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

Interview by Hallie Seline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: I concur.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

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

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

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

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

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

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert

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

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

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

Where:
ST. GEORGE THE MARTYR
197 John Street
Toronto
Ontario

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

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

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“From Glam Rocker, to MMA, to TV Personality, to the 2018 Toronto Fringe with ENJOY THE HOSTILITIES” 5 Questions with Robin Black

Interview by Hallie Seline.

We were excited to get the opportunity to chat with Robin Black, who has had quite the journey going from glam rocker, to mixed martial artist, to television personality, and who now adds Toronto Fringe storyteller to his list of titles. We discussed his greatest challenges both mentally and physically, his personal philosophy that kept him moving forward, and why he decided to share his story with the Toronto Fringe this summer in Enjoy the Hostilities.

HS: What an incredible journey you have already had at this point in your life! Is there a singular philosophy that you carried with you to each of your very different ventures?

Robin Black: I have a goal of getting better at something every day. I think I started thinking this way as a Martial Artist at a young age, and I apply that thinking to everything. I can get a little better at my job, a little better at editing my art, a little better at being a good husband, a little better at yoga.

This ‘growth mindset’, the idea that wherever I apply effort I will grow, has been a part of the way I’ve approached every venture in my life. It’s also a theme in our show Enjoy the Hostilities.

HS: What was harder on your body and mind: being a rock star or being a fighter?

RB: Traveling and playing rock music in a C-List Glam Rock band was definitely more damaging to my body, my relationships and my physical and mental health.

Fighting is very, very tough mentally and physically but it is rooted in healthy things; training your body and mind, getting better every day, overcoming obstacles, striving to achieve goals.

Rock and roll can be viewed, performed and expressed this way too but we had a more grungy, drug-and-alcohol-fueled interpretation of being rock performers.

Both are tough. Both damaged my body. Both were mentally stressful and challenging. Both probably took years off of my life.

HS: What experience has offered your greatest challenge and if you were faced with it again, would you deal with it in the same way?

RB: Failure is hard, and I fail a lot.

When you fail in a fight you’re so naked and alone, both metaphorically and literally. It is a very pure form of failure. It’s incredibly painful.

I would not change a thing, these setbacks are what creates your strength and resilience and ability to be stronger in your future.

What you end up wishing you could change is the PREPARATION before the failure, but you cannot, the time has passed.

So the lesson you end up learning from failure has to be lessons about preparation so that, next time, you will increase your chance of success.

HS: If you could now try any other profession at this moment, without limitation, what would it be and why?

RB: I spend my days studying Martial Arts and sharing what I find with an audience. Sometimes I tell stories. I commentate combat for people watching on television. I love what I do. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But if something pops up that I’d rather be doing? I’ll pursue it immediately and deploy all of the passion and persistence necessary to make it happen. That’s what I always do and I’m sure I will do it again.

HS: What made you want to turn your life’s journey into a Fringe show at this time in your life?

RB: I’m not rich, I’m not famous, but I have honestly lived a life of passion and adventure.

In the process, I’ve learned some pretty cool things that I really wanted to share with people.

I also really wanted to work on something with Graham [Isador, co-creator & director] and this was so fun to build and it’s been so fun to express.

It just all came together so beautifully and I’m just so stoked for people to see it at the Fringe.

Enjoy the Hostilities

Who:
Company: Pressgang Theatre
Playwright/Creator: Robin Black and Graham Isador
Performed by Robin Black
Directed by Graham Isador

What:
Have you ever woken up in the middle of a cage fight? Have you ever overdosed backstage in a concert hall? Have you ever tried to out-drink a two time world Sumo champion? Robin Black has. It’s kind of been his job. In Enjoy The Hostilities, Robin Black (TSN, MUCHMUSIC) uses humour, storytelling, and punch drunk philosophy to share his journey from glam rocker, to mixed martial artist, to television personality. Co-written by Graham Isador (VICE, Soulpepper Playwright Unit), the show offers audiences advice on how to make the most out of almost making it.

Where:
The Bovine
542 Queen Street West
Toronto
Ontario
M5V 2B5

When:
4th July – 6:00pm
5th July – 6:00pm
8th July – 6:00pm
9th July – 6:00pm
10th July – 6:00pm
11th July – 6:00pm
12th July – 6:00pm
15th July – 6:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

Connect:
t: @robinblackmma
ig: @robinblackmma

Artist Profile: Bilal Baig, Playwright

Interview by Hallie Seline.

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

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

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

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

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Tanja Tiziana

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

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

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

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

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

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

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

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

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

HS: What inspires you?

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

Bilal Baig. Photo Credit: Graham Isador

Rapid Fire Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

Acha Bacha

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

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

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto

When:
February 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
artsboxoffice.ca

Connect:
@beyondwallsTPM
@buddiesTO
#AchaBachaTO

“Mixing Sketch Comedy, Disney and Broadway, THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SHADOW Will Take You Down the Rabbit Hole, With a Little Help from These Hilarious Friends” In Conversation with Creator/Performer Christian Smith

Interview by Hallie Seline

After hearing the buzz about its first short run last spring, it was a pleasure to chat with creator/performer Christian Smith about the return of The Adventures of Tom Shadow, this time at the Factory Studio Theatre. We spoke about where the idea for the show came from, how this impressive group of performers came together to create it and then we delved deep into some childhood nostalgia… as you do.

Don’t miss your chance to catch The Adventures of Tom Shadow, on stage from October 11th to 22nd.

HS: Tell me a little bit about the show The Adventures of Tom Shadow.

CS: Think Disney for Adults. We’re combining the traditions of a sketch comedy show under the guise of a musical. It’s funny, but we’ve added a hefty dose of heart.

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

CS: One of our cast mates, Mark [Little], used to be in a sketch troupe and he had come up with a premise a while back called Tom Shadow. I won’t spoil what that sketch was about (that would spoil our show too!) but when we were meeting to discuss the show we wanted to create, that idea sort of stuck. It has evolved a lot from the original premise but, at its core, we take you down a rabbit hole in The Adventures of Tom Shadow the same way Mark originally intended with his premise. You’ll see what I mean.

HS: Can you speak to me a bit about how it was created?

CS: All five cast members (Kevin Vidal, Natalie Metcalfe, Lisa Gilroy, Mark Little & Myself) all started coming up with a story. We then broke the show down into beats, went away and wrote our own separate scenes and brought it to the group so we can then re-work the scenes as a group. Once we knew where we wanted the story to go, there was a lot of improvising through muddy parts of the script on its feet, then subsequent re-writes. It was a ton of work. Luckily all of us are improvisers and writers so we just had to find a way to meld our individual styles to suit the creation of the show.

HS: Amazing! And it’s also a musical?! Tell me a bit about the music in the show.

CS: Lisa, Natalie and Mark are exceptional song writers. We just started writing music that was both funny to us and told the story. We took a lot of inspiration from Disney and Broadway musicals, breaking down why they were so successful. We brought on a musical director (originally Nicola Dempsey, now Jordan Armstrong) and they’ve created the original music. Both M.Ds are the absolute best and crucial to the success of the show.

HS: Talk to me about the people involved: How did you come together? Have you worked together before? What has it been like working with this group?

CS: We all wanted to work with each other so we just met for coffee and decided we were going to put up a show! What came out of it was a surprise to us!

All of us have worked together in some capacity except for our director Peter Stevens. Peter is a writer/performer in the sketch comedy troupe Elephant Empire and his work is soooo very good. We all agreed he’d be the director to steer this ship and we couldn’t be happier. The cast members have all worked together before in many capacities. Natalie, Lisa, Kevin and myself have worked with Second City, as well as our M.D. Jordan Armstrong and our Lighting Designer, Meg Maguire.

We knew our Stage Manager/Sound Engineer through the Toronto comedy scene, Bad Dog Theatre Company and his group Sex T-Rex. This industry feels small sometimes, where everyone can seem to get a chance to work together. This group of people also so happen to be some of my best friends.

HS: If you could be any character from a children’s story, who would it be and why?

CS: Great question. What constitutes children’s story? I love Simba from The Lion King because he’s mischievous and can SING SO WELL! If we’re thinking younger… Sam from Green Eggs & Ham.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite movie growing up: Independence Day

Favourite childhood snack: Dill Pickle Chips

If you could choose one song that represents your childhood or yourself as a kid, what would it be? Ugh. Tough. Simpsons Theme Song? A lotta theme songs. Doug. Rugrats! For sure theme songs.

What advice would you give yourself as a kid before, as you mention for Tom Shadow, “real life comes flooding in”? Read more.

If you could have an adventure anywhere (real or made up), where would it be and what would you do? Oh man. Tokyo or the deep woods. I want to have an extended adventure (live in Japan) or try to fend for myself in the woods. That last adventure is a pipe dream. I’ll have to get better at… many things.

Describe the show in 5-10 words: We’ll make you laugh a lot and maybe cry maybe

The Adventures of Tom Shadow

Who:
Presented by Theatre Lab
Written and Performed by Lisa Gilroy, Mark Little, Natalie Metcalfe, Christian Smith, and Kevin Vidal
Directed by Peter Stevens
Music Direction by Jordan Armstrong
Sound Design / Stage Management by Seann Murray
Lighting Design by Meg Maguire

What:
Written and performed by Toronto’s top comedians, The Adventures of Tom Shadow is a hysterically-funny yet heart-wrenching comedic musical that follows the whimsical character Tom Shadow as he travels through the magical Cloud Kingdom! But what begins as a typical children’s story is immediately derailed as real life comes flooding in to destroy the magic. Think Peter Pan meets Taken…but with music!

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

When:
October 11–22, 2017

Tickets:
In the spirit of accessible theatre, Theatre Lab will be offering tickets at three price-points to allow patrons to pick the price that fits their budget: $23, $33, $43 + HST. Patrons are encouraged to pay what they can afford. All tickets are General Admission.
https://www.factorytheatre.ca/what-s-on/tomshadow/

Connect: 
t: @TheaterLab
fb: /TheatreLab
#TomShadow

In Conversation with Erika Downie, director of Seven Siblings Theatre’s THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY

Interview by Hallie Seline

HS: Tell me a bit about the show:

Erika Downie: Imagine an advertisement for anything during the 50s and then introduce Salvador Dali mixed in with Picasso and sprinkled with Banksy and you have The Play about the Baby. It is naturalism turned upside down, the identity of individuals questioned and the dream world of a young couple’s “Eden” shattered, but always returning to hope.

HS: What drew you to Albee?

ED: His writing. The way he approaches character, and the arc of this play in particular was and is exciting. There is always something new to discover in Albee, every page can be approached with such different views that it’s exciting to see what will unfold. But I am most drawn to Albee’s approach to humanity, how he captures character in crisis with humour and play, but mostly with honesty and truth.

HS: This is one of Albee’s lesser known later plays. What drew you to direct the show for Toronto audiences now?

ED: Identity and the question of who you are and why and when you became you. We as a society are saddled with questions of identity and for some it’s very easy to proclaim who you are and for others… not so much. Albee discusses identity in a fundamental manner, you are who you are because of your lessons, your tragedies, your wounds. You grew from out of these moments and I thought it was very poignant to come to understand this and share this with our Toronto audiences.

HS: Edward Albee straddles the line between naturalism and absurdism in a really interesting way. There seems to be a tension between the two. How does working with the Michael Chekhov technique lend itself to performing this play?

ED: The Michael Chekhov technique lends itself to any play. Even in the “not so well written” plays Chekhov will help develop the best aspects of that play as best it can. For Albee’s The Play about the Baby is so well written that the marriage between Albee and Chekhov fell naturally into place. The focus was character relationships and through Chekhov the actors developed with such a solid foundation in character that the text lifts off the page and wraps itself around the audience forming a relationship between actor and audience, audience and playwright.

 

HS: What are you most looking forward to with presenting the show at The Rhino?

ED: Intimate spaces help bring the idea that the audience is in the living room of a young couple, The Rhino lends itself to this and puts the audience right in the action of the play.

HS: Describe the show in 5-10 words.

ED: Wounds children wounds, without them who are you?

HS: If your audience could listen to one song or soundtrack before coming, what would it be?

ED: Beethoven’s sixth.

The Play About The Baby

Who:
Presented by Seven Siblings Theatre
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Erika Downie
Featuring Scott McCulloch, Judith Cockman, Will King, Nora Smith
Stage Managed by Emma Miziolek
Set Design by Stephen King
Produced by Madryn McCabe

What:
A young couple has just had a baby. They are madly in love, and have the perfect life. Their bliss is suddenly interrupted when they are visited by an older man and woman. A truly strange turn of events transpires, setting off an evening of manipulations and mind games that ultimately question reality.

Where:
The Rhino
1249 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario, M6K 1L5

When:
May 18 8:00pm
May 19 8:00pm
May 20 2:00pm
May 20 8:00pm
May 21 8:00pm

Tickets:
May 18-21 Artsworkers $20, General $25
sevensiblingstheatre.ca/the-play-about-the-baby/

 

 

Inside a “Creepy Fantastical Cloud of Sly Slickity Evil” – A Chat with Julian R. Munds on his new show THE GOOD DOCTOR HOLMES AND HIS CHILDREN OF GOD

Interview by Hallie Seline

Julian R. Munds might be one of my favourite people to have a great conversation with about theatre and life. He speaks his mind, he’ll challenge me and he always makes me laugh. It was such a pleasure to chat with him about this newest play, The Good Doctor Holmes and His Children of God, about working with powerhouse Denise Norman as the challenging title role of Dr. Holmes, and on the importance of carving out a space for yourself to be the artist you want to be. Be sure to catch The Good Doctor Holmes and His Children of God on stage now only until May 21st in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. All performances are Pay What You Can. 

HS: How did you find this piece of history and what made you want to turn it into a play?

Julian R. Munds: I first became aware of the Pitezel case through am episode of Supernatural years ago. You know, that show that for some inexplicable reason is still on the CW. In the episode, the ghost of “America’s First Serial Killer” was haunting some building and the Winchester brothers had to stop the ghost. Anyway, the ghost was apparently the ghost of HH Holmes and I stored it in my brain. A few years later while pouring over old Toronto newspapers, I noticed that HH Holmes figured prominently in a lot of them. And I discovered that he was caught in Toronto. I then went on a search for the location. I am a very hyperactive person and need to keep myself occupied with many different projects lest I become downtrodden or bored. It is then I know I am not working on a challenge.

One of the projects was finding the original location of arrest. It was difficult to find. St. Vincent Lane, the place that Holmes was caught, has both moved and been renamed. There’s a lot of reasons for this. The government of Toronto “The Good,” for instance, feeling that the city’s reputation as a crime mecca covered in mud and runoff from the pork slaughterhouse – which it was in the early 1900s – was not a good one. They decided to do their best to cover up all the crime in the city. One thing they did was to erase St. Vincent Lane from existence. Move it two blocks from it’s original location and try to forget the horror discovered there in 1894. I had to go through tons of old maps to find it. Sat in the reference library and Toronto Archives for eons.

This rabbit hole opened up and I started to gain as many documents as possible connected with the arrest, the subsequent investigation, the personal accounts, and even a picture or two. For instance, I have a full facsimile of the notebook of Frank Geyer (the original investigator) sitting on my desk as we speak.

At the same time as I was doing this, I was also working on a sketch of a new play called “Bob, the Monster.” A play that investigates some ideas I was working on around the value of life, especially the value of a person who has been named guilty of heinous acts, and I discovered that both purposes could be combined. Eight drafts later, a one week workshop, another four drafts and BOOM: The Good Doctor Holmes & His Children of God. A Historical Fantasia, in that it is inspired by true events but I use the themes of the original event to investigate modern problems. Institutional Misogyny, Racism, Quackery, Anti-Intellectualism, and general alienation.

Photo of Denise Norman. Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

HS: We can’t wait to see Denise Norman take on this challenging role. Can you tell me a bit about working with her and what you’re most excited about to see her bring to the role?

JM: Denise came to me as a fluke. In my undergrad at the University of Toronto, when I was “training” as an actor, and I’ll explain the quotes in a moment- Denise was one of my professors. She was one of the odder ones I must admit. A voice and movement teacher, her class was more about generally just fucking around. But what I remember most is the general relaxation or understanding that there is no finished product in the world. Everything is in a constant state of flux and doubly so in the world of theatre. This is
why theatre still exists. It is the only art form, aside from live music – particularly instrumental music – that can change from performance to performance. It’s why people go. They don’t go to be educated. They don’t go to be entertained. They go to experience. Theatre is about taking an environment, interaction, moment and expanding it into a full experience. Denise Norman is one of the first people that helped me realize this.

Fast forward to this past April. The original actor in the role of Holmes got sick. Dropped out. And Denise Norman applied. By far this role was made for her. There is something anchored and unexpected in the work she does on stage. She has fought hard to continue working on the stage and it is evident by her work there. Every moment she fights. And in a cast populated by fighters, John Chou, Suzanne Miller, and Jack Morton – a literal fighter – I’ve seen it – she stirs the place to create a hurricane. The designers Christine Urquhart, Lin-Mei Lay and Adrien Shepherd-Gawinski provide the lightning to her thunder. Adrien literally provides thunder. Also Virginia Cardinal – the best Stage Manager I know… I value her work so much.

HS: What drew you to become a playwright and what are you most interested in exploring in your work at the moment?

JM: Is that what I am? A playwright? I am not sure that I’m comfortable with that title. It implies that I sit at a pad of paper and pour dialogue onto a page then allow someone else to come along and bring it alive on stage. “There must be a kitchen sink here or a gun here” I’m not that guy. I’ve always thought of myself in much the same way one thinks of Zaphod Beeblebrox of Douglas Adams – “he’s just this guy, you know?” When I graduated from school I found myself launched into a world that did not want me. Tons of people are being cranked out of these institutions of higher learning now being told that they must do something this way to get a good mark. It gets beaten into brains. If you don’t fall inline then boom! You are not a human worth caring about. I came out of school broken – confused on who or what I was – ready to be taken advantage of to work in underpaid precarious work.

I had trouble reconciling myself to it. Then I decided, through the help of some faithful family, my mother, my two sisters, my wonderful nieces, and the old lady cat — who hit me a lot when I was depressed –that I needed to make a change. If the world didn’t want me – then damn it – I’ll make a corner that’s all mine. I began creating theatre that day. I don’t create plays. I tell no stories. I create experiences. Sounds. Feelings. Smells. Ideas. Don’t come to my plays expecting to learn about a subject. Read a book, see a doc, go to a lecture for that. My plays — for lack of a better word – are about being a part of something. I want you to come out of “Holmes” and feel shell shocked. Like you’ve gone through something.

That’s what I like to explore. How can I use all the tools of the theatre and art to leave an impact on the audience. The “Randoms” who walk through the door wondering what the hell did they just walk into? That’s my jam.

Photo of Denise Norman & John Chou. Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz

HS: Why did you decide to make the full run Pay What You Can?

JM: Insane. I know. But also worthy. Modern Canadian Theatre Institutions are like Janus, the two faced god. Out of one mouth moans a complaint on how no one is coming to the theatre, while in the other, is a demand to charge people more money for less satisfying shows. No one is listening to the fact that people don’t see a worth in going to the theatre. It offers them nothing. So theatre is worth nothing. Simple economics. Now, to rekindle a passion for the theatre we have to gamble. We have to start with nothing and build up a model that is more relevant. I decided, with my collective’s endorsement, to go ahead and find out what people thought the experience is worth to them. If they like it, they pay more. If they don’t have the cash, they tell a friend who pays. There is nothing but win. We have to give up old top heavy things to find that spirit again. This is my way of trying to do that. She exists! She’s just broke.

HS: Describe the show in 5-10 words:

JM: Creepy Fantastical Cloud of Sly Slickity Evil – with kickass design.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Favourite place in the city?
Outside of it. I don’t care for the city. I’m only here because this is where the art is. I love the countryside. Huron County. Anna Mae’s in Millbank. Best pie, a coffee, and they have this stuff called broasted chicken. But all right. I’ll play along. Kos patio in Kensington. I sit with the birds and eat pancakes.

Favourite play?
What a nutty question. Impossible for me to answer. I’ll give you my top five. Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee, The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco, One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace.

If you could go for a beer and a chat with any playwright (alive or dead) who would it be and what beer would you order?
I don’t think I’d like to personally meet any of my favorite playwrights. I like to know them through their work. If I met them I would see them for what they are. Meat sacks with problems. I’d have trouble after that. I wouldn’t mind having an Absinthe with Antonin Artaud though. Imagine the nuttiness. I’d invite David Mamet to a drink, tell him to stop writing, and basically how he’s ruined a generation of male actors by telling them it’s ok for a male to yell obscenities at a woman for two hours and call it art. There is nothing more upsetting and vomit worthy in my mind than David Mamet.

Where do you look for inspiration?
I don’t look for it. I stumble on it. I read around 10 books a week. Listen to countless podcasts. Go for long walks. And talk to people all around my life. You find inspiration in the weirdest place. One of my plays was created after I could not stop a fire alarm from going off. Another, was created because I once saw a woman with a cell phone shut a door in the face of a downtrodden fellow smoking an unlit cigarette.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten or mantra you are currently living by?
“It doesn’t matter if you are the smartest guy in the room. The most good looking guy in the room. Be the last guy in the room.” – Michael Caine

“Life is meaningless but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good Yorkshire pudding.” – Peter O’Toole

“Nothing is written. All things can be changed..” – Thomas Edward Lawrence

“Quantity not quality” – anon

“If you can lose your backup job, may as well do the thing that makes you fulfilled.” – Jim Carrey

The Good Doctor Holmes and His Children of God

Who:
Playwright: Julian R. Munds
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes – Denise Norman
Benji/Carrie Pitezel – Suzanne Miller
Frank Geyer – John Chou Guard,
The Shadow – Jack Morton

Direction: J.R. Priestley
Scenography: Christine Urquhart
Sound and Composition: Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski
Designers: Lin-Mai Lay, Julie Skene
Stage Management: Virginia Cardinal

What:
In 1894 the bodies of two little girls were discovered in a Toronto basement by an eccentric, mild mannered, private detective. This was the beginning of a nightmare.

Julian R. Munds’ new play puts us in touch with one of the most prolific serial killers in history: Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Holmes — a doctor, pharmacist, sometimes cannibal — constructed a hotel in Chicago for a singular purpose: to destroy human life. Charged in the deaths of nine individuals, Dr. H. H. Holmes is thought to be connected with more than two hundred disappearances during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

In “The Good Doctor Holmes..”, Munds takes us into the interrogation room, puts HH at the forefront, in all his genius and all his horror, and weaves a labyrinthine fantasia that is sometimes an episode of Columbo and sometimes a tale by H.P. Lovecraft.

“We are asked to look into the eyes of a devil but what is found there is not what we expected. “ – Chris Tester, The Actor’s Podcast

With aid from the Quantico Behavioral Archive, personal journals of Carrie Pitezel, and using a modern perspective, this show drags the forgotten “Pitezel Children Case” from the shadows of the past and makes us question whether Toronto is truly “The Good.”

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto

When:
May 11-21, 2017

Tickets:
By Phone: 416-504-7529
Online: artsboxoffice.ca

“Embracing Embarrassment, Renouncing Shame & Starring in Your Own Musical” In Conversation with Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson on STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy

Interview by Hallie Seline

Knowing that Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy was returning to the stage after loving it at the Summerworks Festival, I was excited to sit down with funny ladies Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson to chat all about it. We appropriately met in the Theatre Passe Muraille greenroom and spoke about how the piece has developed for this first professional production with TPM, Katherine’s inspiration to communicate her experience with dyslexia through her dream of being in a musical, and finding freedom in renouncing shame and owning where you’re at, epic life fails and all.

Hallie Seline: Tell me about the show and how it has developed from workshop to festival to first professional production.

Katherine Cullen: Stupidhead! is a sort of musical/standup comedy style/storytelling show about me growing up with dyslexia. I had this idea a couple of years ago and I started to write, let’s call them proto-songs when I was alone and bored and unemployed. And then videofag gave me the opportunity to do a workshop presentation of it, about three years ago now. So I went to Britta (Johnson), maybe a week before the workshop, (laughing) not even… and asked if she would help me with the song aspect of it – to help me add accompaniment. When we did that first workshop of it, we were exploring different ideas and forms.

When it came time to do the Summerworks Festival version, we really decided to make it more of a musical. The theme around that version was much more like… birthday party, piñata, musical, which is still very different from what it has grown to now.

Britta Johnson: The story of it now is that we’re trying to make Katherine’s dream of being in a musical come true so, you know, it has lighting, full songs and all of that. But I also think in the process of continuing to write and develop the songs, because that’s all I can speak to, we’ve tried to keep the essence of those early ones from the workshop in the fold of its current form. Where it isn’t necessarily about a perfect polished song, it’s about how to honestly step into each one, as herself and what song serves this character.

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

KC: Yeah, this character, me, has no musical training and doesn’t know anything about singing, or pitch, or what makes a good song, or… anything. Anything I’ve picked up over the last few years has literally been because of working with Britta and forcing myself by saying, “I need to learn to hit that note!” So we put those parameters out there from the beginning and it allows the space to really fuck up and not hit the note, and know that it’s still going to be okay. I feel like I’m allowed to not be this polished musical theatre singer because that’s part of the conceit.

BJ: Yeah! I feel like part of the conceit is to joyfully and whole-heartedly step into doing something that you don’t feel you’re good at. That’s really important in this show.

HS: Which is so wonderful because we so rarely or just don’t do that. So often we feel like we have to wait to be perfect before we show it or do it.

KC: Exactly. I feel like this show has a kid-like mentality of being like “I don’t know? That looks fun! I will do that in front of people,” you know what I mean? It’s trying to get back to that place where you don’t second-guess yourself and you don’t self-edit and there isn’t that sort of judgmental voice being like “Oh, no. No. No. That’s ridiculous. Don’t do that.” It’s more like “That sounds like a great idea! I will try it.” (laughing) You know?

BJ: As someone who gets to watch it over and over again, it really looks like Katherine as a kid playing pretend in her room. The songs go everywhere from a full three-and-a-half-minute-long, emotional, perfectly rhymed song, to what I picture as her as a kid looking in the mirror and playing pretend. There’s room for all of it.

KC: Yeah, it’s like if this show had a spirit animal right now it’s that little girl in that viral video who wobbles into the room for her birthday party. She’s just having a hippity-hoppity day. Because, why not?

I mean, there are darker themes that are in the show that are being probed now in a way that we didn’t really probe when we were at Summerworks. One of the songs expresses how you need darkness to have light and I think I’m exploring a child-like freedom of expression but also those kind of adult things in the world or in our lives that make us feel like we can’t or that beat us down, make us feel like we’re losers or “less than”. I think that there is a real conversation that the show is trying to have between those two and trying to kind of make peace with it.

And part of having a hippity-hoppity day is saying “I don’t need those chains. I don’t need to think of myself as a bad loser. I can just be a person because we’re all just people and we’re all fine here, so why not just have a jazzy time?”

BJ: And that the imperfection isn’t something to overcome and get to the other side of. That’s why hearing you sing these songs is so moving. If it’s just something that you invite into the picture, and own, you can have a hippity-hoppity day with the dark parts and the light parts and the parts where you fail and the parts where you make an ass of yourself and it’s still just as hippity-hoppity! (they laugh)

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

HS: Amazing. You mentioned from the beginning you were writing songs for this and you have also said that you have never been in a musical. So what was the idea behind making this piece of yours a musical?

KC: One thing that I do really like about musicals is that there’s this element that you get to express something extra or express something that you can’t satisfy just in dialogue. There’s this component to the expression that is sort of special or heightened and that isn’t in the realistic way that we express ourselves on a day-to-day basis. I feel that there is something also about dyslexia that has that. My experience with it and how I experience the world has been so sort of topsey turvey and that has been very difficult for me to explain to people. To me, it just makes sense that then to be able to communicate that experience that I would need to burst into song.

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

HS: What is something that you hope the audience takes away or experiences while they are here?

KC: I think this play is so much about, you know, just not feeling alone in the parts of yourself that you feel don’t totally fit in. So I hope it speaks to people from that perspective, that they feel like their humanity is seen, you know? And that it’s cool to laugh at the shit that you do that’s silly as opposed to being ashamed of it.

I think the show is really about renouncing shame, in a lot of ways.

BJ: I just feel that if the audience has half as much fun as I have sitting at the piano, laughing and crying along with Katherine, I think that we will have done our job.

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

Rapid Fire Question Round:

Favourite Food:
KC: Probably sushi.
BJ: Burritos, no question.

Favourite Musical:
KC: Jesus Christ Superstar
BJ: West Side Story.

Where do you get inspiration?
KC: Hmm… I think usually when I watch something really funny and it just makes me feel like there’s a lot of possibility in the world, when I see something super funny.

BJ: Probably the people around me. Watching people I love and respect… or don’t, you know (laughs) struggle with the same stuff I do.

KC: Watching people I hate…

BJ: Watching people I hate and delighting in their failure (laughing)

HS: That inspires me!

KC: Don’t edit that…

BJ: That’s the end of the interview. “Britta Johnson, who kind of glommed on to the interview, talks a lot about the people she hates…” (laughing)

The Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten or That You’re Currently Living By:
KC: My dad always says “Have faith in the future” and I don’t totally know what that means but I kind of like it. Have faith in the future. Why not?

BJ: I don’t know… There’s never going to be a moment where you’re like, “Now I’ve got it”, so don’t wait for that moment. You’re still doing it even if that “moment” doesn’t come.

KC: Yeah, you’re always doing the best with what you’ve got at any given moment.

BJ: Also I think my sister once told me that my hair always looks better than I think it does… which has also really helped me lately… (laughing)

Describe Stupidhead! in 5-10 words… together:
KC: … It’s a… fun,
KC & BJ: hippity-hoppity day
BJ: that embraces the honest struggle of simply…
KC & BJ: beeeing aaa..llliiv?—huuuman!

HS: Brilliant. Thank you!

 STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy

Who:
A Theatre Passe Muraille Production
Written & Performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson
Original Music by Britta Johnson
Original Lyrics by Britta Johnson and Katherine Cullen
Directed & Dramaturged by Aaron Willis
Additional Dramaturgy by Andy McKim
Set & Costume Design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Design by Jennifer Lennon
Associate Producer: Colin Doyle

What:
Stupidhead! is a comedy musical about having dyslexia. It’s also about how being a human is really embarrassing… like all of the time. The winner of Best New Performance Text at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival, Stupidhead! returns to Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace with brand new material and brand new songs.

In Stupidhead! performer/playwright Katherine Cullen shares true stories about her dyslexia, the way she interacts with the world, and the way the world interacts with her. Cullen’s script – directed by the Dora nominated Aaron Willis and accompanied by lyricist/musician Britta Johnson’s original songs – makes for a show that is painfully funny, brutally honest, and totally relatable for anyone who feels like they do things a bit different.

Where:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave.
Toronto ON.

When:
March 16 – April 2, 2017

Tickets:
passemuraille.ca/stupidhead/

Connect:
w: passemuraille.ca/stupidhead/
t: #StupidheadTO
@KatinkaCullen
@johnsonbritta
fb: StupidheadMusical
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