of guns. It’s a hot room, and the cast was dressed head to toe. The women, a powerful group, sauntered across the stage and stood ready to begin.

DIVINE is a Western set in a post-apocalyptic Ontario where water has disappeared. Playwright Natalie Frijia, who is currently pursuing her PhD in environmental studies and theatre, first conceived of DIVINE during Storefront Theatre’s first playwrights unit.

The play portrays characters finding strength in a desperate situation. I can’t help but reflect on how the themes of the piece mirrored real life for the cast and crew. Days before rehearsals were set to start, Storefront Theatre was evicted from its space last December. DIVINE, and half the season, was cancelled.

After the run, I sat outside with cast members Christina Bryson and Amanda Cordner as well as director Claire Burns, who tried to remember the exact timeline: “We’d booked off work for rehearsals and everything,” Cordner said of the challenges that face artists who work in indie theatre; more often than not the people involved are also navigating their day jobs (or night jobs…Hi bartenders!)

But the show has landed on its feet and has a new home at SummerWorks. The changes that were made to fit festival needs have also opened up new possibilities. With a set that needs to be easily torn down, and a trimmed version of the original two-hour script, the show is perfect for touring and Burns went on to mention plans to share the show beyond the festival.

The idea of an Ontario in drought might be terrifying, but DIVINE is surprisingly playful in its telling of the story. However, keeping it light took some work. Bryson and Cordner explained that once they delved into the reality of their characters’ despairing situation, they had to be reminded one day in rehearsal that it was a comedy. Cordner, who plays Penn, rolled her eyes at herself and laughed, “I was bringing all the drama.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

“The play itself isn’t an issue play. It’s a kind of fantastical adventure story but underneath it is that message of conservation and sustainability. We don’t want to get to a place where we don’t have water,” said director Claire Burns. There’s a sweet spot in this work of marrying activism and theatre, but Burns is clear on her approach, “You catch more bees with honey.” “People never learn when you point fingers at them,” Cordner added. Burns nods, “It’s like subliminal messaging.”

The show itself may not hit you over the head with its message but by forging relationships last fall with the World Wildlife Fund and Wellington Water Watchers, DIVINE is a show supported by those who are actively working towards the preservation of water. “It was important to me that we had partnerships with legitimate environmental organizations,” said Burns.

Originally written with male roles, Claire made the decision to work with an all-female cast. Her reasoning? “The women were legitimately the best people for the roles.” I asked if they ever played around with women playing men, using fake moustaches or other costume devices, but Cordner and Bryson just laughed as Cordner explained, “Claire made it very clear from the beginning that we were not going to do that.”

Burns shook her head, “I hate that shit.” And she’s had plenty of experience with it. “The guys who played women were always making everyone laugh and then I’d get on stage with my fake moustache and it would just be dumb. We didn’t want to do that. We’re not trying to fool anybody that we’re not women.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

The choice to go with a female cast and crew has clearly paid off. When I asked the women to speak to the community they’ve created in DIVINE they didn’t hold back:

Claire Burns: “What I think is special is that I’m given the opportunity to get to know and get to work with so many powerful and smart women. With every show you work on you create these bonds with people and in this show in particular – I think it’s like 17 women working on this show – everyone is pulling their weight and so it’s such an easy process. I’m having such a good time. I’m really enjoying my community right now. I’m also enjoying that my community is being so generous letting me take this role and I’m so grateful that I’m allowed to shape this story in the way that I want. I’m also part of the                     queer community so I’ve put that into this, very much so…”

Amanda Cordner: (imitating Claire) “There will be a kiss. I don’t know where but there will be a kiss!”

Claire Burns: (laughing) “I’m very grateful it’s so fun.”

Christina Bryson: “It’s fun to get to kick-ass! How often, as women, do you get to do all this stage combat with like ten of you kicking ass at the same time?! That’s my favourite part.”

DIVINE

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Who:
Presented by Red One Theatre Collective with the generous support of The Storefront Theatre
Written by Natalie Frijia
Directed by Claire Burns
Assistant Director Molison Farmer
Dramaturgy Emma Mackenzie Hillier
Performed by Amanda Cordner, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Christina Bryson, Sarah Naomi Campbell, Haley Garnett and Rehaset; Ensemble Annie Yao, Sabah Haque, Kathleen O’Reilly, Khadijah
Producer Sedina Fiati
Associate Producer Olivia Marshman
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Lighting Design by Imogen Wilson
Costume Design by Sage Paul
Sound Design by Suzie Balogh
Fight Director Louisa Zhu
Assistant Fight Director Erin Eldershaw
Stage Managed by Lin-Mei Lay

What:
Ontario is out of water and a pair of bandits search for their last hope – a water diviner by the name of Penn. Stories say she can crack the world like a coconut and make water bubble to the surface with nothing but her hands. But the bandits aren’t the only ones hunting her down. And what if there’s nothing left for Penn to divine?

An all woman cast in Natalie Frijia’s post-apocalyptic wild west asks how we would survive in world without water. Would we turn to community… or to revenge?

Join the creative team of DIVINE for some post-show discussions – August 5 in the Factory Courtyard with Paul Baines from the Great Lakes Common and August 12 at The Paddock with guests from Wellington Water Watchers, the World Wildlife Fund and Surf the Greats.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Tuesday August 8th 9:45pm – 11:00pm
Wednesday August 9th 8:00pm – 9:15pm
Saturday August 12th 7:00pm – 8:15pm
Sunday August 13th 1:30pm – 2:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca