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

Interview by Hallie Seline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: I concur.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

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

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

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

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

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

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

197 John Street

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


In Conversation with Janelle Hanna on Bad Baby, Big Risks & the Camaraderie of The Fringe

Interview by Brittany Kay

Janelle Hanna is bringing the only clown to wear rubber boots at the Toronto Fringe Festival this year and Bad Baby was born to fill that role! Presenting her first solo show, Janelle is a Fringe veteran appearing in past shows such as Eternal Friendship with a Spotless Smile and Virginia Aldridge, BSc. Janelle Hanna’s Bad Baby appears in Rules Control the Fun, a hilarious new Canadian play about love, relationships, vulnerability, and shame at the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Brittany Kay: Who is Bad Baby?

Janelle Hanna: Bad Baby is a very talented and attractive actor. You’ve probably seen her around the city at auditions. She goes to a lot of auditions. A lot. She might not be in Toronto for very much longer though. She’s probably going to go to L.A. so when she comes back to Toronto she can say, “Yeah…just got back from L.A.”

BK: Where did she come from? How was she first discovered and created?

JH: Bad Baby has been with me for about 10 years, coming into my life initially in clown and mask class during my 3rd year of the Theatre and Drama Studies program at UTM. She started as a very mischievous kid who loved feeding her dog treats but has since grown up and developed some sweet dance moves, wicked acting chops, and masterful balloon arch skills. And while Bad Baby has popped up around the city a few times, her last appearance in a full show was during my MFA in Acting at York University when I presented my thesis research on vulnerability. She was 1 of 3 featured characters I presented in a 15-minute solo piece. I’m experimenting with a similar concept for Rules Control the Fun but Bad Baby gets top billing this time.

BK: Tell me a little bit about your show and why Bad Baby “knows all the rules”?

JH: Bad Baby knows all the rules because she’s seen a lot of solo shows. A lot. AND a lot of Fringe shows. A lot, a lot. And she knows all the things you’re supposed to have in a great show, and she’s going to do all those things like dance, sing, special skills, flirt, kissing, balloons, and nudity… maybe.

BK: Why is a show like Bad Baby perfect for the Fringe? 

JH: In my experience, the shows that work best in a Fringe environment are those with a lot of laughs, and a lot of heart. This show is big on both of those things but audiences will discover this show delves deeper into issues I’m passionate about exploring as a writer and performer: vulnerability, shame, love and connection. I’m taking some big risks with this show, and I think that’s what Fringe is (or should be) all about – taking a huge leap and seeing if you land, or totally wipe out. Let’s hope for the former.

BK: This is your first solo show. What are the fears/excitements around that?

JH: Well it’s the first solo show I’ve written, and yes there are many fears that come along with that (Will the show resonate with people? Will I piss everyone off? Am I doing it all wrong? How do I use square brackets? How do I even type square brackets?) Even to be called a “writer” is still a bit odd if I’m being honest because I really feel like a performer first and foremost. But it’s also really exciting because as an artist I tend to infuse a lot of myself into the work I create (which I’m sure isn’t a unique or particularly mind-blowing statement as I’m sure to a certain extent this is what all artists do), and as the writer I’ve had the opportunity to craft exactly what I need to say, something you don’t always get to do when you’re playing with someone else’s words. When it comes to performing solo many people have told me how terrified they are of it. I’ve never really feared performing solo though. Perhaps it suits my… somewhat… at times… controlling personality? NEXT QUESTION!

BK: Tell me about the balloon arch? Will we see it in the tent?

JH: *BREAKING NEWS* The balloon arch WILL make an appearance at the tent. We can guarantee that. Bad Baby can even show you how to make an arch. It’s pretty simple! Fishing line, weights, helium, balloons BUT the tricky part is attaching it to the line – that takes years to perfect. And by years I mean minutes.

BK: If Bad Baby was here, what else would she want us to know about?

JH: She would want you to know about a petition she has started to bring back Melrose Place to Netflix. You can go to to sign it. She would also want you to know that if you come to her show, there is a surprise. But she’s not going to tell you what it is. Because it’s a surprise.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

JH: I hope I can make someone’s day a little better. Either because Bad Baby gave them some good belly laughs, or because she flirted with them and made them smile, or because maybe they’re feeling a bit weighed down by the world like a certain writer/performer/producer girl I know, and after seeing the show they feel a little less so.

BK: Are there other shows you are planning to see in the Fringe?

JH: SO MANY. Fitting them all in is going to be a challenge but I’m going to try to pull a Derrick Chua and do a few marathon days of fringing. All of the shows we’re teaming up with for #FringeFriends are definitely on my list. I also want to support other one-woman solo shows, or shows with bad-ass women at the helm like #FringeFemmeTO so awesomely highlighted a few weeks ago. I also want to support International artists and make sure they know how welcome they are to the festival and to the 6ix. So in closing, I’m planning on seeing all 159 other shows.

BK: What are your favourite parts about the festival?

JH: I love the camaraderie. I love all the artists coming together in one place. I love being on the subway and the initial fear of a stranger standing over me – but then realizing it’s because they just wanted to say how much they loved the show I was in. I love seeing old friends, meeting new ones and all the attractive people at the tent. All of them. I love the feeling 15 seconds before the show begins, you know, the nervous gas part.

Bad Baby Presents: Rules Control the Fun

Written and performed by Janelle Hanna
Directed by Briana Brown.
Production Team: Gabriel Cropley (Lighting Design), Erin Vandenberg (Stage Manager) and is produced by Chris Baker and Janelle Hanna.

Bad Baby is a very talented and attractive actor. She wanted to be an actor so she could sleep in and kiss boys. This is her first Fringe show. She’s seen a lot of Fringe shows though. A lot. And she knows all the rules. All of them. With a total of 13 Toronto Fringe tent romances under their collective belts, the teams that brought you Almost, Again (Best of Fringe) and Eternal Friendship with a Spotless Smile (Patron’s Pick) are back with an all new Fringe adventure. Come see Bad Baby’s first Fringe festival hit!

Where: The Annex Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street

Friday July 7th – 1:15pm
Saturday July 8th – 9:15pm
Monday July 10th – 4:30pm
Wednesday July 12th – 7:30pm
Thursday July 13th – 12:00pm
Friday July 14th – 11:00pm
Sunday July 16th – 4:00pm

Tickets are available to purchase in person at the festival box office for $12 ($10 plus $2 fee). At-the-door tickets will be sold at the show’s venue starting one hour prior to show time for cash sales only, limit of 4 per person, subject to availability. Visit for more information on tickets and festival passes.

Connect with Lark & Whimsy:
Twitter: @Lark_and_Whimsy; #BabysFirstFringe
Facebook: larkandwhimsytheatre


Exploring Modern Tragedy and the Importance & Impact of Stories about Mental Health in the Theatre – In Conversation with “Salt” Playwright Erin Vandenberg

Interview by Hallie Seline

We spoke with the lovely Erin Vandenberg, playwright of Salt, about her curiosity in exploring how we experience and express tragedy, the impact of telling a story through the theatre, and the necessity to talk about mental health and addiction. You can catch the world premiere of Salt, on now until September 28th, at Alumnae Theatre (show details below).

Hallie Seline: Tell me a bit about the play and what inspired the piece?

Erin Vandenberg: Salt explores the impact of mental illness and addiction on two teenage sisters and their alcoholic mother.

I was re-reading several translations of Euripides and thinking about how we experience and express tragedy – whether that be intense personal tragedy or horrific societal injustice (or both at once, as is often the case). The elegance of the classical Greek play doesn’t feel right for today somehow, but still grabs me personally. In the middle of that, I came across a headline about two sisters who committed a crime as a response to a lifetime of coping with their mother’s alcoholism. From the outside, the fact that they would take such desperate action is shocking, but I didn’t feel shocked. I felt the opposite, that in the face of certain circumstances the sisters’ response was all too understandable, and that was part of the tragedy of it all for me. We don’t talk enough about mental illness and addiction. We would rather simply be shocked when someone dealing with those issues acts out and then move on.

I started Salt from there. I didn’t have a lot of details about the girls involved (they were young offenders and thus protected). I also decided not to research the real story, which I believe involved co-conspirators and a social media element. I was more interested in what might it be like for two girls to grow up with an alcoholic mother, what was happening day-to-day in the home. What was happening for the mother too – alcoholism is a disease. I placed them in a situation with limited access to resources as well. How do you cope through that? Every character is in pain in the play and fumbling to deal with that, particularly when it becomes obvious that the pain is unrelenting. I have some insight into what that feels like from my own experience with depression.

From left: Cosette Derome and Lucy Hill in a scene from Salt. In the bg from left: Philippa Domville and Stephanie Jung. Photo by Robert Harding.

From left: Cosette Derome and Lucy Hill in a scene from Salt. In the bg from left: Philippa Domville and Stephanie Jung. Photo by Robert Harding.

HS: Why were you drawn to present this story in the theatre? 

EV: I’m drawn to theatre in general because there’s something so visceral when you have a real live human being in front of you, enacting a story. You don’t have a screen between you. You don’t have to conjure the story up from words alone.

For Salt specifically, there’s an element of storytelling inherent in the piece – all the characters tell each other and themselves stories in order to cope. But the stories alone cannot sustain them and they begin to fail as coping mechanisms. And there’s such an opportunity to show that breakdown in the theatre. In the play, one of the characters makes landscape scenes out of construction paper as her way of telling herself stories, and we have the opportunity to get to see those creations in the production in a deeply theatrical, larger than life way; seeing them like that adds to the impact. Design brings so much and can carry so much of the narrative, and that is really interesting to me as a writer. That words alone don’t have to do all the work.

Lucy Hill as Petal in "Salt. Photo by Robert Harding

Lucy Hill as Petal in “Salt”. Photo by Robert Harding.

HS: Can you speak about the development of this piece and how your mentors have influenced your work?

EV: This piece would not be where it is without Briana Brown, my director and dramaturge. Before her, I had been writing mostly on my own, with some sporadic, one-off workshop readings sprinkled through the process. Workshop readings are definitely helpful, but it’s different when you can get someone’s sustained support. It becomes an ongoing conversation, and to be able to have that with someone who not only understands the territory the play explores but who is perched just outside of my process is really illuminating. She also gets me really well, and the relationship we’ve established (really quickly too) makes me feel not so lonely, the way so much of the writing process necessarily is. Briana and all of our cast and design team ask really sharp questions and finding my way to answering them has brought a new clarity to the piece. They are all downright heroic, and it’s wonderful to be able to work with so many other artists. Writers in other forms don’t get that in the same way as playwrights.

HS: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

EV: Find out who you are without the depression. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with clinical depression told me that. That was tough. It’s not necessarily related to my artistic practice, but it opened something up for me – I am not the disease. When you are inside it, it’s so easy to get lost. I’m still figuring out who I am without the depression.

Also, always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then, always be a unicorn. I think that’s pretty solid. (The internet tells me this can be attributed to Elle Lothlorien from her book Alice in Wonderland, which appears to be a romance novel…)

HS: What is your favourite place in the city?

EV: My bed. Especially when I’m reading or napping there with my cats. I made my peace with the fact that I am not cool long ago.

HS: Where do you look for inspiration?

EV: Books. Conversations. Paintings. History. Nature. Anything that both gets me out of my own head and resonates with me on a gut level.

I also find that I find inspiration through the work – the act of writing, forcing myself to sit there with a piece and think through it, breeds inspiration. I find I often can’t answer questions about my work in person, I can only do it through the next round of re-writes.

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

EV: Asking for Flowers by Kathleen Edwards. I’ve been listening to it every time I sit down to work on the play. Part of the chorus is “Don’t tell me you’re too tired, 10 years I’ve been working nights.” Which pretty much sums up how I feel about living with depression, how frustrating and exhausting it can be. I am not the disease, but it’s something that I wrestle with every day, just like the characters in the play.


Presented by Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective


Written by Erin Vandenberg
Directed by Briana Brown
Featuring: Philippa Domville, Cosette Derome, Lucy Hill, Geoffrey Armour and Stephanie Jung
Set & Costume Design by Anna Treusch
Lighting Design & Production Manager – Gabriel Cropley
Sound Design by Lyon Smith
Stage Manager – Laurie Merredew
Assistant Stage Manager – Deanna Galati
Publicity Consultant – Katie Saunoris
Consulting Producer – Lisa Li
Assistant Producer – Brittany Kay
Produced by Chris Baker and Erin Vandenberg

When Lilias returns home after a year at school, she finds her mother Vivian increasingly fixated on Great Aunt Rose ‐ a figure Lilias believes never existed ‐ and her sister Petal virtually engrossed in a construction-paper fantasy world. Faced with an ever‐deteriorating family situation, Lilias struggles to chart a course that protects herself and Petal from Vivian’s abuse. But as tensions run high, the roles of abuser and victim become blurred.

Alumnae Studio Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street

Tuesday, Sept 20 – 7:30pm (Opening)
Wednesday, Sept 21 – 1:30pm & 7:30pm
Thursday, Sept 22 – 7:30pm
Friday, Sept 23 – 7:30pm
Saturday, Sept 24 – 1:30pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, Sept 25 – 7:30pm
Tuesday, Sept 27 – 7:30pm
Wednesday, Sept 28 – 7:30pm (Closing)


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twitter – @Lark_and_Whimsy
hashtag – #SaltPremiere