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Posts tagged ‘Brittany Kay’

“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

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 www.bringbackmptonetflix.com 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

Who:
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.

What:
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

When:
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:
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 fringetoronto.com for more information on tickets and festival passes.

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

 

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

Interview by Brittany Kay

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

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

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

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

BK: Why the title, Lip Sync Sleepover?

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

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

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

BK: What is your process when creating these shows?

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

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

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

BK: Excitements?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

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

Rapid Fire Questions

Favourite Food? Greasy Breakfast.

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

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

Favourite musical? The Phantom of the Opera. Once.

Favourite play? The Encounter by Simon McBurney

Favourite book? I like Miriam Toews.

Favourite movie? Lots.

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

Lip Sync Sleepover

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

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

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

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

Tickets:
$20 crowstheatre.com

Connect:
t: @vsmythe