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A Little Chat with playwright Anusree Roy on “Little Pretty and The Exceptional”

Interview by Brittany Kay

We always leave a chat with Anusree Roy feeling inspired and motivated. It was once again a pleasure to have a little chat with her about her latest play LITTLE PRETTY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL, on now at Factory Theatre. We spoke about her inspiration for the piece, where the name comes from, and how her working relationship and friendship with the late dramaturge Iris Turcott played an instrumental part in her life as a writer.

BK: Tell me a little bit about your show?

Anusree Roy: Please come see it. Then you’ll know what it’s about : )

BK: What inspired you to write this piece? Where did this story come from?

AR: In 2011 when I was finishing up my play Brothel #9, I saw a vision in my minds eye, of a father holding his daughter who was wearing a white outfit. Instinctually I knew it was a play and I knew I had to write it. I started to investigate what it might be about and gradually a plot started to emerge. Slowly character voices came and before I knew it I was writing.

Shelly Antony, Shruti Kothari, Farah Merani, Sugith Varughese in LITTLE PRETTY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL

BK: Why the title Little Pretty and The Exceptional?

AR: The title was given by Iris (Turcott) actually. Since the play is about two sisters and a lot of it is inspired by my sister and my life and our dynamic, Iris suggested the name. My name, when translated to Bengali, means Anu = Little, Sree = Pretty and my sisters name Ananya = The Exceptional. So Iris wanted that to be the name as it was fitting.

Sugith Varughese and Shruti Kothari in LITTLE PRETTY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL – Joseph Michael Photography

BK: I know the late Iris Turcott played a critical part in the development for this piece. Can you talk about the process, what it was like to work with her, and how she played an instrumental part in your life as a writer? 

AR: It was phenomenal actually. Along with being my dramaturge, she was my best friend. We would do weekly sessions. I would go to her place every Wednesday with scenes and she would sit by her blue coffee table, with a red pen in hand, and edit my words. It was the most terrifying and exciting time! Slowly when a draft emerged we did workshops to test it out and then more rewrites.

BK: You wear so many different hats, from playwright to director, in so many of your shows. What has it been like wearing just one hat (playwright) for this production?

AR: It’s been great actually. I have just been able to focus on the writing. It’s been useful.

Shruti Kothari and Sugith Varughese in LITTLE PRETTY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL – Joseph Michael Photography

BK: Why Factory Theatre for this show?

AR: Because I love them. They treat me well – with respect and kindness and Nina is a brilliant AD along with being a beloved friend of mine. I am in awe of the work she is doing at Factory and how much she has changed the face of that theatre. There is passion in that company.

BK: What do you want audience’s walking away with?

AR: I want them to walk away with compassion and a greater awareness of the world around them. That will make me so happy.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional

Who:
Written by Anusree Roy
Directed by Brendan Healy

What:
Simran is gifted, complex and, haunted. Jasmeet, her younger sister, is the typical hip Toronto teenager. Together with Dilpreet, their delightfully overprotective and traditional father, they are frantically trying to get ready for the opening of their new sari shop on Gerrard Street. To achieve their life-long dreams, the family must come together to find new strength and exorcise the demons of their past. Charming, tragic, and full of life, this is a deeply moving story about the taboo around mental health issues in the South-Asian community, and the power of familial ties in the face of adversity.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street

When:
On now until April 30th

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

 

“Exploring Home, History & Family in TOUGH JEWS” In Conversation with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields

Interview by Brittany Kay

I sat down with two delightful men with 3 names – playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields to talk about their current production Tough Jews, running March 31 – April 16th. We spoke about the undeniable parallels in the sociopolitical climates we see today versus 100 years ago, why this story is incredibly important to stage now and how family is at the core of everything.

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

G. Kyle Shields: This is how I’ve been pitching it to people: it’s a Kensington-specific, period gangster drama that takes place in 1933.

Michael Ross Albert: Well the Second Act takes place in 1933.

Laughter.

GKS: Yeah, yeah. I’m just keeping it concise for people.

MRA: The first act takes place in 1929 on Yom Kippur, which was 10 days before the Stock Market crashed. We follow this family over the course of two moments of crisis.

GKS: In 1933, it’s only a couple of months after Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany.

MRA: And it’s at a moment not dissimilar to the political climate we’re in now, where the mounting anti-immigrants sentiments and Anti-Semitism is very prevalent all across North America, including very specifically Toronto, Ontario. The second act takes place shortly after the riot at Christie Pitts.

GKS: Do you know about the Christie Pitts riot?

BK: I do, I’m Jewish.

GKS: You know, most people don’t know about the riot.

MRA: I guess I realized what a bubble I lived in, in realizing how culturally significant that moment is for Toronto Jewish families. If you’re from here and your grandparents are from here, everyone has a story about the Riot or the time surrounding the Riot. It’s a big part of our Torontonian cultural heritage that’s sort of being forgotten.

GKS: And not really passed down outside of those circles too. I didn’t know about the riot before I read the show.

MRA: It was considered one of the biggest race riots in Canadian history. It’s pretty insane.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Is Toronto Jewish history your main inspiration for this piece? Where did the inspiration come from to write this story?

MRA: I had originally set out to write a play about the Purple Gang, which was a Detroit family, made up of first generation Jewish immigrants who kind of briefly inserted themselves into the major big time American crime families. For a short period, they were terrible criminals.

GKS: They were reckless. They were absolutely reckless.

MRA: They were responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which was one of the biggest gangland assassinations ever. I became pretty interested and started reading up on the different exploits that they were involved in and I wanted to write about them.

I realized that Detroit itself needed to become another character of the play but I have no personal connection to Detroit nor have I ever been there. I didn’t feel like I had the wherewithal to write about a city that I wasn’t from.

So I started thinking about this period of time that my grandparents would have lived in and the neighborhood that they’re from. I started researching that period and found all of these wonderful parallels to what I had initially been interested in. By shifting my focus it let me speak to the experiences that my family comes from and to make it a story about my city, so I was able to romanticize its past, but also be critical of it at the same time.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: How did you find your way into the hearts and minds of these people?

MRA: It was really about personalizing their experiences and thinking about the psychology of these types of people.

GKS: Who were also marginalized.

MRA: Yeah definitely. Marginalized people who were doing illegal activities…

GKS: They were forced to do illegal activities, because they didn’t have job opportunities like the rest of the population had.

MRA: They were trying to make the most of a bad situation, which comes with a moral compromise. Each of the characters within this story has a different place where they draw the line of that morality. Each of them exists within this familial structure and has a different relationship towards one another.

GKS: They were very actively secluded from the rest of society. Signs legitimately said, “No dogs. No Jews. Gentiles only.”

MRA: Yeah, those were signs that were hung up here. When buying real estate, going to the beach…

GKS: Going to hotels… There was almost an Anti-Discrimination Policy that got proposed to Parliament in, I want to say somewhere in the 1910s, that was very similar to the government’s Anti-Islamophobia law that’s currently being debated. It was intended to denounce Anti-Semitism, but the counter argument was, of course, it would hinder free speech. What ended up happening was that it gave a lot of Torontonians the license to put up those signs.

MRA: That’s where we come from and it exploded in this massive display of violence that went through an entire night with the riot at Christie Pitts.

The neighborhoods were so segregated. The city did not welcome immigrants. We had a Prime Minister that said, “None is too many.”

BK: So how does all of this comment on Toronto now and then? 

MRA: It’s taking a look at Toronto, which has become the most multicultural city in the world, and looking at what needed to happen in order to get here.

GKS: To go from a point where the city was 80% British to what we are now.

MRA: Within a lifetime. Within a couple of generations. The spooky thing and the really unfortunate thing is that we are seeing now, after all of this amazing progress, a resurgence of incredibly similar sentiments against Jews, against Muslims, against the LGBTQ community.

BK: All of this rich history, how does it make its way into the play?

GKS: The events of this history directly affect all of the characters and affect their decisions and how they live their lives and the actions they take in the play. A lot of what the characters are doing, are reacting to the historical events, whether or not they know it or whether or not they think it.

BK: For the people who have spent their whole lives in Toronto and have never heard about the riot at Christie Pitts, is this explained and talked about?

MRA: Absolutely. It’s really just the given circumstances of the play. The play isn’t so much a history lesson as it is a family drama that takes place against the backdrop of these critical events in our city’s history.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: So family is that core of your story? Why is that such an integral part of it?

MRA: When I was doing my research on the Purple Gang, I was going through my old notes and I wrote on the first page in big capital letters, “WHAT WAS THEIR MOTHER LIKE?”

Laughter  

GKS: There’s a certain something that the matriarch of this family goes through that propels all of her choices. Where she comes from is a major motivation and she makes a point to instill that in her children. “Never forget.” She never lets them forget about where they came from.

MRA: It all begins with family. Their business exploits, their major sources of conflict, of escapism, and love come from within this family unit. I really wanted to be able to explore history from a very personal place and to me the logical start was by creating this family.

GKS: It explores this family enterprise. There are secrets that they keep from one another. There are things that they do to protect one another that involve manipulation and deceit.

MRA: They’re living in extreme times and circumstances, but I’m hoping those tactics are still relatable to everyone because families are fucked up.

GKS: Families are fucked up.

BK: Very true. Very relatable.

GKS: Not only that, all they’ve got are each other. They don’t have the option to move somewhere else and restart their lives.

BK: G. Kyle, tell me about your character and how he fits into this dysfunction?

GKS: I play Teddy, who’s the youngest son of four. He has an older sister and two older brothers. The two older brothers run whatever racket they have going on. As the youngest, as it usually goes, Teddy is very much kept out of the loop. As the youngest in real life, I can relate to that.

In the first Act he’s about 19, so he’s pretty young but he’s coming into his own. We see him trying to be the thing that everyone else in the play wants him to be. Everybody makes a demand of Teddy. There’s a traumatic event that happens through the course of the First Act that informs the four years between Act 1 and Act 2. When we see Teddy in Act 2, we can see how they’ve changed him into who he is now. In a sense, we get to see him grow up. We see this really informed shift in his choices and his personal honour system and values and morality.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Tell me about the pop-up location, the speakeasy, and how it’s going to be an immersive audience experience.

MRA: The Storefront unfortunately lost its permanent home and as soon as we heard the news, we tried to think of it as a blessing in disguise for this particular production. We found this space, Kensington Hall, which is an old punk club.

GKS: It used to be an old booze can and two people have died there.

MRA: Maybe more people have died there.

GKS: May have been murder… Does that sell the show, do you think? That could be a selling feature?

Laughter.

GKS: I mean, it sells it for me.

More laughter.

MRA: We’re working with this amazing set designer named Adam Belanger, who has completely transformed the space. We’re creating a time machine essentially. It’s going to be a speakeasy experience, where the audience will enter through the back alley and as soon as you walk through the door it will be as if you have stepped back in time to the 1920s.

GKS: And when you take your seat too, it’s like you will be a fly on the wall.

MRA: The audience is complicit in the action. It’s not an immersive production, but it is site-specific and right in your face.

GKS: It’s gonna be loud. No one will be able to fall asleep in the theatre.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Why this story right now?

MRA: I mean personally it was my final project of school. I studied playwriting and it was my graduate project. Over the years, it has been developed at different companies all over the place. I had finally come to a place where I thought it was ready for a production. Current events just happen to unfold around it.

BK: Wow. What timing.

MRA: I didn’t write it with any kind of agenda.

GKS: You went into history and took this out and of course it happens to apply right now.

MRA: There are sentiments expressed in the play about the refugee crisis in the 1930s and the unwillingness of governments in Canada and the US to accept refugees. I felt around this time last year that it was important to remind people what that sentiment and the effects of those government policies have on the families. That contributed to thinking about doing the play sooner rather than later, but really, the world turned, it feels like, on a dime, you know? We’re seeing a legitimization of hatred and intolerance, which is very common to the circumstances these people in the play. It’s not specific to Jews, although the play is, but it does carry with it those universal themes of communities that are marginalized, who feel vulnerable in the face of governmental policies that exclude them from the norm.

GKS: …and excludes them from protection from that discrimination.

MRA: I’m so angry at the world right now, that it feels like a very important time for me personally to be staging this play.

GKS: That’s exactly what drew me into this play – that realization of the repetition of history. How I can see the patterns in my world today that are happening in the play as well. Then reading about the riot and the political events surrounding that time just kind of compounded all of that. We’re living in a time of increased intolerance and we need to remember what that does.

MRA: When the second act begins in 1933, we as an audience know there’s a dramatic irony in that we know politically what’s about to happen. This family and Teddy specifically are railing against the circumstances that they’re living in and they think that there’s a way to overcome it. We as the audience know that it’s going to get much darker before any type of light can shine through, before the city and the world can respect and welcome people that aren’t necessarily like themselves. I don’t think it’s so awful to remind contemporary audiences that the spectrum goes to an incredibly dark place.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

GKS: That might be a Ben question. (Cue Director Benjamin Blais who has happened to walk by our table!)

BK: Yes, Ben, join our interview!

Benjamin Blais: I want people to walk away with a realization and sense of responsibility. One of the aspects of our production that I’ve extended or posed the challenge to the designers and to the actors in their portrayal is the concept of Photo Realism. Audiences are going to walk down this graffitied alleyway and turn the corner and walk into a door and, because of the fine work of Adam Belanger and the entire design team, it’s going to be like walking through a veil of time. They’re going to bare witness to this story of this family in a period of unrest and growth and then they’ll walk right out again into today’s world. But because it’s in Kensington Market, in a place where this speakeasy probably existed, they’ll be forced to recognize that they’re standing in a place where all of this happened. I want them to be able to look around say, “Holy shit, is the drama and the extremes of what I just saw still happening today? Is it happening to me?”

One of the themes that Michael is working with is this concept of the sins of our ancestors being repeated upon ourselves. Our choices, our ethics, our behaviour, our actions… What are the consequences to the people we love and how does that affect the society as a whole? What we become in order to survive… We do it with the best intentions to protect the family but what are the ramifications of that? I just want people when they’re watching it to really feel like flies on the wall. When they’re able to come out and be active in their world again to think: “What am I doing? How do I treat other people? What am I doing to survive?… I’m contemplating life of crime-oh shit don’t say that.”

But seriously, steal a little piece of bread to feed my family. Am I criminal? Are corporations oppressing people much like fascist nations were of the time? What do we have to do on the day-to-day to put food in our bellies? Are we animals? Are we really criminals?

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Nice. So happy you sat down.

GKS: I want people to walk away with the feeling that it really could have happened exactly that way. That it was a reality that it could and can still exist.

MRA: I always want an audience to walk away with a deeper, more developed sense of empathy. I think that in showing these particular characters, warts and all, that the audience should be able to find themselves in each of them. That they can think about the people and the relationships in their own lives that they could understand better. Whether that relates to politics or their community or just their immediate families and loved ones, so long as they can see that even if people are acting terribly, that there’s something relatable in them and universal that we share.

TOUGH JEWS

Who:
Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by Benjamin Blais*
Starring: Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Stevie Joffe*, Anne van Leeuwen, G Kyle Shields, Theresa Tova*, Maaor Ziv
Set Designer: Adam Belanger
Costume Designer: Lindsay Dagger
Make Up Artist: Angela McQueen
Fight Director: Simon Fon*

*Appear with permission of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. This is a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association production under the Artists’ Collective Policy.

What:
When a murder is committed in Prohibition-era Kensington Market, a family of would-be criminals is suddenly flung into the high-stakes gangland world of American organized crime. Set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the one of the largest riots in Canadian history, this darkly comedic historical drama is the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to rise above their station in a violent, intolerant city.

Where:
KENSINGTON HALL
56K Kensington Ave. (back alley entrance)
Please note: This space is not wheelchair accessible.

When:
March 31st – April 16th

Tickets:
toughjews.brownpapertickets.com

 

“Embracing Embarrassment, Renouncing Shame & Starring in Your Own Musical” In Conversation with Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson on STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy

Interview by Hallie Seline

Knowing that Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy was returning to the stage after loving it at the Summerworks Festival, I was excited to sit down with funny ladies Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson to chat all about it. We appropriately met in the Theatre Passe Muraille greenroom and spoke about how the piece has developed for this first professional production with TPM, Katherine’s inspiration to communicate her experience with dyslexia through her dream of being in a musical, and finding freedom in renouncing shame and owning where you’re at, epic life fails and all.

Hallie Seline: Tell me about the show and how it has developed from workshop to festival to first professional production.

Katherine Cullen: Stupidhead! is a sort of musical/standup comedy style/storytelling show about me growing up with dyslexia. I had this idea a couple of years ago and I started to write, let’s call them proto-songs when I was alone and bored and unemployed. And then videofag gave me the opportunity to do a workshop presentation of it, about three years ago now. So I went to Britta (Johnson), maybe a week before the workshop, (laughing) not even… and asked if she would help me with the song aspect of it – to help me add accompaniment. When we did that first workshop of it, we were exploring different ideas and forms.

When it came time to do the Summerworks Festival version, we really decided to make it more of a musical. The theme around that version was much more like… birthday party, piñata, musical, which is still very different from what it has grown to now.

Britta Johnson: The story of it now is that we’re trying to make Katherine’s dream of being in a musical come true so, you know, it has lighting, full songs and all of that. But I also think in the process of continuing to write and develop the songs, because that’s all I can speak to, we’ve tried to keep the essence of those early ones from the workshop in the fold of its current form. Where it isn’t necessarily about a perfect polished song, it’s about how to honestly step into each one, as herself and what song serves this character.

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

KC: Yeah, this character, me, has no musical training and doesn’t know anything about singing, or pitch, or what makes a good song, or… anything. Anything I’ve picked up over the last few years has literally been because of working with Britta and forcing myself by saying, “I need to learn to hit that note!” So we put those parameters out there from the beginning and it allows the space to really fuck up and not hit the note, and know that it’s still going to be okay. I feel like I’m allowed to not be this polished musical theatre singer because that’s part of the conceit.

BJ: Yeah! I feel like part of the conceit is to joyfully and whole-heartedly step into doing something that you don’t feel you’re good at. That’s really important in this show.

HS: Which is so wonderful because we so rarely or just don’t do that. So often we feel like we have to wait to be perfect before we show it or do it.

KC: Exactly. I feel like this show has a kid-like mentality of being like “I don’t know? That looks fun! I will do that in front of people,” you know what I mean? It’s trying to get back to that place where you don’t second-guess yourself and you don’t self-edit and there isn’t that sort of judgmental voice being like “Oh, no. No. No. That’s ridiculous. Don’t do that.” It’s more like “That sounds like a great idea! I will try it.” (laughing) You know?

BJ: As someone who gets to watch it over and over again, it really looks like Katherine as a kid playing pretend in her room. The songs go everywhere from a full three-and-a-half-minute-long, emotional, perfectly rhymed song, to what I picture as her as a kid looking in the mirror and playing pretend. There’s room for all of it.

KC: Yeah, it’s like if this show had a spirit animal right now it’s that little girl in that viral video who wobbles into the room for her birthday party. She’s just having a hippity-hoppity day. Because, why not?

I mean, there are darker themes that are in the show that are being probed now in a way that we didn’t really probe when we were at Summerworks. One of the songs expresses how you need darkness to have light and I think I’m exploring a child-like freedom of expression but also those kind of adult things in the world or in our lives that make us feel like we can’t or that beat us down, make us feel like we’re losers or “less than”. I think that there is a real conversation that the show is trying to have between those two and trying to kind of make peace with it.

And part of having a hippity-hoppity day is saying “I don’t need those chains. I don’t need to think of myself as a bad loser. I can just be a person because we’re all just people and we’re all fine here, so why not just have a jazzy time?”

BJ: And that the imperfection isn’t something to overcome and get to the other side of. That’s why hearing you sing these songs is so moving. If it’s just something that you invite into the picture, and own, you can have a hippity-hoppity day with the dark parts and the light parts and the parts where you fail and the parts where you make an ass of yourself and it’s still just as hippity-hoppity! (they laugh)

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

HS: Amazing. You mentioned from the beginning you were writing songs for this and you have also said that you have never been in a musical. So what was the idea behind making this piece of yours a musical?

KC: One thing that I do really like about musicals is that there’s this element that you get to express something extra or express something that you can’t satisfy just in dialogue. There’s this component to the expression that is sort of special or heightened and that isn’t in the realistic way that we express ourselves on a day-to-day basis. I feel that there is something also about dyslexia that has that. My experience with it and how I experience the world has been so sort of topsey turvey and that has been very difficult for me to explain to people. To me, it just makes sense that then to be able to communicate that experience that I would need to burst into song.

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

HS: What is something that you hope the audience takes away or experiences while they are here?

KC: I think this play is so much about, you know, just not feeling alone in the parts of yourself that you feel don’t totally fit in. So I hope it speaks to people from that perspective, that they feel like their humanity is seen, you know? And that it’s cool to laugh at the shit that you do that’s silly as opposed to being ashamed of it.

I think the show is really about renouncing shame, in a lot of ways.

BJ: I just feel that if the audience has half as much fun as I have sitting at the piano, laughing and crying along with Katherine, I think that we will have done our job.

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

Rapid Fire Question Round:

Favourite Food:
KC: Probably sushi.
BJ: Burritos, no question.

Favourite Musical:
KC: Jesus Christ Superstar
BJ: West Side Story.

Where do you get inspiration?
KC: Hmm… I think usually when I watch something really funny and it just makes me feel like there’s a lot of possibility in the world, when I see something super funny.

BJ: Probably the people around me. Watching people I love and respect… or don’t, you know (laughs) struggle with the same stuff I do.

KC: Watching people I hate…

BJ: Watching people I hate and delighting in their failure (laughing)

HS: That inspires me!

KC: Don’t edit that…

BJ: That’s the end of the interview. “Britta Johnson, who kind of glommed on to the interview, talks a lot about the people she hates…” (laughing)

The Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten or That You’re Currently Living By:
KC: My dad always says “Have faith in the future” and I don’t totally know what that means but I kind of like it. Have faith in the future. Why not?

BJ: I don’t know… There’s never going to be a moment where you’re like, “Now I’ve got it”, so don’t wait for that moment. You’re still doing it even if that “moment” doesn’t come.

KC: Yeah, you’re always doing the best with what you’ve got at any given moment.

BJ: Also I think my sister once told me that my hair always looks better than I think it does… which has also really helped me lately… (laughing)

Describe Stupidhead! in 5-10 words… together:
KC: … It’s a… fun,
KC & BJ: hippity-hoppity day
BJ: that embraces the honest struggle of simply…
KC & BJ: beeeing aaa..llliiv?—huuuman!

HS: Brilliant. Thank you!

 STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy

Who:
A Theatre Passe Muraille Production
Written & Performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson
Original Music by Britta Johnson
Original Lyrics by Britta Johnson and Katherine Cullen
Directed & Dramaturged by Aaron Willis
Additional Dramaturgy by Andy McKim
Set & Costume Design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Design by Jennifer Lennon
Associate Producer: Colin Doyle

What:
Stupidhead! is a comedy musical about having dyslexia. It’s also about how being a human is really embarrassing… like all of the time. The winner of Best New Performance Text at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival, Stupidhead! returns to Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace with brand new material and brand new songs.

In Stupidhead! performer/playwright Katherine Cullen shares true stories about her dyslexia, the way she interacts with the world, and the way the world interacts with her. Cullen’s script – directed by the Dora nominated Aaron Willis and accompanied by lyricist/musician Britta Johnson’s original songs – makes for a show that is painfully funny, brutally honest, and totally relatable for anyone who feels like they do things a bit different.

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave.
Toronto ON.

When:
March 16 – April 2, 2017

Tickets:
passemuraille.ca/stupidhead/

Connect:
w: passemuraille.ca/stupidhead/
t: #StupidheadTO
@KatinkaCullen
@johnsonbritta
fb: StupidheadMusical
TheatrePasseMuraille

 

“Power, Authority & Shaking Up Traditional Structures” In Conversation with Rob Kempson, Playwright/Director of TRIGONOMETRY

Interview by Brittany Kay

We had the pleasure of re-connecting with playwright/director/artist/educator/all-around smart-cookie Rob Kempson to chat about Trigonometry, the final instalment of his trilogy, The Graduation Plays. We spoke about what can come with taking time to explore a subject more thoroughly, the need to shake up traditional structures with power and form, and how he wants these plays to ignite more complex discussions that continue beyond the show. The world premiere of Trigonometry runs from March 16th to March 25th.

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

Rob Kempson: I think the best way talk about the show is in the context of it as part of a bigger series. I think, like all the other shows in the Graduation Plays series, Trigonometry is about the interaction of power and authority structures in a school setting. What I found from my own teaching is that students have the capacity to take power that maybe isn’t assigned to them in a traditional school atmosphere. The authority in the school is clear but the power is not. These plays explore how we manipulate power and how the powerless gain their voice.

I have found in this series that some sort of student expression of sexuality is a great way for them to steal power because, being in a school setting, a lot of that is about tight-lipped, very square principals. It doesn’t always mean that they’re having sex. It means that they understand that by talking about, or referring to, or in some way bringing up sexuality, it makes teachers uncomfortable because they’re not allowed to talk about it in a school. I found that sort of tension really interesting.

Photo of Daniel Ellis, Alison Deon and Rose Napoli by Robert Harding.

BK: Why are you so drawn to the themes of student power and authority?

RK: I’m really interested in that idea because I don’t know how the education system can grow and change and find what’s next, unless we address the way in which students are now on the same level as teachers. We aren’t as different as we once were. I think unless we figure out how to tackle that, the education system is going to be stuck in this bizarre route for a long time.

BK: What makes Trigonometry different from your other two shows in the series?

RK: In this particular case, I tried to take a different perspective than the other two plays. If I was to simplify it down, I think SHANNON 10:40, Mockingbird and Trigonometry are all about the same thing. Something happens where a student takes power, it’s unexpected, and it’s about the way into that, which I think is different between them. SHANNON 10:40 is a largely student perspective, Mockingbird is a largely teacher perspective and Trigonometry is about the parent perspective. I think that’s why this is the end of the trilogy. I sort of found three different ways into the same problem. I don’t think I’ve solved the problem in any of the plays, but I’m interested in finding out how using those different perspectives enlightens new aspects of it.

Trigonometry 1

Photo of Rob Kempson by Robert Harding

BK: In the Greenroom has been able to talk to you about both shows in The Graduation Plays. You and I spoke at the beginning of your process and here we are at the end of it. Do you feel satisfied that this is the final play of the trilogy?

RK: I needed to work out what I wanted to work out. What all of this meant? Why this has been a multi-year process of writing all these things? I think this started as a nugget that I was picking at and I realized I wasn’t going to be satisfied just picking at it. I needed to go as deep as I could. I felt in writing the first two that I hadn’t quite uncovered everything that I wanted to uncover. I knew there was more there to explore, but I didn’t know exactly what that was going to be. The Graduation Plays, in a way, is a graduation for me as a writer and as an artist because I really gave myself the opportunity to spend time exploring a particular theme in a particular area. Not only with different plays, but in different structures of those plays with really different numbers of characters and really different play setups.

Photo of Daniel Ellis by Robert Harding

BK: Why the title Trigonometry?

RK: Everyone should read Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. Sarah Ruhl is one of the greatest writers still living and that book says a lot of smart things that are very digestible. She talks a lot about play structure and one of the things she questions is why we see plays as having an arc and what would happen if a play had a different shape. I started thinking about that, what would a triangle shape play be like? The laymen’s answer is that it would have 3 people in it. I just started to think about why that was an interesting structure to explore. What did making a triangle play mean for me? Does this play have an arc? Of course it does, but it does happen in 3 separate parts. Each character is used in the same way. Each are only in 2 of the three scenes.

BK: How does trigonometry come into the structure of the play?

RK: The play is designed like a trigonometric function. If you know the sohcahtoa method, so SOH stands for Sine, which is opposite over hypotenuse; CAH stands for Cosine, adjacent over hypotenuse; and TOA stands for Tangent, opposite over adjacent. I built the play that way. If you assign each of those to characters and you sort of extrapolate as to why you might call those characters by those titles and then you apply those trigonometric functions to those characters, what happens in those scenes is mathematical.

Photo of Alison Deon by Robert Harding

BK: Incredible. Do you need to know anything about math to see the play?

RK: No. (laughs) If you watch it, you would never see that unless you really went into it with that perspective. That’s where the title came from. It came from me wanting to write a triangle play and I get a bit obsessed with ideas like that. I sort of spin into what could that mean structurally, what could that mean in content, in tone, and form, and all of the other things you think about. I love finding things to weave through.

One of the most common things teachers say is that math is all about relationships. If math is all about relationships between angles and lines and numbers and symbols and all of the things that go into that, then math is of humans and humans are of math. There is a connection there that maybe we like to sometimes deny. It was a really neat discovery… I also had to watch so many Youtube videos about trigonometry to try to remember.

Photo of Daniel Ellis, Alison Deon, Rose Napoli by Robert Harding

BK: Where did the inspiration for this specific story in the trilogy come from?

RK: I have no idea. I mean a lot of the catalyst for the first play, SHANNON 10:40, came from what was the 2015 fight against the new Sex Ed. Curriculum. This play riffs on that in a way that Mockingbird didn’t. I needed to explore it more actively. It started from there.

The other thing that is true of Trigonometry, is that I don’t really love any of the characters. That’s not something that people generally do. I tend to write people who I mostly like with some villains. I started thinking about people who I don’t agree with politically or philosophically or educationally. We are living in such a polarized world that we have to try to learn how we listen to one another and who’s deserving of that respect. I tried to listen to what those people had to say. They became some of the voices in the play.

BK: Why this story right now?

RK: I think that this is a story that is now. One of the things that I think is a fact in contemporary classrooms that is such a struggle are cell phones. It sounds so simple and silly and trite. The effect of having personal property that you can’t abscond or take away from kids that is so distracting to them changes the education game entirely. It changes the power dynamic between students and teachers. I think that anyone who has been in a contemporary classroom will see themselves in this play in a way that is frustrating.

BK: Oh yes. It’s insane, they’re just staring at their phones and re-watching Snapchat videos.   

RK: I’ve been in those rooms, where the integration of technology is really exciting and innovative, but where I get a bit lost, is the way in which it allows a whole other avenue for students to be making bigger choices in the way they choose to react to what their teachers are saying. It’s not only the choice of apathy or tuning out and looking at their phone, it’s also the choice of if they record you. Are they taking your picture? Are they texting their friends saying something about you? The power dynamic really changes because students have this thing that disables you. This play is for “now” because this is a story that happens everyday in schools and I really wanted to explore that.

Photo of Rose Napoli by Robert Harding

BK: Tell me about your cast?

RK: The actors are the most amazing humans. Rose Napoli is giving a performance that will be talked about for a long time. She is remarkable. I was new to Daniel Ellis. I saw him in The Circle and, working with him, he has just so many great insights about who the character of Jackson is and how he is able to tread the line between being a good kid that maybe does bad things. Alison Deon, who I think is one of the most under-used actors in the country, who I’ve known for a number of years from the Thousand Islands Playhouse, is a brilliant performer. Her range is enormous and it’s really exciting to be able to showcase her in this city. People deserve to see the work of all three of these actors. They’re just phenomenal.

BK: And your creative team?

RK: I’m once again collaborating with the fabulous Lisa Li. She’s the best and has been a real dream to work with as she always is. She’s also working with the support of Erin Vanderberg. Katie Saunoris is our marketing and publicity person. Beth Beardsley is our stage manager and is amazing and everyone should hire her. They are an amazing team. Dream dream dream.

Then we look into the design. Anna Treusch is our set and costume designer and is one of my most deeply loved collaborators. In the next 3 months, we are working on 3 shows because we work so well together. She forces me to work really hard. It’s a good relationship. Kaileigh Krysztofiak is a new collaboration for me and is a such cool up-and-coming lighting designer. When I found out that Andy Trithardt, who I’ve seen as an actor a million times, was also a sound designer, I wanted to get him on board. He’s looking at how the idea of trigonometry comes into the design. How and where do we see triangles and how do we hear that? How can we hear things in three? The design team is allowing this play to be explored more fully and deeply.

Photo of Anna Treusch, Beth Beardsley & Rob Kempson by Robert Harding

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

RK: I want them to be divided. My favourite thing is for audiences to walk out and have something to talk about on the car ride home. I don’t want them to come out and have the same opinions of each of the characters. I want people to like one character over the other. Questioning who is making the right decisions for the right reasons. I hope that there is a lot of disparate conversations happening after the show. I really want audiences to walk out with something to chew on for themselves. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is such a brilliant parable not only because it’s such a well written play, but because it makes you feel doubt. You walk out feeling the thing that he asks you to explore through these characters. While my play is not called Doubt, I want people to walk out feeling differently about the people that they just witnessed and maybe testing their own morals or testing their own values through the lens of these characters on stage. That’s exciting…I think, I hope!

BK: Anything else we need to know about?

RK: This play stands on its own, so if you haven’t seen the other two in the trilogy that’s okay. You don’t need to. There’s nothing that you will miss. For those who have seen both or any part of it, I think that this will be a really great conclusion for you. I feel so grateful that I have been able to work with collaborators on all three of these pieces that have allowed me the artistic freedom and desire to explore something as fully as I can. If you want to see the outcome of that, I’d encourage you to come out and check out the show.

Trigonometry

Who:
WRITER & DIRECTOR: Rob Kempson
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER: Anna Treusch
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Kaileigh Krysztofiak
SOUND DESIGNER: Andy Trithardt
FEATURING: Alison Deon, Daniel Ellis, Rose Napoli
PRODUCER: Lisa Li
PUBLICIST: Katie Saunoris
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Erin Vandenberg

What:
Gabriella wants action. Jackson wants a scholarship. Susan wants a family. In this new play by Rob Kempson, three disparate people find themselves bound together by desire, destiny, and a few scandalous photos. Trigonometry is about how far we go to get what we want: what we do to survive.

Where:
Factory Theatre, Studio Space
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON M5V 2R2

When:
March 16 – March 25

Tickets:
416.504.9971
trigonometrytheplay.com

Connect:
#trigtheplay
w: trigonometrytheplay.com
fb: Trigonometry Facebook Event
t: @rob_kempson

Meet Some of the Cast & Characters: 

In Conversation with Trey Anthony, playwright of “How Black Mothers Say I Love You”

by Bailey Green

NB: Trey uses the spelling of womyn when referring to black women in her directors note, so we have respected that in this piece within her quotes.  

Trey Anthony was inspired to write How Black Mothers Say I Love You when she read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. During that time, Anthony’s grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anthony decided to interview her grandmother and when she asked her if she had any regrets, she said her biggest regret was leaving her children behind in Jamaica when she moved to England to seek a better life for her family. She believed that her daughter, Anthony’s mother, had never forgiven her for that decision. “The more research I did, I realized there were so many womyn who were affected by those decisions – by womyn leaving third world countries and migrating to first world countries,” Trey Anthony explains. “There was a history of a lot of Caribbean families, a sister, mother, aunt leaving and I wanted to explore what happened to these families after they reunite. No one talks about the damage being done to these families – to my mother and grandmother’s relationships.” These relationships live at the centre of How Black Mothers Say I Love You. 

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Anthony’s mother left England to live in Canada when Anthony was 9. Anthony and her brother remained behind in England, while her sister travelled to Canada with their mother. “We always had a level of distance. We struggled to connect emotionally,” Anthony says of her relationship with her mother. “And I feel it was because I was left from ages 9-12, during very formative years, that I struggled to develop that relationship. And for my sister, who was never separated from my mother, there is a closeness in their bond that my mother and I were never able to build.” Anthony discusses how her research speaking to daughters of women and women who had left brought about a new healing and a shift in her perception. Her mother became more than just a family member, but a woman who made choices to better herself. “It helped me heal from some of the anger and what I thought I missed out on. It is still a journey and it can trigger me but I am a lot more forgiving of her. The first time my mother saw the piece she broke down crying.”

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How Black Mothers Say I Love You focuses on three daughters returning home to their mother, Daphne, after receiving news of a ‘devastating diagnosis’. The reunion forces them to confront the past. “The heartbeat of this play is really the story of these women trying to love each other,” Anthony says. The main character, Claudette (played by Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), is the daughter who was left behind. Anthony says that creating nuance in the character of Claudette and revealing the deep feelings of abandonment behind her bitterness and anger was a challenge. “You see some forgiving and redeeming qualities instead of just a womyn who is angry at her dying mother.” 

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How Black Mothers Say I Love You has returned to Factory Theatre as part of the 16/17 season for an extended run after the show sold out last May. When asked about how the show has changed this time around, Anthony says: “having the luxury to tweak the various scenes and have some more dramaturgical work, and to have the support of a producing team, has made me able to focus more on the creatives. Having two new actors in the roles [Beryl Bain as Cloe and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Claudette] has helped it have a new dynamic and energy.” Anthony also praises collaborating director Nisha Ahuja for her creativity, specifically noting her work on the transitions and making the piece more movement oriented.

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For Anthony, one of the greatest joys of this piece has been telling a Caribbean-rooted story in a mainstream space and to give voice to those women. “Many people who have seen this play have talked about never seeing their families onstage,” Anthony says. “And for friends who are white, they take it for granted that they can see their lives in some way in any theatre across the city and that is not a luxury that people of colour have.” How Black Mothers Say I Love You speaks across race and class, says Anthony, because at the heart of the piece is a story of a family who is trying to love and is dysfunctional in that love. “As black womyn we don’t get that opportunity to be well-rounded characters with layers,” Anthony says of wanting to focus on black women in black storytelling. “We can be the angry black womyn, or the sassy one, or the one on welfare… I want all of these womyn to go on this roller coaster of emotions and be well faceted, be loving, crying, jealous. So you can see the anger, joy and abandonment […] For me, to hire womyn who look like these womyn onstage and get to be these full characters, that’s groundbreaking and what I want to see.”

beryl-bain-ordena-stephens-thompson-khadijah-roberts-abdullah-and-allison-edwards-crewe-in-how-black-mothers-say-i-love-you-joseph-michael-photography

How Black Mothers Say I Love You

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Who:
A Trey Anthony and Girls in Bow Ties Production
Presented by Factory Theatre
Written by Trey Anthony

What:
A devastating diagnosis brings Daphne’s daughters home where they are forced to confront a traumatic six year separation in their past and their individual quests for love, reconciliation, and forgiveness. How Black Mothers Say I Love You is a poignant and hilarious examination of our desire for truth and understanding from what has been left unsaid. Featuring an original score by Juno Award-winning composer Gavin Bradley and a thought provoking and deeply personal script from ‘da Kink in my Hair creator Trey Anthony, How Black Mothers Say I Love You returns to Factory after being the hottest ticket in town last May.

Where:
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst St.

When: 
February 9 – March 5

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

 

Artist Profile: Peter Fernandes, Actor

Interview by Hallie Seline

It was a complete joy to connect with the wonderful and uber-talented young actor Peter Fernandes and chat about acting and what he is currently working on. We discussed what drew him to acting as a kid, how Passing Strange has impacted him both as an artist and as a young black man, and about how now, more than ever, it is extremely valuable for an audience to touch base with their relationship and their biases towards music and art. You can catch Peter rocking out on the stage in the Toronto premiere of Passing Strange at the Opera House from now to February 5th.

Hallie Seline: First things first – what drew you to acting?

Peter Fernandes: My parents had me and my siblings start singing for community events at a very young age, so performing was always an important part of growing up. For theatre specifically, I had just moved to Edmonton and auditioned for the grade 6 production of The Wizard of Oz. I was so nervous at the audition that I got cast as the Cowardly Lion. There was a scene where I had to faint and on the first night we performed, when I fainted I heard the audience laugh. I said to myself “Yeah, I want to do that again.” So from then on I kept looking for opportunities in the community or through theatre school programs to perform.

HS: And now here we are, performing at the Opera House! Tell me a bit about your current show Passing Strange.

PF: Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographic musical created by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Through a range of Rock, Punk Rock, Gospel and Blues, it follows a black youth through Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Berlin during the 70s on his journey to find “the real”. It looks at his relationship to music, his identity, blackness and family. It’s also about someone looking back at their choices and reflecting on how they became the person they are today.

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Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock, Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Jahlen Barnes, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez. Racheal McCaig Photography.

HS: Why is it your favourite musical at the moment?

PF: I remember seeing it on Broadway and being immediately blown away by it. I hadn’t seen anything like it and the music made everyone in that theatre jump up and rock out, which was also an unfamiliar sight. Both as an artist and a young black man, I found myself finally being able to relate to a piece in a way that I hadn’t before. Youth’s journey made me reflect on my own relationship to family, and my identity, and then, to top it all off, it had exhilarating music – it was a real rock show.

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Divine Brown, Sabryn Rock, Peter Fernades, Beau Dixon, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Jahlen Barnes. Racheal McCaig Photography.

It’s also one of those musicals that I have revisited often: First on Broadway, then multiple times through the soundtrack, the filmed version and now finally being involved in the Canadian premiere. Each time it has had a profound effect on me. Your relationship with this piece will change each time you see it. The way you connect to this musical grows as you grow and reflect on the stupid or profound choices you made as a teenager.

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Sabryn Rock, Jahlen Barnes, Peter Fernandes, David Lopez, Beau Dixon. Racheal McCaig Photography.

HS: What has surprised you the most about the show that you’ve discovered while working on it?

PF: Naively, I thought I knew this show inside and out – that I knew everything at the core of the show. But the entire cast discovers new things the more we delve into the piece and the more we give time to the words, thoughts and ideas that Stew and Heidi have infused into the music.

There’s an incredible section in the show that continues to move me. The Narrator describes someone’s words “washing over [you] like a Bach Fugue … you know how when the music goes right over your head and straight into that part of you which is most beautiful.” That’s what happens to you in this musical. Despite having seen the original and listening to the soundtrack over and over again, this still happens to me. Sure you’ll be able to come back to it later with more understanding, and you’ll be affected differently, but some things will still only exist in this indescribable place for you.

Because of the stellar cast and creative team behind this production, every rehearsal gives you the opportunity to hear something new and that’s the best kind of surprise you can ask for when you’re working on a show.

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Sabryn Rock, Peter Fernandes, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Jahlen Barnes. Racheal McCaig Photography.

HS: Why do you think Passing Strange is important for audiences right now?

PF: It is incredibly important to give opportunities to underrepresented communities on the stage, and this show provides the unique chance to explore a black story and black storytelling in a way that audiences have not seen before. It breaks down a lot of the barriers and biases that have been created about our identities and about the way people create.

Now, more that ever, it is extremely valuable for an audience to touch base with, not only their biases, but their relationship to music and art. Passing Strange gives you the chance to do that.

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Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Divine Brown, Jahlen Barnes, Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock, Beau Dixon. Racheal McCaig Photography.

HS: If your audience could listen to one song or album before coming to see the show, what would it be?

PF: Album – “Woodstock: Music from the original soundtrack and more” (If you don’t have time to listen to it all before the show, I would focus on Jimi Hendrix)

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite spot in Toronto: Rooftop at Spadina and Bloor overlooking the Annex.

What are you listening to right now? The Two Dope Queens Podcast.

What is one song that you wish you wrote? “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim.

Who inspires you? My Parents.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten: On risk-taking: “The answer is always no if you never ask.”

Describe Passing Strange in 5 words: Music is a freight train OR Love is more than real.

Passing Strange

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Who:
Co-Produced by Acting Up Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre Company

directed by: Philip Akin
music directed by: Bob Foster
choreographed by: Kimberley Rampersad
starring: Jahlen Barnes, Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Peter Fernandes, David Lopez, Sabryn Rock, Vanessa Sears
set & lighting design: Steve Lucas
sound design: Peter McBoyle
costume designer: Joanna Yu
production manager: Adrien Whan
stage manager: Jessica Severin
apprentice stage manager: Jordan Guetter

What:
Passing Strange is a bold coming of age story told through sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In the late 1970s, a black teen is driven from Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin in search of himself and a place to call home.

Fusing punk rock, R&B and soul, and performed at Toronto’s preeminent music venue the Opera House, Passing Strange is unlike any musical you’ve seen before. Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and three Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, don’t miss the show that has been universally applauded for its originality, authenticity, and powerful score.

Where:
The Opera House
735 Queen Street East
Toronto, Ontario
M4M 1H2

When: 
January 24-February 5, 2017

Tickets:
online: tickets.ticketwise.com
by phone: 1-888-324-6282

 

*Featured Image of Peter Fernandes by Nathan Kelly

“Legacy, Purpose & The Act of Listening” – In Conversation with Tetsuro Shigematsu, playwright and performer of EMPIRE OF THE SON

by Bailey Green

Growing up, Tetsuro Shigematsu and his father Akira Shigematsu did not communicate beyond requests to pass condiments at the dinner table. In the early 90’s in Montreal, Tetsuro approached their distant relationship in a piece called Rising Son. “It was a very small show that very few people saw. But an excerpt of it was played on the radio and that was a sort of catalyst that pulled me out of theatre and into these different career directions,” Tetsuro references the beginning of his career in broadcasting. In the following years, Tetsuro became host of CBC Radio’s The Roundup, fought Vikings on the reality show Deadliest Warrior and worked as a writer for This Hour has 22 Minutes.

When Tetsuro became a father to daughter Mika (13) and son Taizo (9), he began to consider what legacy he would pass on to his own children. “Now that I have kids, [I knew] they were going to start asking questions about who they are and where they came from,” Tetsuro says. “So when my father’s health began to falter, for my kids’ sake I knew it was now or never that I had to ask questions and get his stories.”

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Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Akira Shigematsu had worked as a broadcaster for the BBC. When Tetsuro placed the microphone in front of Akira, the familiar format unlocked years of silence between father and son. Throughout the interviews, Akira never asked why his son was interviewing him and for what purpose. Near the end of the process, Tetsuro asked his father’s permission to use the material. Without permission, Tetsuro would have no research for his PhD and no material for his show. “I asked him, “Have you ever wondered why I have been interviewing you all this time? Well I would like to share your story.” He was quite mystified because it was so counter-intuitive to him that others might find his story interesting,” Tetsuro says. When Rising Son was being performed, Akira began to tell people that his son made fun of his father’s accent for a living. This was one of the reasons Tetsuro stopped performing the piece and so he wondered about what made Empire of the Son different. “He gave me his permission. He said yes right away. When I asked him why he was ok with it, he said “If you tell my story, my life will have some meaning.” That was a big surprise to me. This process was to find meaning in my own life but this whole endeavour would lend meaning to his.” 

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Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Tetsuro describes Empire of the Son as a “homecoming for me and my father. Empire of the Son revisits these relationships [seen in Rising Son], but now that I’m a father, it explores my tempestuous relationship with my Japanese Canadian father and his relationship with his father… It spans four generations and the continuum of that.” When Tetsuro was still searching for the form for the show, he heard a quote from a personal hero of his, Robert LePage, about how radio is the most visual of mediums. “I began to think about how I can deepen the experience of listening,” Tetsuro says. “What is it about campfire stories that are so engrossing? Ghost stories are just variations of urban legends, but people become entranced by the rhythm of the dancing flames, or for myself the embers, so I wanted a visual equivalent for a theatre audience.”

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Photos by Raymond Shum

Empire of the Son has several silent sequences with visuals of miniatures projected above Tetsuro. “During the silent parts there is just time for the audience to think about their own memories and experiences – It’s a moment for them to stare into the fire, so to speak. This is a story about a Japanese Canadian father and his Canadian son, but in fact, the uncanny effect that is achieved is an explosion of memories in people’s own minds. They gave me all the credit, when I am just lighting the wick, so to speak.”

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Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

In the fall of 2015, Akira Shigematsu passed away. He died a few weeks before Empire of the Son opened at The Cultch in Vancouver. “When my father died, my whole family was there. My sisters cried and I didn’t. I wanted to investigate that and if I tell stories that are hard for me, I can hopefully break up the ice in my heart and when my father’s funeral comes one day I will be a little bit more complete.” Now, a year later, Tetsuro describes a stronger connection to his father’s memories, “With the passage of time I feel more mindful and present in the moment and open to connecting with my father onstage.”

Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Taizo and Mika, the fourth generation referenced in the show, have seen Empire of the Son and have “mixed feelings about seeing their lives on stage.” In the play they are referred to as 8 and 12 years old. When they are in the audience, they heckle Tetsuro about their updated ages (9 and 13). “My son points out that compared to other artists I am profoundly uncreative because I use my own life,” Tetsuro laughs. “It’s surreal for an audience because sometimes when the interactions begin they don’t know if it is real or staged and the line between art and life becomes blurry. I’ve made this commitment to not inventing anything, so when my mother or sisters or children attend, I acknowledge their presence either through eye contact or directly speaking to them.”

To artists at the beginning of their careers, Tetsuro encourages them to be prepared for a life of uncertainty. “If you can deal with that, it’ll be ok. If being creative and making art is something that truly makes you happy, then focus on those internal values and you’ll maintain a sense of integrity or wholeness about what you believe in.”

EMPIRE OF THE SON

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Who:
Written by Tetsuro Shigematsu | Directed by Richard Wolfe
Starring Tetsuro Shigematsu
Set design by Pam Johnson | Costume design by Barbara Clayden
Lighting design by Gerald King | Sound design by Steve Charles
Documentary audio by Yoshiko & Akira Shigematsu
Produced by Donna Yamamoto
A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Production

What:
From the ashes of Hiroshima to swinging 1960s London, EMPIRE OF THE SON tells the dynamic story of Shigematsu and his emotionally distant and stoic father, Akira, also a former public broadcaster. A compelling father and son story, EMPIRE OF THE SON is also the story of three generations of a Japanese family separated by language, culture and history.

Told through a blend of dramatic storytelling, family video footage, archival audio from Akira’s CBC interviews, recordings of phone calls between father and son, and intriguing miniature worlds projected on a screen, EMPIRE OF THE SON is a deeply thoughtful portrayal of parent/child relationships.

Where:

Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street

When:
January 18 – 29, 2017
Tuesday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm, Saturday, January 28 @ 2pm & 8pm

Tickets:
Ticket prices range from $25-$35
Student, Arts Worker and Senior Prices also available
In Person: Factory, 125 Bathurst Street,
Online: factorytheatre.ca
By Phone: 416.504.9971

Connect:
@tweetsuro
@FactoryToronto • FB/FactoryTheatreTO/
@vact FB/vact1  www.vact.ca
#beyond1617 #empireoftheson