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Posts tagged ‘Brittany Kay’

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

Interview by Brittany Kay.

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

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

Kevin Wong: You go.

Julie Tepperman: No, you go…

JT: We can do one word at a time?

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

(Laughter)

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

(Laughter)

BK: What was is it that convinced you Kevin?

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

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

JT: …and I’m also really smart right?

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

(Laughter)

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

JT: We laugh about the same things a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

BK: What happened next with it?  

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

BK: And after that?

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

BK: I love that saying.

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

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

JT: Give yourself time.

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

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

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

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

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

The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

 

 

 

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“Environmentalism, Playwriting & Taking Your Time” In Conversation with Rosa Labordé, playwright of MARINE LIFE

Interview by Brittany Kay.

Rosa Labordé is one of the finest examples of a multifaceted, multi-talented, many-hats-wearing fierce female artist working in this city. Her work as a playwright, actor and director is highly praised and respected in this theatre community. We sat down to talk about her current production Marine Life, playing now at the Tarragon Extraspace only until December 17th. We spoke about how she approaches environmentalism, playwriting and the importance in taking your time with your work.

Brittany Kay: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Rosa Labordé: Mostly, from the experiences that I have in life or what I perceive or observe going on around me. I’m usually interested in how we’re functioning as a greater society, as a greater whole and how that ties into how we treat each other as individuals. I don’t think they can be separated. I like to look at very big issues and then bring them down to their most essential level of human beings interaction with each other. In a world where can bully each other, I want to know what that looks like in the grand scale, like corporate bullying or the presidency right now in the United States and how that all ties in together and how they can’t be separate. Like the family is not separate from the greater society within which it lives… that’s usually what interests me most.

BK: How did you first get into playwriting and what brought you to where you are now?

RL: I always wrote when I was little. I think my first poem was published when I was seven in the local newspaper. It was always my thing and I always put on shows since I was really, really young. Then as I grew up, I got more into acting and I went to theatre school and they always said, “You know, it’s good to still write.” I kept writing and I found the playwrights who I most loved and I started to just do exercises in writing plays. I had a drawer full of plays that nobody ever saw that were just about differentiating character or how people speak to one another. I never went out and said “I’m going to be a playwright”, I was just like “I’m going to make a thing…” and that’s how it started.

BK: You’re also in television right now. How did that all happen?

RL: Well I was interested in it, for sure, and then I wrote my first pilot and my TV writing agent at the time said “You don’t write a pilot, you sell an idea.” Well how can I sell an idea? I need to know how to write a pilot. So I just wrote it and that went really well and CTV at the time bought it outright. We started going through development on it and then everything changed at the company. It didn’t end up going through but it was amazing to go “I’m just going to write and see what happens” and then it went somewhere.

From there, I went to the Film Centre. All of it ties into storytelling, whether it’s acting, writing, directing, writing for plays, writing for TV, it’s just about telling a story and the different medium that it works for. It’s all connected to story, even a voiceover job, you’re telling a story. That’s all my life has been, stories.

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

BK: Tell me about Marine Life? Where did the inception first happen for that idea?

RL: Aluna Theatre was the company who originally commissioned it and I wrote it in my residency with them with grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. They really wanted me to make a piece that I would direct. They wanted me to make a piece that was completely mine. I didn’t listen to that for a bit and I did some early workshops with other people directing the readings and presentations, until, I went “Fine, I’ll direct it”.

At the time they were looking at a lot of work around water and also human rights. I just started thinking about our relationship to the environment and our relationship to water and our seas. That got me into the world of the plastic ocean, the islands made of plastic, pollution in the ocean and what it’s doing to the fish and the marine life. And because it relates back to the way that I see things, I started exploring the question – what is the self-destructive path we’re on? What is it in humans that have the desire to self-destruct just on a personal level? I kind of put these two things together. The characters are allegorical. They are representative of aspects of our humanity that move in a direction that is not always healthy for the whole. They can be quite toxic and some of what we’re doing to our planet is quite toxic, so I wanted to explore that, but in a way that was playful and fun. I think as soon as you get that didactic about environmentalism people turn off.

BK: Some political and environmental theatre isn’t for everybody. If you find a way to present the information in a humanized way, I think it could be more accessible for audiences.

RL: I think when you get someone to leave their house now, when they are so busy (technology seems to have made everyone busier) and they can stay in to watch Netflix in pajamas, is it because you want to teach them a lesson? I don’t. I like to be entertained. I like it to be a fun thing, that even if it’s a sad play, I like it when there’s a little bit of kissing or love or levity. That’s my hope, that someone can come to the show and see all the deeper meaning in the allegory and then if they don’t want to, they can also just enjoy some of the “play” and what I mean by “play” is in the playful sense.

BK: Who are the characters in your play and what is their story?

RL: Sylvia is an environmental activist but her activism has moved into the world of fanatic because she’s so upset about what’s going on that she’s taken it quite far. She falls in love with a corporate lawyer, who is basically on the other side of the spectrum of what she does. She also has a very co-dependent relationship with her sibling, which gets in the way. It becomes a strange kind of love triangle.

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

BK: There’s also music in this show? How does that play a part?

RL: I almost always like music in my plays. I had a play True and written right into it was a piano player. I love it being a part of the world and not just added on, but it being a part of the experience. I think playwriting is music. It’s all rhythm. It’s a score, basically, that you’re writing. It’s inextricably connected to have both actual musicians combined with this world that is already living in a rhythmic musical place.

BK: That’s so beautiful. What are you, a writer or something?

Laughter.

BK: This play went through several development stages in different festivals over the years. How did it grow from those first iterations to where it is now?

RL: Where it started was at Buddies’ Rhubarb! Festival and it was like 20 minutes, so it was just a look at these characters and who they might be. It built and moved from there. I was always working towards a flood in the first incarnations and then I’ve moved past that into, well, what now? We’re flooding all of the time. It’s a reality right now. In Quebec, there are still people dealing with the fallout of it. These people are literally homeless because floods destroyed their homes. Their homes were underwater. The water damage is insane. They can’t live there again and they’re just at a point where the Quebec government said we will pay. For a while, they were paying for housing, subsidizing hotel days and now they’ve pulled out of that. There are people in Quebec who are homeless because of flooding and it’s something that we’re not talking about. Climate change deniers are saying that it’s not us, it’s just the weather but it’s actually not just whether it’s a real thing and I find that really interesting and sad. It’s directly related to our overconsumption as a society, which, in a sense, the lawyer in my play represents – that kind of corporate desire to make more make more make more, sell more sell more sell more, but it’s a destructive act.

BK: Why is development and workshopping beneficial for any type of play?

RL: I think it’s so important to develop pieces and take your time figuring out what it is. The development process for this piece has been over 5 years and, in that time, I’ve also had two other plays produced and written on numerous television projects. It’s not like you’re just writing all the time for one piece. You put it aside and go, “Okay, I don’t want to let that go because I think it’s really important for us to think about these things, but how do I see it differently?” Whenever you get a chance to have an audience and have a response you can kind of connect to what is it that’s working and what is it that isn’t. It’s really useful to have “the what isn’t”. Here in Canada, we don’t quite have the structure that some other countries have in terms of developing something over a longer period of time. It can be so beneficial, even at Tarragon we get a week of previews, which is amazing. Whereas in London or New York, sometimes you get a month to 5 months to really go “what’s working and how is it working?” I think stretching it out a little bit and trying to learn the piece is a really helpful. 

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

BK: You are both playwright and director of Marine Life. How has that been difficult and helpful to wear both of those hats? How do you work between both?

RL: It can be a challenge. I really, really love directing and creating a world but where it can be challenging with new plays, is that if something is not working, the writer needs to rewrite it. Sometimes you actually just need to spend the time making it work. If everyone did their first few Shakespeare rehearsals and were like, “Ugh, it’s not working. We’re just going to have to cut those bits”, well, it’s not working because it’s really hard and you have to define every single moment of communication or it falls flat. One of my favorite Shakespeare productions was this group from the States who were dressed in all black clothes and wearing Keds. I saw them in high school and they were so great because all they did was play the action and make the story clear. Sometimes even with myself as a director, when we’re rehearing and something’s not working, I just say I’ll cut it. Only to realize later that, no, that was just a part of the process. We had a joke where I’ll say, “remember those lines I cut, you have to put them back in”. Most times you have to respect what the playwright is trying to say, but when I am both and I can be really self-critical, I go “It’s bad, what I was trying to say, I’m just going to change it.” To later think, no it’s pretty good, let’s make it work… that’s the challenging part of it.

BK: Why is Tarragon Theatre the right platform for this show?

RL: I love Tarragon and I think their audiences are really great and excited about going to the theatre. I think there’s already a lot of knowledge about environmental concerns for their audience, but this show does that in a playful way and allows them the space to think about it a little bit differently. It’s a smart audience that’s already thinking about these things and hopefully it allows their thinking to move in a bit of a different direction.

BK: Why this story right now?

RL: I think it couldn’t be more relevant because we are living our lives in a really dangerous direction and there’s a point at which we will not really be able to turn back. The depressing thing about doing the research for this project was talking to academics and environmentalists who are studying the effect of micro plastics on us. I was thinking this could get better and they would say no, it could be mitigated. That seems to be the overall place we’re at is this mitigation. It’s no longer reversible. It’s just what can we do to mitigate what we’ve done. A lot of it is about massive shifts in infrastructure and those shifts create massive economical shifts that people don’t want, especially the people who are sitting at the top of the economy where they’re benefiting from mass production.

BK: Are you an environmentalist?

RL: I care about our environment very much. I care about the world we live in. I kind of think I’m not anything. Am I a feminist, humanist, environmentalist? What am I? I can see all sides of a thing, which can be a blessing and a curse.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

RL: I hope that they’ve had an enjoyable time. I hope that they’re left with some beautiful images and thoughts about where we are and thoughts about the good in us, you know to realize our potential for change. I hope it makes you think more about the changes in policy that need to happen to make a difference.

BK: Advice for other artists?  

RL: Don’t compare yourself to other people, just be on your own trip. Be yourself, that’s all you really got. All that really matters is what your personal experience is with the people in your life that you love and what difference you can make in that and being more connected to each other. We all want community and connection.

MARINE LIFE

Marine Life, Tarragon Theatre

Who:
Produced in collaboration with Aluna Theatre
Written & Directed by Rosa Labordé
starring Nicola Correia-Damude, Justin Rutledge & Matthew Edison
sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne
lighting & set designer Trevor Schwellnus
projection designer Trevor Schwellnus
costume designer Lindsay C. Walker
stage manager Robin Munro
surtitle translator Bruce Gibbons Fell
surtitle specialist Sebastian Marziali

What:
Save the world or save yourself? This romantic comedy sees Sylvia, an ecological activist, caught between her own environmental extremism and falling in love with a man who has a secret dependency on plastic. When the rains come and the flood water rises, who will survive the deluge?

Where:
Tarragon Extraspace
30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto

When:
On Stage now only until Dec 17, 2017

Tickets:
tarragontheatre.com

“The Actor’s Process, the Future of The Storefront & Working with Canadian Theatre Legends on George F. Walker’s THE CHANCE” In Conversation with Claire Burns

Interview by Brittany Kay

I got to sit down with one of Indie theatre’s fiercest ladies, Claire Burns, and chat about her role in George F. Walker’s The Chance on stage now at The Assembly Theatre. We spoke about working with Canadian theatre legends, her processes on and off the stage, and the future of The Storefront Theatre.

Brittany Kay: What has been your journey to where you are now?

Claire Burns: I had a really good teacher in Elementary school who did big musicals so I got involved at the early age of ten. One of my first roles was Fagin in Oliver!, pretty mature role for a ten-year-old. I then did musicals all through high school. From there, I went to UofT and got my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History, but at the same time I was in the UC Follies. That drama club led me to projects at Hart House with people I still know and work with. And then I went to George Brown for classical theatre training.

BK: You caught the acting bug?

CB: I started to get really jealous of all my friends who were in theatre. I had to give it a go or else I was going to live with regrets. No regrets, right? After George Brown, I’ve just been working. I did a couple professional gigs at the Blyth Festival and the Grand Theatre. Since then I’ve been playwriting and acting in a lot of independent stuff, including projects at The Storefront, which I was running for the last three years. In the last year and a half/two years I’ve gotten more into directing.

Photo Credit: John Gundy

BK: How did you get involved in this show?

CB: I met Anne van​ ​Leeuwen, who is the head producer for Leroy Street Theatre and the Artistic Director of The Assembly Theatre, through the Indie scene with the shows she did at Unit 102 and at The Storefront. She’s a wonderful person and I totally support everything they’re doing with The Assembly Theatre.

George F. Walker and Wes Berger (our director) work together a lot. George wrote this new play and wanted Wes to direct it. Wes contacts Anne to be in the show and she asks who’s producing it. He said “I dunno” so she’s like “I will!” The other casting happened. Wes and I worked on a project together called The River You Step In, which is an independent film that will be coming out later this year with Astrid Van Wieren and Wes asked me to audition for this show from that.

BK: Can you tell me a little bit about the show and the character you play?

CB: My character’s name is Jo and my mother Marcy, played by Fiona Reid, are down on our luck. Marcy owes a lot of money and I’m potentially going to jail. She finds a cheque for $300,000 made out to cash in our couch left there by a guy I slept with. Comedy ensues. What could we possibly do with this cheque? Opportunity-comes-knocking type of thing.

It’s a very well written play. My character has a lot of angst. She’s living with her mom. She lost custody of her daughter, who’s six because she has a drug problem. She’s a bit quick to anger, but her mom is insane. It’s a very cool role. Deep but fun.

BK: Why this story right now?

CB: I think it’s really relevant that it’s in Parkdale, with all the MetCap buildings and the rental control issues. People are getting kicked out of their spaces because they can’t afford basic living expenses because of minimum wage. I think it’s very current. This play is part of a larger series that George has written that takes places in one of those apartments (if you think of the apartments on Jameson). The fact that it’s about that demographic and being done in a storefront space that is within that neighborhood, I just think that there are so many levels of relevancy.

BK: What draws you to the play?

CB: I love that it is only three women on stage.

BK: YAS!

Photo Credit: John Gundy

CB: You just don’t see that kind of representation on stage very often. What drew me to it was the comedy of it, the quick turns of the script, the fact that it’s George F. Walker! I was just like oh my god. The fact that I studied him in theatre school and now I’m meeting him and I get to ask him questions about acting. I think it’s been an amazing process to be working with Fiona Reid, as well.

BK: What is it like working with those legends of Canadian theatre?

CB: George has written such a fast-paced script and I love the way he works because sometimes I’ll improv or I’ll paraphrase my lines, (which I’m not proud of because I was taught to in fact learn them) but sometimes with lines it just comes out of my mouth better, you know? Because it’s so contemporary, he’s not precious about his script. He’s like, “No, no if that feels better, change that.” It’s a really live rehearsal process. He likes when we add things in. He’s got such funny, great ideas. That’s been awesome.

I really like Wes. I really like working with Wes. Wes always says it’s like jazz. We know it really well, but then we get within it, we can kind of play little notes within the play. I really like that too, because as an actor, I never like to do everything the exact same way every night. There are always little nuances. Each night can feel different. He gives us the permission to walk on that tightrope and just really commit to the moment, the moment, the moment. The play is also in real-time, which is really fun.

Fiona Reid is a goddess. She is generous. She is so kind and welcoming and humble and talented. She really asked questions about the script that I think I would have been embarrassed to say. I would have not asked because I would’ve felt like I was holding up the process or maybe I should have figured that out in my homework. Having her in the room really empowered me. We were able to figure out details and plot specifics together. I like to work that way.

We can build the moments together and took the time to do so. She’s fantastic and so specific. She’s really fun in the dressing room. She knows how to dance!

BK: Why do Indie audiences need a voice like George F. Walker’s?

CB: I don’t think George is writing his plays for the upper middle class. I think he’s really writing plays that speak to a more economically disadvantaged audience. Indie is that. It doesn’t have the same kind of restraints. I think it’s great that Indie theatre can have such an established playwright play to their crowds. I hope Indie audiences come out to this play. It’s hard not to think about the producing side of things while being in a show too.

Photo Credit: John Gundy

BK: Which leads to my next question…you wear so many different hats all of the time. How do you juggle and stay sane?

CB: I don’t know… I tend to work on projects when people ask me. As it turns out, a lot of those projects end up being generated by me and by the people who I’ve worked with at Storefront and collaborators that I know. How do I stay sane? I stopped drinking, which is really helpful for me. It allowed me to understand that sleep is really important.

I still party and stay up late, but sleep and regular sleep has kept me saner. It’s interesting that you ask about staying sane. Running Storefront was always, always on the go and now that we don’t have a space, I’m able to breathe a bit more. I’ve had time to write. I’ve gone through some recent life things that have also been able to propel me to write more. With acting, friends will ask. Directing wise, I’m trying to figure out how to climb the ladder of that career. Producing is another bag and I’m trying to get better at how to raise money. And then there’s what I actually do to make money, which has now been more community outreach. Unlike the bar or restaurant industry, it allows me to work from home.

BK: What is the future of Storefront?

CB: I really think there’s going to be a backlash on digital technology and people are going to be seeking a space where you can go to experience something particular. So I think storefront theatres are going to be needed in the country. The future is getting the business model down. We can’t rely on government funding in a way that Tarragon, TPM, and Factory did in the 80s. We have to figure out a new model. We can take the model from the Chicago Storefront Theatre movement where they’re all nightclubs with theatres in the back. The model we want to adopt are spaces that can become party spaces at night. We’re not looking for a space because you have to have money before you even get the space. I am looking for people to join our board. People like Jen Agg from the Black Hoof, her views on feminism in the restaurant industry are super relevant to the theatre industry. There needs to be subsidization on a municipal level. The city needs to give some sort of incentive to landlords to rent to artists for less, give them a tax break or something because the real estate in this city is crazy if you’re not for profit. It’s definitely not dead. We’re also producing. We’re producing a co-pro with Factory and Blood Pact Theatre called After Wrestling. Then we’re doing a Feminist Fuck It Festival in April, which will feature female identified performers and writers.

BK: Yessss. What an amazing name. I want to come!

CB: Right! FUCK IT.

(Laughter)

And we just got funding from the Canadian Heritage to present work in 2018/2019. The presenting and the producing will keep happening, while working towards finding a space.

BK: Any other upcoming projects for you?

CB: We are working on a new adaptation of I Love You Baby Blue with Paul Thompson and Clare Preuss. We want to honour TPM’s 50th Anniversary since it was first done there. I’ve been working on a play called Teeswater. It’s a town near Blyth, Ontario. It’s where my family moved to in the 1700s from Scotland. It’s a trilogy, but the one I want to focus on is about my great-aunt Margaret, who was a lesbian and lived with a woman. I want to explore what a queer relationship was in the 1940s/50s.

BK: Do you have advice for emerging artists?

CB: Diversify your skills now! If you’re an actor and you want to be an actor 80% of the time, learn about production management or lighting design. Stay relevant. You’ll meet so many different people doing different kinds of jobs. Then you’re just already networking.

BK: Sound advice. What do you want audiences walking with?

CB: I just want them to think that it is so much fun. This play, anyone can enjoy it.

Rapid Fire Question Round

What music are you listening to? Tom Petty

Favourite movie? The Wizard of Oz

Favourite book? I’ve read 33 books this year and they’re all of my favourites. I just read a book called A Little Life. I read all the time. You’d have to pick a genre and we’d go from there.

What are you watching on Netflix? Mindhunters

Last Play you saw in Toronto? Lukumi by d’bi.young anitafrika at Tarragon.

Favourite Musical? Rocky Horror Picture Show

Food? Mannings or Sour Cream

Best place in Toronto? Kensington Market, Parkdale, Gladstone Hotel and The Beaver

Best advice given to you/mantra? My mantra today is don’t be a low priority to somebody. For this industry, is don’t take anything personally and don’t be jealous, it’s not worth it.

THE​ ​CHANCE

Who:
Written by​ ​George​ ​F.​ ​Walker
Directed​ ​by​ ​Wes​ ​Berger

Where:
THE​ ​ASSEMBLY​ ​THEATRE-​ ​1479​ ​Queen​ ​St.​ ​W

When:
October​ ​14-28th,​ ​Tuesday-Saturday​ ​8pm

Tickets​:
brownpapertickets.com

In Conversation with Scott Emerson Moyle, director of Dauntless City Theatre’s TWO GENTLEWOMEN OF VERONA

Interview by Brittany Kay.

We sat down with Scott Emerson Moyle, director of Dauntless City Theatre’s Two Gentlewomen of Verona, to discuss the necessity for inclusive casting in Shakespeare, adaptation, and making the Bard more accessible for audiences and actors alike. 

Brittany Kay: What first drew you to the original text of Two Gentlemen of Verona?  Why is this comedy rarely staged? 

Scott Emerson Moyle: This is the third play I’ve staged in Berczy Park, but the first since a recent renovation that installed the notorious dog fountain. A site-specific staging has to respond to its location, and there was no avoiding the aesthetic of that gigantic fountain… and Shakespeare only put one live dog onstage, so there we were. I’d guess that the text is rarely staged because it has some serious problems with internal consistency (it often reads like a sloppy early draft), but I’d personally written it off because it normalizes misogyny and rape culture with its awful handling of Silvia’s story arc.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Those normalizations obviously led to a much-needed adaptation, one that is an intersectional feminist reimagining. Talk to me about your process of adaptation and why you saw the play in this way?

SEM: Wanting to do the fun stuff in the play without the baggage was always going to require an adaptation of the text, which is often necessary when trying to argue for Shakespeare’s modern relevance. Since the original text largely treats the female characters as property without agency, I figured a good starting point was casting the two title characters as women. From there, the adaptation kind of took care of itself; the characters and relationships are mostly exactly as Shakespeare wrote them. The biggest change comes at the end, where Shakespeare’s original is unpleasant and unsatisfying for no apparent reason, and where the wrap-up feels forced and inauthentic. I’ve borrowed bits and pieces of text from a few sources to fill out the end of Proteus and Valentine’s story, and that involved a lot of digging around through plays and sonnets for the right fragments to borrow.

Another interesting aspect to the adaptation is in the character of Julian: the source’s character is a girl named Julia who disguises herself as a boy to follow her love Proteus to Milan. I cast a transgender non-binary actor in the role without a clear idea of how that gender-as-disguise narrative would play out, and that actor brought a handling of the character’s arc that feels much more deeply nuanced than the original play’s fairly simplistic proto-Viola story.

The “why” comes from a need to normalize female protagonists and complex relationships between female characters, which Shakespeare’s work rarely has space for. Countless men have had the chance to play Valentine and Proteus, and I wanted to do something new.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: That’s really incredible. In your audition call, you asked for people who felt unwelcomed or alienated by Shakespeare. Why this choice? What did this do for you in terms of casting and how has this brought success or challenges to the process? 

SEM: Everyone has the tools to speak Shakespeare – but I think we get hung up on a particular supposed “correct” approach. It can be challenging text to tackle, but there are lots of tools that can help actors navigate the technical stuff. Lots of very talented actors have so much potential in this work, but they’ve been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t belong in Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare doesn’t exist to tell their stories. If we’re going to keep asserting that Shakespeare is universal, we need to stop only letting one kind of voice be heard. We have to back Shakespeare’s purported universality up with a diversity of voices.

It’s really simple: a cast with a wide range of life experience makes for richer art. The more actors have space to reflect and represent their audience, the better.

BK: I feel like this has a lot do with who you are as a company. Who is Dauntless City Theatre? What makes you different from other Shakespeare companies in Toronto? 

SEM: Dauntless City Theatre has been in operation since 2009, formerly under the name Urban Bard (with a rebrand as Dauntless in 2014). There are certainly other site-specific/immersive companies in town (Outside the March and Convergence Theatre, for example), and other companies doing classical theatre with a focus on inclusive casting (like Shakespeare in the Ruff or Theatre Why Not’s recent Prince Hamlet), and amazing groups like Buddies in Bad Times and Maelstrom Collective making theatre that centres marginalized voices, but I think we’re the only folks trying to work at the intersection of all those ideas. I want to take these great old plays and make them approachable and fun to engage with while creating room for a diversity of voices in the work.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: You have just been accepted into Generator’s Artist Producer Training program for the coming year. Congrats! What does this mean for the future of your company? 

SEM: I’m excited to work with a class of brilliant and talented humans, and I look forward to learning how to produce riskier and more progressive theatre in sustainable ways. This, of course, means that I will bring those skills and connections I’ll develop with Generator back to Dauntless.

BK: How has it been working in Berczy Park? What makes Shakespeare performed in parks desirable as a theatre maker and also for audiences coming to watch? 

SEM: Berczy Park can be a tricky space! We’re very close to traffic, and it’s always a challenge to get the audiences to move around and get close to the action. It’s also a highly visible space, and that means the audience always grows over the course of a performance. Working in a park is a great way to find an audience of people who, for a range of reasons, might not go to a traditional theatre space.

BK: There are elements of live music in your show (I saw some very cool Facebook videos!) Can you talk about how it is used in the performance?

SEM: The music in The Two Gentlewomen of Verona is performed on boomwhackers, which are a series of hollow plastic tubes that each produce a particular pitch when struck. Each of the ten actors has two or three of them, and they get played together to create some fairly complex music. The boomwhackers also become other items in the world of the show, the outlaws’ weapons, the Duke’s staff of office, and so on, which let our composer David Kingsmill compose a rich soundtrack that integrates tightly with the play.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: There’s also a real dog on stage! How has working with this cast member added to the show? 

SEM: Starbuck, who plays Crab the Dog, is actually a fantastic scene partner – attentive, present, and willing to roll with anything. Her human, Leslie McBay, plays Crab’s owner Launce, and their existing relationship translates well in performance. She’s also very patient about wearing a tiny cowboy hat, which is pretty important.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with? 

SEM: The play talks a lot about loyalty, about honesty, and about how tough forgiveness can be; I’d love for the audience to still be thinking about how they’d handle those situations themselves. I also really value how many audiences seem to be taking at face value that Shakespeare wrote a play called The Two Gentlewomen of Verona – I hope this leaves them questioning the amount of space that male characters take up in classical theatre.

Two Gentlewomen of Verona

Who:
CAST – Uche Ama – Antonia/Thuria
Eric Benson – Lucetto / Eglamour
Tallan Byram – Outlaw Captain
Naya Guzman – Valentine
Isabel Hornstein – Speed
Jordy Kieto – Silvio
Jesselle Laurén – Proteus
Leslie McBay – Launce
Christopher Mott – Duke of Milan
Jordi O’Dael – Julian
featuring Starbuck The Dog as Crab The Dog

Scott Emerson Moyle – Director
Lucy McPhee – Stage Manager
Stevie Baker – Producer
Annelise Hawrylak – Assistant Director
David Kingsmill – Music Director
Christopher Mott – Fight Director
Stevie Baker – Costumes
Dahlia Katz – Poster Design

Where:
Berczy Park

When:
August 18, 19, 25, 26 at 7:30 PM
August 19, 20, 26, 27 at 1:00.

Tickets:
All performances are Pay-What-You-Can!

This is an immersive performance, so wear comfortable shoes! The entire show is accessible to wheelchair users.

Connect:
dauntlesscitytheatre.com

 

“Universalism vs Pluralversalism and Exploring Voice” In Conversation with Jivesh Parasram & Tom Arthur Davis on THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard are three incredibly talented theatre creators and performers. Each have their own unique and important voice, which they bring to The Only Good Indian running at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival. We sat down with Jiv and Tom to discuss the major narratives and ideas explored in this piece: identity, occupation and personal history.

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

Tom Arthur Davis: It’s hard to talk about without giving things away about it.

Jiv Parasram: Uh… fuck. Our tagline is “part lecture, part meditation, part threat.”

BK: Yes and what does that mean?

JP: Can’t tell you too much about it.

(Laughter) 

JP: It’s roughly half pre-written material that deals with issues of occupation, colonization (and decolonization, depending on your angle of it) and some pretty dense political theory, but told in a pretty interesting way. It’s specifically about the lives that we value and the lives that we don’t. The other half of it is written by the performer who’s doing it that night through a series of guided prompt questions that ask them to mine parts of their own living experience and identity. People play a version of themselves, I would say, and there is a spectrum of that depending on who is doing it, some of it is a little bit more autobiographical, some is less. If that makes sense?

BK: That makes sense. Do you want to add anything Tom?

TAD: Yeah, it’s also a pluralversal exercise, to show that many parts make the whole, specifically in regards to, I guess, what we are calling “Indianhood” and what that means. Where are we indigenous to who are the Indigenous people where we are now and how do we try to find some sort of empathy or connection.

JP: It’s kind of how you find your way into the story. A lot of it has to do with how you experience homogenous otherness, or that you witness it, or that you’ve felt it on yourself. Tribalism is part of that, where you associate with and where you don’t.

Pluralversal is not a term many people are waxin’ around with.

BK: No…

JP: It’s a bit of an antithesis to universality.

BK: Expand on that.

JP: The principal of universalism means that there is one universal truth and often that tends to just be the dominant way of thinking about that. Often it’s a Eurocentric kind of truth related to structures of power that have been there a long time. But Pluralversal thinking comes from like Zapatista philosophy […] there are multiple universes and multiple universal truths all informed by different cosmologies too, so different ways of thinking about the world. Those all come together to make up a whole truth and they don’t always have to agree, so it’s not binary.

BK: Very interesting.

JP: So that’s why we are getting different people to do it and look through it. Hopefully through that we will, maybe, find some commonalities with it. I don’t know. We’ll find out!

BK: Where did this idea first come from to create this show? What was the inspiration behind this work?

JP: Basically, I spent five years researching the politics of death… and that kind of fucked me up, like real bad. Then I started writing a couple of different pieces all dealing with it […] I wrote this piece, a piece called The Only Good Indian, which got published by Playwrights Canada Press in a ten-minute anthology. Which was different from what we are doing. That’s a two-hander play where some of the themes are still there.

It was based on an article about liquidity and identity in South Asian males in the U.K during the War on Terror, where it was saying that there are fewer options and representation for them. The twist of it was that they were identifying with these terrorists back ‘home’, talking about Pakistan and India but one is from Guyana and one is from Trinidad, so they are not actually from there but they have still internalized it. Then we got accepted to the Rhubarb Festival to expand it, which was the original idea. We were trying to figure out an interesting way to do that. There was so much going on at that time in the world.

TAD: That Turkish ambassador was assassinated in Russia and we just thought that the piece would be about a standoff between two brown guys wearing vests, one being a cop wearing a bullet proof vest and the other with a suicide vest on and he’s trying to talk him out of it. We didn’t know if it would make sense to have a South Asian body wearing a suicide vest in a naturalistic context for this Rhubarb performance after that had happened.

JP: It just seemed like it was supporting the mainstream narrative to a certain point. The central theme that I had trouble with, was saying that I can’t ever represent one voice on this. I asked Tom to do it with me and we came up with a process for writing somewhat different but related pieces. I think it was super brave of Tom to do it…

TAD: Oh shucks.

JP: …because, you know, if I’m in a piece that’s called The Only Good Indian versus if Tom is, it’s going to be differently received just off the bat.

BK: Totally. Let’s talk about the different voices in this piece. You have Donna Michelle St. Bernard also speaking the same text?

TAD: Some of it. The pre-written part yes and the other half depends on the performer and what they write based off of the given prompts. It’s quite different hearing different bodies saying the text that each of us share in the show. You will get a different reaction to what Jiv is saying than if I’m saying it, whatever that reaction might be, positive or negative, for either of us.

JP: The first line of the play is “Can I say Indian?” which is quite different when I say it, versus when Tom says it. It’s an interesting thing to have to mitigate. We had a lot of discussions about how to do that, trying to figure out how to not make an audience shut off.

BK: What kind of reactions do you want from audiences? I heard there were some people walking out at the Rhubarb performance. Is that what you want?

TAD: No, we don’t want that. We want them to listen.

JP: And a negative reaction is valid too. We understand why people might want to walk out, but I think that if people can listen, the intention is to get them to rethink some of these perceptions towards identity. The SummerWorks performances will all be followed by long table discussions, which is one of the things that we didn’t have at Rhubarb, that ability to talk to the audience. We couldn’t talk to them beyond just chatting with them after if we saw them.

TAD: Also very few people at Rhubarb saw both performances to see the differences between them and see what that means.

BK: So it’s advantageous for audiences to see all three performances at SummerWorks?

JP: Absolutely, it’s a different show each time. I think it would be cool. Even if some of the text is the same, it’s radically different depending on what has preceded it and what follows it. The meaning can change.

BK: Why is it important for audiences right now to see this show?

JP: For me, it’s for the politics of representation right now. If there was going to be a central lecture in this piece it would be discussing the division of what we are calling a “Death World/Life World” perception. There are parts of the world where it’s expected that people live and parts of the world where it is expected that they die. Our tolerance for death is different depending on where you’re at. I think part of it is the debate of appropriation right now, which I think comes from not having any connection or knowledge of your own story. People have all sorts of histories that they need to mine.

TAD: My piece is about losing that sense of identity and being white washed quite literally.

BK: What about Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s?

JP: She’s talking about Grenada. She has a very different spin on occupation. She’s really running with the material and basing it a lot off of setting up the lectures. She doesn’t go directly for something, but has this articulate, subtle way of talking around it. A big factor of hers has to do with success and choice. Accepting and loving certain labels that have been colonially put on you, but then acknowledging how fucked up those labels might be.

BK: I want to see how all three collectively intersect!

TAD: Eventually the hope would be that we could have a different performer every night, not just three. Put it out into the ether and then people could just do their own.

JP: We would like to be able to tour and just show up somewhere and be like, “We would like to employ seven of your local artists.” It’s more interesting to me that way.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

JP: I want them to engage in the conversation. Maybe rethink some of their perceptions.

TAD: It’s hard to say, because we are three different performers. What do we want them coming out with from my piece or Jiv’s or DM’s? If they see all 3 then they are getting the pluralversal idea. Some pieces might make you angry and some might make you reflect and others might make you need to talk about something. It will really differ.

BK: Do you have other SummerWorks shows you’re excited to see?

TAD: Explosions for the 21st Century.

JP: I also want to check out The Chemical Valley Project. There is the Amy project Almeida (The Glorious).

TAD: Boys in Chairs.

JP: The Smile Off Your Face, very curious about that. The Archivist.

BK: It’s a very good year! Anything else we need to know?

JP: The only thing I would say is that some of the content we do can be pretty disturbing and we’re in discussions right now about what warnings we need to put up and also to let people know that they can leave and we won’t be offended. It can be pretty heavy. It also will be different for each show, so if people want to write to me and say I need to know what I’m walking into, I’m happy to write to them and give them a heads up and let them know what they are going to see.

The Only Good Indian

Who:
Company: Pandemic Theatre
Project Design by Jivesh Parasram
Co-Created by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.

What:
Part lecture, part meditation, and part threat, The Only Good Indian takes a shockingly raw look at where our similarities begin and where they end. Each night a different performer straps themselves into an extreme situation – forcing the audience to ask – what would you die for?

Where:
Factory Theatre Studio
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 11th 8:45pm – 10:00pm
Saturday August 12th 9:00pm – 10:15pm
Sunday August 13th 3:30pm – 4:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

In Conversation with Kevin Matthew Wong, Co-Creator of THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Kevin Matthew Wong is known to have his creative hands in a lot of things. A creator/actor/director/musician/producer/artistic director/environmentalist… this man is one of the busiest working artists in the city and for good reason. The environmental work and passion he brings to the Toronto theatre community is incredibly important, urgent and inspiring. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Kevin to discuss his current piece The Chemical Valley Project on stage now at the SummerWorks Performance Festival.

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

Kevin Matthew Wong: The Chemical Valley Project is a show about the Sarnia Chemical Valley and its impact on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve, which is a community of 800 people that is surrounded by Canadian and American petrochemical factories. On the Canadian side, those factories represent 40% of all of the petrochemical industry in this country… so it’s a very small community with huge health impacts from these factories.

BK: How did this project come about?

KMW: I’ve known about the Chemical Valley for 3 or 4 years now. I’ve thought about creating theatre about it, but I didn’t know if it was right. I didn’t really have an “in”. What did I have to say about it?

I had also been thinking about documentary theatre recently and from our last show Bite-Sized, I think the strongest parts of it were the parts that were based in docu-theatre. I was lucky enough to meet with Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, who are two climate activists but also land defenders and water protectors from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. They’re incredible and they do such important work. I met them last year on my first visit to the Chemical Valley. I went to talks that they were on the panels for and did my research on them. Finally I got the courage to contact Vanessa and say, “Hey, do you want to just chat about what you do and your work?” I didn’t know it was going to be a theatre thing yet.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: It never hurts to reach out. It can create relationships and new working opportunities.

KMW: Exactly. Now we’re good acquaintances… I daresay friends! That was only just a year ago.

BK: Wow.

KMW: Yeah. it’s crazy. It’s been so fast. It’s a piece about so many things beyond just that base narrative… It’s about reconciliation of how this community gives people an in for understanding wider things about how Indigenous people and settlers interact in this country. How this story, in a settler or white community, would be totally different than what it is right now with an Indigenous community. There are tons of these stories that we aren’t able to tell in the show as it’s only 30 minutes long.

BK: It’s only 30 minutes?

KMW: Yeah! We’re in a double bill with a comedy magic show called Perfection, but for us it’s a step. We didn’t know that we were going to get into SummerWorks. We didn’t know that the piece would develop as quickly. We didn’t know that people would respond to it so strongly. People who I’ve never met have come up to me and said, “I saw your piece and I remember it and it’s making me think and want to do more.” It’s really timely.

BK: How has Vanessa and Lindsay Gray helped your piece dramaturgically?

KMW: They are a part of it. They appear through the show. You hear their words and see them. They have advised on the way that this story should be told and what’s missing. Every time we have a new version of the piece, we show them. We want to honour their words. The climate right now, artistically, is so much about voice. Of course co-creator Julia [Howman] and I are hyper-conscious of that.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: How did you first discover The Sarnia Chemical Valley?

KMW: I’m going to preface with the fact that I think a lot of our conversations on environment are very vague. They’re about degrees of warming and CO2 and methane and those are sort of abstract. A lot of the coverage we get on the environment is very American still. America pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and we’re all doomed. Per capita we have a huge impact in this country.

I stumbled upon a Vice documentary that talked about the Chemical Valley and Vanessa Gray was actually in it, but I didn’t put two and two together until we met. I also learned about the Valley following this major legal battle that Vanessa and two of her friends were involved in – she was dealing with it when I reconnected with her. I wanted to make sure people in the theatre community knew about this issue and unjust charge. That story is part of the show so I don’t want to give too much away.

BK: And what are petrochemicals for some people that aren’t as environmentally savvy?

KMW: They are compounds that are created from petrol. Chemical compounds made from petroleum.

BK: How do they affect our health?

KMW: They’re used for tons of things. In part of the show, there’s like a Ted-Talk-y/info-graph section describing and educating about different petrochemicals. For example, there are chemicals called styrene, which is used for Styrofoam and plastics. Petrochemicals are everywhere and in our everyday lives. Part of the show is about the way that we live our lives and how the way that we live creates a necessity for these products. I don’t imply that they’re essential. I think the playwriting is sort of cautious and conscious in that way. I don’t want to suggest that there’s no way to get away from them. It’s a big issue.

BK: An issue also affecting the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve?

KMW: Yes. It’s about the settlement and placement of this community in one location, when, historically, they are traditional people of the water. They’re not stationary. But with the Reserve system, Indigenous people are told to stay on the land that “we tell you that you own and furthermore the traditional lands that you take care of, we have treaties that you might not have even understood when they were signed, that form the legal basis of this country” which are also are very manipulative and sneaky.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Why is being close to these factories unsafe?

KMW: In short, it has to do with leaks. I bumped into Trevor Schwellnus, the lighting designer, the other day and I mentioned this project to him and he said, “ Oh yeah, when I was a kid one of my buddies swam in the Sarnia blob.” The Sarnia blob was this oil spill into the water that took a lot of lobbying to clean up and it was there for years. That’s just one example of a very obvious spill. Spills are also not just liquid, there are also airborne spills.

It’s very hard for these chemical factories to track these spills and very often it is the community that tracks them and warns everybody else. One of the most tragic and impactful stories that I learned about was this spill of benzene into the air. They didn’t let people know about it and kids that were playing outside were affected by the spill and one child developed leukemia and passed away. It’s frightening when it’s the job of the Chief to go house to house to say what is happening, to stay in your house and to listen to the radio for the code for what type of spill it is, what the direction is, and the wind speed. All of those things impact your day-to-day life.

BK: That’s really scary.

KMW: The Chemical Valley is the sight of chemical activity AND legal action. It’s not only about the health effects but also about inequity.

BK: Yes, you use a wonderful term in your show description: Environmental Racism.

KMW: It’s not a term that people are using right now very often. It is quite particular in this country.

BK: Your piece uses projections and miniature object puppetry. Can you talk about this a bit?

KMW: I think people are interested in this visual style. It’s something I’ve been working on for the past three years and refining until this point. I’m very lucky to have Julia Howman as my co-creator and as the person who is creating these visuals with me. All of the projections take place on only two surfaces. One is the back wall of the theatre and the other is a sheet. The sheet is completely moveable. I manipulate it in different places in the theatre and different orientations. I’m not interested in seeing something on a screen. I’m so tired of people projecting something on the cyc and it’s flat. I can go home and watch a video on Vimeo. That’s not interesting to me. There are a lot of projections that are unsatisfying. Instead, what is it about the liveness of it that you can play with? The visual style, I hope, is augmenting that liveness and also giving you projections in a way that you don’t usually see them and also giving them to you in a way that they’re interacting with physical objects.

A projector is a light. We love staring at campfires. We love moving light. Moving light is this primal thing. Moving light and movement is a way for us to incorporate elemental things and even though you’re in this black box theatre space, we want you to have a little hint of the magic of nature.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

The miniature objects are different important objects that we interacted with on our way to creating the piece. Those are about scale. I’m always interested in seeing things in two scales at once, if possible, because to put claim to being environmentally conscious is about seeing things in a different scale.

BK: Oh, that was a beautiful line you just said.

KMW: It’s not just that these objects are cool, but it’s about us begging you to see things and re-examine them differently.

BK: How did you get into environmental theatre?

KMW: It depends how far you want to go back… like [back when I saw] Pocahontas?

(Laughter)

BK: What made you want to create and learn more and develop a whole theatre company based on environmentalism?

KMW: I think it started in high school. I ran both the environmental club and the theatre club. Very nerdy. But they never crossed paths. One very formative part of running the environmental club was going to town hall meetings and hearing about this thing called the Food Belt in Markham. That was about trying to protect land north of a certain street and make sure that further housing development didn’t happen because the best farmland in Canada is found half an hour away from Toronto. It was hearing the two sides of the coin at these meetings that made me realize that any piece of art that relates to the environment can’t be this one-sided thing.

In my second year at UofT, I had a conversation with a peer of mine, Nathaniel Rose, about making art that was based on environmental issues. We were in acting class and we loved the training that we were doing, but the Canadian classic plays where our scenes were from didn’t relate to the issues we found most urgent, which were environmental issues in this country. From that, we created our first piece, which was called The Broadleaf Plays. We’ve always had shitty titles (he laughs). They’re very blatant.

That became a project called Bite-Sized, which we presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year. The concept of that was how do we connect with younger, millennial audiences in presenting short bits of engaging stuff, which became 18 plays in 60 minutes with all things that related to Canadian environmental issues.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: What and who is Broadleaf Theatre?

KMW: Broadleaf Theatre creates works based on local, national and global environmental issues. Broadleaf Theatre is whoever’s interacting with the company and whoever has interacted with our company and really all of the people who come to see the work. One thing about the environmental movement is that it’s very disparate. It happens in little chunks of leadership and community. You know… grassroots. When everyone is doing their own thing, that’s the movement. It’s not some top-heavy thing. What Broadleaf Theatre is, and who it is, is changing a lot. Of course I would definitely shout out Mirka Loiselle who is our associate producer and Angela Sun and who does the social networking for the company.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

KMW: Conversation… Conversation. I would love for them to join us at the Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering.

BK: Tell me more!?

KMW: It’s a beautiful event. It’s a weekend in Aamjiwnaang. There are classes on Anishinaabe culture and beliefs and the sacredness of water. It happens on August 18th-20th. It’s all free and accessible…they even provide free childcare. You can camp if you want to. It’s also where the Toxic Tour happens, where you go on a school bus with Vanessa or Lindsay and they will tell you about all the factories and history of the land.

BK: Damn.

KMW: It’s a wonderful event that I can’t stress enough. I think one of the big things about this show is that it’s always related to a real ask in the world. It doesn’t finish. One of the parts of the show that I’m still writing is this sort of meta thing… it’s not finished because it’s not. We want to have a longer version and more of the threads to go further, but it’s also not finished until you do something and even when you do something it’s still not really finished. That line is so blurry. Now that you know about this thing, the show is you, isn’t it? The show is whatever you make of it, whatever you do with it. Hopefully people engage with us, support Vanessa and Lindsay and learn about the traditional keepers of this land and the protocols of the land.

BK: Any shows you are looking forward to see at SummerWorks?

KMW: What Linda Said, The Only Good Indian, Divine, Perfection…you know there are so many good things to see this year.

Rapid Fire Question Round: 

Favourite food: Sushi

Favourite movie: Whatever documentary I’m thinking about in the moment.

Favourite play: Cock by Mark Bartlett.

Favourite book: The Giving Tree.

Favourite place in Toronto: The waterfront.

Inspiration when creating: Visual Art and just seeing as many plays as I can.

Best advice or mantra: Just do it. Just do the work.

The Chemical Valley Project

ChemicalValleyProjectJULIAHOWMAN1

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Who:
Company: Broadleaf Theatre
Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Dramaturgy by Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Gray
Produced by Kevin Matthew Wong
Associate Produced by Mirka Loiselle
Music by Minha Lee and Michael Henley.

What:
Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin and Julia document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial past and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.

Chemical Valley Project is part of a double bill with Perfection.

Where:
Pia Bouman – Scotiabank Studio Theatre
6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 11th 6:00pm – 7:15pm
Saturday August 12th 1:45pm – 3:00pm
Sunday August 13th 6:30pm – 7:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

 

Mixing Burlesque and Greek Theatre in LYSISTRATA at the 2017 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Brittany Kay

“The Fringe is a perfect platform because it is the rock and roll of theatre festivals: anything goes, so the audiences are open and up for surprises.” – Sebastian Marziali

Burlesque and a Greek classic. Both very different genres, both incredibly alike in intention. One wouldn’t normally find this mash-up in the Toronto theatre scene, but this is Fringe, right? After a sold-out opening performance, Kay Brattan’s take on Lysistrata has found the perfect place for its debut.

In this preview, we chat with writer/director/co-producer Kay Brattan, Las Vegas Burlesque Hall of Fame performer St. Stella, and performer Sebastian Marziali/El Toro about their burlesque adaptation of Lysistrata.

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

Kay Brattan: Historically, Lysistrata is a story about the women of Greece uniting together in a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war. Our Lysistrata turns the strike into a “strike-tease”, adding slam poetry, songs and strip-tease to heighten the tension of this Greek Comedy. This production is a site-specific piece of immersive theatre that is set in The Painted Lady, a bar in Toronto that is known as a burlesque venue. We’ve chosen to completely annihilate the 4th wall in this show, and present this story to its audience as a burlesque revue. We know you’re there: we want you to know that. Because everything in this play is for you. In the revue style we’re able to explore all the different types of acts that make up the wonderful world of burlesque, from the Can-Can, to Vaudevillian numbers, and the new wave of Neo-Burlesque.

BK: Where did the idea come from to mix Burlesque and Greek theatre?

KB: I studied Lysistrata in university and have always loved this play. It’s funny, playful, and can be contextualized in a way that makes it a strong piece of feminist theatre. Finding a way to marry it to burlesque was actually quite easy because by the end of the play everyone is practically naked. The characters start off in a world that’s a little more conservative and very quickly everything gets turned upside-down. As the clothes fly off, we see their everyday restrictions disappear and it’s incredibly liberating to see. For myself, this is a feeling I’ve always experienced when I watch a burlesque show. Living in a world that constantly makes women feel that our worth is judged by our waistline is daunting, so to be able to have a space that celebrates body positivity and empowers everyone to own their sexuality is exactly what I wanted to explore in this show.

Burlesque is such a big, bold, cheeky, and extravagant form of performance art, so it made sense that the women of the play use it as their tactic to aid them in this sex strike. It’s all about the tease, and not only do they use this to their advantage, they use it as self liberation. Instead of matching violence with violence, they use their femininity and cleverness to fight and win this battle.

Photo of St. Stella by Sly Maria

BK: What do you think will be really successful about this mash-up?

Sebastian Marziali: Plain and simple, burlesque finds its roots in ancient works of comedic satire such as Lysistrata. The strip-teasing style we know today was built on the foundation of making a mockery of those in power, specifically with women lampooning men and turning the tables on the power dynamic of storytelling. Early on in my burlesque career, I came across the idea that “if you get them laughing, you can shove anything down their throats,” and I feel that this show does a beautiful job of just that. It’s fuelled by raunchy, bawdy comedy and dance but upon a foundation of real honest reflection around man’s obsession with war and profit. The other beautiful part about it is the distance that we have from the ancient Greek pieces, which allows more room to play, experiment, and adapt. There is less preciousness than there is with more modern Western classics so we’ve really been able to integrate the eclectic nature of modern burlesque and cabaret, inserting music and dance styles from all across the spectrum but grounded within the structure of the story. It’s a marriage of form that you don’t need the Fates to have seen coming.

BK: The Fringe is all about daring to see something different. This piece is going to be different and definitely stand out. What would you say to Fringers that would entice them to see this show?

St. Stella: I think we are doing a very ambitious show this year. For first time producers, we took on everything and the kitchen sink! I think people will want to see this show for the extravaganza of it all; singing, dancing, striptease, feminism, political relevance, (near) nudity and site-immersion – there are a ton of themes in there for almost everyone to say “Heck yeah! I wanna see that!” I also think people are always interested to see fresh twists on the classics, particularly a text that has been given new relevance in the current political climate.

In photo (l-r): Amanda Mattar, Brittany Cope, St. Stella, Amanda McKnight, Jennah Foster-Catlack. Photo taken by David Kingsmill

BK: The Burlesque community is very real and current in the Toronto arts scene, but some people haven’t tapped into it yet. Why is that? What makes the Burlesque world different and exciting?

SS: A lot of people don’t realize that Toronto really is a leading city in the world, particularly in experimental or what we call ‘neo’ burlesque. But even with that, many people still haven’t seen a show or even heard about our community. I think there are still a ton of misconceptions about what burlesque is, which is fair because burlesque has a ton of permutations. But, the thing I love most about burlesque is that feeling that we so rarely get any more from entertainment – the raw humanity of it. It’s intimate and glamorous, a fantasy, but not fake, it can be simultaneously subversive, sexy and silly. Burlesque is a tease: it keeps people wanting more. And the coolest thing is that the ‘more’ can often be what the audience makes of it themselves; being inspired to buy a sparkly flower for their hair, or some fancy lingerie or dance in front of the mirror… Burlesque invites the audience to take the feeling of the show home with them. I’m really excited that this show might open the door to a whole new audience of burlesque fans.

BK: Why is the Fringe a perfect platform for this experience?

SM: The Fringe is a perfect platform because it is the rock and roll of theatre festivals: anything goes, so the audiences are open and up for surprises. People are at Fringe to have a good time but also to challenge their preferences and expand their scope. What better way than to be immersed in a blend of modern burlesque and Greek comedy which exists and has existed to speak directly to the masses in a way that is entertaining but also sparks curiosity and questioning of our sociopolitical structures. Also, at the end of the day, this show is first and foremost a celebration, a raucous experience that puts the action right in your lap. In the end, isn’t that what Fringe is all about? Getting crotch-deep in art!

SS: I think Fringe has this big beautiful feeling of ‘let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’. For a lot of people, it’s the only theatre they see in the year because it’s so accessible, it’s not elite. That aesthetic fits perfectly with the pathos of burlesque (and Lysistrata!) – it’s by the people, for the people. I also think that the way we have put together this adaptation has a lot to do with the Fringe itself as well – it’s a Pastiche. We rap, we sing, we take our clothes off, we dance, we climb on bar-tops – it’s no holds barred theatre, just like the festival itself!

In photo (l-r): Amanda Mattar, Brittany Cope, St. Stella, Amanda McKnight, Jennah Foster-Catlack. Photo taken by David Kingsmill

BK: You have Burlesque artists but also actors in your show. Why this choice artistically and how does this aid in the performance and storytelling of the piece?

KB: It honestly just worked out that way through the audition process, and I’m so glad it did. Having a mix of both disciplines of performers helped the show in the same way combining the two performance styles did. The burlesque performers were able to share their craft with the actors, and the actors did the same for them. The best part of this experience was just watching how much fun everyone was having. It’s a different way to approach a play, and I think that because we attracted a group of artists that were willing to explore this new side of themselves, and do they ever shine in it! Everyone’s willingness and eagerness to explore this work has been more than a delight to bear witness to and I think it’s something our audience will really enjoy to see as well.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

SM: We want audiences staggering away! Bent over in laughter and arousal with hardly a voice left (hooting and hollering is strongly encouraged). We want people leaving having had an experience desperate to come back and try the ride again from a different angle. We really take advantage of our venue using it in its entirety, which means keeping our audience right in the thick of it all (pun intended). I feel that we also want people going away with a new-found appreciation for both burlesque and theatre as platforms to bring us together in our ever more splintered lives. It’s been my mission, since being sucked into the magical world that is burlesque, to bring “traditional theatre” more into that world. After all that’s what theatre was and is meant to be, a mosh pit where we tear down the world outside and experience something wondrous together.

BK: What other shows are you looking forward to seeing in the Fringe?

SM: If you are even remotely intrigued by our show you are going to absolutely love Shirley Gnome’s Taking it up the Notch a comedian singer with the voice of an angel and the mind of a filthy sailor. So yes, I am excited about her. Also I am dying to see Mind of a Snail’s new show Multiple Organisms. Their work is so enchanting and knowing that they’re marrying that with sexuality and the human form just gets me all tingley.

BK: What are the most exciting parts about the festival?

SM: I think the most exciting part about the festival is the open and engaging interactions. Seeing giant groups of people excited to be in the same room together and take a collective dive into the unknown. Putting aside the phone and Netflix for a couple of weeks and enjoying shared experience. There’s something so necessary about this beautiful space that is created where everyone is just really excited about art and conversation.

LYSISTRATA

Who:
Company – how.dare.collective.
Playwright/Creator – Aristophanes
Starring: St. Stella, with Brittany Cope, Jennah Foster-Catlack, Sebastian Marziali, Amanda Mattar, Amanda McKnight, Timothy Ng, Jordan Shore
Directed and Adapted by Kay Brattan Choreographed by St. Stella
Costume and Props by Stevie Baker Musical Composition by David Kingsmill

What:
Lysistrata leads a rebellious group of women in a sex strike, hoping to end the war that is tearing their country apart. In this modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic comedy, how.dare.collective. puts a burlesque spin on this tale of resistance and desire.

Where:
The Painted Lady
218 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, M6J 2Z9

When:
July 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th – 7:00pm
July 8th, 9th, 15th, 16th – 2:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

Connect:
t: @Lysistrata_TO
f: /LysistrataTO
i: @lysistratato