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Posts tagged ‘2016 Summerworks performance festival’

LESSONS IN TEMPERAMENT: Authenticity, Why Site-Specific & Fine-Tuning – In Conversation with creator/performer James Smith & director Mitchell Cushman

Interview by Brittany Kay

Sitting down over coffee and grilled cheese, my conversation with James Smith and Mitchell Cushman was a true joy. We spoke about the intricacies of putting on a site-specific show, the authenticity you need in storytelling and the very personal world audiences are invited into in Lessons in Temperament.

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

James Smith: For years now I’ve wanted to do something with some stories I have from growing up because I have three older brothers, all of whom have some kind of mental disability. Growing up, that was very normal for me because it was just my world. But something I’ve learned in the meantime is that I actually have a pretty unique insight into mental illness because of the way I was raised around it. So I thought it would be interesting to be able to offer that insight to people. I never knew how I wanted to frame that in a theatrical setting and then a couple of years ago I started tuning pianos and I was struck by the kind of imperfections of that process. Tuning is all about compromise and spreading out this dissatisfaction so it’s not noticeable in any particular spot of the piano. I thought that was a good metaphor to life, how minds work, and the way I was growing up trying to facilitate all these different relationships with my brothers and their minds. I thought maybe it would be interesting to do a show where I tune a piano and tell stories.

Outside the March is Mitchell Cushman’s company and they were doing something last year called Forward March, where you could submit show ideas anonymously and get some funding so I submitted this show idea. Then one day I got a call from Mitchell and he said, “Is this your anonymous submission about piano tuning?”

Mitchell Cushman: I mean the application was pretty specifically related to things I knew about James.

JS: I was like, “Yeah, nice guess.” He said, “We’re not going to fund you because I feel like this doesn’t need any money,” but he suggested we apply for SummerWorks.

MC: The nature of Forward March was to fund larger projects that would maybe develop over a couple of years and this felt like something that urgently could and needed to happen sooner. SummerWorks seemed like a really great foray for that. I’ve directed a couple of other shows at SummerWorks and at least one other site-specific show at this festival, so it seemed like a really good home.

BK: What can SummerWorks do for this show? Why this festival right now?

MC: The cool thing about SummerWorks, over the time that Michael Rubenfeld ran it, it’s sort of evolved from a theatre festival to a performance festival and has more connections to performance art or live art and multidisciplinary work. A lot of the unique things about this show, and while not being a musical, owes something to music, it’s very much steeped in storytelling, and it’s presented in a very non-traditional way. I think there’s a lot of audience at SummerWorks hungry for that.

BK: What was the process in creating this show?

JS: Well, I wrote for a while… a lot of different things – a series of short stories that didn’t really feel right for the show. I just spent a lot of time writing, trying to find the voice of the show and then we went into our first day of rehearsal and I had about 45 minutes of kind of written down spoken word. We went through that and we kind of found, through rehearsals, that the best approach seemed to be pretty sincere, honest storytelling as opposed to pre-written short story type snippets. We started honing in, right away at the beginning of rehearsals, a way to keep it really natural. We’ve written down very little since we started. We’ve mostly made cue cards of things and organized the stories into a structure that makes sense to us. It was less about writing and more about creating the flow of the story.

MC: We put tons of post-it notes on walls. James, if he wanted to, could create a four-hour show on the same subject.

JS: Yeah, our main problem is having way too much material.

BK: That is a beautiful problem to have. 

MC: There are so many memories and different aspects of James’ family or extended family that could be explored, so it’s been a process of trying to zero in on what fits with the tight focus of the piece.

BK: Why choose site-specific for this show? Why change locations for each performance? 

JS: You could feasibly do this show in a theatre with a piano on a stage, but I kind of wanted to keep the authenticity of actually tuning a piano, then leaving it tuned for a family to use, and then moving on to the next one. Throughout the run of the show, I feel like I’m making some tiny impact on the community in terms of leaving it slightly more in balance.

MC: If we did it in a theatre, every night we’d have to un-tune the piano.

JS: This feels more authentic.

MC: Especially now that we’ve been in all of the venues doing practices, I think it’s a very intimate show. I think that these locations will really support that intimacy because we are really in people’s private living spaces for very small groups of audience.


BK: How does the audience find out where they are going?

JS: It’s a secret because working with 8 different venues brings up a lot of logistical issues. People backing out or people wanting to change their capacity or their time or date, so if we had announced all of the locations right away, we would be constantly changing it and updating it.

MC: It also helps protect people’s privacy a little bit and all of their addresses.

JS: So 24 hours before each performance, Summerworks will email everyone who has bought a ticket letting them know where to go.

MC: They’re all in the general vicinity of SummerWorks, between the Queen and Dufferin area.

BK: Building from that, how does being at these unique different locations heighten the experience for your audience coming to see the show? What does it do for them?

JS: I think it sets up just a different experience for them right away in terms of going to theatre. I think it’s stretching the idea of what theatre is and what it can do.

MC: The show is really based in reality. I mean, James is telling a series of stories, all of which happened. I think by walking into someone’s house and having a real piano that actually needs to be tuned just supports the reality of the piece. Early on James was asking me if anyone else could perform this show and I don’t really think so partially because you’d need James’ skill set of being a performer and also being able to tune pianos. Even if someone could, I think it would be strange because it’s based so much on James’ personal experience.

BK: Let’s talk about site-specific and immersive theatre. What do they mean to both of you in terms of this show and more broadly speaking?

MC: I was actually thinking about this last night because I was writing an e-blast for this show. I was thinking about if this is a site-specific piece or immersive. I described it as a site-specific show. To me, I guess, it’s definitely site-specific in the sense that the location we’re performing in is going to radically inform what the piece is and we’re going to do this show 8 different times in 8 different spaces and it’s going to be 8 different shows. It would be a very different show if we did it in a traditional theatre. I think it would be a less activated experience. If we did it in a traditional theatre, I don’t think the space would have as much of a role on this show as it will when we perform it.

I guess when I think about immersive theatre, I think about the audience taking on a little bit more of an active experience, not necessarily physically active. That wouldn’t be the first word I would use for this show, but you could probably make arguments about parts of it being immersive too. I don’t know, what do you think James?

JS: I agree with what you said. The idea of immersive or site-specific theatre didn’t really exist until I met Mitchell. I had only done more standard types of theatre. Mitchell and Julie Tepperman asked me to do Brantwood at Sheridan, which was my first experience with immersive theatre.

MC: James was the musical director for the show, which was a monster task.

JS: After that, Mitchell hired me to do Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play as well, which was site-specific in a way.

MC: That was a show that was probably on the borderline of immersive. I think there we really took over a space and radically transformed it. We did it in an old adult movie theatre in the east end. We really tried to transform what that space was to make it look post-apocalyptic and make the audience really feel like they were taking shelter in that place to weather out the apocalypse. We did that show without using the grid electricity and so that added to what made it immersive.

There’s sort-of set criteria to what people expect a theatrical experience to be and it’s trying to challenge some of those pre-conceptions. One of the cool things on that show, because we didn’t have any electricity, the sound design became really interesting. James held the major part in it – he was like a foley artist. He was popping balloons to signify gunshots. He worked in collaboration with Samuel Sholdice who did the sound design. We needed the sound of crickets in the first act and so, without electric sound, we got real crickets in cages living in the ceiling. We made jokes like “Can we hear that at 50%?”


BK: That is amazing. What are the challenges, not only with Lessons in Temperament but with site-specific as a genre of theatre?

JS: Well, for this show I thought it would be a lot easier but because I’m inexperienced, I quickly learned that…

MC: Everything’s more complicated.

JS: I didn’t plan on having a producer. I thought this would be a small thing that I could handle on my own. Handling the logistics of the spaces was the hardest part because you have to think about audience capacity and whether or not we can hang lights. It became this kind of never-ending and always-expanding list of things that had to be done that a producer would normally do.

BK: Cue Sarite Harris.

JS: Exactly. I was trying to write the show and I found the only thing I was doing was writing emails.

MC: Even if you’re trying to do a piece and take it outside of a theatre, what you’re actually doing is trying to create a theatre inside of a space that isn’t a theatre. There are certain things like tech, seating capacity, audience comfort, and health and safety that are givens in a theatre… you don’t have to deal with that. When you go into a space that isn’t a theatre, your work has to start so much earlier in terms of figuring out things auxiliary to the actual presentation. In this case, when you’re in different locations every night, that’s just doing that work over again, all the time. Site-specific is very time consuming.

BK: Where did these sites come from?

JS: One we got off of Bunz Trading Zone on Facebook. A couple of friends and friends of friends gave us places.

BK: What about your working relationship with each other? How have you collaborated and worked together? 

MC: It’s horrible…

(they laugh)

JS: I really couldn’t have done this without Mitchell. He’s working, not just as the director, but as the developer of the piece, as well. He’s helped me organize my thoughts and my stories into something that is theatrically effective. I think, without him there with all of this info inside of his head, I would have never gotten past the stage of confused writing. I really needed him to kind-of put this into a world that would actually serve an audience properly. Mitchell is really smart and knows what’s good, so I can know that and trust him.

MC: I do know very little about music and music theory. I’ve been the ground zero test case for the most musically ignorant audience member. I can hear things better than I can two weeks ago! I’ve never had the opportunity to work on a show like this. I’ve been doing more new work development in the last couple of years and worked on a couple of solo shows, which is always interesting. You’re sort of getting a window into their brain. Given the subject matter and how this show is based so much around James’ memories and experiences, I’m just really… I’m thankful to be working on it. James has taken me and the other members of the core creative team into a very personal bubble, where the work has been living. One of the things I love about directing, and I don’t come from a performance background, is that you get to work with people and help them do something that you could never do and that’s tenfold on this experience. James has such a unique range of skills that are so far outside of what I would ever be able to do. It’s so fascinating to collaborate with him.

BK: That was a really nice answer guys. 

MC: We practiced outside.

JS: We’re going to hug later.

MC: I think we both came into this with a notion to fly by the seat of our pants. I think the show will continually evolve until our closing night. We have the freedom to do that. SummerWorks is a great place for experimentation. I think if either of us were too stressed about it being perfect right now, it would be less of a productive working relationship.

BK: What about the rest of your team?

JS: Nevada Lindsay Banks, our assistant director, has been so helpful. Just to have someone else in the room, who has this information in their head has been really great. She’s been there since the beginning kind-of helping as we’ve organized this piece. She’s always able and willing to chime in with something I’ve forgotten or Mitchell has overlooked. Just to have that third eye, kind-of taking care of things has been so beneficial.

MC: Nevada was one of the performers in Brantwood. She’s got really great instincts and also comes from a musical background. It’s helpful to have her to work with. Nick Blais is doing the design.

JS: He’s brilliant, I can’t believe he’s doing the show. He’s so good and so committed to it and he’s coming to all of these site visits and putting so much time into it. He’s so excited about it and I respect him so much as an artist. I feel so lucky.

MC: We’ve done a lot of site-specific stuff together and he’s one of the Outside of the March resident designers. He’s just got an amazing balance of a really creative mind and a really practical mind and you need that when doing these kinds of shows. He’s a truly unique talented dude who can kind of do it all. Kate Sandeson is our stage manager and we’ve both worked with her before. She can really work in non-traditional environments. Her calling the show will be moving dimmers connected to her binder while she’s sitting behind the piano with earplugs. She’s going to have a unique experience in every venue.

BK: What do you want audiences to walk away with at the end of this piece?

JS: I want people to feel like they’ve gained some insight into mental illness that is not textbook information or information a psychiatrist would give them. I want to offer a perspective that is very normalized and simple and understanding.

MC: There is a beautiful metaphor that James has created in this show. The show will start with him taking out a screwdriver and opening up these pianos. You get to see the piano exposed and the inner workings of it. Over the course of the show, you learn about what makes a piano work and how to keep it in tune. It’s something that most people don’t know about, but it’s an incredibly intricate process and it’s fascinating how this thing works and what gets in the way of it working. I think that’s a great metaphor for what goes on inside our brains and how many things in the world that we sort of interact with and accept, without really knowing what the underpinnings are. Beyond pianos, it makes me think about that.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Movie
The Big Lebowski
JS: Sandlot

Favourite Play
King Lear.
JS: The Seagull.

Favourite Musical
Hamilton but really Into the Woods.
JS: Sweeney Todd.

Favourite Food
The grilled cheese I just ate.
JS: Cherry cheesecake my mom makes.

Favourite Spot in Toronto
Trinity Bellwoods Park.
JS: Skyline Diner.

What music are you currently listening to?
The cast recording to Hamilton.
JS: Joel Plaskett Ladida

Advice you live by?
Don’t try to do what everyone else is doing, try to do the thing only you can do.
JS: Don’t ever argue with an idiot, they’ll drag you down to their level and defeat you with experience.

Lessons in Temperament


TuneSmith Productions
Written and Performed by James Smith; Directed and Developed by Mitchell Cushman; Sound Design by James Smith; Production Design by Nick Blais; Stage Management by Kate Sandeson; Assistant Directed by Nevada Banks; Produced by Sarite Harris, James Smith, and Mitchell Cushman.

Every piano is unique in its imperfection — in its flawed relationship to the sonic world. It’s impossible to perfectly tune a piano, so the job of a piano tuner is to tame this imperfection into an even balance, an even spread of dissatisfaction. This balance is known as Equal Temperament: a game of constant compromise and a lesson in disappointment.

Every mind is unique in its imperfection. In Lessons In Temperament, James Smith tunes pianos in various public and private spaces throughout Toronto while exploring theories behind Equal Temperament as well as his three older brothers’ mental illnesses: obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. Smith attempts to grant balance to the instrument that has, throughout his life, kept him grounded and kept him company, while reflecting on the discord that runs through his family. Each performance takes place in a different venue, gathered around a different piano. Part autobiographical story-telling, part performance art, part tune-up, this site-specific show offers a unique theatrical experience, and a singular glimpse into the lives of those living with troubled, beautiful, distempered minds.

Because our venues are site specific, we want to give you our patrons as much prior knowledge as possible. For allergy purposes, the performances on August 10th, 12th, and 14th have dogs as well as one cat on the 10th. Please note that the pets will not be at the performances.

Curator’s Note
“‘This working-through of the resistances may in practice turn out to be an arduous task ….’
– Freud

It’s a lovely performance metaphor: the tuning of pianos, the tuning of our hearts and minds, our lives. It’s might be a Sisyphean task but: ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill one’s heart’. (Camus)” – Guillermo Verdecchia

Secret Location

Wednesday August 10th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Friday August 12th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Sunday August 14th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM

More Show Info:

Sold out in advance but limited tickets at the door.

twitter – @tunesmithprod
instagram – @tunesmithproductions


In Conversation with Georgina Beaty, Playwright and Performer of “Extremophiles” at Summerworks

by Bailey Green

A woman gives birth to an unusual child in a dying society. In a world that is collapsing in on itself, an anthropologist arrives at a remote outpost to study the mother and the strange child. In the world of Extremophiles, the north has been deserted, the oceans have acidified and reproduction has ceased. “I’m interested in how we deal with impossible situations,” playwright and performer Georgina Beaty says. “How we have impossible conversations, how do we deal with still being alive and having so much love for each other? How do we find the desire to keep going and achieve?”

The title of the play is a scientific term— extremophiles are microscopic organisms who survive in the most extreme environments. Extremophiles is set in a near future with a contemporary feel. It’s just ahead of where we are now, Toronto of 2020. “The absurdity has been very liberating,” Beaty says. “but it’s the relationship between the characters and dealing with the nitty-gritty of how they are connecting to each other that has been a challenge. Finding what they are going for in the moment, yet still providing those world-building details for the audience.”

The piece first took shape in 2013-14 when Beaty participated in Write from the Hip, Nightwood Theatre’s year-long playwriting program for new writers. Extremophiles is the first piece Beaty has written individually, as the four shows she has created with her company Architect Theatre (Beaty is co artistic director with Jonathan Seinen) have used verbatim work and collective creation.


Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

The process for this show involved a great deal of improvisation and work with dramaturge Karen Hines. “Karen has a great eye for dark comedy and a really precise understanding of alternative logic,” Beaty says. “It’s not a well-made play, it has a slippery form and two characters who bleed into each other. So we did a lot of improvisational work to generate material and then I would shape that as a writer.”

“I keep being blown away that this is a 10 person team,” Beaty says of the creative crew of Extremophiles. “The people in the room have broad theatrical minds and are involved in several aspects of theatre. [Director] Megan Watson has a hunger for different approaches to theatre and a mind for collaboration. Erin and Sarah [of Caterwaul Theatre] are bringing the child to life. It has been so great to have Megan, who is newer to the process, come in with all the questions the audience may have.”

The play explores themes of isolation in a world that once relied on the internet for connectivity and now finds that all that human beings have is each other and how intimate that need for connection can be. “I’m in my early 30’s and I’m at this age where it is possible for us to have children and reproduce and also ask this question of reproduction,” Beaty says. “We’re in a world that looks like it will be dealing with the severe fallout of climate change, and that ‘what if’ is part of the play. What if the world changed quite drastically?”



Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Company: Golden Age in association with Architect Theatre
Directed by Megan Watson; Written + Performed by Georgina Beaty; Dramaturged by Karen Hines; Production Design by Patrick Lavender; Live Visuals by Caterwaul Theatre; Sound Design by Chris Stanton; Stage Management by Tamara Vuckovic; Production Management by Daniel Bennett; Produced by Sascha Cole, with Rashida Shaw.

“Field Notes –
September 1, 2020. I’ve arrived. The desert is a desert. There is only Margaret, her baby, and one doctor. The supply drop contained: tuna (live), salt tablets, and me. I parachuted out of a plane. It is… exciting…is the wrong word but it is the only one I have. The question: What is going on right here, right now?”

A darkly funny meditation on a world past the precipice, Extremophiles is an unconventional dissertation, a eulogy, and a mid-apocalyptic bedtime story. In the midst of a spontaneous pregnancy epidemic, only Margaret gives birth – to a very unusual baby. She is quarantined in the far North with her growing child. When April, an eager young anthropologist, arrives to chronicle the emerging society, she becomes more entangled than she anticipated. Featuring live visuals from SummerWorks favourites Caterwaul Theatre, Golden Age and Architect Theatre (Like There’s No Tomorrow, SummerWorks 2015) present Extremophiles, a new solo play written and performed by Georgina Beaty.

Curator’s Note
“There are a growing number of artistic responses to climate crisis but this is one that goes beyond. This is beautifully committed allegory – it touches a nerve as it presents an absurd and acutely recognizable dystopia that investigates the truth of the times in which we are living. It bends our brains in a delicious way and asks us to look at our state of affairs. It is a rigorously attacked performance, so earnest and intelligent it can only ring true.” – Tara Beagan

The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street West

Sunday August 7th 10:30 PM – 11:30 PM
Monday August 8th 5:15 PM – 6:15 PM
Thursday August 11th 9:30 PM – 10:30 PM
Saturday August 13th 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM
Sunday August 14th 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM

More Show Info:


twitter – @GeoginaBeaty
facebook – Extremophiles

THIS IS THE AUGUST: When Different Waves of Feminism Collide & the Social Politics of YouTube – In Conversation with Playwright Hillary Rexe

by Bailey Green

Subjectivity is a powerful fucking place. What happens when the specimen that you have under the magnifying glass speaks back? We are children of the universe, no less than the sun or stars. Its about time you started acting like it. – Kim Katrin Milan, from her speech at SlutWalk (Toronto, 2012)

Before the dialogue for This is the August begins, this powerful quote on the second page of the script sets the tone. Playwright Hillary Rexe was moved to tears when she found Kim Katrin Milan’s speech while browsing through YouTube. “I found it while I was in my last draft, and it spoke to me. I wanted to inform the piece based on discourses of intersectionality and empathy,” says Rexe.

This is the August tells the story of three people. There’s Edie – a queer, sex-positive, millennial film student focused on building her YouTube brand. Bea – a baby boomer, out lesbian and a once successful documentary filmmaker who begins the play as Edie’s professor and lover. And Sam – Bea’s kid, a gender-neutral artist who paints galaxies and values their privacy.


The play grew out of conversations Rexe had with friends about second and third wave feminism and where they diverge. “[I was interested in] the places they collide or connect. For example, gender and gender identity do collide,” Rexe says. “Bea is a second wave feminist documentary filmmaker, who in her time was really revolutionary but she can’t wrap her head around this person who she thinks she knows, her 23-year-old kid.” The second divergence Rexe addresses in the piece is around sexuality. One of the ways this is explored is with Edie’s YouTube channel content, which often concerns her personal and sexual history. Bea cannot understand why Edie would want to make an object of herself. But Edie sees her work as sex-positive.

“I have so much empathy for Bea, because the good work of [second wave] feminism isn’t done, but the way she hears the characters in this play is ‘your ideas are dated, we’ve all moved on from this’,” Rexe says. “All three are volleying to each other and they just fail, but ultimately all three want to be understood and they have commonality.”

Rexe has an extensive background in editing prose, poetry, novels and has often focused on facilitating other people’s creative work. This is the August is her first play, and Rexe didn’t want to draw any hard and fast conclusions about the political topics that the characters battle with. “There aren’t easy answers,” Rexe says. “This is the first piece that, beyond my ego and shyness, I actually want to finish this and put it out into the world.”


Rexe’s piece explores the social politics of YouTube and how people present a version of themselves on YouTube versus how they interact in their public life. The production features Edie in real life and real-time recording her videos and then in the transitions, the audiences sees her edited videos. “YouTube dramatizes the need to please and be liked and wanted. You’ve been given this elevated place in the world, why did I get this and what did I do to keep this?” Rexe says.

Casting the show was an amazing experience for Rexe. She had set out to find a gender fluid, queer, or neutral person to play Sam who was also sexy, could sing/play music, who was local and who wasn’t white. “People laughed in my face,” Rexe says, “but I didn’t feel comfortable just casting any actor. So we posted on Jobs for Queers, and Heath V Salazar, and the magical unicorns that they are appeared.” Lauren Beatty, who identifies as queer and femme, is also a YouTuber. “I felt really lucky to find queer performers to play queer parts. Lauren is often cast as straight, and she’s said that it means a lot to her to represent her community,” Rexe says of Beatty who plays the character of Edie. Kimberly Huffman is “fantastic” as Bea and rounds out the cast.

“[Megan Piercey Monafu] is such a gift,” Rexe says of her director. “There has never been a time that someone has asked a question about set, aesthetic, anything, and Megan didn’t have the exact words in my mouth.”

For Rexe, this piece is the beginning of new ideas and projects. She praises her team, “the greatest joy in turn has been working and collaborating with such beautiful people who are so dedicated and invested to my script.” This is the August is just the beginning.

This is the August

august postcard

Company – Young Prince Collective
Directed by Megan Piercey Monafu; Written by Hillary Rexe; Performed by Lauren Beatty, Kimberley Huffman, and Heath V. Salazar; Set Design by Allie Marshall; Original Artwork by Andrew Classen; Sound Design by Dave Clark; Stage Managed by Maricris Rivera; Produced by Curtis te Brinke, Rashida Shaw, Hillary Rexe, and Dana Herlihey.

Live music, painting, and YouTube videos engage and provoke in this darkly funny performance about the intersection of our real and online selves, especially when one goes viral.

Edie is a YouTube star who has just gone viral. Bea, her girlfriend and professor, is a documentary filmmaker who focuses her lens on marginalized women. She wants Edie to stop vlogging about her sex life and focus on more “important” work. Together they passionately negotiate their identities with, and without, each other: Millennial and Boomer, student and professor, lover and adversary. These conflicts of identity come to a head when Edie meets Sam – a multimedia artist who defies definition.

Curator’s Note
“Vlogs or docs? Second or third wave? Empowerment or power? Either/Or? Both/And? Throw love in there and what have you got? Something like a Venn diagram of sexuality, gender, and feminism today. But This is the August is no simple diagram; it’s a smart, funny play, rich with the complexities of contemporary life in the west.” – Guillermo Verdecchia

The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street West

Saturday August 6th 12:00 PM – 1:15 PM
Sunday August 7th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Tuesday August 9th 9:15 PM – 10:30 PM
Thursday August 11th 6:45 PM – 8:00 PM
Saturday August 13th 5:30 PM – 6:45 PM
Sunday August 14th 12:00 PM – 1:15 PM

More Show Info:


twitter – @youngprinceTO
facebook – YoungPrinceCollective


Artist Profile: Anthony MacMahon, playwright of “Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century” at SummerWorks 2016

Interview by Brittany Kay

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Anthony MacMahon to discuss his new play Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century premiering at SummerWorks. We spoke about his love for the festival and his way into writing through adaptation.

Brittany Kay: Where did the idea for this play start?

Anthony MacMahon: The idea for this play started when I was reading Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s a pretty dry book. It sits somewhere between a regular non-fiction and an economics textbook. There are continual references to literature in this book and how literature captures the spirit of an age. He talks about this book Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, which is about a very wealthy vermicelli vendor and his two daughters who live in this common house with a young man named Eugene, who’s studying to be a lawyer. The entire book is about how this young man Eugene has worked so hard for everything and even if he is the best lawyer in all of France, he’ll never make as much money as this vermicelli salesman. And despite this vermicelli salesman being the biggest vermicelli salesman in Italy and France, he will never have as much money as a queen, a king, or a prince or a duke. This was very reflective of the age.

I was reading this book in Paris and I was on a train and saw a guy get pick-pocketed and I also saw the after effects of the pickpocket. I saw him get bumped, the wallet stolen, and then I saw him start screaming at his daughter who he was with because she was the one who had gotten them on this train in France. She was living in France and was British and the father was visiting from the countryside and was carrying a giant thick wallet in his back pocket. Seeing this in my surroundings now, and reflecting on how the economy affects people at any given day, I was inspired to update the book and to set it today. It’s the same characters, the same kind of action, but it’s modern and they’re dealing with modern problems. So rather than someone studying to be a lawyer, they’re trying to be a programmer, and rather than someone having made all their money off of vermicelli, they make their money off of the stock market. I tried to make it a thriller because the book is actually quite thrilling and that was how I got to the script stage.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: What has been the process in mounting this play?

AM: I went through a bunch of ideas of how I could do it.

At one point, I sat down and wrote an entire scene and got to this one line, which encapsulated my whole theory about how this play works. I wrote the rest of the play in about a week and a half, and it actually hasn’t changed that much since. I went through about 10 different versions before that one scene came together and then from writing that scene, it organically fleshed itself out into a full play.

BK: Has the play gone through any workshopping or dramaturgy or is this the first kick at the can?

AM: This is the first kick at the can. I normally do the very standard playwriting process of two drafts and then a dramaturg and then another draft and then another dramaturg and then a two-day workshop and then a five-day workshop and then potentially a festival performance. This script was really written in about two weeks and has been edited and changed since then. Its workshop development is this production.

trompe la mort image

BK: Why SummerWorks?

AM: SummerWorks has always been good to me. SummerWorks is why I moved out to Toronto. I got in while I was still living in Saskatchewan and as a result, I kind of love doing it. I have a soft spot in my heart for the festival and I think the festival has a soft spot for me. I’ve gotten in every time I’ve applied now. I think it’s a place that really encourages people to fail boldly and, in that failure, you can have some great successes.

It gives you enough infrastructure so you’re not an absolute disaster of a person trying to figure out how to rent space and hire someone to sell tickets for you. It gives you just enough infrastructure so that you’re not constrained in any way, which is kind of why I chose it. I’ve always just met the most exciting artists working at SummerWorks. It’s August, it’s on Queen West, it kind-of feels like a vacation in the city to do this cool festival downtown. That’s why I chose it.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Tell me a little bit about your team involved.

AM: Ted Witzel is our director. I think he is the coolest artist in Toronto. He just kind of bleeds cool. I wanted someone who doesn’t bore me in any way and nothing he has ever said or done has ever bored me. That’s kind of why I sought him out. We’re working with Anahita Dehbonehie, CJ Astronomo and Wesley McKenzie for our design team. It’s a big design for the show. We’re really trying to push SummerWorks to its design and structural limits. So we have 2 projectors, we have things on rails and guides, and we have 5 giant pieces of plexiglass hanging from the ceiling with like a neon light show and potentially smoke. Wesley, CJ, and Anahita are people who can really move astoundingly fast. They have this incredible way of taking these giant visual ideas and putting them onto paper in a 6 hour tech time. The cast is Mark Crawford, Farah Merani, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Ewa Wolniczek, and Jeff Yung. It’s a really great cast. A lot of the kind of directorial atmosphere that Ted gives them and that they run with, is what can I get away with as an actor? It has created such a playful atmosphere. Michelle Yagi is producing and she’s great. Having someone know what they’re doing and with her kind-of organizational mind and ability to plan and hit dates and targets just gives the rest of the team so much more opportunity to create much more positively. Justis Danto Clancy is our Production Manager. Alana Dunlop is our stage manager and has worked with Ted before so she knows how to manage his big ideas.

BK: What are you hoping audiences walk away with?

AM: I hope audiences walk away from the show debating it. The show is a debate essentially, or 5 or 10 debates really. I try not to be too prescriptive or too partisan or soap-boxy for lack of a better term. I want to present these things that I’m actually grappling with. I think we’re trying to grapple with some pretty big ideas and I want the audience to have the second act of the play being them grappling with these ideas that we’re presenting, whether it’s in the courtyard after the show, or at the bar, or after another show they see that informs a different version of these ideas. Ideally, I just want them to walk away talking about it. That would be my big hope for the show.

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BK: Now let’s talk a little bit about you.

AM: About me?

BK: Yes, you. What propelled you into playwriting?

AM: I kind of tripped and fell into it. My friend Nathan Howe was doing a show that he had written at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival and I asked him if I could be in it. He had already cast it, so I decided I would write a play so that I could cast myself, because I wanted to do a show. I ended up not actually being allowed to be in the play because my director dropped out so I had to take over as director. Then I just started writing more. I just continually tripped and fell into things, which is the dumbest, luckiest thing in the world. I just happened to find out that I wasn’t a particularly skilled performer and my way of performing was all through literature and writing and all through trying to organize ideas as words.

I lobbied for a playwriting course in my university and I ended up doing a couple of public readings in a little reading series in Saskatoon. It was really cemented for me when I was producing Vern Thiessen’s, Vimy and I saw that he was the senior playwright at the Banff Centre. I had an early draft of Wild Dogs on the Moscow Trains and I really wanted to meet Vern, so I submitted. I ended up getting a call as we were producing Vimy saying, “Hey, here’s when you’re coming to Banff. “ At that point I realized I wasn’t going to be doing much acting anymore. I guess I was going to start writing.

BK: How did you figure out that this is where you needed to be?

AM: I think I had one of those stories that’s pretty common among artists, where you have a lot of teachers that don’t inspire you but then you have a drama teacher that does inspire you. His name is Blaine Heart and he’s a fantastic man out in Saskatchewan. He was our drama teacher but also performed in a local improv group in the city and he would perform in local plays. He was just such an inspiring guy, so great to be around, and he kind of took me under his wing. His friend from university, Jim Guido, ended up coming back and teaching in the university there. Blaine told me about Jim and said “You have to go into drama, at least just to take a class from Jim because he’s such an interesting guy,” which ended up with me taking a bunch of classes from Jim and him taking me under his wing, as well, in a different way.

BK: And how was your experience in the University of Saskatchewan’s theatre program?

AM: The theatre program was quite an academic program. You had to take a fully rounded education in the department as well as a fully rounded liberal education outside of that. The people who went to the University of Saskatchewan had a lot of freedom. We had a fully equipped black box studio and we were allowed to put on plays whenever we wanted. We could stay in the building until 2 or 3 in the morning rehearsing shows. In the time I was there I think I did twenty-four shows in four years. A lot of them were short pieces, but you just had consistent performance opportunity. I ended up doing lighting design for two shows because they didn’t have a lighting designer and I was trained on how a lighting board works. You got a really holistic sense of the theatre almost accidentally. It’s a great model of how Toronto theatre or any kind of theatre works. People always have to take a second, third, or fourth job on the production. It was a really good training example of how that all works.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: When did you move to Toronto?

AM: I moved to Toronto in the summer of 2012. I was working on the show The Frenzy of Queen Maeve at the Saskatchewan Playwright Centre. I had read all of Hannah Moscovitch’s plays and I saw that they were all done at SummerWorks. I knew a bunch of other playwrights at SummerWorks and I figured that I would submit. I did and was accepted. I was considering either moving to Toronto or Vancouver because the Saskatoon theatre community is somewhat small. When I got accepted into SummerWorks, I decided that’s where I was going.

BK: When did Soulpepper happen?

AM: The program began in 2013. It kept me in the city. I’m happy with Toronto. I like this city a lot.

BK: How do you find inspiration for your work?

AM: I do a lot of adaptation… sometimes from literature. In this case it’s kind of literature and non-fiction. My way into writing, especially in the last couple of years, has really been about as a playwright trying to make a case for yourself in the theatre. I’ve always said “playwrights are the only people in the world who can have a dead person do their job,” in that if you can’t make a proper case for why your show should be done, people will just do Shakespeare or Ibsen or all the thousands of dead playwrights that are out there, who don’t have to be paid and have a name cache behind them. My way in is often through (whether or not it’s an adaptation) literature or non-fiction, it’s a hat tip towards it. I can interface with these old problems or these new problems and I can make them theatrical.

BK: What’s your process when you write?

AM: Usually I’ll do a lot of structural work beforehand… plot out scenes and find major action in the scenes. I’ll often work backwards writing a play. I figure out where I want a play to get to and then sometimes I’ll have where I want it to start and I’ll just fill in the middle. Generally, it will be a bunch of work that amounts to nothing and one line or one phrase that finally does something and that’s when I’ll pick that thing up.

BK: Do you find ways to keep yourself motivated?

AM: No… If you have any I’d love to hear them.

Deadlines are the best one. There’s always an internal motivation about just wanting to create something and wanting to show something. The best motivation besides deadlines, for me, is actually having a problem that I’m grappling with. If I am being dogmatic in my writing then I just get tired of it, whereas if I’m confused about why I’m writing something then that tends to just make me start writing it to try to work it out. I’m better at working things out on the page than I am verbally. Debating with myself on the page is the best way to do it.

BK: Do you have advice for emerging artists?

AM: I still consider myself one. The best thing that I have found as an artist is to not be afraid to ask. I never met Ted before I did this show. I sent him an email asking if he wanted to direct. You can get very far just by asking. The worst that’s going to happen is that they are going to say no.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Movie: Taxi Driver.

Favourite Play: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill.

Favourite Musical: Assassins.

Favourite spot in Toronto: East Side Riverdale Park.

Favourite Food: Good pasta.

What are you listening to: I’m getting into electronic music for the first time in my life.

Mantra/Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Quit trying to be cool, start trying to be good.


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Company – Live Lobster Theatre
Directed by Ted Witzel; Written by Anthony MacMahon; Set and Costume Design by Anahita Dehbonehie; Lighting Design by CJ Astronomo; Projection Design and Sound Design by Wesley McKenzie.

An anarchist holds the world’s secrets on a hard drive. Three developers try and disrupt stagnant markets, missed connections, and freedom of speech. A venture capitalist finds his profit in the rubble. The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

A loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot smashed up against Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century asking what’s the difference between terrorism and whistleblowing? What’s the difference between a human being and a start-up corporation? What is the difference between freedom and control? This digital age thriller explores what happens when your work life, relationships, and ideas are reduced to data processed in an app.

Curator’s Note
“‘After studying the world very closely, you’ll see that there are but two alternatives–stupid obedience or revolt.’ – Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot

Anthony MacMahon, my favourite young commie playwright, has come to similar conclusions. This smart, fast, and funny play drops Balzac through the trapdoor of global capital.” – Guillermo Verdecchia

Factory Theatre Studio
125 Bathurst Street

Thursday August 4th 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM
Friday August 5th 9:00 PM – 10:30 PM
Sunday August 7th 7:15 PM – 8:45 PM
Monday August 8th 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Tuesday August 9th 10:30 PM – 12:00 AM
Saturday August 13th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Sunday August 14th 4:15 PM – 545 PM

More Show Info:


instagram – @livelobstertheatre

Naming the Beast, Performance Lecture & Screaming Along at the Punk Show – A Chat with Thomas McKechnie, writer/performer of “4 1/2 (ig)noble truths”

Interview by Hallie Seline

Hallie Seline: Tell me about 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths.

Thomas McKechnie: 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths is a performance lecture on clinical depression. It’s more fun than that sounds. It’s my attempt to take the swirling incoherent masses of feelings, perspective and physical and emotional sensations of depression and give it form. To name it. If you know the true name of a thing it doesn’t make it less significant but it allows you to reach your arms all the way around it. To make it a thing that you can manipulate, contend with. Instead of being this overwhelming weight that lies on top of you in your bed, or chews on your joie de vivre among friends, it becomes like a pet you inherited, you don’t necessarily like it and it doesn’t necessarily like you but so long as you feed it and treat it ok the relationship is mostly peaceful.

Hallie: Where did you get the inspiration to create it?

Thomas: I started working on it the Soulpepper Academy under the direction of Guillermo Verdecchia. He encouraged the writers to write something personal for our first piece and really pushed me to not hide in my words or my ideas.

Hallie: Tell me about the format of the performance.

Thomas: It’s a performance lecture. Which can be sort of imagined as if that one teacher you had in high school who always got really invested in telling you about the War of 1812 or whatever, making gunshot noises and singing Rule Britannia etc, was let off the leash. It’s an attempt to use the lecture format of direct address with the poetry and metaphorical action of a play.

Hallie: Can you speak to what you are currently interested in exploring in your work in the experience of going to the theatre? This question is inspired by the following from your description:
“Because we are walking around polishing silverware or running schools or arresting jaywalkers, and we’re dying all the time and no one is saying anything. We aren’t talking because we don’t have words. Or we have those words but to say them could be worse. If he howls will you howl back? If we howl together will we be healed?”

Thomas: In reference to the quoted passage I’d say: localization and liveness. By localization I mean recognizing how the theatrical ecology has changed in 100 years. When folks did three-night-runs of touring productions of Shakespeare to 1000 people, the event had very little localization. You couldn’t be speaking to those people in that place specifically. You could speak to all people generally and the people would find specificity for themselves. By doing small plays in small theatres for small audiences we have a chance to speak to them specifically, locally, like a congregation at a church.

This is for you if you come. I made it for you. I didn’t make it for the sold-out run in four major Canadian cities on a major tour that is not going to get specifically. I made it for you, here, now.

Which ties into the liveness. I’m so fucking tired of having performances pretend I’m not there, pretend that we’re not doing a thing together.

When I go to a good punk show I feel like I’m included. I’m allowed/encouraged/impelled to scream along, it isn’t just the performers doing their things and me watching it. The band opens a space where I can scream, where the person next to me can scream, where we can all scream. Where we are all there, having more and more fun, together. This is what I want for theatre.

Down with the fourth wall. Speak to me.

Does that mean every show should be a solo show in direct address? No. What it means is that if I wanted a dead, abstracted, though very moving, performance I’d watch a movie.

Why are we doing this live? It’s hard and expensive and an ineffective means of communication. Given that, there should be a really, really good reason to make it live.

Hallie: What music would you recommend your audience listen to before the show?

Thomas: Titus Andronicus – The Monitor. It’s a devastating album that weaves the history of the American Civil War as a metaphor for the lead singer’s turbulent (and sometimes violent) relationship to mental illness. It was one of those bands that saved my life.

Hallie: What inspires you as an artist?

Thomas: I came up in the church and I still have so much of that mythos and ceremony and ritual in my bones, that pursuit of a holy thing.

I’m not one of the faithful anymore but you find that transcendence in all sorts of places, in all sorts of music, in the way light lands on streetcar tracks.

Hallie: If you could have written one album, which one would it be and why?

Thomas: Nana Grizol – Love It, Love It. It’s strange and bright and kind and SO SO SO wise. It’s like a strange man who hitchhiked into your town and he seemed cool and so you invited him to have a beer and instead of hearing his story you find yourself telling him your whole life and he listens carefully and has the exact right words to heal, to inspire, to make you laugh. It’s wonderful.

Hallie: Where is your favourite place in the city?

Thomas: Bathurst and Dundas at dusk.

Hallie: Best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Thomas: Lots of shit my mom says. Not advice per-se but more of leading by example, “We’ll make it work.” “This too shall pass.” “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Things like this.

Hallie: Describe the show in 5-10 words.


Shitty punk kid tries to find the words you need.

4 1/2 (ig)noble truths


Company: zeitpunktheatre
Written and Performed by Thomas McKechnie; Directed by Michael Reinhart; Assistant Directed by Julia Matias; Scenography by Claire Hill; Produced by Kelly Read.

Let’s pretend for a second that we’re OK. What does that feel like? A lot of things are not OK with Thomas but he’s got a ten-pound sledge hammer and is pretty sure that could solve at least one of his problems. This is a show that he wrote. It’s for/from those times when you can’t get out of bed. When you’ve only been eating breakfast cereal for days. When if someone asks you how you are you’ll say great – and then smash your face into their face. Thomas has 4 ½ totally useful pieces of advice for battling depression. He has an hour-long anarchic expression of depression that must be passed through first. Because we are walking around polishing silverware or running schools or arresting jaywalkers, and we’re dying all the time and no one is saying anything. We aren’t talking because we don’t have words. Or we have those words but to say them could be worse. If he howls will you howl back? If we howl together will we be healed?

Curator’s Note
“‘The Buddha laid it out a long time ago:
All life is conditioned by suffering
Suffering has its causes
Put an end to the causes, and
Cultivate the path.’

My favourite young anarchist playwright wrestles with mental suffering and clears his own path, which might be yours as well.”
– Guillermo Verdecchia

Scotiabank Studio Theatre, Pia Bouman
6 Noble Street

Thursday August 4th 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Sunday August 7th 7:45 PM – 8:45 PM
Wednesday August 10th 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Sunday August 14th 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM

More Show Info:


twitter – @postbrechtian