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“Performing MOUTHPIECE is a bit like running a marathon & singing an opera simultaneously.” In Conversation with Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken of MOUTHPIECE

Interview by Hallie Seline

I had the pleasure of chatting with the fierce artists of Quote Unquote Collective, Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken, the creators and performers of MOUTHPIECE. We spoke about the necessity of precision, time and digging deeper in their creation process, the importance of touring and continuing the conversation nation-wide, and finally… #traininglikebeyoncé.

MOUTHPIECE is on stage now to November 6th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, presented by Nightwood Theatre as a double bill with Anna Chatterton’s QUIVER (Keep posted for our interview with Anna).

Hallie: I was floored when I first saw MOUTHPIECE, so I’m thrilled Toronto audiences are getting another chance to see this! Can you speak about what sparked the creation of the show?

Norah Sadava: The spark that ignited Mouthpiece happened midway through making an entirely different play. Amy and I had begun working together on a piece about female relationships, but we couldn’t quite get at the heart of it without looking deeply at ourselves, and once we did that some major lightbulbs turned on for us. Once we started to dig inward we suddenly recognized our own hypocrisy, our own contributions to the oppressive heteronormative-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, our own confusion and inner conflict regarding where and how our generation fit into the ‘women’s movement’, and how we personally could rail against the stereotypes that have been fed to us through every portrayal of women we’ve seen since the moment we were born. So we decided that we had to make a show about that instead. 

Photo by Brooke Wedlock

Photo by Brooke Wedlock

Hallie: How did you develop the piece into what it is today? 

Amy Nostbakken: Mouthpiece was developed over a period of three years. That may seem like a long time but it is a drawn-out creative process that allowed us to insist on every moment being charged with multiple layers of meaning. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every breath and swallow and shrug in this show has been thought about and has a purpose.

Hallie: I’d believe it! You two are so precise in the show. It’s incredible to watch a piece with that much detail, intention and precision. It packs a punch!

Amy: When we decided to tell this utterly personal and extremely necessary story of what it is like to be inside one woman’s head, thus tackling the theme of what it is like to be a woman today, we did not take it on lightly. And it’s complex, you know? It’s subtle and non-linear and messy and also terrifying. So a lot of time was spent going over a piece of text or movement or music and asking – “Is this honest? No, but really? Have I censored this, or molded it to fit into my pre-existing ideas of what is ‘good’ which have inherently been crafted by some dead, white man?” For us it was just too damn important a subject to rush into production.

So to answer this question technically: we developed this piece through years of research, years of digging deep and then deeper, then needling right into our very cores, years of examining our own hypocrisy and privilege, years of stripping away, and countless hours of repetition in front of a mirror.

Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. Photo by Joel Clifton.

Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. Photo by Joel Clifton.

HS: I see you’ve been touring the show across Canada. Can you speak a bit about your experience bringing this show on the road and how it has affected you as performers and creators, and this piece? 

Norah: Taking Mouthpiece on the road has revealed to us that this conversation must be national. We can’t solely exist in our own little liberal-west-Toronto-artist bubble and preach to the choir forever. It is important to us to have our work challenged by other perspectives, other communities, other geographies, and hear responses from people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Feminism has to be intersectional or it’s not really progress at all. Of course we acknowledge that a theatre audience is already inherently biased based on the fact that they are at the theatre (have the money, time and interest to expose themselves to experimental art) no matter what town we are in. But having played this piece across the country, we can say that there are some truths that are a national (and international) matter. We’ve also learned that a bathtub can travel, and how to get the most possible free snacks on airplanes. 

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Joel Clifton.

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Joel Clifton.

Hallie: I’ve been seeing these incredible “training” videos of you both getting yourself ready to perform the show. It’s a huge feat watching you both do this show. Can you speak about doing this training, why you’ve found it’s important and where the idea for this came about? 

Norah: Performing Mouthpiece is a bit like running a marathon and singing an opera simultaneously. When we haven’t done the show for a while it takes a lot of juice to get back into shape; this show requires a great deal of breath control and cardiovascular fitness to carry out movement and vocals simultaneously for an hour straight. So in preparation for this run at Buddies we were trying to think of the very best regimen possible. Then we remembered something that Beyoncé said…

“My father, who was also my manager, made me run a mile while singing so I would be able to perform on stage without becoming exhausted.”

Apparently he would make Destiny’s Child wake up early every morning and jog around a track while singing their whole set. So we bought a cheap treadmill and upright bike off kijiji and started doing the whole show while switching back and forth between running and biking in the front room of my house (without our fathers forcing us into it, luckily).  Sometimes we sing 90’s hits instead of the show, and in honour of the source of inspiration, Destiny’s Child is on high rotation. It seems to work. We still get tired, but because of Queen B we never lose our breath completely.  

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Joel Clifton.

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Joel Clifton.

Hallie: If you could have your audience listen to one song or playlist before coming to see the show, what would it be/consist of?

Amy: The idea behind the music in the show is that you are taken on a journey through an abridged history of the female voice in popular music (so inherently, the female voice filtered through a male lens…). The compositions are inspired by southern hymns, opera arias, Bulgarian choirs, the Andrew Sisters, Billie Holiday, Tina, Janis, Joni, Beyoncé…

So I would pick any female artist that you love and while you’re listening to her sing, appreciate all the hoops she’s had to jump through for you to be able to hear her. Or you could just go for Billie Holiday or Nina Simone, can’t lose.

Norah: I’d also add Millie Jackson – Go out and Get Some. She always puts me in the mood for action. 

Hallie: Describe the show in 5-10 words.

Amy: Woman wakes to find: mom dead, voice lost, womankind still under thumb of patriarchy.
(That was 14 words, but I generally try to take an extra 28% whenever I can to make up for the 28% less I make as a Canadian woman compared to my fellow Canadian men.) 

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Quick Answer Round:

Favourite line or moment in MOUTHPIECE:
Amy/Norah: The opening harmony in the dark.

Favourite place in the city:
Norah: Tie between Sunnyside beach and my kitchen table with a record playing.
Amy: Tie between Kensington Market and my bed.

What you’re currently listening to on repeat:
Norah: The new Leonard Cohen and the new Angel Olsen.
Amy: Solange

Where do you look for inspiration:
Norah/Amy: Lake Ontario, poetry

Best advice you’ve ever gotten:
Amy: It’s a tie between: “Only make good work” and from my grandmother: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”
Norah: “Use it or lose it.”

Any advice for young emerging artists:
Amy: Only make good work and don’t hide your light under a bushel.
Norah: Only make work that you feel is absolutely necessary. Have a reason, something that you are burning to say, and the rest is just logistics and hard labour.

 

MOUTHPIECE

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Brooke Wedlock.

Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. Photo by Brooke Wedlock.

Who:
Created and performed by Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken
Directed and Composed by Amy Nostbakken
A Nightwood Theatre presentation of a Quote Unquote Collective production
Presented as a double bill with Quiver

What:
WINNER, Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble
WINNER, Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Sound Design/Composition

A harrowing, humorous and heart-wrenching journey into the female psyche. In the wake of her mother’s death, Mouthpiece follows one woman, for one day, as she tries to find her voice. Interweaving a cappella harmonies, dissonance, text and physicality, two performers express the inner conflict that exists within a modern woman’s head: the push and the pull, the past and the present, the progress and the regression.

Where:
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
12 Alexander Street, Toronto ON, M4Y 1B4

When:
October 21 – November 6, 2016

Tickets:
tickets.buddiesinbadtimes.com

Connect:
w: quoteunquotecollective.com
t: @QUCollective
fb: QUCollective
ig: @qucollective
hashtag: #MOUTHPIECE

 

THIS IS THE AUGUST: When Different Waves of Feminism Collide & the Social Politics of YouTube – In Conversation with Playwright Hillary Rexe

by Bailey Green

Subjectivity is a powerful fucking place. What happens when the specimen that you have under the magnifying glass speaks back? We are children of the universe, no less than the sun or stars. Its about time you started acting like it. – Kim Katrin Milan, from her speech at SlutWalk (Toronto, 2012)

Before the dialogue for This is the August begins, this powerful quote on the second page of the script sets the tone. Playwright Hillary Rexe was moved to tears when she found Kim Katrin Milan’s speech while browsing through YouTube. “I found it while I was in my last draft, and it spoke to me. I wanted to inform the piece based on discourses of intersectionality and empathy,” says Rexe.

This is the August tells the story of three people. There’s Edie – a queer, sex-positive, millennial film student focused on building her YouTube brand. Bea – a baby boomer, out lesbian and a once successful documentary filmmaker who begins the play as Edie’s professor and lover. And Sam – Bea’s kid, a gender-neutral artist who paints galaxies and values their privacy.

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The play grew out of conversations Rexe had with friends about second and third wave feminism and where they diverge. “[I was interested in] the places they collide or connect. For example, gender and gender identity do collide,” Rexe says. “Bea is a second wave feminist documentary filmmaker, who in her time was really revolutionary but she can’t wrap her head around this person who she thinks she knows, her 23-year-old kid.” The second divergence Rexe addresses in the piece is around sexuality. One of the ways this is explored is with Edie’s YouTube channel content, which often concerns her personal and sexual history. Bea cannot understand why Edie would want to make an object of herself. But Edie sees her work as sex-positive.

“I have so much empathy for Bea, because the good work of [second wave] feminism isn’t done, but the way she hears the characters in this play is ‘your ideas are dated, we’ve all moved on from this’,” Rexe says. “All three are volleying to each other and they just fail, but ultimately all three want to be understood and they have commonality.”

Rexe has an extensive background in editing prose, poetry, novels and has often focused on facilitating other people’s creative work. This is the August is her first play, and Rexe didn’t want to draw any hard and fast conclusions about the political topics that the characters battle with. “There aren’t easy answers,” Rexe says. “This is the first piece that, beyond my ego and shyness, I actually want to finish this and put it out into the world.”

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Rexe’s piece explores the social politics of YouTube and how people present a version of themselves on YouTube versus how they interact in their public life. The production features Edie in real life and real-time recording her videos and then in the transitions, the audiences sees her edited videos. “YouTube dramatizes the need to please and be liked and wanted. You’ve been given this elevated place in the world, why did I get this and what did I do to keep this?” Rexe says.

Casting the show was an amazing experience for Rexe. She had set out to find a gender fluid, queer, or neutral person to play Sam who was also sexy, could sing/play music, who was local and who wasn’t white. “People laughed in my face,” Rexe says, “but I didn’t feel comfortable just casting any actor. So we posted on Jobs for Queers, and Heath V Salazar, and the magical unicorns that they are appeared.” Lauren Beatty, who identifies as queer and femme, is also a YouTuber. “I felt really lucky to find queer performers to play queer parts. Lauren is often cast as straight, and she’s said that it means a lot to her to represent her community,” Rexe says of Beatty who plays the character of Edie. Kimberly Huffman is “fantastic” as Bea and rounds out the cast.

“[Megan Piercey Monafu] is such a gift,” Rexe says of her director. “There has never been a time that someone has asked a question about set, aesthetic, anything, and Megan didn’t have the exact words in my mouth.”

For Rexe, this piece is the beginning of new ideas and projects. She praises her team, “the greatest joy in turn has been working and collaborating with such beautiful people who are so dedicated and invested to my script.” This is the August is just the beginning.

This is the August

august postcard

Who:
Company – Young Prince Collective
Directed by Megan Piercey Monafu; Written by Hillary Rexe; Performed by Lauren Beatty, Kimberley Huffman, and Heath V. Salazar; Set Design by Allie Marshall; Original Artwork by Andrew Classen; Sound Design by Dave Clark; Stage Managed by Maricris Rivera; Produced by Curtis te Brinke, Rashida Shaw, Hillary Rexe, and Dana Herlihey.

What:
Live music, painting, and YouTube videos engage and provoke in this darkly funny performance about the intersection of our real and online selves, especially when one goes viral.

Edie is a YouTube star who has just gone viral. Bea, her girlfriend and professor, is a documentary filmmaker who focuses her lens on marginalized women. She wants Edie to stop vlogging about her sex life and focus on more “important” work. Together they passionately negotiate their identities with, and without, each other: Millennial and Boomer, student and professor, lover and adversary. These conflicts of identity come to a head when Edie meets Sam – a multimedia artist who defies definition.

Curator’s Note
“Vlogs or docs? Second or third wave? Empowerment or power? Either/Or? Both/And? Throw love in there and what have you got? Something like a Venn diagram of sexuality, gender, and feminism today. But This is the August is no simple diagram; it’s a smart, funny play, rich with the complexities of contemporary life in the west.” – Guillermo Verdecchia

Where:
The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street West
Toronto

When:
Saturday August 6th 12:00 PM – 1:15 PM
Sunday August 7th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Tuesday August 9th 9:15 PM – 10:30 PM
Thursday August 11th 6:45 PM – 8:00 PM
Saturday August 13th 5:30 PM – 6:45 PM
Sunday August 14th 12:00 PM – 1:15 PM

More Show Info:
summerworks.ca

Tickets:
summerworks.ca/this-is-the-august/

Connect: 
twitter – @youngprinceTO
facebook – YoungPrinceCollective