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Artist Profile: Susanna Fournier

Interview by Hallie Seline.

Susanna Fournier is one of the most multifaceted artists in Canada right now. She is daring to go big, speak her mind, challenge the status quo, and continue to push to every boundary that comes her way in order to shake the world up with her art. I have been so in awe of her and her work over the past few years, seeing her drive to take on bigger projects, exploring and expanding her process, all while accepting the challenge of wearing ALL OF THE HATS in order to make her art happen. I couldn’t think of a more fierce artist to feature and I was thrilled to be able to speak with her about what motivates and inspires her, what she’s learned by daring to go BIG with THE EMPIRE TRILOGY, and what advice she would give to fellow artists trying to make it happen.


Hallie Seline: Your Empire trilogy is a massive project. Not only are there THREE PLAYS that are being produced in a year, but there’s podcasts, passports, an extensive fundraising project, partner feature drinks and online graphic novels! Tell me a bit about where your inspiration for this trilogy came from and what made you want to go BIG with it?

Susanna Fournier: I don’t know how to tell small stories. I grew up on Star Wars, Mozart’s operas, the Mists of Avalon, and Lord of the Rings. These all seemed like reasonably normal sized stories to me. 

In terms of the content, I think of the Empire as an origin story of Western modernity. I explore conflict on the macro and micro level. I write about systems of power through exploring how these systems appear in our daily lives, in our homes, our bodies, and sense of self. Current culture is stuck on a path towards destruction, I wrote The Empire to try and trace that path back. I’m not sure we can change the path if we don’t look at just how long we’ve been on it. I write in genre because I want to shake people out of their patterns, shake them out of the day-to-day and into a heightened space. When we travel our senses come alive, when we encounter a new place, new language, new culture, we pay attention in a different way. The Empire is set in an imagined world to shake us into looking at this one with more attention. 

Producing The Empire revealed to me that I’m not just interested in theatre, I’m interested in STORIES. I’m a story-teller, and I’m curious about all the ways we can tell stories. In a theatre, in a book, on the radio, in a picture or across a cocktail. The Empire isn’t just three plays, it’s a whole universe. Alison Wong, who is producing it with me, really helped me see that, and has been working closely with me to make these ideas possible. When I say, “What if we did (insert new idea)???” She’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and then ACTUALLY finds a way to do it.

Playwright, Susanna Fournier, on the set of ‘The Scavenger’s Daughter’. Photo Credit: Haley Garnett.

HS: You have worn so many hats already in this project. What are some stand-out lessons you have learned while taking on the roles of: writer, producer, actor, director…

SF: As a producer: my job is to create containers for everybody else (creative team, venue, and audience) to reveal and experience the art. No matter how much you plan for the process and experience to go one way, it will inevitably go many other ways. Problem solving and your community are your biggest assets.

As a playwright, your play doesn’t exist without all the other elements: design, actors, space, audience. You bring a bunch of pages to day one of rehearsal, and then you have to let the process teach you about your play. You haven’t met your play until you all start doing it. You have to let the play speak – which might mean you suddenly feel like you don’t recognize it anymore. Be curious about it. It’s never going to be the version you see in your head. Thank god – what would be the point of doing it if you can just watch it in your head?

As an actor: you know that nightmare about having to go on and perform a show you didn’t rehearse? I just lived it for a 2 week run. You CAN actually learn a whole show 3 days before opening. You don’t need as much time to work as you think you do to make choices and commit to them. Get off book as soon as you possibly can. Imagine how much deeper your work would be if you were off book by day 1. You can do this. I dare you.

Susanna steps in at the 11th hour as the Philosopher in the first play in the EMPIRE trilogy, ‘The Philosopher’s Wife’. Photo Credit: Bernie Fournier.

HS: What has been your biggest challenge you’ve faced in undergoing this project and how have you taken it on?

SF: Raising the money to produce a whole season of theatre as indie artists and being understaffed because we don’t have the money to hire the amount of people it takes to execute a whole season of theatre. Working inside this challenge is ongoing. I’ve had to interrogate my relationship to money, to asking for it, and to keep asking for it. For instance, if you want to check out Empire Trilogy’s “A Name for A Name” campaign here, you can see how close we are to reaching our $15,000 goal and help us get there by donating today 🙂

HS: We love all of the resources Generator is putting out into the world to empower artists to make their art happen. As an artist taking on many roles, can you speak to me about your experience with the Generator Artist Producer Training (APT) program?

SF: I could not produce a project like this without the training I did with APT, and the continued support Generator is giving me as a resident company. Beyond the classes, which covered everything from budgets, to contracts, to timelines, to curation, and marketing, etc. APT and Generator gave me a community of support. Kristina Lemieux is a revolution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as committed to empowering artists and creating meaningful sector and social change. Generator is quickly becoming a hub for the indie artists of Toronto, and my hope is that more indie companies will begin to work together and organize around Generator. What would happen if “indie” teams formed a stronger network, what resources could we share, what kind of terms could we set when working inside and outside of more traditional institutions? What’s possible?

Actor, Josh Johnston, as Jack in ‘The Scavenger’s Daughter’. Scenic Design by Michelle Tracey. Photo Credit: Bernie Fournier

HS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

SF: Making art that runs against the mainstream is lonely. You’re going to work with great people, but it’s still going to be lonely. Make friends with your loneliness.

HS: Where do you look for inspiration?

SF: Women who rail against the shitty deal society “offers” them. Women who say no. Women who dance. Women who laugh at power. Women who fuck. Women who ask questions. Women who scream. Women who fail. Women who make mistakes. Women who rage. Women who transform. Women who love. Women who sing.

HS: What do you do to take care of yourself as an artist?

SF: I don’t know, I’ve had less than 25 days off since The Empire trilogy started pre-production in May 2017, but I have amazing friends and family who help me every single day and bring me food a lot.


Rapid Fire Questions:

Morning or Night Person? A lot of both lately (work)

Go-to drink? Double espresso with touch of hot water and some kind of non-cow milk. I love cocktails and vermouth but I’m not drinking much these days (see above re: work)

If you could be reincarnated as an animal what would it be? A human.

Last book you read? Heartbreaker by local powerhouse Claudia Dey

Favourite play? Jill Connell is a fucking genius and everything she writes breaks my heart and brings me back to life at the same time. Read: The Supine Cobbler, The Tall Building, Hroses.

What are you listening to right now? My gut. And early 2000’s sad angsty tunes.

Favourite place in the city? Sunnyside beach life guard tower (when I need to see the lake and remember the immensity of life).

What in your life could you not live without? Women and faith.

Current Mantra: Several mantras these days: Keep going. You can’t control everything. Let go. Trust.

Finish these sentences:

I am most creative when...I am dancing”

I feel happiest when…I am creating (which is a form of dancing)”

I feel fired up when…I am writing (also a form of dancing)”

In the Toronto theatre scene, I want to see…more radical work, more abandon (so dancing), and more leaders re-structuring institutional power (which is also a form of dancing)”


THE EMPIRE Trilogy by Susanna Fournier

Connect: 
Susanna Fournier
t: @SusannaFournier

Paradigm Productions & The Empire Trilogy
t: @paradigmprodxn
fb: /paradigmtheatre
ig: @paradigmprodxn
w: empiretrilogy.com

Artist Profile: Bilal Baig, Playwright

Interview by Hallie Seline.

It is an absolute pleasure to feature playwright Bilal Baig, chatting about what inspires him as an artist, the development of his current piece Acha Bacha, on stage this month with Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and on writing “the story you need to tell”.

HS: What inspired Acha Bacha and how did the piece develop?

Bilal Baig: I was sexually assaulted when I was seventeen. One of the first things that was irrevocably changed after my assault was my relationship with my mother. I began to think: I’m queer, I’m not very religious, I like to fuck with gender sometimes and now I’m a survivor of sexual assault – will my mother EVER think I’m good?

I sat on this thought for about a year before I took a playwriting class with Judith Thompson at the University of Guelph and under her guidance, the first draft of the play exploded out of me in a few weeks in April 2013. That summer, I was connected to Damien Atkins, who worked as a dramaturge on the play (and is still a current mentor in my life). Through the Paprika Festival‘s playwright residency program, I met, worked with and fell in love with Djanet Sears, which resulted in an excerpt sharing of the play at the festival in April 2014, where Andy McKim was present. From that point on in the play’s developmental journey, I worked predominantly with Andy, Jiv Parasram and Brendan Healy as dramaturges.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Tanja Tiziana

HS: I am very excited about the team working on the show. What has it been like working with these artists bringing your show to life?

BB: I am very excited about this group of artists coming together as well! There has been so much love in the room and a fiercely deep commitment to understanding the story and honoring it with such care, curiosity and empathy. I am in sincere awe of all the artists I get to work and play with every day throughout this process! So much love.

HS: What are you most looking forward to about sharing this show with audiences now?

BB: I’m really curious about what the conversations around power, sex and shame will be surrounding this play.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

HS: I know that you’ve both developed work with the Paprika Festival and worked with them. What has been the impact of this outlet on your growth as an artist?

BB: Paprika has been instrumental in my growth as an artist. It was a playground for me (for five years!) to explore my artistic obsessions and learn from what it feels like to put your work out there when it’s not ‘ready’. Artists who I met through Paprika five years ago have become friends I collaborate with today.

HS: What is best piece of advice you’ve received either in life or in art?

BB: “Write the story you need to tell”. That was actually the prompt given by Judith, which lead to the first draft of Acha Bacha. I think I use this advice in my life as well!

HS: What inspires you?

BB: I’m inspired by genderqueer Indigenous, black, people of colour living their truth. I feel like my art is probably inspired by shitty events happening in the world that devastate/confuse/terrify/arouse me to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore and I must write it.

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

Rapid Fire Questions:

What are you watching right now? America’s Next Top Model.

If you could travel anywhere, where would it be? Fiji or New Zealand. Or Vancouver.

Favourite food: Mom’s chicken fried rice or biryani. Or pizza.

What other show are you most looking forward to this year? Trying everything in my power to catch Calpurnia before it closes. Looking forward to Prairie Nurse at Factory Theatre.

Current mantra or goal for yourself as an artist this year: You’re allowed to feel ambivalent about your work and this career you are pursuing. That is okay.

Acha Bacha

Who:
Co-Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Written by: Bilal Baig
Directed by: Brendan Healy
Featuring: Shelly Antony, Qasim Khan, Omar Alex Khan, Matt Nethersole,
and Ellora Patnaik
Set and Costume Design by: Joanna Yu
Lighting by: C.J Astronomo
Sound Design and Music by Richard Feren
Stage managed by Kat Chin

What:
For years Zaya has balanced his relationships with his religion and his queer identity. But as secrets from the past reveal themselves, and crisis strikes his family, he is torn between loyalties, culture, and time. Written by Bilal Baig, and directed by Brendan Healy, Acha Bacha boldly explores the intersections between queerness, gender identity and Islamic culture in the Pakistani diaspora. The show uses both English and Urdu to tell a story about the way we love, the way we are loved, and how sometimes love is not enough.

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto

When:
February 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
artsboxoffice.ca

Connect:
@beyondwallsTPM
@buddiesTO
#AchaBachaTO

Artist Profile: Ellen Denny, Actor in LIFE AFTER

Interview by Hallie Seline

It is a pleasure to feature actor Ellen Denny who is currently starring in Britta Johnson’s new musical Life After. We spoke with her to find out a bit more about her as an artist, about her experience working on Life After, the emotional power in musicals, and a new play of her own about her great-great-aunt Harriet Brooks, one of Canada’s first female physicists. Be sure to catch Ellen on stage now in Life After at Canadian Stage until October 22nd. She’s incredible!

HS: Hi Ellen! Let’s start with getting to know you a bit more as an artist. Tell me about yourself. 

ED: Hello! I grew up in London, Ontario, trained in Halifax at Dalhousie University (BA Music & Theatre), then did some more acting training through the Citadel/Banff Program. I have been based in Toronto for about five years now, but much of that time I have spent away on contracts. I’ve started collecting provinces – this November I’m headed to Quebec, which will be my seventh! As much as the nomadic lifestyle can be tricky, I do enjoy getting to know different communities across this vast land. I perform in both musicals and plays, and have recently started writing, myself. My first full-length play is about the gender barriers faced by my great-great-aunt Harriet Brooks, one of Canada’s first female physicists.

Dan Chameroy & Ellen Denny. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Amazing! Can’t wait to hear more about that in the future. What has it been like working on Life After?

ED: It is such a unique experience to work on a show that is in development, because everyday changes are being made, and the writer is right there in the room with you, and everyone is working as a team to make sure the story is being told in the clearest and strongest way possible. We had the luxury of four weeks in the rehearsal room with this piece – which runs 75 minutes – so there was opportunity to really delve in to each moment. Even though I am so excited to share Life After with an audience, I am in some ways grieving the end of rehearsals, because in this case the process was truly fulfilling.

HS: What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on Life After?

ED: Hands down, the most rewarding aspect is doing a piece by a young female writer. In this case, the incomparable Britta Johnson. A lot of the time I am telling stories written by dead white men, and so it means the world to me to interpret the work of a woman my age. There is a palpable difference in the way the character of Alice is written, because Britta understands what it is to be a young woman, and to be dealing with enormous loss in the midst of the messiness of growing up.

HS: What is your favourite aspect or moment in the show?

ED: Oof – that’s insanely hard! But one aspect of the show that I adore is our ensemble of three women (affectionately dubbed ‘The Furies’), which is a new addition since the Fringe production. Their function throughout the story is very creative and provides me with some much-needed giggles along the way.

HS: What draws you to Musical Theatre?

ED: There’s something inescapable about the emotional power of music. Something that our writer Britta Johnson harnesses expertly. It’s not just about the sung melodies, but also the instruments of the orchestration (shout out to our awesome orchestrator Lynne Shankel) that bring so many colours and feelings, things that cannot be expressed with words. For me, there’s also a sense of nostalgia in many musicals that I grew up listening to – Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert & Sullivan, all of Rodgers & Hammerstein – they bring me back to my childhood. What’s exciting about contemporary musical theatre is it’s really pushing the boundaries of the form, and I’m intrigued to see how the genre will continue to develop.

(from L to R) Ellen Denny, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Rielle Braid, Kelsey Verzotti, Barbara Fulton, Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson, Dan Chameroy. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Where do you look for inspiration?

ED: I try to see as much theatre as I can, but also other art forms: dance, opera, music, visual art. I find the work of other artists incredibly inspiring. But inspiration is everywhere. I look around the subway car and am fascinated by all the characters and stories around me.

HS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

ED: “It’s only a play.” Extremely helpful when the going gets tough! Along with that, the importance of having a life. This industry is so consuming that it can be hard to take time off to recharge or travel, but if an artist never goes out and experiences life, how can they interpret it onstage?

Ellen Denny & Tracy Michailidis. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Where is your favourite place in Toronto and why?

ED: I love Cabbagetown… I’m a sucker for those heritage homes.

HS: What are you listening to/reading/watching these days?

ED: Recently binged the first season of Riverdale – a great reprieve to the intensity of rehearsals. And I’m reading Barbara Cook’s memoir. She just passed away and is forever one of my soprano inspirations.

HS: If you could take anyone out for a drink (alive or dead) who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

ED: It would be my great-great-aunt Harriet! She died in the 1930s. She didn’t leave behind a diary or anything, so sometimes in trying to write about her life I am left with BIG questions. It would be my dream to talk with her about why she made the decisions she did. And what it was really like to be a woman in science a hundred years ago. And to thank her for being a badass trail blazer.

Photo of Ellen Denny by Michael Cooper

HS: What other theatre show(s) are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

ED: I have yet to see Come From Away, so I’m excited to see it return with an all-Canadian cast. Also my friend Audrey Dwyer has her play Calpurnia at Nightwood Theatre this season. And I’d love to check out The Humans at Canadian Stage.

HS: Describe Life After in 5-10 words.

ED: The messiness of grief and the beauty of music intersect.

Life After

Who:
BOOK + MUSIC + LYRICS BY Britta Johnson
A CANADIAN STAGE, THE MUSICAL STAGE COMPANY & YONGE STREET THEATRICALS PRODUCTION
DIRECTED BY Robert McQueen
MUSIC DIRECTION BY Reza Jacobs
CHOREOGRAPHY Linda Garneau
ORCHESTRATIONS, ARRANGEMENTS & MUSIC SUPERVISION Lynne Shankel
DRAMATURG Anika Johnson
SET DESIGN Brandon Kleiman
LIGHTING DESIGN Kimberly Purtell
COSTUME DESIGN Ming Wong
SOUND DESIGN Peter McBoyle

CAST Neema Bickersteth, Rielle Braid, Dan Chameroy, Ellen Denny, Barbara Fulton, Anika Johnson, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Kelsey Verzotti

What:
Sixteen-year old Alice is left to navigate life after her father, a superstar self-help guru, dies in a car accident. We plunge into Alice’s overactive inner world as she tries to decipher the events that led to that fateful day. An expanded and reworked production of the hit 2016 Toronto Fringe musical, Life After is a funny and frank story of love, loss and vivid imagination from one of the most exciting new voices in Canadian musical theatre.

Where:
Canadian Stage
Berkeley Street Theatre
25 Berkeley Street
Toronto

When:
On stage until October 22nd

Tickets:
canadianstage.com

Connect: 
t – @ellen_denny

Artist Profile: Chris Ross-Ewart, Sound Designer & Composer

Interview by Hallie Seline

“listening more critically and sensitively might be what saves the world” – Chris Ross-Ewart

I first met sound designer and composer Chris Ross-Ewart in the ultimate Toronto Summer Theatre setting – a Fringe tent (or rather this year’s Fringe “rink”) conversation. We got to speaking about making art and sound and all of the weird and wonderful ways you could do a one person show, which is where I found out about his upcoming project at the SummerWorks festival. It was a pleasure to re-connect with him to chat more about his show Explosions for the 21st Century, exploring sound as a character, and after completing his MFA at the Yale School of Drama, what he’s observed about making art in the States compared to Canada.

HS: Where did the idea for this show come from?

Chris Ross-Ewart: I was commissioned to create a 10 minute performance using only sound for a festival about a year ago. The response was positive and I was encouraged to turn it into a full length show.

HS: You describe the show as using sound design to explore your anxieties towards contemporary culture. What is it about sound that you are drawn to as a primary means to explore and communicate in your work?

CRE: Most political and cultural discourse occurs online these days, which confines our conversations to words, ideas, and abstractions.

I am curious how a more sensory approach to understanding and discussing the world might actually be more valuable. I’ve found many contemporary issues seem to have a very tangible connection to sound, and many people ignore the importance of sound both in how it is made and how it is heard. As I hope to prove in the show, listening more critically and sensitively might be what saves the world.

HS: After having completed your MFA at Yale, can you speak to me a bit about your experience training in the States and what you observed about making art in the States compared to Canada?

CRE: The US truly wears its heart on its sleeve, in the best and worst ways. Opinions and values are expressed very loudly and publicly, in a way I was not used to. This leads to both an amazing amount of artistic expression, and also a terrifyingly in-your-face political and cultural antagonism that we don’t see much of in Canada. It’s an inspiring country but extremely exhausting.

HS: What, in your work, do you find yourself currently drawn to explore?

CRE: I’m interested in how sound can be its own character; a living, breathing creature in the room. Technology is taking stories away from shared collective experiences into more personal ones. I’m interested in both sound that counteracts this, by pulling us back into the larger world around us and sound that enhances intimate and private experiences.

HS: What have you been inspired by lately?

CRE: I just saw the O’Keeffe exhibit at the AGO. I loved seeing her life’s process, how she evolved, how she dealt with critics, how she found the places she needed to thrive. It’s always inspiring to see someone grow and struggle and inquire continuously for decades.

HS: Current mantra or best piece of advice you are currently living by?

CRE: Don’t be a victim of your own good taste.

HS: What are you listening to right now?

CRE: Jeff Beck…and my neighbour’s birthday party.

HS: Describe your show in 5-10 words:

CRE: A TED talk on the side of the highway.

HS: Lastly, what are some other shows that you are looking forward to this SummerWorks?

CRE: the last chance you’ll ever have, The Only Good Indian, Icône Pop

Explosions for the 21st Century

Who:
Company: Pressgang Theatre
Written, Designed, and Performed by Chris Ross-Ewart
Directed and Dramaturged by Graham Isador

What:
With field recordings, audio effects, and a well timed air horn, Explosions for the 21st Century uses sound design to explore contemporary culture. The result is part lecture, part stand up, and part existential crisis. Written and performed by Chris Ross-Ewart, the show is an erratic, real time, exploration of why we make sound and how we listen.

Where:
The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street W, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 4th: 8:00pm – 9:00pm
Saturday August 5th: 4:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday August 6th: 9:45pm – 10:45pm
Tuesday August 8th: 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Wednesday August 9th: 9:30pm – 10:30pm
Friday August 11th: 7:45pm – 8:45pm
Saturday August 12th: 4:45pm – 5:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

Connect:
chrisross-ewart.com

Artist Profile: Vanessa Smythe, storyteller / actor / spoken-word-performer-of-many-colours, on her new show “Lip Sync Sleepover”

Interview by Brittany Kay

Vanessa Smythe is one incredibly unique performer. She combines poetry, music, spoken word and storytelling into a memorable and mesmerizing experience. I feel very grateful to have sat down with her to discuss her new show, Lip Sync Sleepover, which opens tonight at Streetcar Crownest.

“It can be scary being vulnerable with parts of your life that you’re still sorting out.” – Vanessa Smythe

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

Vanessa Smythe: I think the show is ultimately inspired by my fascination with childhood, wonder and the kind of magic you see in the world when you’re a kid and how it gets harder and harder to see that magic as you get older. It’s the search between those two places of childhood magic and the realities of being an adult.

BK: Why the title, Lip Sync Sleepover?

VS: The title was a strong impulse I had. I didn’t really fully understand why that was what it was called. Growing up I loved to do lip syncs. They represented ultimate happiness and joy for me. Sleepovers were what I (and maybe not on a conscious level) associated with true love and intimacy and companionship. It spoils the show to talk too much about that. It’s kind of a clue about what we go after as young people and how that changes as we get older.

BK: How did you get into storytelling, spoken word and poetry?

VS: Let’s see… I’ve always considered myself a storyteller since I was a kid. I remember a professional storyteller came to my classroom when I was in grade one and she told a ghost story and I was like, “Oh My God. That is just the most powerful thing,” and so I wanted to do that. When I was little I was always making up routines and filming them with my dad’s video camera. I was just drawn to different ways of creative expression, which sort of evolved into what I’m doing now. I was really into poetry for a while and this show has some poetry in it but colloquial storytelling is a lot of the show, which is new for me.

BK: What is your process when creating these shows?

VS: I’ll typically make up stuff out loud and record myself and then listen to it later, or make a video. I’m very private initially. I usually don’t share any of my stuff with anyone else until very late in the process. I’ll rent a venue like Free Times Café and I’ll have a mini show and test out new pieces in front of an audience. There’s not a lot of attention paid to structure at the beginning. It’s mostly just following impulses and then seeing if any of these pieces might belong together.

BK: Then how do you structure it down to be a coherent piece?

VS: I have struggled with that in the past, which is why I’m really excited to be collaborating with Mitchell Cushman on this. He’s developing and directing the piece.

BK: What’s it been like working with Mitchell?

VS: Mitchell was the first person to sort of give me a chance, I think, as a solo performer. Crow’s Theatre did this site-specific one person show festival a couple of years ago where we took over parts of Leslieville. Mitchell put me in. I was kind of a wild card, like nobody knew who I was, and I don’t know if anyone still knows who I am.

(Laughter)

Mitchell felt like he saw something unique about what I was doing and what inspires me to do what I do. Right away, I have trusted him as somebody who seems to really understand how I work and how I can be pushed further. We’re exploring movement as a device in this show, which I’ve always wanted to do but never have known how. He is offering some of his own really good instincts about how some of these pieces can bridge together to become something that belong together. He has such a great balance. His fingers aren’t all over the piece, but at the same time he’s able to dare me to try different things, which is very hard to find, so I’m grateful.

BK: What inspires you to do what you do? Why storytelling?

VS: I love stories so much. I think stories are sacred and magical and I think that they remind us of who we are and who we are to each other. I remember doing a residency at Banff for their spoken word program and the mentors were really amazing. It was the first time I worked with d’bi.young anitafrika and she led this series of workshops where she talked about the role of the storyteller in the village. Your responsibility as a storyteller can be to protect what is sacred and nurture a place for it. On a deep level I really believe that. I try to remember that as all of the details and variables can kind of distract you; you care about if people come or if it’s good, but I try to as much as I can to go to that initial impulse. I feel that if I have any chance of making something genuine or honest that’s where it has to come from.

BK: Are there any fears or excitements about presenting your own stories and work?

VS: Yes, there are certainly things that scare me. Almost everything in my shows is inspired from true things that have happened to me. It can be scary being vulnerable with parts of your life that you’re still sorting out. I think you have to be really clear with yourself about what your intentions are because if you want some kind of validation or even laughter or acknowledgment from your listeners, you have to be very careful why you want that and what you actually might be seeking. I try to be as a clear as I can about what draws me to each piece and who it’s for because if you can connect to why you’re doing it, then no matter if it’s received or not, you can sort of still be a bit protected by your knowledge of whatever that impulse was. It keeps you a bit supported because otherwise I feel like it can be slippery.

BK: Excitements?

VS: I like feeling like I can have a one-on-one conversation with the audience. I try to really be present and breathe in the room and meet the energy of whoever is there. Which is exciting and thrilling and kind of unpredictable.

BK: You also have a background as an actor and as a performer you sit somewhere in the middle of storyteller and actor. I find that incredibly unique. How did you get there and what kinds of things helped and guided you into this work?

VS: I know it’s kind of a hodge-podge. Sometimes you can feel a bit lonely because I’m not sure where I fit necessarily but I think that there’s also something cool about that, as well.

The most formative things in my training? I have a big dance background, so I’ve always been interested in physical language and live performance from a theatrical standpoint. I did my undergrad in philosophy, which really got me passionate about writing and writing poetry. I think ever since my undergrad, I’ve kind of had a very specific impulse about what draws me to storytelling and why I might try to do it and commit a life to it. Then it’s just fun to get inspired. A lot of my influences are musicians. I don’t try to pay attention to where I belong because you can kind of get a little bit stuck in your own notions of yourself. I just try to un-obstruct myself as much as I can. I try not to worry too much about the categories.

BK: Most of the time, you’re working and creating alone. Is there something that motivates you to create?

VS: I find usually, whether I realize it or not, whatever I’m making is probably what I need to hear. If I listen in the right way (and not to everything you make, sometimes it can be a lot of garbage too) if you’re lucky you can maybe kind of understand something about what you’re going through or something that teaches you where you are in this moment. That can be really nice. Even though it’s lonely, it’s kind of a way to be more okay with wherever you’re at, which makes you feel less alone I think… in the best of times… sometimes.

(Laughter)

BK: How is your storytelling different from when you are portraying a character in a play?

VS: It gets hard. My favourite acting coach will have you do an exercise when you’re rehearsing a scene with him of making you do the scene in your own words. I like that because I feel like it stimulates both my writer brain and my actor brain. I can access the material in a way that I don’t have to work so hard to access when it’s my own stuff. I get used to starting with an understanding of the person I’m portraying. That’s something that helps me bridge that difference. I do think there is an exciting thrill of portraying somebody that’s not you. There is maybe more permission you give yourself to go further with certain choices, so I try even in my solo show to dare myself in the same way as if I had a disguise on. You talk to a lot of actors who will describe that feeling of freedom when they put on another mask, they can say and do anything.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

VS: I hope people feel more connected to the things that they care about. I hope they feel more connected to the people they care about in their lives. I hope that they have a bit of fondness when they imagine the child-like version of themselves because that’s sort of what we’re championing in this new piece.

Rapid Fire Questions

Favourite Food? Greasy Breakfast.

What music are you listening to? Modest Mouse’s new album.

Favourite place in Toronto? I love the waterfront. I love to find streets that I have never walked down before. Anywhere when it’s warm out.

Favourite musical? The Phantom of the Opera. Once.

Favourite play? The Encounter by Simon McBurney

Favourite book? I like Miriam Toews.

Favourite movie? Lots.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten? My mom telling me to “make your bed every morning.” And my other advice, just to be kind.

Lip Sync Sleepover

Who:
Created & Performed by Vanessa Smythe
Developed & Directed by Mitchell Cushman, With Support from Crow’s Theatre

What:
What day of childhood do you wish you could live again? What would you tell your 7-year old self, if you could write and send her a letter? In this new solo show, and in her “spellbinding combination of storytelling, stand-up comedy, poetry and song – all at the same time”, Vanessa Smythe takes us back to childhood in this poignant, funny, deeply personal celebration of the people we dreamed we’d be – and the memories that remind us of who we truly are. A celebration of life’s tricky disappointments – and its enduring, understated joy.

Where:
Streetcar Crowsnest (Scotiabank Community Studio)
345 Carlaw Ave (Dundas and Carlaw)

When:
Two Nights Only: Thursday May 25 8:30pm & Friday May 26 8:30pm

Tickets:
$20 crowstheatre.com

Connect:
t: @vsmythe

Artist Profile: Ali Joy Richardson, Director

Interview by Hallie Seline

We’re all about hard-working #bossbabes being at the helm of the theatre we see, so it was such a joy to catch up with Ali Joy Richardson to discuss her latest directing project, Liars at a Funeral, why her directing mentors have been instrumental in assembling her own director’s utility belt, and the top three pieces of advice she’s living by right now. 

HS: Tell me a bit about your current directing project, Liars at a Funeral, and what caught your interest when deciding to direct it.

Ali Joy Richardson: Liars at a Funeral is set in a funeral home in Northern Ontario where a grandmother has faked her own death in order to get her family back together for Christmas. It’s a farce: 4 doors, 5 actors playing 9 characters, and a family curse of female twins who hate one another…but without the stale sexism that’s so often sprinkled in the genre. Sophia Fabiilli has revived farce with a refreshing dose of 2017 sexuality and three generations of very funny women. Sophia told me the plot of the play over a pint at Tequila Bookworm back in September and I was hooked. I immediately sent her a batch of imagery that resonated with the play for me (Edward Gorey illustrations, Wes Anderson stills, and some weird ‘70s family Christmas photos). I’m very grateful to have been trusted with this play.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

HS: What is the biggest thing you’ve learned so far in your experience directing?

AJR: It requires rigorous, detailed homework to be able to properly play jazz in the room.

HS: Do you have a directing mentor? If so, who is it and why do you think it’s important to have a mentor?

AJR: Thank heaven for mentors. I learned the fundamentals from assistant directing for Melee Hutton and Estelle Shook and script coordinating from Andrea Donaldson. Richard Rose has been my primary teacher for the last while (his process has totally re-shaped my practice) and Aaron Willis is my go-to emergency phone call for all things theatre. These directors have given me clarity and confidence in my practice. I’ve gratefully thieved tools from each of them to assemble my own utility belt.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

HS: You have a pretty #bosslady production team going on for this show with you (director/dramaturg), Laura Jabalee Johnston (producer) and Sophia Fabiilli (playwright/producer). How has it been working with this team?

AJR: DREAMY. Lots of late night 3-way calls, endless hustle, and masterfully colour-coded email threads. They’ve made me a better artist and collaborator. I’d trust these women with my car, child, or estate (if I had any of those things).

HS: What are you most excited for audiences to experience when they come see the show?

AJR: The rollercoaster – Liars at a Funeral is very funny and bravely truthful.
Also…casket comedy.

HS: Describe the show in 5-10 words.

AJR: Just one: unstoppable.

(For a complete list of the myriad of obstacles we overcame, from the Storefront Theatre closing to our casket hinges busting right before we opened, buy anyone on the team a drink.)

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

Rapid Fire Question Round:

Favourite place in the city:
The Toronto Reference Library.

Where do you look for inspiration?
Conversations, naps, and the Toronto Reference Library.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?
Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (a deeply nerdy podcast by two Harvard theologians) and re-reading Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”.

Best piece of advice you’ve received or current mantra you’re living by:
“What is the next right move?” (Oprah)
“Follow the campground rule – leave the audience better than you found them.” (Neil Silcox)
“Stand up from your desk every hour, Ali.” (my Mom)

Liars at a Funeral

Who:
Playwright – Sophia Fabiilli
Director & Dramaturg – Ali Joy Richardson
Ensemble – Ruby Joy, Rhea Akler, John Healy, Danny Pagett & Terry Tweed
Producers – Laura Jabalee Johnston & Sophia Fabiilli
Stage Management – Lori Anderson
Set & Wardrobe Design – Lindsay Woods
Sound Design – Nicholas Potter

What:
A black comedy about a grandmother who fakes her own death in order to reunite her family in Northern Ontario.

Grandma Mavis stages her own funeral in order to reunite her estranged family… just in time for an ice storm to trap them all in a funeral home over Christmas. Can this eccentric clan of liars navigate the rocky road to reconciliation? Or will the next 24hrs be the final nail in this dysfunctional family’s coffin?

Featuring five actors playing nine characters, Liars at a Funeral is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s also a teensy bit inspired by Hamlet.

Where:
St. Vladimir Theatre
(620 Spadina Ave, south of Harbord

When:
May 5-14 2017

Tickets:
$25
truthnliestheatre.com

Artist Profile: Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Actress

Interview by Brittany Kay

This Lady Boss had a kick-ass 2016, which appears to be shaping into an even more exciting 2017. We couldn’t be luckier to sit down and chat with actress Vivien Endicott-Douglas, who’s performing in the current remount of Infinity at TarragonWe spoke about not going to theatre school, how she has grown as an artist at Tarragon over the years, and the love that comes with Infinity.

Brittany Kay: What made you choose performing as a career?

Vivien Endicott-Douglas: I’ve always been a performer, ever since I could talk. I loved to perform for my family. My family is a huge fan of the original Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne. I had listened to these stories on tape a bunch. There was one point where I was 4 or 5 years old when my dad turned on the tape and I had memorized it entirely. I just recited it, instead of listening to the tape. I asked my parents if I could start acting when I was 8 and they sent me to these drama classes called Dragon Trails with a woman named Jill Frappier, who’s this incredible actress and had this drama school for kids. I was in love with her. I was in awe of her. She was always doing voices and had so much energy and we created plays with her. She said to my parents, “Have you ever considered Vivian doing this professionally?” I really wanted to, so when I was 11, I got an agent and started working professionally. That was mostly in TV and film so I was able to learn so much. I got a lead in a TV series when I was a year into working professionally and I was in almost every scene, so I really absorbed a lot and got to work with some incredible actors.

Richard Rose gave me my first professional theatre gig right out of high school at 18. I was taking a year off and trying to figure out whether I wanted to go to theatre school or not. I was working and there were all of these other actors who were like, “If you’re already working, maybe theatre school isn’t right for you and you can find other people to train with on your own.” That was a big debate for me for a while of whether I should go or not go. Not going kind of won out in the end, just based on friends and people’s advice to me. The biggest challenge for me was the fact that I really wanted to find a community of artists and actors and theatre makers.

BK: That can be hard if you’re not going to theatre school.

VE-D: Exactly. And I was always kind of like the kid amongst the other artists. I was so lucky to be working with these older, super experienced actors but I didn’t feel like they were people who I could necessarily create new projects with. Around that time it was important for me to find people my own age who wanted to experiment and create. I met Rosamund Small during my time at UofT and our friendship and working relationship blossomed from there.

BK: Well that’s a great connection! Without the training of theatre school, what is your process or preparation for auditions and rehearsals?

VE-D: I started taking voice classes with a woman named Rae Ellen Bodie about 4 years ago out of Pro Actors Lab. She’s an incredible actor, director and coach. I took this class because I thought I should have something on my resume that says that I’ve had some kind of training. I walked in on my first day and Rae was like, “Where have you trained?” and I was like, “Mhmm… I haven’t.” Everyone started making these sounds and moving freely and I just tried to do that too with absolutely no idea what I was doing. It turned out to be about breath and body work to connect with how you’re feeling right now in this present moment and so I have incorporated that into my daily practice. It helps with auditions, a lot. Auditioning is not easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for anybody.

BK: What are you talking about? It’s the best process ever…

VE-D: (laughter) I certainly enjoy auditioning for theatre more than I do for TV/Film just because there feels like there is more time and you can really talk about it and get into it. I’ve picked up other things along the way. There’s a book called the Power of the Actor by a woman named Ivana Chubbuck. It’s these twelve steps to approaching a character and script. What really spoke to me was this idea of what you need from the other person and what you want to make them do. That has really helped my work. I have played a lot of victims or people who don’t necessarily have a lot of agency, just because of the nature of the roles I’ve been given in my career so far. This book really empowers you. Instead of just wanting something from them, it forces you to look at what are you doing to that person to make that happen.

I think I have an emotional intuitiveness and I’m a very empathetic person. I think I bring that to my work. For the past few years it’s been really important to be more powerful. Not just in the work but in the room. Really have my voice heard by directors and other actors. Because I started as kid, I’ve always felt like a kid.

paul-braunstein-amy-rutherford-vivien-endicott-dougas-in-infinity-photo-by-john-lauener

Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford, Vivien Endicott-Douglas in Infinity. Photo Credit: John Lauener

BK: Tell me a little bit about the show?

VE-D: Infinity is about a couple, who are two brilliant people. One is a theoretical physicist and the other is a musician. I play a young woman, named Sarah Jean who’s a mathematician and I go between being in my mid twenties to playing an eight year old. It’s about her figuring out her emotional life because she doesn’t actually live in that at all. She’s a very intellectual academic, a very smart, driven person, who doesn’t often take an emotional inventory of where she’s at or of her past relationships. Without giving away too much, there’s kind of an incident that makes her have to reflect on it. It’s about how we come to understand love in our lives, with parents and with lovers.

It’s also filled with beautiful live music. There’s a violinist, named Andréa Tyniec that plays throughout the show. It’s amazing because live music has such a resonance as you’re working. It’s so visceral. It’s really intertwined with what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. She has an incredible ear so she can be dynamic in the way that she plays. She changes with us from night to night.

BK: There’s definitely something about strings that brings you further into the experience as an audience member. It just hits you somewhere deeper.

VE-D: Well the vibrations hit you. I find it so moving when there’s live music.

BK: Were there excitements or fears or challenges coming into a remount, where Haley McGee played the part before you?

VE-D: Well yeah, those are certainly big shoes to fill. Because I didn’t see the original production, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the character. I just had a couple of monologues and read the script and went into the audition bringing what I had to it. We worked quite intensively in the audition. I think we made a lot of fresh discoveries about the character and about how I relate to Sarah Jean. Our director Ross Manson was really willing and very interested in me finding the character myself, which was awesome because I felt like he gave me the kind of support to just go. There are certain things about the character that are true for anyone playing this part but within that, I was able to find what my own relationship to her was. We only had 10 days of rehearsal…

BK: Whoa! Why so short?

VE-D: Well because it was a remount and originally Haley was going to do it. She wasn’t available and so they had only budgeted for 10 days.

BK: Wow…

VE-D: Yeah… It was an intensive rehearsal process. I found out that I got the part while I was doing Killer Joe, so I had a lot of time leading up to prepare. The first day we just got on our feet. I came into a room of people who were already so confident in the work, which was actually really neat. Amy and Paul, the other actors in the play, have such a great dynamic in their relationship. They were very encouraging and supportive of the work that I was doing. Ross worked with me and really challenged me. He pushed me, which was important because we didn’t have a lot of time so I had to be on my toes. I felt like I came into a room that was filled with a lot of love because I think people really love the play. From the whole team, everybody loves the play, and you really feel this connection… they all feel connected to it.

BK: Why is this play so important and important to bring back?

VE-D: It’s so relatable in the way that it shows a relationship between two people who are deeply in love and who can’t quite get on the same page or can’t quite give each other what they need. My character, Sarah Jean, is so relatable because she’s this young woman who’s trying to figure out her relationship to her parents and what their legacy is and her relationship to how her childhood has made her into who she is. It’s her opportunity to reflect on how she’s gotten to where she is and that she can actually change… that the future is not written and she kind of comes to this realization that she can change for the better.

andrea-tyniec-vivien-endicott-douglas-in-infinity-photo-by-john-lauener

BK: This is your fourth show with Tarragon. What do you love about being there and what keeps you coming back?

VE-D: I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to work there. I have learned so much working there because they produce all of these new plays. I actually have also been a part of numerous workshops that have taken place there. Being a part of those with other actors and directors has allowed me to learn so much about theatre and about being an actor and the process to creating a show. I have been able to learn how other actors approach the work. People will really question playwrights and then the play changes and grows and that’s a huge part of working at Tarragon – having these conversations about stories. You’re often not getting a static play that’s already written. So much of the time it’s about dramaturgy. I love that part of it.

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

VE-D: I hope that people walk away feeling hopeful. I hope that people walk away and maybe call someone they love and tell them that they’re grateful to have them in their lives or if they come with family or friends and can walk away and talk about their connection to each other. I hope that it opens people up.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Movie: Back to the Future

Favourite Play/Musical: The Sound of Music

Favourite Book: Fall On Your Knees, closely followed by The Sun Also Rises

Favourite Food: Salmon

Best place in Toronto: Either of grandparents’ houses or the ravine close to my parent’s house.

Advice you live by: Trust your instincts.

Infinity

Tarragon_Infinity

Who:
Written by Hannah Moscovitch
Original score composed by Njo Kong Kie
Directed by Ross Manson
Co-produced by Volcano Theatre
Featuring Paul Braunstein as Elliot Green, Vivien Endicott-Douglas as Sarah Jean Green, Amy Rutherford as Carmen Green and Andréa Tyniec as violinist

What:
How does a new Theory of Time change everything we know about ourselves? Three brilliant minds – a musician, a mathematician, and a theoretical physicist – smash together like colliding particles in an accelerator. Together they learn that love and time are connected in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Infinity is a shocking, funny and revelatory play about love, sex, & math by Tarragon Playwright-in-Residence Hannah Moscovitch developed with Volcano Theatre. Back by popular demand from Tarragon’s 2014/15 season.

Where:
Tarragon Theatre

When:
January 4 – 29, 2017

Tickets:
tarragontheatre.com