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Posts tagged ‘Mitchell Cushman’

“Annie Baker, Creating Theatre for Right Now & Reading People’s Minds” In Conversation with Mitchell Cushman, Director of THE ALIENS

Interview by Megan Robinson

The space at The Coal Mine Theatre has undergone yet another transformation for their upcoming production of The Aliens. Directed by Mitchell Cushman, who is well-known for his creative use of space, the black box theatre is unrecognizable as a Vermont alleyway.

“It takes place outside, which felt like a real fundamental challenge at first,” Cushman let me know from our seats in the audience, where we sat taking in the details of the set, which received some exciting final touches the day before.

Around us, the theatre’s walls were plastered with exposed brick, a handmade picnic table took center stage, and a graffitied image of half of Bernie Sanders’ face was spray painted just above our heads. With a single row of chairs lining the two walls, the length of the playing space called to mind a runway at a fashion show.

“I think it serves the naturalism of what Annie Baker is writing because the audience are really flies on the wall as opposed to feeling like they are being played to in any way.”

For the next thirty minutes, I talk to director Mitchell Cushman about Annie Baker, creating relevant theatre, and reading people’s minds.

MR: You just worked on Treasure Island at Stratford – has this been a breath of fresh air?

MC: They’re both very different. I had a great time with Treasure Island, but they couldn’t be more different. Treasure Island is a huge proscenium, thousand-seat theatre and large budget show, largely for kids.

Annie Baker writes in this kind of hyper-naturalism where everything is sort of sacrificed for the pursuit of trying to get something real on stage. That means it rejects a lot of what we expect about conventional drama. Working on this show makes me realize how much artifice goes into most theatre. Because we expect it. We expect things to be curated into something that is easily recognizable as dramatic whereas there is drama and construction to Annie Baker’s writing but in a way that is so invisible.

MR: What did you think of the play the first time you read it?

MC: I read it like 3 or 4 years ago. Honestly, I don’t know if I knew what to make of it when I first read it. I thought parts of it were interesting. But I’ve had this experience reading a couple of her other plays. They feel very thin. You get to the end, and you’re like – where was the play?

Then I had the chance to see some of her plays. I saw The Flick, and I saw a production of John with The Company Theatre. Both of those were really impactful experiences for me as an audience member, and it was after I saw John that Ted (Dykstra) wrote to me about The Aliens. When I did go back to read it with an understanding of the wavelength that she calibrated on, I found much more in it. Also, I’m now at the exact age of two of the three characters that are at the center of the play, and I think that has had an impact as well.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Which character do you think you most relate to? 

MC: (laughs) Probably the guy that is not my age. There are three characters KJ and Jasper and Evan.

KJ and Jasper are 30-31, they haven’t really left their hometown, and they spend their time kind of vegging around and reading poetry or sort of writing music. One of them wants to be a novelist, but they have not really done anything. But even though they haven’t done anything, they’ve had real deep life experiences, and a lot of that is based on living on the margins of society and loss and complicated family life and problems with drugs.

Evan works in the cafe… beyond that “wall”. He’s a seventeen-year-old kid working a summer job and he’s got a comfortable home life but feels at 17 that he hasn’t had a lot of experiences and maybe couldn’t be an artist, a writer, a tortured soul, or musician because he doesn’t have what he perceives to be their pain and suffering. I’m more like him. I think I said that on the first day of rehearsal. I worked in a cafe, I come from a comfortable middle-class background, and I haven’t ever felt fundamentally alone in the way I think the other characters feel in the show.

MR: So you’ve never felt like an alien?

MC: Well I don’t know that… I wouldn’t say I’ve never felt like an alien. But I’ve never really felt that society wasn’t built for me which is the way that KJ and Jasper feel, and maybe Evan feels that in a different way.

MR: Why this show right now? 

MC: The play was written in 2010, and one of the decisions we had to make was, do we set it then or now? The characters have cell phones in the show, and there are lots of stage directions of them flipping them open and closed, and that felt like by doing that we’d immediately be playing something that felt like a period piece. But the phenomenon of disenfranchisement that she writes about is only more pronounced now than it was seven years ago.

The play is set in Vermont, and I was trying to think what do I know about Vermont or what does Vermont mean to me? And you can see right here, we are sitting under a big graffiti thing of half of Bernie Sanders’ face.

Bernie Sanders is a Senator from Vermont who played such a large role in the last American presidential election and epitomizes this part of America. Vermont is very liberal and left-wing in a lot of ways, but it’s also the whitest state… I think it’s like 95 % white. Very little diversity and, among other things, the play looks at what happens when you have a very homogeneous population of people and how do their thoughts develop and how do thoughts about othering occur, and all those things feel very relevant. In its own way, the play has a lot to say about the opioid crisis and things that have only become, you know, more pronounced and tragic.

In some ways, I think she was writing something prophetic. The world around us has grown into the play

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: I did wonder why the cast was three white males…

MC: That’s interesting. As we were casting it we were trying to be conscious of that. I definitely believe theatre should be a place for diverse voices. And we like to create the most eclectic, artistic ensembles as possible. I think this play is specifically about the fact that all three of them are white. So to have cast it more racially diverse would have been to silence the themes of the play. This play was written about specific people in a specific place, and I think in doing it, it’s engaging in the conversation about the need for diversity in our communities. If you just, like, photoshop in diversity into a community where it doesn’t exist I think you’re wallpapering over some of the profound things at the center of her writing. We’ve got quite a diverse artistic team working on the show. It’s not represented in the cast of characters but I think for this piece it was the right choice.

MR: Your big thing is innovative staging, immersive theatre. I read an interview where you said it’s important to do something different because there is so much theatre going on. How do you come up with these new ideas?

MC: I think it can be kind of a trap, despite what I said in other interviews, to think about doing things that are different for the sake of being different. Almost every project I’ve worked on, the script is first and out of the script you try to find a way to tell that story. I think if instead you begin with a desire to do something different then you’re doing something to a play instead of figuring out the best way to tell a story. So I found in my practice, especially running Outside the March, but the other work I’ve done, there’s a broader canvas of ways to tell a story in a live theatre experience than the traditional framework necessarily allows for. So I try to start from a place of zero preconceptions of what the experience will be. So when I think about how to tell a story, I’m not thinking of people sitting in a proscenium space watching. I’m not picturing the experience akin to watching a movie.

MR: This show explores the idea that we can’t ever really know another person and what they are thinking. If you had the opportunity to read another person’s mind would you take it? 

MC: A specific person or telepathy in general?

MR: Let’s go with for a day, you can read everyone’s mind.

MC: I would take it because I’d be very curious but I would go somewhere where I was surrounded by nobody I knew. Because then you’d be able to answer that sort of eternal mystery of what are people thinking and what are they thinking about me as I interact with them, but you wouldn’t fundamentally destroy all of your relationships.

MR: You think it would destroy your relationships if you really knew a person?

MC: Ya.

MR: So you think it’s good that we don’t actually know the truth? Are filters important? 

MC: I think relationships are about striving to get to know someone so if you had the answer manual at the beginning then you would actually feel less close to those people. It’s about the experience of trying to break through those barriers even though, eternally, you’ll never get to the bottom of it.

MR: But isn’t that a sad pursuit? 

MC: I don’t think so. I think that’s what forges history and connection with people. It’s certainly frustrating and disarming and difficult at times, but I think that breathes the need for human connection. If we all knew what everyone thought all the time we’d be robbed of conversation. And art! Theatre comes out of that same impulse of trying to strive to get to know people and things about existence that you can’t just read in someone’s brain, so I think it’s good there are those filters. But I think we should still strive to listen better.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Do you think this is a hopeful story? 

MC: I wouldn’t say that it is entirely hopeful, but within the construction of it, there is something quite life-affirming.

MR: If you could talk to the characters in the show and give them advice what would you say?

MC: Don’t kick the audience.

MR: Is that advice for the actors?

MC: (He laughs) Life advice?

MR: Yes. You’re very ambitious and it seems these characters are lacking that.

MC: Well, I would say that they should try to breathe and take the pressure off themselves. Because I think it’s the pressure to accomplish great things that is kind of stunting them from accomplishing much of anything.

MR: Too scared?

MC: Too scared or because, to me, one of the big themes of the show is they idolize these great writers, but genius is a hard thing to emulate so instead they just emulate their destructive tendencies. I think that hero-worship can be dangerous in that capacity because I think the things that are easiest to copy are not the things connected with hard work and perseverance… they are more the trappings of it.

The Aliens

Who:
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Starring Maxwell Haynes, Will Greenblatt and Noah Reid
Set and Costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting design by Nick Blais
Sound Design by Sam Sholdice
Production Manager Charissa Wilcox
Produced by Diana Bentley and Sehar Bhojani

What:
Coal Mine Theatre launches the 17/18 season with Pulitzer Prize Award-winning playwright Annie Bakers THE ALIENS. Sharing the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010 with another Baker script, Circle Mirror Transformation, THE ALIENS, a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, premiered Off-Broadway in April 2009 and the West End in September of the same year.

Jasper (Noah Reid) and KJ (William Greenblatt) are two misfit souls who have made the out-back of a Vermont coffee shop their private sanctuary and refuge from the real world. Here they can indulge in their dreams and delusions of being a brilliant writer and a divine healer. Seventeen-year-old Evan (Maxwell Haynes) is eking out his summer working at the café and is irresistibly drawn to their world of magic mushrooms, philosophical musings and rock bands that never-were. THE ALIENS is both a cruel and compassionate examination of a lost generation and modern-day America.

Where:
Coal Mine Theatre
1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto ON M4J 1N4

When:
Wednesday, September 20 – Sunday, October 8 at 2pm
Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm (Mondays Dark)
Matinees are Sunday at 2pm.
No intermission. No latecomers.

Tickets:
Regular price $42.50 (plus HST)
Rush tickets $25 (cash only, at the door, 30 minutes before performance starts, subject to availability. No phone reservations).
coalminetheatre.com

Connect:
t: @coalminetheatre
f: /coalminetheatre

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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

Artist Profile: Rosamund Small, Playwright of Outside The March’s “TomorrowLove”

Interview by Brittany Kay

Rosamund Small has always been the most kind-hearted and generous artist that I know in this city. Her passion and love for her craft is always apparent. She is insanely smart, courageous and incredibly funny, which always shines through in her work. We sat down over nachos to talk about her current show TomorrowLove, which opens tonight with Outside the March. We talk about the magic in site-specific/immersive work, her writing process and the much anticipated experience audiences will have in this fantastical show.

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

Rosamund Small: The show is called TomorrowLove. It’s an immersive experience with Outside the March. It’s about love and it’s set in many different versions in the very near future, where one piece of amazing technology exists. Everything else is pretty much the same as our world except for just one thing. It’s about exploring different relationships and how this one thing activates change in the way that two people relate to each other. Sometimes it ends up bringing people closer together and sometimes it pushes them further apart. TomorrowLove touches on a lot of things to do with love and identity and sometimes consent and sometimes loss. The dream is that it will be a varied experience no matter what. There’s a lot of material and the idea is that you’ll wander through this futuristic environment and find yourself in these different stories.

BK: So things are happening…

RS: Simultaneously. There are multiple things happening at the same time. I think sometimes immersive theatre is structured so that you purposefully miss things. You miss whole stories, you miss the beginning, and you miss the end. In TomorrowLove, you grasp an entire story. It’s short but it’s complete, and then there’s another one and another one. It’s quite curated and carefully put together to make sure that you get the entire narrative and then a different entire narrative.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: Can you talk about this lottery system the actors are going to take part in each night? There are so many layers to this experience!

RS: So many layers! It’s got a lot going on underneath in terms of how the show is put together. One really exciting thing that we came across is that I wrote all of the characters to be gender blind, so they are not necessarily man or woman. I just didn’t make that decision when I was writing it.

Typically we have really gendered stories about anything from a break up to sexual violence to anything really to do with how two people relate in a relationship. Those stories can be super valuable, but in this case I wanted to sort of push out of those ideas and explore the idea that if I didn’t know the gender of the person, how would I navigate that in the writing? The characters have genders because whatever actor is playing them inhabits their gender, but that, I think, is part of a larger piece of the feeling of the show. It’s about the self and the individual and what is innate to you and how did you end up in your life?

There is also an aspect of the show where every night there’s a lottery and the actors get assigned their roles.

BK: So the actors have to learn a lot of material?

RS: Yeah.

BK: Shit, that’s fun. Cool!

RS: That is the reaction I’m hoping for: “That’s fun!” I hope they all say that. I think it’s going to be one of those things that ends up being really fun and then really hard and you cry and then it gets really fun again. All of the actors are going to be learning about as much as Hamlet or a little more, in terms of numbers of lines

BK: Wow!

RS: They are also playing different people, so they’ll inhabit very different stories. In one sense, in a lot of theatre, you feel like you want to rehearse and rehearse until you’ve hit something, but in another way that sense of rehearsal can take away from a sort of urgency or hopefully a sense of live-ness that I think we’re finding. It’s a big risk, obviously. They’ll be rehearsed. Their scene partner will be changing. Their goals will be changing. I think the experiences intrinsically will be a little bit out of control. Where you end up is a little bit out of your control. That’s a really big theme of the show.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: How did you start writing this? How did this idea come to be?

RS: I started working on it about two years ago. In a way it started because Mitchell Cushman and I wanted to work on another project together. It took us a really long time to shape what that would be. We had some specific goals. We wanted to make theatre that would appeal to people that often don’t go to the theatre. That’s kind of a tenant of a lot of theatre companies, but definitely of OTM. He’s really generous and I think he really wanted to create something that was my voice. It’s not like it was going to be something that he would come up with and I would execute. He really wanted to do something that we both felt really passionately about.

We started with short stories about sex. The idea to push them into a place that couldn’t quite happen was the next thing, so then you end up in the world of technology. For me, personally, I realized that the idea of a show about technology doesn’t really interest me because I think about technology a lot in a literal way. I can think about my phone and what it means but I think this show is more of a metaphorical access point to that. The pieces of technology are very nearly possible, in fact, I think a few of them have become more possible since I’ve started writing them.

BK: What kind of technology are we talking here?

RS: One is an implant that you can get that prevents you from saying certain things that you really want to make sure you never say… so you don’t let something slip, which obviously has huge implications for relationships. Another one is you can choose to show your partner an extended montage of all of your memories. Another one is an online chatting app that actually finds you your soul mate. Another one is you can get a piece of someone’s DNA put into a little mixture and inject it into yourself so that you can experience their emotions.

BK: Why site-specific and immersive for this show?

RS: I think immersive and site-specific theatre is very magical because you immediately don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s very much how I feel about all relationships. I think how I feel about progress and technology is really surprising and personal. Immersive theatre really lends itself to heightening that experience. Sometimes people have an idea of immersive theatre being scary or that it’s going to put you on the spot or make you uncomfortable and I think, in a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of that. It’s an invitation to this world.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: I know a lot of your plays has been verbatim or immersive in their nature and presentation. What draws you to that kind of work? What makes you keep doing this?

RS: It’s funny because TomorrowLove is such a departure from that. This is heightened and fiction.

The draw to documentary and to interviews and to Vitals (which was fiction but really well researched) is that the world is really interesting. I would always advise writers who were stuck in their writing or were just starting to write, to think about starting there because it grounds you in the way that people actually talk and the way that things actually happen. You put so much of your heart and yourself into your documentary work but a lot of the time people don’t know that because they assume it’s more distant from you. I think, for this piece, it’s scary because it’s going to be really hard to hide that the characters and observations are going to seem like they are from me.

BK: What was your process to write this script?

RS: This is such a boring answer because it’s such a writer answer: I would just start. A lot of it is really just like improvisation except I was writing it down. I would just go. I would always go for a relationship problem or a change in a relationship or a relationship crisis and then ask how would a piece of technology either begin that or change that or heighten that? So I never made up a piece of technology and wrote the play to go with it. I started to write the story and then the necessary technology would merge into the story.

There are definitely pieces that are inspired from things that have happened to me or to people that I’ve loved. I think all writers steal shamelessly. They are much more me, honestly. They are much more from my own questions about people. Fiction is so embarrassing, somehow.

BK: The audience is invited to the Aorta? What is that?

RS:

BK: Ahh, a mystery?

RS: (she smiles.)

BK: Love that. How are your actors rehearsing this show?

RS: There has to be more than one thing rehearsing at once because there is so much material. They are all crazy pros. These artists are really, truly the real deal and really experienced, as well as being really good. They are like a crazy dream. It’s a real ensemble. So we’re reading the pieces, we’re doing the pieces, and we’re trading off because there will be more than one actor playing every part. There’s a bit of a tap in tap out mentality going on. We also have two amazing assistant directors (Llyandra Jones and Griffin McInnes) and Mitchell and myself. We’re all “do-si-do”ing the rehearsal process.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: Are there any fears or excitements for this show?

RS: No.

I’m joking. I’m joking so hard.

I think the fears and the excitements are always the same thing. The fear and the excitement is that I think the pieces are very vulnerable. The characters are in really vulnerable places. I feel very vulnerable. They’re really raw, sometimes in a comedic sense and sometimes in a tragic sense with really painful experiences. So the fear and the excitement is about sharing that, but that’s also such a part of theatre and such a part of love.

BK: What’s your working relationship like with Mitchell Cushman? How did you guys meet? What makes you want to continue to collaborate with him?

RS: We met at the Paprika Festival. He was working there and I was one of the oldest participants. He directed a staged reading of mine in the festival and so that’s the first time we worked together really. I think you can tell immediately when you work with someone like him that you can just trust him. You can trust him to be honest. You can trust him with your work. Actors trust him. He’s just a really sort of subtly supportive and reassuring person, you know? You also trust him because it’s so obvious how wicked smart he is.

He saw a little bit of Vitals and he asked to direct it and we turned it into Outside The March doing this huge production of it. It was incredible. It’s a very close working relationship. We’re really in each other’s business. It’s not like I write the script and he directs the show, it’s very collaborative. We argue and we compromise and we work really well together. I’m incredibly lucky to work with someone like that and to work with our whole team, as well.

BK: Why Outside The March for your show?

RS: I think the short answer is because this is the kind of work that Mitchell wants to develop with the company. I remember when I saw their production of Mr. Marmalade and it blew my mind. I was like this is the kind of theatre that I want to do.

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

RS: That’s hard because you can’t really control it, no matter how hard you try. I hope they experience some empathy and have been entertained. I think entertainment is really undervalued as a quality. Not thoughtlessly, but entertained. I think it depends what kind of person you are – if you are interested in a mind-bending puzzle, you might be interested in crazy technology and its implications, if you’ve been through a break up, it might stir some things up, might make you think about your own life or it might just be an experience that you leave behind you at the door. I just hope for something.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Book: What? That isn’t fun, that’s so hard.

Favourite Play: What? What is this? Like which is your favourite parent Brittany?

Favourite Food: Pizza. Is that a boring answer? It’s why I moved to Little Italy.

Favourite Place in Toronto: The Island, Ward’s Island specifically.

What are you listening to: I’m leaning heavily into this Carly Rae Jepsen album “Emotion”. It’s like really good… Love good pop music!

Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Katherine Cullen once told me, “When you feel like you just can’t go on and something terrible has happened, it’s really important to just go to bed and wake up tomorrow.” We can fall asleep and escape and wake up and something will be recharged in us. It’s amazing.

TomorrowLove

by Rosamund Small, Presented by Outside The March

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Who:
Written by Rosamund Small
Directed and Developed by Mitchell Cushman

Ensemble
Damien Atkins
Katherine Cullen
Paul Dunn
Amy Keating
Cyrus Lane
Mayko Nguyen
Oyin Oladejo
Anand Rajaram

Producer – Michelle Yagi
Stage Manager – Kate Sandeson
Production Manager/Technical Director – Alanna McConnell
Scenic Design – Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Design – Nick Blais
Costume Design – Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Composition and Sound Design – Richard Feren
Choreographer – Robert Binet

Associate Director – Llyandra Jones
Associate Director – Griffin McInnes
Associate Production Manager – David Costello
Apprentice Stage Manager – Kate Hennigar
Assistant Producer – Deanna Galati
Front of House and Group Sales Manager – Sabah Haque
Assistant Choreographer – Cassandra Martin
Production Consultant – Katherine Devlin Rosenfeld
Publicist – Samantha Eng

What:
An intimate immersive encounter that imagines the future of romantic connection.

Navigate your way through a series of simultaneously-unfolding duets, in which innovations in technology grant physical transformation, time and space travel, immortality, the extraction of the human soul, and a fridge that expands to hold infinite groceries—all in the name of love.

If you roll over in bed and reach for your iPhone, if you store more memories on your feed than in your brain, if you’ve ever longed to upgrade yourself or your partner, then welcome to TomorrowLove™.

From the creative team behind Vitals (2014 Dora Awards for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play).

Where:
The Aorta (733 Mt Pleasant Rd)

When:
Show runs from From November 19 – December 18 (Mondays excluded)

Tickets:
Tickets: $40 General, $30 for under 30/arts workers http://tomorrowlove.brownpapertickets.com/

Connect:
w: outsidethemarch.ca
fb: /OutsideTheMarch
t: @outsidethemarch
ig: @outside_the_march

 

LESSONS IN TEMPERAMENT: Authenticity, Why Site-Specific & Fine-Tuning – In Conversation with creator/performer James Smith & director Mitchell Cushman

Interview by Brittany Kay

Sitting down over coffee and grilled cheese, my conversation with James Smith and Mitchell Cushman was a true joy. We spoke about the intricacies of putting on a site-specific show, the authenticity you need in storytelling and the very personal world audiences are invited into in Lessons in Temperament.

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

James Smith: For years now I’ve wanted to do something with some stories I have from growing up because I have three older brothers, all of whom have some kind of mental disability. Growing up, that was very normal for me because it was just my world. But something I’ve learned in the meantime is that I actually have a pretty unique insight into mental illness because of the way I was raised around it. So I thought it would be interesting to be able to offer that insight to people. I never knew how I wanted to frame that in a theatrical setting and then a couple of years ago I started tuning pianos and I was struck by the kind of imperfections of that process. Tuning is all about compromise and spreading out this dissatisfaction so it’s not noticeable in any particular spot of the piano. I thought that was a good metaphor to life, how minds work, and the way I was growing up trying to facilitate all these different relationships with my brothers and their minds. I thought maybe it would be interesting to do a show where I tune a piano and tell stories.

Outside the March is Mitchell Cushman’s company and they were doing something last year called Forward March, where you could submit show ideas anonymously and get some funding so I submitted this show idea. Then one day I got a call from Mitchell and he said, “Is this your anonymous submission about piano tuning?”

Mitchell Cushman: I mean the application was pretty specifically related to things I knew about James.

JS: I was like, “Yeah, nice guess.” He said, “We’re not going to fund you because I feel like this doesn’t need any money,” but he suggested we apply for SummerWorks.

MC: The nature of Forward March was to fund larger projects that would maybe develop over a couple of years and this felt like something that urgently could and needed to happen sooner. SummerWorks seemed like a really great foray for that. I’ve directed a couple of other shows at SummerWorks and at least one other site-specific show at this festival, so it seemed like a really good home.

BK: What can SummerWorks do for this show? Why this festival right now?

MC: The cool thing about SummerWorks, over the time that Michael Rubenfeld ran it, it’s sort of evolved from a theatre festival to a performance festival and has more connections to performance art or live art and multidisciplinary work. A lot of the unique things about this show, and while not being a musical, owes something to music, it’s very much steeped in storytelling, and it’s presented in a very non-traditional way. I think there’s a lot of audience at SummerWorks hungry for that.

BK: What was the process in creating this show?

JS: Well, I wrote for a while… a lot of different things – a series of short stories that didn’t really feel right for the show. I just spent a lot of time writing, trying to find the voice of the show and then we went into our first day of rehearsal and I had about 45 minutes of kind of written down spoken word. We went through that and we kind of found, through rehearsals, that the best approach seemed to be pretty sincere, honest storytelling as opposed to pre-written short story type snippets. We started honing in, right away at the beginning of rehearsals, a way to keep it really natural. We’ve written down very little since we started. We’ve mostly made cue cards of things and organized the stories into a structure that makes sense to us. It was less about writing and more about creating the flow of the story.

MC: We put tons of post-it notes on walls. James, if he wanted to, could create a four-hour show on the same subject.

JS: Yeah, our main problem is having way too much material.

BK: That is a beautiful problem to have. 

MC: There are so many memories and different aspects of James’ family or extended family that could be explored, so it’s been a process of trying to zero in on what fits with the tight focus of the piece.

BK: Why choose site-specific for this show? Why change locations for each performance? 

JS: You could feasibly do this show in a theatre with a piano on a stage, but I kind of wanted to keep the authenticity of actually tuning a piano, then leaving it tuned for a family to use, and then moving on to the next one. Throughout the run of the show, I feel like I’m making some tiny impact on the community in terms of leaving it slightly more in balance.

MC: If we did it in a theatre, every night we’d have to un-tune the piano.

JS: This feels more authentic.

MC: Especially now that we’ve been in all of the venues doing practices, I think it’s a very intimate show. I think that these locations will really support that intimacy because we are really in people’s private living spaces for very small groups of audience.

 

BK: How does the audience find out where they are going?

JS: It’s a secret because working with 8 different venues brings up a lot of logistical issues. People backing out or people wanting to change their capacity or their time or date, so if we had announced all of the locations right away, we would be constantly changing it and updating it.

MC: It also helps protect people’s privacy a little bit and all of their addresses.

JS: So 24 hours before each performance, Summerworks will email everyone who has bought a ticket letting them know where to go.

MC: They’re all in the general vicinity of SummerWorks, between the Queen and Dufferin area.

BK: Building from that, how does being at these unique different locations heighten the experience for your audience coming to see the show? What does it do for them?

JS: I think it sets up just a different experience for them right away in terms of going to theatre. I think it’s stretching the idea of what theatre is and what it can do.

MC: The show is really based in reality. I mean, James is telling a series of stories, all of which happened. I think by walking into someone’s house and having a real piano that actually needs to be tuned just supports the reality of the piece. Early on James was asking me if anyone else could perform this show and I don’t really think so partially because you’d need James’ skill set of being a performer and also being able to tune pianos. Even if someone could, I think it would be strange because it’s based so much on James’ personal experience.

BK: Let’s talk about site-specific and immersive theatre. What do they mean to both of you in terms of this show and more broadly speaking?

MC: I was actually thinking about this last night because I was writing an e-blast for this show. I was thinking about if this is a site-specific piece or immersive. I described it as a site-specific show. To me, I guess, it’s definitely site-specific in the sense that the location we’re performing in is going to radically inform what the piece is and we’re going to do this show 8 different times in 8 different spaces and it’s going to be 8 different shows. It would be a very different show if we did it in a traditional theatre. I think it would be a less activated experience. If we did it in a traditional theatre, I don’t think the space would have as much of a role on this show as it will when we perform it.

I guess when I think about immersive theatre, I think about the audience taking on a little bit more of an active experience, not necessarily physically active. That wouldn’t be the first word I would use for this show, but you could probably make arguments about parts of it being immersive too. I don’t know, what do you think James?

JS: I agree with what you said. The idea of immersive or site-specific theatre didn’t really exist until I met Mitchell. I had only done more standard types of theatre. Mitchell and Julie Tepperman asked me to do Brantwood at Sheridan, which was my first experience with immersive theatre.

MC: James was the musical director for the show, which was a monster task.

JS: After that, Mitchell hired me to do Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play as well, which was site-specific in a way.

MC: That was a show that was probably on the borderline of immersive. I think there we really took over a space and radically transformed it. We did it in an old adult movie theatre in the east end. We really tried to transform what that space was to make it look post-apocalyptic and make the audience really feel like they were taking shelter in that place to weather out the apocalypse. We did that show without using the grid electricity and so that added to what made it immersive.

There’s sort-of set criteria to what people expect a theatrical experience to be and it’s trying to challenge some of those pre-conceptions. One of the cool things on that show, because we didn’t have any electricity, the sound design became really interesting. James held the major part in it – he was like a foley artist. He was popping balloons to signify gunshots. He worked in collaboration with Samuel Sholdice who did the sound design. We needed the sound of crickets in the first act and so, without electric sound, we got real crickets in cages living in the ceiling. We made jokes like “Can we hear that at 50%?”

temperament-photo-2

BK: That is amazing. What are the challenges, not only with Lessons in Temperament but with site-specific as a genre of theatre?

JS: Well, for this show I thought it would be a lot easier but because I’m inexperienced, I quickly learned that…

MC: Everything’s more complicated.

JS: I didn’t plan on having a producer. I thought this would be a small thing that I could handle on my own. Handling the logistics of the spaces was the hardest part because you have to think about audience capacity and whether or not we can hang lights. It became this kind of never-ending and always-expanding list of things that had to be done that a producer would normally do.

BK: Cue Sarite Harris.

JS: Exactly. I was trying to write the show and I found the only thing I was doing was writing emails.

MC: Even if you’re trying to do a piece and take it outside of a theatre, what you’re actually doing is trying to create a theatre inside of a space that isn’t a theatre. There are certain things like tech, seating capacity, audience comfort, and health and safety that are givens in a theatre… you don’t have to deal with that. When you go into a space that isn’t a theatre, your work has to start so much earlier in terms of figuring out things auxiliary to the actual presentation. In this case, when you’re in different locations every night, that’s just doing that work over again, all the time. Site-specific is very time consuming.

BK: Where did these sites come from?

JS: One we got off of Bunz Trading Zone on Facebook. A couple of friends and friends of friends gave us places.

BK: What about your working relationship with each other? How have you collaborated and worked together? 

MC: It’s horrible…

(they laugh)

JS: I really couldn’t have done this without Mitchell. He’s working, not just as the director, but as the developer of the piece, as well. He’s helped me organize my thoughts and my stories into something that is theatrically effective. I think, without him there with all of this info inside of his head, I would have never gotten past the stage of confused writing. I really needed him to kind-of put this into a world that would actually serve an audience properly. Mitchell is really smart and knows what’s good, so I can know that and trust him.

MC: I do know very little about music and music theory. I’ve been the ground zero test case for the most musically ignorant audience member. I can hear things better than I can two weeks ago! I’ve never had the opportunity to work on a show like this. I’ve been doing more new work development in the last couple of years and worked on a couple of solo shows, which is always interesting. You’re sort of getting a window into their brain. Given the subject matter and how this show is based so much around James’ memories and experiences, I’m just really… I’m thankful to be working on it. James has taken me and the other members of the core creative team into a very personal bubble, where the work has been living. One of the things I love about directing, and I don’t come from a performance background, is that you get to work with people and help them do something that you could never do and that’s tenfold on this experience. James has such a unique range of skills that are so far outside of what I would ever be able to do. It’s so fascinating to collaborate with him.

BK: That was a really nice answer guys. 

MC: We practiced outside.

JS: We’re going to hug later.

MC: I think we both came into this with a notion to fly by the seat of our pants. I think the show will continually evolve until our closing night. We have the freedom to do that. SummerWorks is a great place for experimentation. I think if either of us were too stressed about it being perfect right now, it would be less of a productive working relationship.

BK: What about the rest of your team?

JS: Nevada Lindsay Banks, our assistant director, has been so helpful. Just to have someone else in the room, who has this information in their head has been really great. She’s been there since the beginning kind-of helping as we’ve organized this piece. She’s always able and willing to chime in with something I’ve forgotten or Mitchell has overlooked. Just to have that third eye, kind-of taking care of things has been so beneficial.

MC: Nevada was one of the performers in Brantwood. She’s got really great instincts and also comes from a musical background. It’s helpful to have her to work with. Nick Blais is doing the design.

JS: He’s brilliant, I can’t believe he’s doing the show. He’s so good and so committed to it and he’s coming to all of these site visits and putting so much time into it. He’s so excited about it and I respect him so much as an artist. I feel so lucky.

MC: We’ve done a lot of site-specific stuff together and he’s one of the Outside of the March resident designers. He’s just got an amazing balance of a really creative mind and a really practical mind and you need that when doing these kinds of shows. He’s a truly unique talented dude who can kind of do it all. Kate Sandeson is our stage manager and we’ve both worked with her before. She can really work in non-traditional environments. Her calling the show will be moving dimmers connected to her binder while she’s sitting behind the piano with earplugs. She’s going to have a unique experience in every venue.

BK: What do you want audiences to walk away with at the end of this piece?

JS: I want people to feel like they’ve gained some insight into mental illness that is not textbook information or information a psychiatrist would give them. I want to offer a perspective that is very normalized and simple and understanding.

MC: There is a beautiful metaphor that James has created in this show. The show will start with him taking out a screwdriver and opening up these pianos. You get to see the piano exposed and the inner workings of it. Over the course of the show, you learn about what makes a piano work and how to keep it in tune. It’s something that most people don’t know about, but it’s an incredibly intricate process and it’s fascinating how this thing works and what gets in the way of it working. I think that’s a great metaphor for what goes on inside our brains and how many things in the world that we sort of interact with and accept, without really knowing what the underpinnings are. Beyond pianos, it makes me think about that.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Movie
MC:
The Big Lebowski
JS: Sandlot

Favourite Play
MC:
King Lear.
JS: The Seagull.

Favourite Musical
MC:
Hamilton but really Into the Woods.
JS: Sweeney Todd.

Favourite Food
MC:
The grilled cheese I just ate.
JS: Cherry cheesecake my mom makes.

Favourite Spot in Toronto
MC:
Trinity Bellwoods Park.
JS: Skyline Diner.

What music are you currently listening to?
MC:
The cast recording to Hamilton.
JS: Joel Plaskett Ladida

Advice you live by?
MC:
Don’t try to do what everyone else is doing, try to do the thing only you can do.
JS: Don’t ever argue with an idiot, they’ll drag you down to their level and defeat you with experience.

Lessons in Temperament

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Who:
TuneSmith Productions
Written and Performed by James Smith; Directed and Developed by Mitchell Cushman; Sound Design by James Smith; Production Design by Nick Blais; Stage Management by Kate Sandeson; Assistant Directed by Nevada Banks; Produced by Sarite Harris, James Smith, and Mitchell Cushman.

What:
Every piano is unique in its imperfection — in its flawed relationship to the sonic world. It’s impossible to perfectly tune a piano, so the job of a piano tuner is to tame this imperfection into an even balance, an even spread of dissatisfaction. This balance is known as Equal Temperament: a game of constant compromise and a lesson in disappointment.

Every mind is unique in its imperfection. In Lessons In Temperament, James Smith tunes pianos in various public and private spaces throughout Toronto while exploring theories behind Equal Temperament as well as his three older brothers’ mental illnesses: obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. Smith attempts to grant balance to the instrument that has, throughout his life, kept him grounded and kept him company, while reflecting on the discord that runs through his family. Each performance takes place in a different venue, gathered around a different piano. Part autobiographical story-telling, part performance art, part tune-up, this site-specific show offers a unique theatrical experience, and a singular glimpse into the lives of those living with troubled, beautiful, distempered minds.

Because our venues are site specific, we want to give you our patrons as much prior knowledge as possible. For allergy purposes, the performances on August 10th, 12th, and 14th have dogs as well as one cat on the 10th. Please note that the pets will not be at the performances.

Curator’s Note
“‘This working-through of the resistances may in practice turn out to be an arduous task ….’
– Freud

It’s a lovely performance metaphor: the tuning of pianos, the tuning of our hearts and minds, our lives. It’s might be a Sisyphean task but: ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill one’s heart’. (Camus)” – Guillermo Verdecchia

Where:
Secret Location

When:
Wednesday August 10th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Friday August 12th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Sunday August 14th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM

More Show Info:
summerworks.ca/lessons-in-temperament/

Tickets:
Sold out in advance but limited tickets at the door.

Connect: 
twitter – @tunesmithprod
instagram – @tunesmithproductions

 

A Few Words with Mitchell Cushman – The 2013 Paprika Festival

Ryan Quinn: So, I’m here with Mitchell Cushman! The 2013 Paprika Festival is well underway. We’ve been hearing some exciting things about the new work being presented and expansive programming this year. Would you like to tell me a bit about the festival as a whole and what your role as Director of Artistic Programs means for the process?

Mitchell Cushman: Sure. The Paprika Festival is currently in its twelfth year of operations. I was actually in the second year as a participant, when the festival was a much smaller thing. Back then, there were just three programs going on, there was no mentorship, no auxiliary. Most of the aspects that make Paprika what it is now have come along in the past four or five years under the artistic production of Rob Kempson. He’s in his fourth and final year with the festival. He’s really expanded Paprika, so as opposed to it being a festival that happens once a year, there’s also eight months of programming leading up to it. There are now seven productions, which function at a distance from the festival. We select them all but then they rehearse on their own. It’s also a juried festival. We collect applications from high school and university students for shows, pick the ones we’re most excited about, and then offer mentor support, pairing each group with a professional artist who works with them over the year. Finally we give them a great place to present their pieces, the Tarragon extra space.

Aside from that, we also offer two weekly programs; the Creators’ Unit and the Resident Company. Those are both groups that people apply to as individuals, we then create ensembles through those applications, then we pair them up with professional mentors as directors and facilitators.

We have a playwright-in-residence program, whose individual plays will culminate in readings during the festival. We’re also offering mini-mentorships, which is kind of a junior version of that. We also have an Olde Spice program for people over 21. Our cutoff age for Paprika is usually 21, but this is more of an alumni program for people who’ve worked with us previously, and now we’re supporting their later work.

There’s also one more program that’s new this year called the Advisory Board, that’s a steering committee of people between the ages of 14 and 25 who are interested in producing.  They’ve been involved with the production of the festival. They’re running our studio cabaret late night series, so every night after the festival, there is some fantastic late-night programming courtesy of the advisory board.

R: So the festival seems to really help young artists trying to break into any aspect of production.

M: Absolutely. I think that’s the exciting way the festival has expanded, by really offering mentorship opportunities to people in every area, as you say. I think the festival really stands out because all of our productions are application-based and juried, so as much as it is a training program, we truly believe in the excellence we’re putting forward on stage as well. We look at it as “What’s the highest quality work we can present?”.

R: How does the experience change, then, when working with young people as opposed to working with people who’ve been in the theatre a longer time?

M: I think you get surprised more often. I mean, the fact that they’re fresh and new, and yet we’re blown away by the work they do. Especially this year, I think it’s the strongest year for Paprika. Everyone is coming from these places…I really feel like there are some strong new voices at work. There’s a fantastic piece being presented called This Play is Like, and on the surface it’s a play about a peanut allergy, but it’s really about how people can be allergic to their environments. It has a whole narrative shadow puppet show that compliments the main story. It’s one of the things that really blew me away when we were looking at all of the works this year.

R: As you mentioned before, the festival is expanding and adding new programs every year, gaining notoriety. Ideally, in ten years, what would the festival look like?

M: There are things that we’re doing in a small way now, that if we had the resources, we’d love to do in a bigger way for the future. Last year we hosted a school, where some of the productions went to schools and actually played for them, which was a perfect fit because they were playing to their peers. We’d love to do that in a bigger way and go to more schools. We’d also love to increase our outreach. Most of our participants hear about us through their schools but there are more and more who don’t. We’ve also talked about the idea of reaching out to other cities. For the first time this year, we have a group from out of the city, from Ottawa, who have been commuting in from there, if you can believe that! So, we love the idea of Paprika festivals in other places in Ontario, or even further, that we could partner with.

R: That sounds amazing. Well, thanks so much for your time and break a leg with this last week of Paprika!

M: Thanks!

The 12 Annual Paprika Festival runs March 27th – April 6th at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space.
For complete show descriptions & a detailed calendar of their productions and events check out the Paprika Festival website: paprikafestival.com 
For tickets go to the Tarragon Theatre website. Shows have been selling out so catch them while you can!