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Posts tagged ‘Alec Toller’

In Conversation with Joshua Browne & Alec Toller on “The Queen’s Conjuror”

by Bailey Green

In the 16th century, John Dee—alchemist, scientist and magician—met an erratic, emotionally disturbed scryer named Edward Kelley. Dee believed Kelley had the ability to speak to angels and that this could help Dee unlock secrets beyond man’s understanding. A tumultuous partnership was formed between the two men and their wives. These flawed, complex relationships are explored in Circlesnake Productions’ new play, The Queens Conjuror, written by Joshua Browne and Alec Toller.

Director and writer Alec Toller came across John Dee on Wikipedia after he’d used the word ‘thaumaturgy’ on a date. John Dee is often considered the original wizard archetype. Dee is said to perhaps have inspired the characters of Prospero and Faust. Toller was captivated by Dee’s story and reached out to Joshua Browne. Browne, who had worked with Circlesnake Productions on Dark Matter and Angel City, says he was on board from the word ‘wizard.’

“The relationship between John Dee and Edward Kelley is really fascinating,” Browne says. Browne plays the character of Edward Kelley, “Edward Kelley was a scryer, a channel for the voices of angels. John Dee actually turned to the occult for knowledge because he reached a point in his work where he believed the knowledge of man would not get him closer to God.” Shortly after Dee and Kelley began working together, Edward and Joanna Kelley moved in with John and Jane Dee. The two couples lived and travelled together for years before the relationships began to fracture. “It wasn’t satisfying to write Kelley off as crazy or psychotic,” Toller says. “But he was very emotionally disturbed and we look at how that affects all of the relationships there.”


John Dee with the Queen

The initial drafts of The Queens Conjuror by Toller and Browne, provided a historical baseline for improvisation with the company of actors. Feedback was instrumental when it came to writing the characters of Jane Dee and Joanna Kelley. According to Dee’s writings, Jane was integral to his work. Their relationship was quite egalitarian for the time. By contrast, all that is known of Kelly’s wife Joanna is that he despised her. “We have one man’s opinion of her,” Toller says. Browne and Toller emphasize that a central focus of this piece was ensuring that Jane and Johanna’s voices were heard.“We had to invent them,” Toller says of writing Jane and Joanna. “We explored the gender dynamics involved in the world they were living in, but it is a challenge because how do we show what the reality was without reinforcing it? We wanted to write something that is not going to ring as these women being two props for the ‘larger story’ of these men.”


John Dee

Browne speaks of the risk and vulnerability involved in working on this process, “This feels like a risky show to me… I have tons of fear surrounding this show! It’s about the 16th century with very little in the way of budget[…] It’s about these contentious relationships and personal things, and how do you do that without making the play a soap opera or historical drama? And how do you write women and facilitate women writing themselves? How do you represent the patriarchy without reproducing it? As two white, male writers, we had to get our actors’ opinions and involve women in the conversation. We can acknowledge our privilege and ask how can we be better.”

In the rehearsal room Toller and Browne transitioned into their roles as director and performer, respectively. Both Browne and Toller speak of gratitude for their company of actors (Tim Walker, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Sochi Fried, John Fray) whose contributions helped The Queens Conjuror change and grow. The collaborative nature of the rehearsal process is at the core of Circlesnake’s mandate: “It’s really important when we’re engaging artists and actors who are all very talented,” Toller explains, “that they don’t just walk away with the small money you get from a profit share and maybe a fun rehearsal/show process, but that there’s an ownership there. They’ve helped make this together and it’s important that these actors get the most agency and a sense of pride in the show they made with us.”

The Queen’s Conjuror


Directed by Alec Toller
Written by Alec Toller & Joshua Browne

Featuring Tim Walker
Joshua Browne
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Sochi Fried
John Fray

John Dee was a 16th century adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and a scientist and magician when those two professions were indistinguishable. The Queen’s Conjuror follows John Dee as he tries to decipher an enticing but ominous vision which he hopes will provide critical information that will impress the QueenElizabeth enough to gain her patronage. To do this, Dee enlists the help of Edward Kelley, a scryer, medium, and possible charlatan. Kelley proves to be as brilliant as he is disturbed, and Dee must work through the wretchedness of Kelley’s soul and his erratic behaviour to access his revelatory visions and gain the Queen’s support. The show explores the complexity of intimacy, the dangers of vulnerability, and the necessities of both for the alchemical transformation of the soul.

The Attic Arts Hub
1402 Queen St E

Nov 3 – Nov 20
Wed – Sat, 8pm
Sun 2pm

$20 Student/Arts Worker

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t: @Circlesnake

In Conversation with Sex T-Rex – Presenting their Double Bill at the Storefront until March 27

by Bailey Green

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sex T-Rex performers Seann Murray, Kaitlin Morrow, Conor Bradbury and director Alec Toller about their double bill, on now at the Storefront Theatre (Danny Pagett and Julian Frid were unable to stay for the interview but are also performing.)

It began with a quote from the movie Predator, “this stuff [chewing tobacco] will make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus.” And then one night, before an improv set, the announcer shortened the improv troupe’s name from Sexual Tyrannosaurus to Sex T-Rex, and it stuck. Performer Conor Bradbury laughs at the memory, “Hey, when someone’s right they’re right! There’s no need to be precious about your comedy.”

The group came together during their time at George Brown back in 2007-2008. Many elements of theatre school didn’t resonate with the actors but when they got together in stage combat class, then things really came alive. “It’s a triumvirate of violence really,” director Alec Toller jokes about the history of Sex T-Rex shows. “All of our action shows are centred around violence,” performer and producer Kaitlin Morrow adds. “Callaghan! was a lot of punching, Watch Out Wildkat is shooting and then Swordplay, which was loosely inspired by Princess Bride, has to do with, well, swords!”

Photo Credit: Cindy Lopez

Photo Credit: Cindy Lopez

This double bill features Watch Out Wildkat! and Swordplay: a play of swords. “Even though we have done Wildkat in 4 cities and Swordplay in 2, we’re still riffing, especially in rehearsals,” Morrow says. “You can always feel when it happens,” Bradbury adds. “There’s this unspoken ‘keep it’ feeling when someone makes a good joke.” Toller says that the group strives for clarity above all else, “We do so much mime, and fake action movie stuff that we’re always fighting to be so precise.”

Toller directs the group’s scripted shows (they also do improv shows) which are written plays with a sketch origin. “It’s very collaborative,” Toller says. “It functions more like a collective, so basically I’m the person not on stage… where I belong… but my job is to manage what everyone wants to get out of it. This show is a remount, so we’re trying to improve as we go, punch things up, and that can be challenging because we have an existing structure but we don’t have an audience.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Writer, producer and performer Seann Murray speaks to the group dynamic saying, “It’s very rare that we have camp A and camp B disagreements. Instead, we usually have eight ideas with each person having three and a half small ideas each.” Bradbury adds, “It’s almost like we’ll have one person who is camp A and one who is camp B, and everyone else just isn’t helping. But it always works out for the best. To have a bit of argument in the room means people care about the product.” Morrow adds, deadpanned, “So we just punch each other in the face until someone gives in.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Murray writes the scripts for the group and describes the process:

“The first step is we identify the genre we want to work in. Then we watch movies and chat about the tropes we want to hit, what we want to see [in the show] from the genre. So it’s not just regurgitation, we want to honour the genre. Once we’ve consumed a bunch of media and batted ideas around, I write the script and we workshop it throughout the process. We often wind up with a small chunk of the script left, we stay true to the character and story more or less, but as Alec [Toller] said, there’s lots of really funny improvisers on the team so we’ll take a scene, work through it and put it back into the script.”

The group considers audience feedback invaluable. They often take their shows to Montreal Fringe before performing at Toronto Fringe. Montreal Fringe offers them the opportunity to try out new material and improve their work. “We change something after basically every show, we find something else we’ve never done before,” Bradbury says.

Photo Credit: Sharon Murray

Photo Credit: Sharon Murray

Morrow, the only female performer of the troupe, tells me how that for years she dealt with crippling nightmares centred around improv. Subconsciously, she wanted to get up and perform but she was terrified. Now, with 19 shows under her belt, she has realized that a bad set isn’t the end of the world and that the joy she feels from performing far outweighs the fear. “The first time I went up to improvise was for Shane Adamczak’s secret show Captain Spaceship in Montreal Fringe,” Morrow remembers. “He just assumed I was in the show because I was a part of Sex T-Rex, and when I tried to back out, he told me I couldn’t because there were no other women in the show. So I didn’t sleep for about a week, and then somehow I was backstage and then I was onstage and I did it. The relief was amazing, and you know, it wasn’t even bad!”

Watch Out Wildkat! & Swordplay: A Play of Swords


Presented by Sex T-Rex
When: March 11th -­ March 27th, Wed­-Sun
Watch Out Wildkat! @ 7:30 PM & Swordplay @ 9:00 PM
Sundays @ 2:00 PM
Where: The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor Street West
Tickets: $20 for single show, $30 for both shows
Available at

A Few Words with Alec Toller, Director of Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? – 2014 Playwright Project

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: So, Alec Toller, you’re putting up Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? with Circlesnake Productions for the Playwright Project.

AT: So I’ve heard!

RQ: As have I! Can you tell me a bit about the show?

AT: It is telling the story of Guy and Sam, and Sam is basically a country. Sam is the US So it’s sort of examining the world and people’s love/hate relationship with the United States through the lens of a homosexual relationship. Because of course, how else would you look at it?

Alec Toller, Director of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?

Alec Toller, Director of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?


RQ: What drew you to this show, out of all of Caryl Churchill’s writing?

AT: It was the only one I read. No, no, I’m kidding. I read a bunch and with Churchill (as with many other playwrights), when they do short work, they lean more toward the experimental, and that’s not something that I usually know how to do. With this play, although it’s still experimental, there’s a clear through-line with story and plot and characters who have wants and needs. A lot of the dialogue is very fragmented, so instead of saying something like “Hey, let’s go to the store”, they’ll say “let’s store go”. So, it’s quite weird. On top of that, the majority of it is historical or political references to things the US has done in the past seventy years in its interaction with the rest of the world. So, it’s very complex and very dense but you get these little pockets or windows of them speaking to each other and it’s just as people. That really provides this arc and through-line that allows you to hear what the political stuff is from a different perspective or a different angle that’s maybe a bit more digestible or it may be just a very confusing buffet.

RQ: Do you think there’s anything in this show that’s relevant to the current political climate?

AT: Totally! Yup! This play was actually written in 2006, so it has references to twin towers, and Guantanamo, and Iraq, so there’s very recent political stuff along with Truman doctrine stuff. Fighting communism is a very strong through-line. Also, when I did research for the show, it was very illuminating to see just how much the States (and many other countries, I’m sure) involve themselves in other countries’ affairs in very deliberate and often nefarious ways. Like the US really enjoys overthrowing governments, democratically elected or not. As long as they are communist or left-leaning, they’ll just get rid of them. They would even fund drug dealers to fight communists because communism was scarier than drug-dealing. This is well-known, the Contra affair.

Playwright of 2014 The Playwright Project- Caryl Churchill

Playwright of 2014 The Playwright Project- Caryl Churchill


RQ: One of the major themes in Churchill’s work is the exploitation of the downtrodden or the underprivileged, do you see that in this work, or is it more of a representation of these national and socio-economic powers?

AT: I would say that it shows in the relationship between Sam, who is the United States, and Guy, who is a person. Their relationship is definitely unequal in power. One of the main themes of the show is that whether you like what the States has done or not, they are still the biggest superpower. They are enormously influential. You just sort of have to accept that and then deal with it. Guy is definitely secondary to Sam.

RQ: So it sounds like there’s a sense of inevitability, or an unstoppable force.

AT: It certainly doesn’t celebrate or even defend some of America’s less pleasant actions but what I’ve found that it does is not even look at what they’ve done from a moral position, but just as a country that has power trying to maintain that power. When you re-contextualize that into a relationship, it gives you that perspective of “Oh, when a country overthrows another country’s government because they’re afraid of them, that’s like someone in a relationship deleting their ex-girlfriends’ numbers from their phone”, you know? It’s a way of maintaining power and control, and the ways we do that socially and politically are way more similar than we think.



RQ: Where do you think these smaller festivals like Playwright Project fit into the Toronto theatre community? What can you get out of them that you can’t get out of the smaller ones?

AT: I’m in it for the ladies, mostly. One thing I really like about the Playwright Project in comparison to other festivals is that it does give you the opportunity to work on modern classic work, which you can’t do at Fringe or Summerworks. It’s pretty unique. Generally my interest is in doing new work, but there’s a slew of plays that we’ve all read or playwrights we’re excited by, and there’s not much opportunity to mount their work. There’s not much room in the Canadian landscape at all to do any kind of established text. Generally, the way grant funding and all of that works is really geared toward new work, which can be actually destabilizing. There was that big push from the 1960s onward to make Canadian culture a “thing”. And that push is still going on now. And it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it is useful to drop in and look at older work. It seems like a kind of hamster wheel thing to keep focusing on new work and never revisiting work that’s even ten years old. Really great narratives drop you into pre-existing stories or unknown worlds. When you see a show about something that’s happened that year, it can be very exciting, and you feel like a part of something, but when you see work that’s twenty years old, or fifty years old, there can be a deeper sense of connection or of reducing alienation. You can realize that the things you’re experiencing are things that people have experienced forever. That is something that storytelling aims to do, and sometimes, when it succeeds, it can be more powerful with older work.

Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?

By Caryl Churchill presented by Circlesnake Productions as part of the 2014 Playwright Project


Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? places the world’s love-hate relationship with the United States in the form of a romantic relationship. When Guy is seduced by Sam, who represents the U.S., she feels intoxicated by her but shocked by her ruthlessness. Guy must determine whether the love she feels for Sam is worth staying with her, and if she can ever leave.

Directed by: Alec Toller
Starring: Claire Armstrong, Caitlin B. Driscoll
WhereThe Downstage (798 Danforth Avenue)
Tickets: Available  HERE
Single Tickets: Weeknight Single Ticket: $10.00, Weekend Single Ticket: $15.00
Project Passes: Weeknight 2-Show Pass: $15.00 (see both shows playing on a weeknight), Weekend 4 Show-Pass: $45.00 (see all four shows playing on a Saturday or Sunday)

About the Director:

Alec is the artistic director of Circlesnake Productions and director of Dark Matter,  Special Constables (The Storefront Theatre Season), Angel City, (Playwrights Projectthe feature film Play. Alec was the assistant director on the triple Dora-nominated Laws of Motion (Small Elephant Co-op, dir. Christopher Stanton).


Circlesnake Productions creates film and theatre work for modern audiences who have adapted to a cinematic language. Circlesnake’s plays blaze by like an action film, and its films pop with dialogue found in the theatre. We match works to their appropriate medium to best tell their story while breaking down artistic divisions. Older works return in new forms and new works borrow from the old because at Circlesnake, good stories come back.

A Chat with Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project A Year Later: Sam Shepard May 1-7th

by Ryan Quinn

Q: Here with the brilliant Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project kicked off last night to a great start. Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with the project this year.

A: It’s the exact same format as last year with a different playwright and several different venues. We wanted to rebrand as The Playwright Project and move away from being a Tennessee Williams festival. We never had any interest in being a Tennessee Williams festival; it’s more the format, the community-mindedness, and the artistic collaboration that we were interested in. So, we rebranded as The Playwright Project and went with Sam Shepard for a number of reasons. I guess the first and most important one was that we’re all absolutely in love with him. He’s exciting, he’s a little filthy, you know, “the sacred and the profane”. There’s great music in his plays, huge amounts of live music, that awesome, bluesy, folksy stuff. There’s all that sweaty, New-York-in-the-60’s experimental theatre, but there’s also some really down-to-Earth and conventional work. So, there’s a huge variety. Also, they’re plays our generation can really sink their teeth into. They’re restless and young and urban. So, it seemed like a good fit for the people we were working with.

Q: And who are you working with this year?

A: So, we’ve got Heart in Hand Productions, who actually just did a Sam Shepard play. They did Cowboy Mouth at the Cameron House, which is also a venue that we are working in this year. Those girls are great and they were very keen to re-enter the world of Shepard and investigate a different play with us. They’re also this great team of babes doing a really masculine Shepard play, so I’m really excited about that. They’re doing Fool for Love. Peter Pasyk from Surface/Underground will be joining us, doing When the World Was Green. He was just chosen to be the 2013/14 Urjo Kareda Resident at Tarragon Theatre, so that’s amazing. Theatre Brouhaha and Red One Theatre Collective are both back on the project; they were with us last year as well. We’ll actually be working in Red One’s new venue, The Storefront Theatre, which those boys are also running. We’ve also got Alec Toller, who is more known for being a filmmaker. He’s got a film coming out called Play, that Kelly McCormack was in, and it’s about theatre. He’s doing Angel City which is very cool because it’s really film noir and cinematic, so I’m really curious to see how this filmmaker meets this live filmic piece. Natasha Greenblatt and Pomme Grenade Productions, who just did The Peacemaker at Next Stage, which was a huge hit. She will actually be doing Cowboy Mouth. Lastly, and this is really exciting, Alex McCooeye has adapted a Sam Shepard short story called Saving Fats into a play. Alex and I actually worked on his adaptation of a Poe short story about a year ago with the incredible Greg Kramer who sadly passed away a couple weeks ago. Alex is a really great writer with an amazing eye for adaptation, so I’m really excited he’s taking this adventure on. Jeremiah Sparks is in it, so, yeah, it’s going to be great.

Q: Are you doing it in the same venues as last year?

A: Yeah, so we are back in the Curzon in Leslieville. I was in there the other day and since we were in there last year, it’s been revamped into this amazingly Sam Shepard-like space. It’s the coolest. There are these white embossed animal heads on the walls, and it’s all…country. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. I walked in and I was just like “Why? This is so perfect. This is touched by God”. We’re also back in the Magic Oven. The interesting thing about that space is that once the Project is done for this year (although we’re already vamping up for next year), I’m partnering up with Tony at the Magic Oven to turn that downstairs space into an actual year-round, multi-disciplinary performance space. Tony has built a full kitchen and bar in the back, so it’s going to be fully operational by the fall. I will be managing and programming everything in that space. I mean, there’s not a lot like that out there on the Danforth. You have the Fraser Rehearsal Studios, the Danforth Music Hall, you’ve got the Red Sandcastle, but it’s significantly more south. We’re really going to try to engage with the Danforth community and be a new place where culture can happen. It’s really exciting. We have not confirmed a name for the space yet. We jokingly call it The Tragic Oven.

Q: That sounds horrible, haha. That’s a horrible name.

A: I know! We’re just going to program Greek tragedies. So, yeah, we’re back there. I think everything else is new. We’re at the Storefront; we’re at the Cameron House…oh! The Cameron House is partnering with us this year to be the post-show hub every night. So at the Cameron House every night at 10pm, Cameron House records and our director of music Gaby Grice have co-curated a whole line-up of Shepard-y music in that bluesy, folksy, rock and roll cowboy vein. So, every night at 10pm, a whole different lineup of Shepard-y music at the Cameron House. So, that’s going to be a blast. We’re also in some other great spaces, the May Café in Little Portugal, Lazy Daisy’s in The Beach, Annette Studios in The Junction. I’m really excited about the venues.

Q: Now, sometimes you call it a project, and sometimes a festival. It also kind of seems to walk a line close to being a repertory season. Where is that line?

A: It’s so funny that you bring that up. We were just talking about this last night, actually, that the language that we use needs to be paid close attention to because the end result is festival-like but the process is not. The process is much more collaborative and about the seven companies as well as the administrative body supporting each other as opposed to them working independently of us until show time like you would for Fringe or Summerworks. So, the process is much more, as our initial vision from last year stated, about creating a tighter-knit community of artists who work toward one communal goal together. In that regard, I don’t think you could call us a festival.
I like what you said about thinking of it almost as a repertory season. It’s like a really fast, really intense repertory season that goes down. If I can find a more succinct way of phrasing that, I might steal it from you for next year. I actively avoided calling it a festival last year, but the language sort of just became easier to use. People understood more what the end result was, what May 1-7 would be. But, yeah, I think I want to go back next year, for 2014, and re-examine what we call ourselves.

Q: Do you feel like the community has gotten more tight-knit since the festival last year?

A: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we’ve changed the theatre scene. I think what Playwright Project has served to do is broaden many of our artists’ connections and resources. They now know, in some cases, almost a hundred new people that they can access in the community and that they can share with. The thing is, though, everybody works differently. Everyone has their own process. Some are more about reaching out and bringing people into the fold, and some people are much more isolated. One is not better than the other. Some people work better in isolated think-tanks, and some work better with an “it takes a village” mentality. So, I wouldn’t qualify the festival as being some giant community. What I know it is, is an opportunity to access things that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. And you’ve got a really strong support system under you. So, like, the Playwright Project team and I are here to handle the things that could take away from your artistic focus and clarity of vision. We are here to enable you to do what you want to do.
But, in the bigger picture of things, is the Toronto community getting tighter? Yeah. I think it is. I think I see things changing and I see the grassroots stuff growing and I see people reaching out more.

Q: What have you learned since last year that’s been implemented this year?

A: It’s so funny. We were talking last night about how at the end of last year we went “Oh alright, we know what to do now. We know now. We get it now. We got it”. And now it’s coming up to the end of the rehearsal period and I’m like “Oh wait. I still don’t know anything”. What have I learned? I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that people want to help. People want you to call them up and present them with an idea and a way they can get involved. I’ve also learned a lot of practical things. I’ve learned how to rent a van and how to hang a piece of black fabric. I’ve learned a lot about Equity and the new agreement and the festival waiver.
I have learned that it is very important, whether you’re an arts institution, or an organization, or a collective, or an individual artist, every project and every endeavour needs to have a personality. It needs to know what it is and have a clarity of what it’s doing. When our logo started going into development and our amazing graphic designer Lisanne Binhammer was sending us sheets of proposals, picking it was remarkably hard because we didn’t yet have that seed of exactly as an organization, what our personality was. As the logos started to come in, I started to see it. Started to visually see what we look like on paper, and it helped us to better understand what we are. We’re this scrappy, spirited group of young people, and trying to fight it and become something more polished is not helpful. I was at the Shakespeare in the Ruff gala and they know so well who they are as an organization. They have such a specific sense of humour and how they put themselves out into the world is so clear. I’m becoming more and more aware of how important that is. I mean, I guess, in simple words: branding. The importance of branding. You can’t engage people if you don’t know who you are. You can’t get them on your team if you don’t know who that team is.

Q: Looking into the future, in five years, where would you like to see the project?

A: There are a lot of internal things I would like to see change. Just in terms of, you know, office space. Things that would make the daily practical work easier. I think much of our personality is that every year, we’re going to be different. Last year was Tennessee Williams, and this year is Sam Shepard and there are cowboy hats everywhere and the music at the Cameron House. If it’s Ibsen (and it won’t be, but hypothetically), if it’s Ibsen, the personality of that week in May will be entirely different. Instead of having music at the Cameron House, we might have…sad Norwegian poetry nights. Every year there will be a different flavour to what we do.

Q: An atmosphere?

A: An atmosphere, yeah! And secondary programming will arise from that, and different people we can work with will arise from that. Different things these neighbourhoods can engage with and see that they wouldn’t normally. I want to be surprising people five years down the road with what we do. I don’t want to sit still too long. As I said, we’re already in talks for next year, and it will be surprising. I can tell you right now, the format will not be changing, but some things will be and it’ll surprise you. You’ll like it.

The Playwright Project: Sam Shepard runs May 1st-7th
For show listings check out our complete Toronto Theatre Listings page.
For exact venue schedule and ticket purchase go to The Playwright Project’s website!