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“Inspiration, Travel & Getting Personal” In Conversation with performer Clare Blackwood on BIKEFACE at the 2018 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Jared Bishop.

BikeFace is a show ready to inspire adventure. Strange but true tales of writer Natalie Frijia’s solo journey across Canada are brought to life by performer Clare Blackwood, on stage now at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival. We sat down with Clare to talk about inspiration, travel and how personal this show became.

JB: When did you first learn about the story told in BikeFace?

CB: It was about two months ago. I had no Fringe plans. My friend Rebecca Perry (producer) called me out of the blue and was like “Hey, Natalie Frijia (creator) and I have this script, you are one of two people we are considering for it. Is this something you would like to be a part of?” and I was like “Oh God, yes!”

That was a couple months ago. When I read the script, I knew that this was exactly the type of story I was interested in telling. I am a solo traveller as well. Natalie’s writing really resonates with me. We have the same style of dry humour about travelling alone. It’s really nice because it makes her words really easy to speak.

It was such a pleasure to read a script that felt tailor-made for me and she didn’t even know it.

JB: How did you make the story your own?

CB: I have done a lot of travelling by myself. I have had a lot of the experiences explored in the play, I didn’t have to sit there and wonder what’s it like to be alone in the middle of the road, in the middle of the country, in a place I have never been. I have that experience, I have that knowledge and I know what it’s like to be camping in the middle of nowhere and hear noises and think “I am going to die now… glad I had a good life!”

A big theme of the play is how being a woman is different when travelling alone, the adversity it comes with and the attitudes you get from other people. It’s often quite rampant so I know what she is talking about. Men are cat-calling you on your bike or you’re being told you shouldn’t be by yourself. It is something you get all the time when you are by yourself. So this made it very personal for me.

The joy of meeting new people is so prevalent in this play. Some of the best human beings I have ever met in my life are people who I have known for a day or two. They just leave this mark on you and then they leave. You think “I will probably never see this person again but I will remember them for the rest of my life.” I think that is also a really relatable theme in this show with all of these characters. They have all left such a huge mark on her (Natalie) that she wanted to bring them to life. It was my pleasure to try to do that without ever having met them.

JB: What inspires you to travel?

CB: I am a Gryffindor. I like not knowing where I am going and I like missing trains and having to figure out alternative routes and meeting new people and camping in stupid places where I shouldn’t be camping and not planning where I am sleeping. There is just such a thrill in that.

I love seeing new things. I am a giant history nerd and I go where the history is. It’s just fun for me. I know how I travel for some people is horrifying but for me it’s fun, that’s the baseline.

I’m influenced by my family who taught me to love camping. My mom is a person who has gone skydiving and who camps by herself, so this has always been encouraged.

I have always just been a stubbornly independent person so that’s where my inspiration for travel comes from. And it’s also a nice “fuck you” to people who say I can’t.

JB: There are many characters you explore in this show, do you have a specific process for developing them?

CB: It’s funny because I have never played multiple characters on stage before. This show was a huge challenge for me. I had to draw on a whole lot of sources to create these characters. Some came a lot more naturally than others. Normally, when I create a character, I start with the voice and go from there. That’s mostly what I did for these people. If I was having trouble with the character it was because I wasn’t being specific enough in their voice.

JB: How does telling this story compare to your past Fringe experiences?

CB: My fringe experiences have been varied and wonderful. This has definitely been the easiest story to tell. My parents came to see the show Saturday and they were like, “You could have written that. That’s the story we keep waiting for you to write.” Again, Natalie and I are very similar in the way that we write and the way that we travel. So with this show, the process of creating it for me wasn’t easy, but the act of telling it and the act of engaging with the audience has been a breeze.

You don’t have to work to get people on your side with this show. They are already there. You open your mouth and the words come out and they are like, “Oh yes, I like this person.”

This has been the most personal show for me. And the one that is closest to who I am as a human.

JB: What is something important to share with people who haven’t yet seen Bike Face?

CB: I really want people to come see this show, whether you like bikes, whether you go camping, whether you have gone on an adventure. It’s a show that people have been saying really resonates with them. It’s a perfect fringe show in the sense of it will make you laugh and it will make you cry and it will make you want to go on an adventure. I think it’s such a gift as a performer to have a show like this.

And because it’s been created by this badass group of women who are really good at their jobs! It feeds the inner adventurer in everybody, which I think is so lovely.

BikeFace 

Who:
Company: Trailblazing Ladies
Playwright: Natalie Frijia
Director:Mandy Roveda
Cast: Clare Blackwood
Producer: Rebecca Perry

What:
“Like a ride down the road with the wind at your back!” (Edmonton Journal)
During the Victorian cycling craze, doctors warned women riders they would undoubtedly cultivate “bicycle faces”: becoming over-exerted, wild-eyed, un-sexed vulgarities, with nothing before them but the wide, open road. Over a century later, the Journal of Paediatric Psychology still finds that girls are four times more likely to be warned about dangers inherent in exploration and adventure. This is where BikeFace takes off! It will tickle your funny bone and above all else, ignite your thirst for adventure!

Where:
The Annex Theatre
736 Bathurst St
Toronto
Ontario
M5S 1Z5

When:
July 12th   1:45pm
July 13th   9:45pm
July 14th   2:15pm
July 15th   7:30pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

Photo Notes: Photographer: Hayley Andoff Featured in Photo: Clare Blackwood

 

 

 

 

“Collaboration, Self-Advocacy & Finding Inspiration in the Details” In Conversation with Kevin Wong & Julie Tepperman on New Musical Development with THE PREPOSTEROUS PREDICAMENT OF POLLY PEEL (Act 1) at the 2018 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Brittany Kay.

Kevin Wong and Julie Tepperman are no strangers to the Fringe Festival. Their constant dedication and innovation to the Toronto theatre scene had us already very excited about their new musical in development The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act 1), now running at the Tarragon Theatre. Seeing that only act 1 was being presented at the Fringe, it further peaked our interest and we were eager to chat with them about what it takes to develop a new musical and to discuss the nitty-gritty of how this process actually works. We were very lucky to catch the two busy creators to chat about development, collaboration, self-advocacy and finding inspiration in the details.

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

Kevin Wong: You go.

Julie Tepperman: No, you go…

JT: We can do one word at a time?

KW: That would be terrible. I’m not doing that.

(Laughter)

KW: Polly Peel is our developmental production of just the first act of what will be a two act musical. It’s a piece that follows the Peel family in the wake of the loss of the father, Paul Peel. In particular, we examine their processes of dealing with his loss through the eyes of his imaginative, biology-obsessed young daughter Polly. Very early on in the piece, she announces this theory that her dad is not dead, but that instead he is this frog she finds in the ravine at the moment of his death. Chaos, heartbreak and healing ensue.

BK: Where did this piece start? How did the beginning of this development first take shape?  

JT: Here’s the history in a nutshell: Mitchell Marcus, the AD of The Musical Stage Company back in the Fall of 2015 blind-matched-made us. We’d both done their Noteworthy program, but in separate years, which is the playwright-composer-librettist speed-dating workshop. He thought we would make a good match for Reframed, which is the next level of Noteworthy, where they pick three writer/composer teams to pick a painting in the Richard Barry Fudger Memorial Gallery of the AGO and write a 25 minute musical that would be workshopped with Director of New Play Development, Robert McQueen. We had three actors, an orchestra, and a series of workshops over about an eight month period. Ultimately, they were performed and loosely staged in front of the paintings.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: How did you choose the painting that would inspire you to write the musical? Why did this painting speak to both of you? What was it about the painting?

JT: We decided we would go to the AGO separately and then meet for coffee and talk about our top three paintings. We picked some of the same paintings, but I picked The Young Biologist. It was by a London, Ontario painter named Paul Peel, who actually got quite famous moving as a young man to study art in Paris. The Young Biologist is actually of his son Robert as a three-year-old looking down at this frog who’s hardly visible in the corner of this painting. To me, it felt really exciting that there is a sort of exchange going on between the frog and the boy. The title made me think about death and how a science obsessed child might reconcile and grapple with the death of a parent, and this notion of where the personality or the soul goes when the body dies. Coincidentally at the same time, I had heard a podcast about child grief bereavement centres and camps that are all around North America. I kind of pitched this idea to Kevin. At first, I wanted to write the outline of a one act musical that was maybe a TYA show and we’d pick 20 minutes to do for the AGO piece. (to Kevin) Somehow I convinced you though, and what I didn’t tell you at the time was that if you didn’t say yes to this, I wasn’t going to do the project. There’s nothing else that inspired me as much.

(Laughter)

BK: What was is it that convinced you Kevin?

KW: A lot of the portraits were just singular subjects and it was Julie’s point about there being two subjects in it, which was rare. She asked me what I thought about what the relationship between the son and the frog was? I hadn’t noticed the frog originally. When I did, I thought now there’s an interesting a relationship to write about. We started talking about who the frog was and who the boy was and what they were to each other. Because of the podcast Julie was listening to, there was a lot of child grief in the discussion. That was sort of the starting point.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: Match making is an interesting way to begin what has become a lengthy collaboration. What makes for a good collaboration? What makes for good partners in development?

JT: (To Kevin) I googled the hell out of you. We knew of each other but hadn’t met.

KW: I also admired Brantwood. I had no idea who she was, but she had fabulous hair when I saw her standing by the exit…

JT: …and I’m also really smart right?

KW: …and then I met her and I was disappointed ever since.

(Laughter)

KW: No. Nooo! It was very clear that Julie’s imagination and her detailed work on characters and what motivates them was very, very precise and specific and immersive. And I was really interested in working with that.

JT: We laugh about the same things a lot.

KW: We have a raunchy dark sense of humour that we share.

JT: We procrastinate in the same way. We like food.

KW: More than that, the two of us are very committed to telling a story of the same voice. We are very up in each other’s business and on each other’s grills all the time. If a character says something that I try to fudge so that it could rhyme, Julie will usually pick out the sentence that isn’t true to what the character is feeling at that moment. And vice versa, if I know there is a moment in the spoken dialogue that they could sing better, then I might ask Julie to cut that or to save it.

JT: I also like that you’re not married to this idea/format of scene-song-scene-song. Our structure is non-traditional, and whether it works or not, the Fringe will be a huge learning curve for us.

KW: The older stereotype of what a musical is, is that it’s modular and chunky. The composer sticks a song in and the book writer writes around it and then a scene happens and then a song happens. Our process on this show is sort of the opposite. It’s very lateral and very integrated. 

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: What did the Reframed series do for the first incarnation of this piece?

KW: The blessing of Reframed was that there was a finite gestation period and a hard deadline in sight because you knew no matter what you did, 20 minutes of your material was going to be mounted in April 2016. 20 minutes allowed us to figure out how a story breathes, why it sings, what music is doing in the piece and what the emotional heart and core of that is.

BK: What happened next with it?  

KW: Our process in Reframed was a bit different in that we were the only ones who knew that this piece was going to be a longer full two act piece. Our way in, was to find a couple of scenes that sort of could be strung together but something that we knew we were always going to expand. After Reframed, we then got the opportunity to workshop a little bit more at the In Tune conference in Vancouver. We wrote a little bit more material, added in a new character and did 45 minutes in front of a different audience.

BK: And after that?

KW: We were looking for another opportunity to expand. Those opportunities to have audiences actively responding to what you have written so far help keep you from going off the rails into your own head. You can get so close to a piece that you can’t see the forest for the trees anymore.

BK: I love that saying.

KW: You get too close to it. It’s like saying the word the over and over again, it doesn’t mean anything after a while. And so when The Paul O’Sullivan for Musical Theatre deadline came around, I suggested to Julie that we apply because even though self-producing at Fringe is very exhausting, if we were to win, the prize money would be helpful. The opportunity would be really helpful and it would be another deadline that we could use. I robbed myself of sleep putting together some demos and we wrote a little bit more material and applied. We were very lucky and are thrilled to have won that prize because it gave us this opportunity and now it’s 85 minutes of a first act.

JT: There’s no other way to do it. We would have gone on endless coffee dates and written slowly.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: Why just one act? People obviously know what they’re getting when seeing the title but what would you say are the pros and potential negative perceptions of presenting just this one act?

KW: Luckily the Fringe is a great environment to try something. The audience comes in with an expectation that the material is very new in its form. Even if we wanted to do two acts we couldn’t because the longest slot is only 90 minutes. Writing-wise we had to be realistic with how far we were really going to be able to get. It’s possible that some things in this one act may end up in act two. We may have put some things in the wrong order… we’ll discover that. At some point you have to stop generating material and allow the actors to just do what they’re going to do without constantly changing it on them.

JT: It’s manageable. We grappled with wanting to give people a good Fringe experience, but also authentically explore what we want to explore, so I don’t think we’ve over-written it on purpose just to fill a 90 minute slot, but to learn about it.

KW: In a way, the pressure of just doing one act was helpful because if you did the full the story, you would expect naturally that the audience would walk out with some degree of emotional catharsis or completion. But because we’re just doing one act, it actually made us tighten the loop on our narrative storytelling. We’ve still got to send the audience out the way you would feel at the end of a very finessed intermission. Even if it’s to be continued, something has to happen enough that you feel like you have gotten somewhere you’re satisfied with.

JT: And then that there’s a hook and a feeling of what is going to happen next. We have a sense of the arc of act two, but it’s going to be a puzzle to figure out. I hope the audience response is that they want more. It doesn’t feel complete because it is not resolved and there’s a new bit of information we give right at the end.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: What is the Fringe doing for the next stage of development? What’s next for Polly after the Fringe?

KW: What we’re going to learn from the Fringe is monumental because theatre is such a live medium that you really need that audience in some way to understand how something is landing and how your storytelling is coming across. Following that, we’re going to meet again and we’ll have plenty of rewrites and changes from what we did present. You inevitably get plenty of things wrong… you can’t get everything perfect.

JT: We know that there are things in there that are not working, just through our writing, lack of time, lack of resources, working on a Fringe budget.

KW: Once we finish the Fringe, we’ll start re-drafting. I think we have to work quickly. I think not losing the momentum will be important. Maintaining momentum in the actual writing is the best way to avoid letting fear become inertia because even with a piece that exists already, if you leave it too long it becomes scary and then you don’t touch it anymore.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: What do you do when something isn’t working? How do you look at it from the outside and fix it when you are on a time crunch?

JT: Some stuff we have to let go and know we will address it later. 

KW: What we did very early on is we had a read of the script that wasn’t a finished version with the entire cast. That gave us a huge amount of information and we made a list of priorities of what we were going to tackle before we got into the rehearsal room.

As we got into the room, it sort of is like a funnel in that the big bulk rewrites don’t happen. The huge conceptual rewrites are smaller and smaller. There’s a point at which you are just adjusting lines and lyrics and cutting.

JT: Lots of cuts. I feel like 90% of what I’ve written overall has been cut. It’s almost like a pathway of getting to the right place. Even now we’re being really nit-picky, which I guess is a good thing. Our actors have been so positive and supportive to the rewrites we have done and have even made suggestions the closer they’ve gotten to the characters.

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

BK: Do you have advice for other theatre makers that are creating new musicals?

JT: Give yourself time.

KW: Learn how to collaborate. The temptation, even for your first piece, is to want to do everything alone so that you can show you can do a lot of things. Learning to collaborate is a very difficult, ongoing case-by-case process because every single collaborative team is different. Your product is almost always invariably better if you find the right collaborator, than if you try to do something on your own. It also enables you to really hone your skill set on your specific craft. Sometimes you need that extra eye calling you on your bullshit.

JT: …or your habits. Be rigorous with the collaborators you choose to be in the room with. Create the kind of room you really want to create. Don’t be shy about that. Trust everyone’s expertise. If something doesn’t feel right or go well in terms of how you are collaborating, address it early or it becomes ingrained and systemic. There’s nothing worse than being fearful about when to speak. I’ve been in gross rooms where that is the culture. Life is too short and there’s not enough money to justify feeling like we’re walking on egg shells all the time, especially when it started from a place of curiosity, imagination and love.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with from Polly?  

KW: I hope they hold their loved ones a little closer to them. We take so much for granted and life is fragile and I think there’s something about that at the heart of the piece.

JT: I’d say also that imagination is courage. I think that’s what Polly and her frog have been teaching us from the beginning and that there… this sounds very cliché… but there isn’t one singular way to grieve. You said this early on Kevin, but we think this is about a family that doesn’t realize they need each other. This might help people reflect on their own situation and family.

The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act 1)

Who:
Company: The Polly Peel Collective
Playwright/Creator: Kevin Wong (Music & Lyrics) & Julie Tepperman (Book)
Director: Aaron Willis
Cast: Troy Adams, Alan Cui, Donna Garner, Faly Mevamanana, Richard Lee, Hannah Levinson, Ben Page, Jessica Sherman

What:
‘… Polly Peel (Act 1)’ explores a family grappling with death through the eyes and imagination of a biology-obsessed eleven-year-old girl. Originally inspired by acclaimed Canadian painter Paul Peel’s ‘The Young Biologist’, an early incarnation was presented in 2016 at the AGO as part of The Musical Stage Company’s ‘Reframed’.

Featuring a moving story, a funny and poignant musical score, and some of Canada’s top musical theatre talent, ‘… Polly Peel (Act 1)’ showcases a rare in-development look at a new Canadian musical. Frogs. Family. Forgiveness. RIBBIT!

Winner of the 2018 Paul O’Sullivan Prize for Musical Theatre.

Where:
TARRAGON THEATRE – MAINSPACE
30 Bridgman Ave
Toronto
Ontario
M5R 1X3

When:
7th July – 5:15pm
9th July – 1:00pm
10th July – 10:00pm
11th July – 7:00pm
13th July 3:30pm
15th July 5:15pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

 

 

 

In Conversation with Briana Brown and Rob Kempson on Co-Directing ROBERT at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival

Interview by Hallie Seline.

When finding out about Robert by Briana Brown, running at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival, I was very intrigued to find out that it was being co-directed. In a position that is so traditionally singular and with the current conversations around power dynamics in the rehearsal hall, I was eager to catch up with co-directors Briana Brown and Rob Kempson to discuss what drew them to share this leadership role, the value of artistic respect and trust in your directing partner, and the advice they would pass along to others wanting to explore this alternative directing structure.

Hallie Seline: Where did you get the idea to co-direct this piece? 

Briana Brown: We both adjudicate at the high school NTS Drama Festival (formerly Sears) during the winter, and this year there seemed to be a number of co-directing teams. I was initially skeptical and asked them a lot of tough questions about their process and responsibilities, but in the end was wooed! Their experiences sounded so positive, and the logic made so much sense, I was really interested to experiment myself. Rob is the only person I could ever imagine doing this with, and I’m so happy he was game to try.

Rob Kempson: There are few people on this earth who I would ever consider sharing the role of director with; Bri is one of those people. So when she asked me to work on this piece with her, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity. She has such a brilliant mind and she is such an understanding and compassionate artist.

HS: What discussions need to happen before and during the process to make sure you both are on the same page? 

RK: Luckily, Bri and I tend to share a brain. We actually joke about it often, because it’s scary how regularly we have the same thoughts at the same time. So while we have had a number of meetings throughout the process to make sure that we’re on the same page, we are almost always on that page. During shared rehearsals, we would take moments outside of the rehearsal hall to touch base, and decide who would be doing the primary communication with the actors. However, often during our notes sessions, we would have the same or similar notes, so it was pretty easy to give our notes together.

BB: I concur.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

HS: What has been the benefit of having two directors on Robert?

BB: Reassurance. Directing can be such an isolating role, and under this model, you always have a partner. When I was feeling something wasn’t working, or I couldn’t figure something out, Rob was able to both validate my experience and often confirm he was finding it challenging too. We were then able to discuss potential solutions frankly, and vulnerably, in a way one wouldn’t do with designers and actors, because you need them to have faith that you have all the answers.

I also loved watching Rob work with the actors. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an assistant directing role, which is the only time you’re really privy to watching a director work when that is the only thing holding your focus. I also knew exactly what our challenges were, which was not an insight I had when in those AD roles, and so it was fascinating to watch him work. I picked up a lot of things that I know I’ll integrate into my process going forward.

RK: I love watching Bri direct as well. She is so wise, and offers such unique insight in all of her work. Bri speaks to actors fully–meaning the weight of the piece as a whole infects every note she offers. It gives the actors such a great understanding of a moment in the context of the work as a whole. It’s brilliant, and so different than my standard practice.

More broadly, the major benefits of working together on this piece are related to authorship. Bri is not proprietary with her writing, and so she is open to making big directorial choices to compliment the words on the page. This means that when we rehearsed, we were able to play with big open minds. It has led to some inventive choices that highlight her brilliant words, and that I would have never thought of on my own.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

HS: And on that note, have you come across any challenges in having two people leading the process?

BB: I’d love to hear an honest response from the actors about whether we were as in sync from their perspective, as we believe we were.

I also think knowing we were sharing the weight and responsibility sometimes slowed us down a little, mostly before going into rehearsal.

RK: I also think that we almost checked in with each other a little too much… as in, we felt like we needed permission before following an impulse. So it meant that we’d say yes and thank you and okay before even trying something to see if it worked in the first place.

HS: Would you say you each have specific strengths or blind spots that compliment each other in your work? 

BB: In this particular iteration, Rob was great at noticing my blind spots as a playwright. He is more focused on physicality than I am, which was amazing to have in the room. We are, however, both exceptional choreographers.

RK: I think what Bri means is that I am a brilliant choreographer, and she is very limited in her appreciation of truly expressive movement.

HS: Have you learned some key lessons while co-directing that you’d pass on to others wanting to try this? 

BB: We have known one another for over 10 years, and have worked together in a number of capacities, so entering into this we knew that we shared a number of core values when it comes to storytelling. I can’t imagine embarking on this under any other circumstances. You need to appreciate your co-director artistically, and trust them as a human. Ego doesn’t have a place in this process. If you’re directing because you like to be the All Powerful Voice in the room, you will end up in conflict.

RK: Ego cannot have a place in most true collaboration. But when you’re collaborating on the same job, it really cannot enter the space. Bri is so good at that, and I need to work on it. It’s good that I wasn’t able to be bossy all the time. It makes me a better artist, and ultimately, it makes this production better.

HS: Tell me a bit about this show Robert, on assembling your team and what you’re excited to share with Fringe audiences? 

BB: At the core of this team is the group that put on Bad Baby: Rules Control the Fun at last year’s fringe. We’ve switched roles around a little bit, and we have invited some exceptional new artists into our process, including Rob.

RK: I’m excited about so many things: it’s site-specific, it’s funny, it’s a little dramatic, the venue is beautiful, Bri’s play is amazing, I’m co-directing a play that has my name as it’s title… etc. etc. Should I go on?

Robert

Who:
Company: Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective
Playwright: Briana Brown
Directors: Briana Brown & Rob Kempson
Producer: Erin Vandenberg
Cast: Chris Baker & Janelle Hanna

What:
Kat and James are waiting for their father to die. Not exactly estranged, but certainly not close, the two struggle to make conversation until James reveals the worst secret he possibly could. From the team behind the 2017 Fringe hit “Bad Baby”, Jessie-nominated playwright Briana Brown (Almost, Again) delivers laughs and heart in her new award-winning play about identity and loss. With a set of bagpipes.

Co-directed by Briana Brown & Rob Kempson (Maggie & Pierre, Mockingbird), produced by Erin Vandenberg (Salt), and featuring Janelle Hanna (Prairie Nurse, Bad Baby) and Chris Baker (Deadmouse: The Musical).

Where:
ST. GEORGE THE MARTYR
197 John Street
Toronto
Ontario

When:
5th July – 8:00pm
6th July – 8:00pm
7th July – 5:00pm
7th July – 8:00pm
10th July – 8:00pm
11th July – 8:00pm
12th July – 8:00pm
13th July – 8:00pm
14th July – 5:00pm
14th July – 8:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

“From Glam Rocker, to MMA, to TV Personality, to the 2018 Toronto Fringe with ENJOY THE HOSTILITIES” 5 Questions with Robin Black

Interview by Hallie Seline.

We were excited to get the opportunity to chat with Robin Black, who has had quite the journey going from glam rocker, to mixed martial artist, to television personality, and who now adds Toronto Fringe storyteller to his list of titles. We discussed his greatest challenges both mentally and physically, his personal philosophy that kept him moving forward, and why he decided to share his story with the Toronto Fringe this summer in Enjoy the Hostilities.

HS: What an incredible journey you have already had at this point in your life! Is there a singular philosophy that you carried with you to each of your very different ventures?

Robin Black: I have a goal of getting better at something every day. I think I started thinking this way as a Martial Artist at a young age, and I apply that thinking to everything. I can get a little better at my job, a little better at editing my art, a little better at being a good husband, a little better at yoga.

This ‘growth mindset’, the idea that wherever I apply effort I will grow, has been a part of the way I’ve approached every venture in my life. It’s also a theme in our show Enjoy the Hostilities.

HS: What was harder on your body and mind: being a rock star or being a fighter?

RB: Traveling and playing rock music in a C-List Glam Rock band was definitely more damaging to my body, my relationships and my physical and mental health.

Fighting is very, very tough mentally and physically but it is rooted in healthy things; training your body and mind, getting better every day, overcoming obstacles, striving to achieve goals.

Rock and roll can be viewed, performed and expressed this way too but we had a more grungy, drug-and-alcohol-fueled interpretation of being rock performers.

Both are tough. Both damaged my body. Both were mentally stressful and challenging. Both probably took years off of my life.

HS: What experience has offered your greatest challenge and if you were faced with it again, would you deal with it in the same way?

RB: Failure is hard, and I fail a lot.

When you fail in a fight you’re so naked and alone, both metaphorically and literally. It is a very pure form of failure. It’s incredibly painful.

I would not change a thing, these setbacks are what creates your strength and resilience and ability to be stronger in your future.

What you end up wishing you could change is the PREPARATION before the failure, but you cannot, the time has passed.

So the lesson you end up learning from failure has to be lessons about preparation so that, next time, you will increase your chance of success.

HS: If you could now try any other profession at this moment, without limitation, what would it be and why?

RB: I spend my days studying Martial Arts and sharing what I find with an audience. Sometimes I tell stories. I commentate combat for people watching on television. I love what I do. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But if something pops up that I’d rather be doing? I’ll pursue it immediately and deploy all of the passion and persistence necessary to make it happen. That’s what I always do and I’m sure I will do it again.

HS: What made you want to turn your life’s journey into a Fringe show at this time in your life?

RB: I’m not rich, I’m not famous, but I have honestly lived a life of passion and adventure.

In the process, I’ve learned some pretty cool things that I really wanted to share with people.

I also really wanted to work on something with Graham [Isador, co-creator & director] and this was so fun to build and it’s been so fun to express.

It just all came together so beautifully and I’m just so stoked for people to see it at the Fringe.

Enjoy the Hostilities

Who:
Company: Pressgang Theatre
Playwright/Creator: Robin Black and Graham Isador
Performed by Robin Black
Directed by Graham Isador

What:
Have you ever woken up in the middle of a cage fight? Have you ever overdosed backstage in a concert hall? Have you ever tried to out-drink a two time world Sumo champion? Robin Black has. It’s kind of been his job. In Enjoy The Hostilities, Robin Black (TSN, MUCHMUSIC) uses humour, storytelling, and punch drunk philosophy to share his journey from glam rocker, to mixed martial artist, to television personality. Co-written by Graham Isador (VICE, Soulpepper Playwright Unit), the show offers audiences advice on how to make the most out of almost making it.

Where:
The Bovine
542 Queen Street West
Toronto
Ontario
M5V 2B5

When:
4th July – 6:00pm
5th July – 6:00pm
8th July – 6:00pm
9th July – 6:00pm
10th July – 6:00pm
11th July – 6:00pm
12th July – 6:00pm
15th July – 6:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

Connect:
t: @robinblackmma
ig: @robinblackmma

“Working with Youth, Audience Participation & The Extraordinary Things in Life” Eliza Martin and Neil Silcox on HARVEY & THE EXTRAORDINARY at the 2018 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Bailey Green.

We sat down with theatre creators Eliza Martin and Neil Silcox to discuss the upcoming site-specific Fringe show Harvey & the Extraordinary, written and performed by Eliza and directed by Neil. Harvey and the Extraordinary explores the joy and heartbreak of childhood from the perspective of an 8-year-old girl named Mimi. We spoke about working with youth, audience participation and the extraordinary things in life.

BG: How did you started working together?

Eliza Martin: I saw Neil in a production of King Lear at Hart House Theatre. He played Edgar, but more importantly I was captivated by his performance as Poor Tom.

Neil Silcox: I pretended to be a cat.

EM: I thought the cat was exemplary. Neil was friends with Jeremy Hutton, who was director of Toronto Youth Theatre at the time and then Neil came in as AD on Into the Woods, which I was in. And my first words to him were, “Did you play a cat in King Lear?”

NS: We worked together on that show, and then I directed Rent at TYT. And then I coached Eliza going into theatre school auditions, and then Eliza went to TDS [Theatre and Drama Studies] from whence I am also an alumnus. Thus a friendship was born! A year and a half ago, Eliza reached out to me with a new script she was developing, which became Harvey & the Extraordinary. Last summer we did a workshop of it over two days at the end of July in a garage that had belonged to my friends Jeff and Sarah. We thought this is perfect for the Fringe – it has a lot of give and take with the audience, it’s fun and the garage is about 200 metres from the Fringe patio, which doesn’t hurt.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

BG: What did you learn from your workshop last summer?

EM: The piece has so much audience interaction, it’s such an integral part of the show, that we were interested in their experience and perspective on plot and characters. They had really great thoughts on storyline and what they might need clarified

NS: In some ways it’s a mystery piece in that the character of Mimi is an 8-year-old and is something of an unreliable narrator. So part of our job is to pick apart what she says to piece together the more objective reality. And some of the audience in the workshop didn’t do that and we were able to identify some ways to drop some clearer hints and guide the audience. As a director it was interesting to see the context of the show in that specific space because it is a garage in an alleyway in the heart of the city with the back door open. There was a kind of give and take with the city, which is really beautiful. And Mimi is a Torontonian kid so she has a rapport with the city. We had everything from cars driving by to people throwing firecrackers.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

BG: What was it like interacting with an audience and where there any surprises that it brought?

EM: I was very surprised at how much I felt like they enjoyed participation and I feel a lot of that was because Mimi is a child. You feel like you get to support her in a lovely way and it makes them feel comfortable. Even though audience participation can sound scary, for myself included, there’s something really special about the relationship between Mimi, a child, and the audience, because you feel as though you are helping her with her performance. It cuts away some of the embarrassment that people sometimes experience in audience participation. That was really gratifying to discover and I look forward to continuing to explore that relationship

NS: It’s that quality that we always look for, that Mimi is always thrilled and excited by what she gets, so it’s accessible audience participation. No one ever gets anything wrong, no one is the butt of the joke. It’s a small show – we seat 19 people. In the workshop we had 2 performances and we filled it full of people quite close to us, professionally and personally. Those audiences had an understanding of who Eliza is and who I am and the work we do, so I’m really excited to have strangers in who will have fewer presumptions about who we are and the work we do.

BG: Eliza, what drew you to create a solo show?

EM: A solo show forces you into creative storytelling. What excited me is that I found I did my most creative work when I didn’t have other actors up there with me. I had to find ways to create for myself what was needed in the story. I began doing it because I wanted a way to control my own work and work on something without sort of waiting for the phone to ring. It seems like a simple answer but that’s what started it — as a way to have a project for myself. I fell in love with it as I did it and I fell in love with other people’s solo projects and being amazed at what they did and how they told their stories until it was a rabbit hole I fell down in an exciting way.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

BG: How did working with children and young people influence this show?

NS: I’ve been teaching theatre now for 20 years, and I started with people who are about Mimi’s age, 8 or so, at a YMCA in London when I didn’t know anything. Since then I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of kids […] Randy Pausch wrote a book called The Last Lecture, in it he talks about teaching football as an educational head fake. You tell young people that you’re teaching them to play football but you’re really teaching them a bunch of other things and my philosophy of teaching youth theatre was the same thing. When you first get into theatre, we think of it as a putting on of someone else. But the beauty in theatre is about showing who you are, it is a revelation of self. It’s very personal work that Eliza does in her writing and in her performance. In rehearsal, we talk about our histories and who we were as children and how our current anxieties are similar to those young people and in Mimi.

EM: I had that experience working with you as a youth, so that’s interesting. We think we’re putting something on, when really we’re giving ourselves the freedom to express. We do talk a lot about our own personal stories and one of the reasons I reached out to Neil was not only because he’s a wonderful friend and mentor, but I feel like we share this similar sense of humour that I was interested in writing and working with in the piece. And it’s Mimi’s humour, it’s this lovely humour that I find comes from communicating with children. I love the way they talk about their lives and the discoveries they make and every day is so new and interesting. I had a little boy say to me once, “The inside of my neck is itchy” and he meant his throat but I thought it was clever that he would describe it as that. There are a few Mimis in my life and I bring in their stories and reference them often.

BG: What are three extraordinary things currently giving you life?  

EM:

  1. Samosas.
  2. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer – I’m telling everyone and their mother to read it. It’s about the exchange between audience and performer. Palmer reflects on her time as a street performer and the gift of art and human connection.
  3. Fresh cut flowers.

NS:

  1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – a beautiful way to shift my perspective and extremely compelling writing. It’s a great example of an old axiom about writing where you write for something extremely specific and in that it will be accessible to everyone, and if you try to write something accessible to everyone, no one will care. So Ta-Nehisi, writing for his son, a young teenage Black man in America in 2015, that specificity made it clear where there was room for the reader.
  2. Parks and Recreation – I’m watching it for the first time and it is really good. There’s a purity to each character, like a bell tone.
  3. This War of Mine – It’s a video game that is not exactly fun, but extremely compelling. The game asks what you have to do as a civilian to survive war. It’s crushing, because you can’t survive without making some awful choices. I’m interested in how different mediums find emotions that you can’t find in other media, and a video game can find guilt in a way I don’t know if a book or movie can.(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Harvey and The Extraordinary

Who:
Written & Performed by Eliza Martin
Direction by Neil Silcox

What:
Harvey & The Extraordinary invites you to follow the trail of painted cardboard signs and join eight-year-old Mimi and her hamster Harvey for their professional and not-so-silent debut!
With big dreams to join the circus, Mimi sets out to put on her very own mime show (in her garage) for a special guest of honour. Harvey & The Extraordinary explores the joy and heartbreak of childhood and what it means to maybe, just maybe, be simply ordinary.

Where:
GARAGE ON COLLEGE PLACE
181 Markham Street
Toronto
ON
M6J 2G7

When:
4th July – 7:00pm
5th July – 7:00pm
6th July – 7:00pm
7th July – 7:00pm
8th July – 7:00pm*
10th July – 7:00pm
11th July – 7:00pm*
12th July – 7:00pm
13th July – 7:00pm
14th July – 7:00pm

*Relaxed Performance

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

 

“Parenting, Marriage, Punctuation and Onions” In Conversation with Actor Jennifer Villaverde on MUSIC MUSIC LIFE DEATH MUSIC

Interview by Bailey Green.

We spoke with Jennifer Villaverde after she spent the morning in the wandelprobe for MUSIC MUSIC LIFE DEATH MUSIC: An Absurdical, written, directed and composed by Adam Seelig and produced by One Little Goat Theatre Company. Hearing the band for the first time is an exciting part of the process, and Villaverde noted the flourishes of each instrument and how percussion can so skillfully create a mood or feeling. MUSIC MUSIC LIFE DEATH MUSIC is about three generations of a family and their attempts to communicate and connect. Villaverde plays DD, who is both a mother and daughter within the show. We spoke about parenting, marriage, punctuation and onions.

Bailey Green: This is your first production with One Little Goat and Adam Seelig, can you tell me more about working with this company?

Jennifer Villaverde: The first week or so I spent a lot of time getting to know Adam as a director and his approach to the piece. And it’s also very personal, I had to be sensitive because it’s different when you’re working with someone who wrote the piece, you don’t want to screw up the line. Adam has been so patient with us. He’s a very different writer, he’s really a poet, and it’s reflected in how he structures the text on the page. Visually, it’s very different. His style of writing has no punctuation, he likes to leave it open to be interpreted on the page. So for me, to see a sentence without structure and fractured, it was a bit of a learning curve. I discovered that I rely so much on punctuation so for it to be so open was a bit jarring. Where is my next thought emotionally? It was a lot of discovering on our feet, but he [Adam] writes very musically, looking at the words on the page as not quite notes, but with rhythm.

Jennifer Villaverde

BG: Who is DD? Where is she in her life when we meet her?

JV: My character DD is like a lot of women who is married with a teenage child and everything is changing. Her child is no longer a baby, but she wants her child to be a baby because there’s a certain dependence in that. The easy love is slipping away and it’s a bit scary for her so she’s hanging on to what was, even though she can’t because aging happens, time happens… She has a great relationship with her husband. She’s very lucky, it’s a true partnership and they rely on reach other and look to each other for support. They’re a tag team. And DD is also every woman who has that tension with her mother. ‘I’m a grown up Mom, I make my own decisions Mom’ because she [DD] wants her child to be a baby forever but she feels the opposite with her mom [B is played by Theresa Tova].

BG: This is a show about a family. How do their dynamics relate to your own family and how do they differ?

JV: I love my mother very, very, very, much but you know, I remember growing up and telling her ‘I’m not 15 anymore’ and growing older and having to repeat that ‘I’m not 15 anymore, I’m 20, I’m 30, I have my own child,’ I have to remind her that I am an adult and it’s okay for her to relinquish that motherly control that she has developed. It helps that she doesn’t live in the city, but I will always be her firstborn child, her baby and we both have to be okay with that. And it’s okay if she wants to baby me and I can just let her sometimes.

As for how we differ… I don’t have a teenage son, I have a five-year old daughter. She’s five going on fifteen. Maybe I’m a bit scared of when that time is going to come. We were just talking about it the other day, my husband and I, [about] mourning the loss of a child to their teens and going to high school and knowing how mean people can be. And we have no idea how we’ll negotiate that as a family. We have a 5-year-old and we know how to do that. But we have no idea what the world is going to be like ten years from now, for her. Now, we have social media and it drives all our lives. So what is that social media going to be in 10 years?

BG: What has been the most challenging part of this process?

JV: Absorbing and memorizing has been really hard. There is a lot of repetition of words or actions. I can’t forget these repeated words, it’s very important that it is repeated a certain number of times. Mom and mom and mom after these lines. I put a lot of pressure on myself, so it’s purely technical and saying it out loud to get it. I can memorize much easier when I am standing and moving around, it’s in my body. I don’t know why, other than the stakes felt really high to have it perfect. But Adam was really really patient with us, and I wasn’t the only one having trouble, so we are all in this together, and it’s almost there!

BG: Can I ask about the onions in the production photo, or would that be giving away something special and secret in the show?

JV: The onions in our show… it’s not so much of a secret… it symbolizes family tradition and honouring family tradition. It’s not like something most people celebrate, like Halloween for example. This tradition is specific to this one family and they honour that. It’s the feeling when families have this weird little thing and then you realize other people don’t do that. We’re not allowed to forget where we came from.

BG: Do you have any shows or artists you would like to shout out?

JV: I just saw Ma Raineys Black Bottom and it was just spectacular. It was so moving and such an important show to produce and to see on a stage and to see as a person of colour and to see other people of colour up on stage. To see a new story and not the same old story. I just saw Fun Home and I loved it so much. I’m excited to see La Bête, really great people in that, people I love so much. Frame by Frame by Lepage and Côté, I’m so excited by that collaboration.

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Music Music Life Death Music: An Absurdical

Who:
Presented by One Little Goat
WRITTEN, DIRECTED AND COMPOSED BY
Adam Seelig

STARRING
Richard Harte (One Little Goat’s Antigone: Insurgency, Talking Masks, Ubu Mayor)
Theresa Tova (NOW Magazine Top Theatre Artist of 2017, Tough Jews, The Jazz Singer)
Jennifer Villaverde (Soulpepper’s Animal Farm, Dora Nominee for YPT’s Hana’s Suitcase)

AND INTRODUCING
Sierra Holder (Sheridan College, Class of 2018)

FEATURING LIVE MUSIC BY
Joshua Skye Engel (guitar)
Tyler Emond (bass)
Lynette Gillis (drums)
Adam Seelig (piano)

music director Tyler Emond
set & costume designer Jackie Chau
lighting designer Laird Macdonald
stage manager Laura Baxter
publicist Ashley Belmer
assistant producer Annie MacKay
executive producer Derrick Chua

What:
“Toronto’s enterprising One Little Goat” (New York Times) presents the world premiere of MUSIC MUSIC LIFE DEATH MUSIC an “absurdical” with live music exploring the unexpected dynamics between three generations of family: a grandmother, her daughter, son-in-law and teenage grandson.

Featuring a cast and artistic team of multi-Dora Award nominees/winners. From the company that brought you the acclaimed Ubu Mayor and The Charge of the Expormidable Moose.

Where:
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace
30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto

When:
May 25 – June 10, 2018
Tue-Sat 8pm | Sun 2:30pm

Tickets:
Adults $35 | Seniors $30 | Arts Workers $25 | Students $20
Sundays all tickets $20

To purchase, phone the Tarragon box office at 416-531-1827 (no service charge) or online at tickets.tarragontheatre.com

 

In Conversation with Emerging Directors Ty Sloane, Bryn Kennedy & Kevin McLachlan on the 2018 Paprika Festival Directors’ Lab

Interview by Bailey Green.

This month, the Paprika Festival heads into its 17th year as the Paprika Directors’ Lab enters its 3rd year. The Directors’ Lab provides the opportunity for emerging directors to work with an experienced mentor and this year, the three directors had multidisciplinary artist Clare Preuss as their mentor. We sat down with emerging directors Ty Sloane, Bryn Kennedy & Kevin McLachlan to learn more about their experience participating in the Lab. We spoke about finding your voice, discovering your process and drawing inspiration from your peers.

Bailey Green: What drew you to Paprika?

Bryn Kennedy: As a young artist there’s not a lot of opportunities to take on a leadership position and put on a full production, while still having the support of mentorship. This is a festival that is helping you though the stages… it’s a unique opportunity. Mentorship and leadership, so there’s support and a challenge in that.

Kevin McLachlan: Direction is something I have always loved doing, even informally. Even as a kid, I was always the one organizing our mock battles against invisible armies. I’m currently in my final year of Musical Theatre at Sheridan College, and a teacher reached out to tell us about the festival and, being at the peak of the age range, I thought that it wasn’t an opportunity to miss. The more I read about it, the more we’ve participated in the program, the more awareness I’m getting and the more I can plant roots in such a rich theatre community. People are genuinely interested in your success and well-being. It has been a really amazing experience.

Ty Sloane: It’s a really rich opportunity in that you’re with other young emerging artists, you’re with folks who are still learning and struggling. Directing terrifies me. A lot of mentors have been like ‘you should direct’ and I’m like ‘no no no’. But I’ve tried to approach this year as an artist to challenge myself and seek what may not feel comfortable, and [for me] that was directing. I love it.

Photo of Ty Sloane by Neil Silcox

BG: Can you tell us a bit about working with your mentor Clare Preuss?

KM: We got paired with Clare, and she kind of got one of the hardest jobs in the world. Not in helping us, but how do you help someone make art? There’s no easy recipe on how to create something. But she has shared her patience and understanding of the industry and her own process with such a clear passion for the work and has extended all sorts of tools she has.

TS: She calls them games. What’s the game we’re playing? What’s the game of the show? How do you adjust the game? And I love that because games sounds a lot easier and a lot more open and she’s really done a great job of providing ways for the three of us to learn from each other and from her, and to adapt whether it’s a game or an approach.

BK: She comes from a performance background and so do all three of us, and so a lot of her process that she has been reminding us about is making a rehearsal hall that feels comfortable and safe to do work in and how do you keep that going. It’s about setting the rules for the game, not in a way that limits anyone, but in a way for all of us to feel safe. She’s been really good about meeting us all where we are at.

Photo of Bryn Kennedy by Neil Silcox

BG: What kind of theatre do you want to create?

TS: I am obsessed with Theatre of the Absurd, and breaking the conventions of what it means to put on a production. For the work I want to do, I like to talk about the really intimate stuff. I myself am a queer, mixed-race, mixed-gendered person and I want to talk about those things and explore them and unpack them.

BK: I am really interested in work that lives in the emotional reality of the characters as opposed to the physical or literal world around them. How do we bring the inner experience to the outer world? I started directing because I wasn’t seeing the kinds of stories on stage that I wanted to see or wasn’t feeling like there were characters who represented the person that I am as a young woman and the friends that I have.

KM: I’m completing my fourth year at Sheridan Musical Theatre so for myself Musical Theatre was an accidental gateway. I was not the kid that knew every show and sang the score to them and I’m still often exposed for my lack of knowledge in the music theatre world. Like the Gene Kelly quote, ‘if all it takes for someone to laugh and smile is to sing and smile and do a dance, then I’m happy to be a song and dance man’. That’s a simple way and a somewhat privileged way to look at it but I have always loved to make people laugh. I’m also struck by the kinds of questions that don’t have answers.

Photo of Kevin McLachlan by Neil Silcox

BG: Tell us a bit about the pieces you have chosen to direct.

TS: My piece is called Witness of Obsession and Desire and asks what stops you as a lover from leaving a relationship. It’s told from the perspective of Quinn telling the lover, which is the audience, about their experience falling in love with two people at the same time and learning about their own sexuality and polyamory. [It’s about] what it means when you think that the stories about the people who you’re in love with is actually about you and your journey into loving yourself.

BK: I’m directing Vitals by Rosamund Small. As a paramedic Anna meets people on the worst day of their lives, every call she receives is an emergency, but when professional trauma starts to slide into personal tragedy, she finds herself fighting for her own life. It’s an exploration of mental health in the medical community and we have a kick-ass all female team.

KM: My piece is based on the questions of playing God and how can you make a ‘right choice’ in a decision where there isn’t one… My mother is a retired hospice worker. She was a hospice worker for 20 years and I was inspired by her experience with grief in a work setting and in her own personal life,  and how she had to make that decision with people about to continue or discontinue someone’s end of life care. I’ve written an original piece called Fragments that looks at, in such a situation, how can you decide whether or not someone should continue or discontinue living and what are the moments that we define ourselves?

BG: What have you learned from working with each other?

BK: From Ty and Kevin I have learned to live longer in the process part. I tend to jump straight to product, ‘let’s block this!’ And for me it’s checking boxes instead of sitting in this world and exploring it. When we did our training days and got to direct in front of each other, I was just so in awe of how they (Kevin and Ty) trust the process. I was able to see how the end result will be richer by having patience with yourself and the performers as you move through creating something together

KM: I feel I’ve learned applicable hands-on things but I’ve been so inspired by seeing Ty and Bryn take on work that is so deeply personal to them. To see anyone step up to something that challenges them is inspiring. They have both been so open with the place they’d like to arrive but they can turn to me and ask if I’m freaking out like they are. These are people I would happily work for or alongside in the future in any capacity but also these are people I would just hang out on the weekend with.

TS: In the last year, I have met a lot of directors and artistic directors but having worked with Koovy [Kevin] and Bryn, they bring a genuine honesty and it moves me and inspires me and makes me feel that I can be as honest with my collaborators. They bring such magic to the work that they do, they hold space for people for learning and for them to learn to in the process. Greatest directors group I have ever been a part of.

The Paprika Festival

What:
Paprika Festival is a youth-led professional performing arts organization. We run year round professional training and mentorship programs that culminate in a performing arts festival of new work by young artists.

—We generate opportunities for young artists to lead their own creative process with the support of their peers and professional mentors.

—We set the stage for young artists to have their voices heard in a setting that is supportive and also dependent on critical response.

—We ensure that young artists are well equipped to find employment in diverse cultural industries and to become our successors.

Where:
Native Earth’s Aki Studio, located in the Daniels Spectrum at 585 Dundas Street East, on the south side of Dundas, just east of Parliament Street.

When:
May 14 – 20
Full Schedule here.

Tickets:
paprikafestival.com/festival-2018/tickets/