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Posts tagged ‘Paprika Festival’

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

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“Breaking out of the Ingénue” In Conversation with Eliza Martin: Playwright/Performer of “O”

Interview by Bailey Green.

We spoke with playwright and actor Eliza Martin about her upcoming solo show O, playing for two nights only at the Artscape Wychwood Barns on November 28 and 29. The play tells the story of Leigh, who is donning her flower crown to play Ophelia. During a tech rehearsal the day before opening, Leigh speaks to the audience about her experiences as the ingénue—namely crying and dying. Through Leigh, Martin challenges the notions surrounding these iconic roles for young women. We spoke with Martin about breaking out of the ingénue, her fascination with Ophelia and discovering her voice.

Bailey Green: Tell me about the genesis of the project.

Eliza Martin: So I started working on O in 2014 when I was about to graduate [from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College]. It was an Independent Study Project led by David Matheson, and I was interested in the character of Ophelia, perhaps for the reasons we all are. There’s that image in our head of the woman floating in the water, this history of all those famous paintings and I wanted to do a project exploring her.

BG: What else drew you to the character of Ophelia, what qualities did you want to explore more deeply?

EM: As a young woman in theatre, we think of ‘who I would play in that show’. We look at plays with the lens of the part we might be considered for. So for me, I recognized this frustration in this tiny, tiny role [Ophelia] and these limited situations that we see her in. We get her being a pawn for her dad and brother, her briefly talking to Hamlet and then as Mad Ophelia. Which is beautiful in its own right, but still—in a play that is three hours long, she only has these tiny moments, whereas Hamlet deliberates about one decision for pages. Yet for this one young woman, we get only a few glimpses into what she’s going through and hardly any text at all. At the time of my ISP, a friend of mine mentioned that she took a Shakespeare course in university and the professor spoke about the origin of Ophelia’s name—he said O is a nice emotional sound, and O is also a zero and it means nothing. I was enraged by that notion, so I called it O. I wanted this moment of defence – I just can’t let a female part mean nothing.

BG: How has this draft changed from previous drafts? Do you find your focus has changed?

EM: I think the focus has changed. It’s very much the same spirit. And a lot of the work Ali [Joy Richardson] and I did as co-creators has stayed in tact from when we workshopped O at the Paprika Festival. This time we’re digging a little deeper into the heart of both the character and the actor, Leigh. It’s a longer version and there’s a bit more darkness and ambiguity. We only had 30 minutes at Paprika, so it’s been great to be given more time to dig. I’m working with Rebecca Ballarin, who is new to the project, and our team is just amazing.

BG: How have you broken out of the ingénue role in your own career?

EM: It’s something that has always been kind of assigned to me? And because of that I used to view parts and opportunities through that lens. I’d approach Hamlet and think Ophelia and I would immediately slot myself into those expectations. And now, I have arrived at this crossroads, because if we’re going to play these parts we need to play them differently. Or perhaps they don’t belong anymore, and they need to be adapted. Or how can someone else play them to make them more compelling? Maybe I’m not the right person to play these roles anymore. I think we need to move forward with that knowledge, that these roles need to be changed or played by other people. There need to be new voices.

BG: What challenges you the most about this project?

EM: I think bringing my own self into it has been challenging. It started as a project where I wanted to explore Ophelia and Hamlet as a play and I wanted to do so with distance and from an academic perspective. But when I was working with Ali, she encouraged me to bring my own story which was very challenging and scary to do. That opened the door for the work we’re doing now, and collaborating with Rebecca, has moved the piece further in the direction I was going.

BG: Who or what is currently inspiring you?

EM: I’m very interested in the conversations being had about consent. I don’t think that was a conversation that was in O in the previous versions, but there’s a lot to be said about the power dynamic between a young woman and older man. I’m inspired by the women coming forward and talking about their experiences. It’s not something that goes very far in the show, I wouldn’t say that we really tackle issues of consent, but there’s a lot to be said for decisions we feel we need to make because we’re part of this big system. This is Leigh’s first real Equity gig, and she’s working with a well-known director, and she doesn’t feel that she is able to express herself or ask for changes that should be made.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Go-to cafe: Bloomer’s.

Album on repeat: Christmas music…don’t judge me!

Best time to write: Late at night—so toxic, so tempting.

Current favourite tea: Earl grey, any day.

Late night snack: Popcorn

O

Who:
Written and performed by Eliza Martin
Directed by Rebecca Ballarin
Sound Design by Nick Potter
Lighting Design by Steph Raposo
Production Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Script Advisor: Rachel Blair
Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

With Ben Hayward as Rod
and Lucy McPhee as Carol

What:
Hamlet opens tomorrow night and Leigh is ready to make her debut as Ophelia: wigged, primped, and donning her flower crown. During a brief hold in her tech rehearsal, Leigh takes the audience through basic acting skills for the ingénue and shares candid personal anecdotes, sparking a series of unsettling realizations.

O examines the stage life and death of the ingénue – the stories they tell, and the women behind them. Will we continue to accept that success for an actress means crying and dying through a career? Or can we find a way to keep our heads above water while turning the tide?

Where:
Artscape Wychwood Barns

When:
8pm November 29th & 30th 2017

Tickets:
$15, online & at the door
Tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3166903

Connect:
http://www.elizamartin.ca/

“A look into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times” – SEAMS at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival

Interview by Bailey Green

I sat down with several members of the Seams Collective, Polly Phokeev (playwright), Elizabeth Stuart-Morris (producer/actor) and Mikaela Davies (director) to discuss their upcoming production of Seams at SummerWorks 2015.

Polly Phokeev began writing Seams four years ago during a playwriting workshop with Djanet Sears. She was asked to write a scene for 4-7 people and was inspired by an old photo of her grandmother sitting with a few other women. “It began as a play about my grandmother, and I drew from her memories of Russia and the memories of others in her generation,” Phokeev says. “But it became a play about accountability to one’s past and the loyalty we have to our friends, family and country.” The play is set in 1939 which comes at the tail-end of Stalin’s purges. “It’s a look into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times,” says Polly. 

Polly worked Seams on and off for several years until it took the shape of a two and a half hour draft entitled Ranevskya and the Seamstress. They held a workshop reading and the play was well received. Producer and performer Elizabeth Stuart-Morris encouraged Polly to bring the script to the next level. “I was struck by how beautiful the story was and knew it was time to get the play on its feet,” says Elizabeth.

Polly then reached out to designer Shannon Lee Doyle. “Aesthetic was very important to me,” Polly says, “and it’s a memory play so things weave in and out, and I wanted to have the five senses very active in the piece. So I went to Shannon. She told me she liked it but that I should cut half the words, so I cut the main character of the draft and stayed with the seamstresses.”

For the design of the show, Shannon created two worlds for the characters to exist in—one is 1939 in the back of the theatre where the seamstresses work and the other is a dream world for our narrator Frosya (played by Clare Coulter) who is in the theatre with us. Those worlds break apart and become deeply entwined over the course of the play.

Next on board was director Mikaela Davies, who says she “fell in the love with this world and the people.” Dramaturge Simone Brodie became the fifth member of the Seams Collective (along with Phokeev, Stuart-Morris, Davies, Doyle) though many artists and collaborators have been involved over the process which began in January 2015.

The Collective participated in the Paprika Festival this year. Director Mikaela discussed the experience of preparing for Paprika, “We called it a workshop but we really went for it. And that has made this stage of rehearsing for SummerWorks much easier. It’s much smoother.” During Paprika, Polly and Elizabeth prepared anonymous feedback forms for their audience and they found that the firsthand comments were invaluable for the play’s development. Also during Paprika, they had a Russian actress come in for a night to perform almost all of her text in Russian. That night, a majority of the audience for that performance was Russian and the response from the community was warm.

Though the Russian audience had a very positive response, a few weeks later Polly ran into a Russian actor who questioned her about the backgrounds of the people involved with the project: how many members of the cast and creative team were Russian? This incident prompted the collective to address the ethics of storytelling. They took it one step further and hosted a panel discussion to explore who has a right to tell stories. Polly says, “We believe that with respect and with research, stories are ours to tell.” Mikaela adds, “We have to ask ourselves honestly, are we doing anyone harm? Are we silencing anyone? And for us, the answer is no.”

The play draws parallels between the Russia of 1939 and Russia in 2015. Polly shares a quote, that has become somewhat of a mantra for the collective, from Sergei Dovlatov: “We endlessly condemn comrade Stalin, and, it appears, with reason. Yet still I’d like to ask-who is it that wrote four million reports?” Mikaela emphasizes how this quote demands that the individual face the consequences of their silence.

“And it makes you consider, what stories are we covering up here in Canada? Who are we silencing?” Polly says, as she discusses the polarized international media response to Boris Nemtsov’s assassination—whereas in Russia the death was initially reported as a tragic accident with no political ties.

“This is not just a story about oppression,” says Mikaela “we want to offer another side to these characters’ relationship to their country—which of course is riddled with guilt and pain and terror—but there’s something really beautiful about the notion of service to something greater than yourself. There is a lot of beauty, integrity and love that these people feel for their country.”

When asked about how the characters cope with this obligation to their country, Elizabeth responded, “The characters are constantly grappling with the pull between what they want and their loyalty to their country. There’s a lot of hope and there’s a desire for something more. But the clothes they are wearing, the hours they are working and lack of food is something they have to face. They don’t have any easy way out. It’s a very intense world to exist in, especially when it’s a reality that many people are still living.”

Seams

Produced by The Seams Collective, presented as part of the 2015 SummerWorks Performance Festival

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A dying Russian woman’s frantic recollections of her youth as a seamstress in Soviet Moscow weave through the lives of costume-makers working in a theatre during the fall of 1939. A series of love and hate stories emerge from the dust as she folds together the pieces of a past she has struggled to forget.
Seams is a play for anyone with ancestors, for a country born of immigrants, and for a community made of quilted-together culture.

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace – 16 Ryerson Avenue
Tickets: $15 Buy Now
Thursday August 6th – 5:15pm
Sunday August 9th – 7pm
Monday August 10th – 9:45pm
Tuesday August 11th – 9:30pm
Wednesday August 12th – 7pm
Friday August 14th – 9:30pm
Sunday August 16th – 4:15pm

Run Time: 90min

The Seams Collective

Directed by Mikaela Davies; Written by Polly Phokeev; Performed by Krystina Bojanowski, Clare Coulter, Sochi Fried, Jesse Lavercombe, Caitlin Robson, Elizabeth Stuart-Morris, and Ewa Wolzniczek; Dramaturged by Simone Brodie; Set and Costume Design by Shannon Lea Doyle; Assistant Set and Costume Design by Kelly Anderson, Sound Design by Nicholas Potter; Lighting Design by Steve Vargo; Stage Managed by Steve Vargo and Lisa Van Oorschot; Produced by Elizabeth Stuart-Morris; Assistant Produced by Rebecca Ballarin

Artist Profile: Sara Farb, Playwright & Performer of personal piece R-E-B-E-C-C-A at Theatre Passe Muraille

Interview by Brittany Kay

I had the utmost pleasure of sitting down with long time friend, Sara Farb, to discuss her new play, R-E-B-E-C-C-A, which opened this week at Theatre Passe Muraille. We shared our “somewhat” fondness of our suburban bubble and the journey into realizing that theatre is the fundamental lifeline that keeps us going.

Throughout the laughter and reminiscences, I couldn’t help but marvel at this woman. She is one of wit, talent and has created a truly remarkable play that shares a one of a kind story.

Brittany: How did you get to where you are now?

Sara: I’m originally from North York, so technically I’m from Toronto but my entire childhood was in Thornhill. A huge part of my childhood was spent at a community theatre program called Charactors Theatre Troupe. I went to Earl Haig Secondary School in the Claude Watson arts program as a drama major and then decided to go to the University of Toronto to get a normal person degree, because I’d been working as an actor and didn’t want to remove myself for too long. University was a constant struggle. I ended up doing really well, but it took me six years to finish. I don’t regret it for a second. It was a really good balance to exercise, especially entering a life where you know multitasking is sort of essential if you want to remain sane. 

For a while, I was working as an editor for on an online publication and the acting wasn’t really happening. At the age of 24, I made a decision to leave the business. 

Brittany: What made you come to that choice?

Sara: It was mostly musical theatre that I was doing and that’s already such a marginalized part of the arts community. What I offered was too astray from the norm that the musical theatre arts community is so devoted to here in this country. You know, not necessarily to its detriment, but very few risks are taken in casting. It was really hard to establish myself in any real momentous way. In like bits and pieces sure. It was just too much of a struggle… too frustrating.

I’ve always had an affinity for words and for literature and I had dabbled in online journalism. I decided that if I’m going to be unsatisfied in a profession, it might as well be one that is more lucrative, yields better results and where the competition isn’t as ferocious. I made the promise to myself that after I had a show in Halifax, that was going to be it. I enrolled in these courses to be an editor and my entire life perspective was going to be flipped after the show. This new re-focus would be in the middle and theatre would be its orbit. That’s the way it looked.

Brittany: That must have been an incredibly hard moment in your life.

Sara: I remember having this watershed conversation with my boyfriend where I felt like I was getting a divorce. I needed a clean break. It was such a huge decision and so monumental in my life. But the second I let it go, it just all came at me like I was a magnet. It was so crazy, but also very informative. I’m not an avid believer in cosmic anything but that’s the closest thing I can think of, of any universal involvement in ones’ life, it seemed. It’s inexplicable. So I decided to ride the wave, but I still didn’t take my foot out of the writing door.

It was evident that I obviously wasn’t ready to let go entirely. Eventually, it led to being asked to come in to audition for Stratford because they needed an immediate replacement. I got the part and that was sort of a no brainer.

Brittany: Well…obviously.

Sara: And so now I’m an actor. The feeling that this isn’t permanent never goes away. This always feels like a temporary fix and that’s why I still write and that’s why I’m very keen on exercising other skills. I am not delusional and I don’t in any way, shape or form think that this is going to stay as good as it’s been forever. That’s simply not realistic.

It’s important to pour everything you have into what you’re doing, but if that’s all you got then I think that’s a serious problem in this industry.

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Brittany: Let’s switch gears and talk about the play. How did this play come to be? What was the development process? 

Sara: The last possible year I could participate in the Paprika Festival, I decided to submit. I had sort of been musing about what a play about my sister would even look like because I didn’t really want it to just be a family drama. That wasn’t it. I was kind of more interested in people’s perceptions of people with disabilities and how they might be wrong, especially in my very specific experience with my sister. I know that it’s easy to look at someone like her and feel an overwhelming sense of pity, but in reality she’s actually probably the happier of the two because she’s not aware of the minutia of day-to-day struggle. It just sort of felt like a really interesting place to start. It developed into a 20-minute piece that examined her day-to-day existence. It built a foundation for the development and growth of the play to where it exists now – with a Rebecca that is portrayed in the present and a hypothetical Rebecca.

Rebecca was born prematurely and there’s been speculation in her life that her developmental delay has to do with that. It’s a theory. That sort of coincided with the big question of what you do with legal adulthood even though there’s no comprehension of what that is or any real way of manifesting that with someone who is a perpetual child. What would a hypothetical Rebecca, who was brought fully to term, look like if she were turning eighteen? The play looks at both of those worlds on each of their respective birthdays.

Brittany: How did it come to Theatre Passe Muraille?

Sara: Rob Kempson, who ran Paprika at the time, invited me to participate in the “Old Spice” program, which invites Paprika alumni to further develop their work with a mentor of their choice. Until then, there were a couple years where the development of the play was kind of dead and I didn’t really know what to do with it. This program really sort of kicked me in the ass and it was more due to Rob’s insistence that I applied because I was on the fence about it. It’s just been a really long line of very supportive people, encouraging me to do something about it. So I had my pick of mentors and Richard Greenblatt had been very interested in the play back when I was first doing it with Paprika, so I invited him to be my mentor and dramaturg. It was a really great match. I really owe this to Rob, who brought it to the attention of Andy McKim. It’s been very much on his radar for a very long time.

Brittany: Talk to me about you relationship with your sister.

Sara: It’s very very close in the way that it is. There are few people that she feels comfortable showing all of her colours to, a part from my mom. I may be the next person in line who knows as much about the parts of Rebecca. Her life and my life will really be fused for our entire lives. I adore her to no end. It’s very protective.

Brittany: Like any other older sister would be.

Sara: Pretty much. Obviously there are significant parts of sisterhood missing. It’s like having a four-year-old sister forever. That has its benefits and its costs, but I’ve never wished her to be anything else. I’m pretty aware that I’d probably be a different person if I had an ally in my sister. That’s sort of fodder for why one writes a play like this.

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Sara Farb in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

Brittany: You play two Rebeccas in this play. Can you speak a bit about the two of them?

Sara: The characters’ names in the script are May and July. May is the Rebecca that exists and July is the hypothetical one if she were brought to full term. May is a pretty true to life representation that I’ve been able to master after all the time spent with my sister. It’s a little more articulate than she actually is, but it communicates what I perceive to be her thoughts and feelings. July Rebecca comes from the question of what someone would do if they had the deep feeling that they weren’t supposed to exist. The kind of person July is, is the direct opposite of May who’s fully unaware of her existence. Time is not a concept to May. July’s existence is constant. It is not supposed to have happened to her and therefore it’s always there.

Brittany: What has it been like being both playwright and actor?

Sara: It’s been extremely challenging. Richard gave me a week grace period of allowing the playwright into the room and then the playwright had to leave. It had to just be about performing the play. It’s mostly now about getting 80 minutes of theatre from beginning to end without worrying too much. Being able to treat the words like someone else wrote them is strange. Every now and then I’ll come across something and think, “I can’t believe I wrote that.” I’m trying to shelve those opinions. Not having an opinion on the writing has been a really difficult thing. 

Brittany: Richard Greenblatt has been a part of so much of this process. How has it been having him as your director?

Sara: It’s been outstanding. He’s such a champion of thought-provoking, unusual stories and his commitment to this one is humbling. Anytime my confidence has waivered, he’s there to slap me out of it. He’s just got such a keen eye for developing new work and his dramaturgy skills are unbelievable. I just feel so lucky. The whole team are masters in their field and the fact that they assembled because I wrote this play is a really gratifying thing to feel.

Brittany: Who does this play speak to? Speak for?

Sara: It’s an examination of our experience with people with developmental delay and what we project onto them. How we try to fit them into our world when they necessarily might not want to fit into it. The way they operate may be preferable or more natural. It’s sort of a look at everyone’s struggle of the idea and less about what somebody who is disabled struggles with. They could be the happiest people in life but because we know what they can’t do, that’s immediately a reason for pity.

As well as I know Rebecca this is all largely hypothesized. I’ll never truly know exactly how she feels about certain things because there’s a huge lack in ability of communicating. Even for me to impose all of this on her is sort of the point of what I’m trying to get across.

Brittany: What do you want audiences walking away with?

Sara: All I want is for them to be affected. I want them to like the play. I want it to not suck (she laughs).

It’s important to come to terms with these things and how we approach certain ideas and how much we force ourselves onto everything. How something isn’t necessarily a certain way because you feel a certain way about it.

The notion of the ease with which any one of us could have ended up with a genetic disorder. How easy it is for all of that to not go according to plan. If it does go according to plan is that necessarily better?

Rapid Fire Questions:

What is your favourite…

Book: Of Human Bondage.

Movie: Recently, Whiplash.

Place to write: Revel Caffe in Stratford.

Place in Toronto: I really like walking along Bloor Street.

Food: Lately it’s been Korean food. I cannot get enough kimchi into my mouth.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Don’t give up, get ready.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A

Written and performed by Sara Farb. Directed and dramaturged by Richard Greenblatt. A Theatre Passe Muraille production.

RBC TPM Cover Photo

Tickets: PWYC-$33  – Buy here.
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Length: 80 min
When: On now until March 1st.

Connect: Sara Farb @SaraFarb
Theatre Passe Muraille @beyondwallsTPM
Brittany Kay @brittanylkay

A Play-Within-a-Play-Within-A-Church: We Chat with Rosamund Small, Writer of Genesis & Other Stories at the 2013 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Hallie Seline

I met up with Rosamund Small, writer of Genesis & Other Stories, one of the site-specific productions that you can (and should) check out as part of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival July 3rd to the 14th. Contrary to what the promo pictures might suggest, should you have seen them tantalizing your facebook walls and twitter accounts, she was fully clothed in a lovely summer outfit, with no cheekily-playful shrubbery keeping her modest. We talked craft beers, excessive amounts of hummus and the world of theatre school and life after on the patio of Grapefruit Moon in the Annex. And then when our hummus plate finally was left bare, we talked about the play she’s been developing for four years and is still apparently re-writing a week before show-time, Genesis & Other Stories…

Genesis Poster

HS: Let’s begin. Talk to me about Genesis & Other Stories.

RS: Genesis is a show that I actually started writing when I was really young. I started writing it when I was seventeen. I had just written my first show that I was really proud of, which is hilarious because I was about fifteen/sixteen at the time, but it had like three jokes in it and people really, really laughed and I thought…

HS: “Am I funny?”

RS: Yeah! Exactly. And I mean, you know, it wasn’t some work of genius but that was in high school and I had never really experienced that very specific high of sitting in an audience, and the moment when every body laughed, you could really know, “oh wait, they are really listening”. So I determined that I wanted to write a really balls-to-the-walls comedy. (She laughs.) It was a really long time ago when I wrote the first version of Genesis & Other Stories and did a performance of it in high school. After that, I continued to work on it for the first time through the Paprika Festival with Damien Atkins as my mentor, who, may I say, is just the most wonderful person. He has such a specific sense of humor, which makes me laugh so much all while he’s being incredibly serious. He was such an inspiring person to work with. All of this was, believe it or not, about four years ago. We did a staged reading at Paprika and the improvements I had made on the script and having done the staged reading with a really solid group of actors, meant that I felt like there was something I could clock about that success.

After that I put it away and didn’t really read it, in fact I didn’t read it for about four years. When I finally looked at it again, all I could think was, “Ah, this doesn’t make any sense. This is dreadful!” I had thought it was so funny and cleaver and then four years later you read it and you’re just like “oh god!” But still, we did a table read of it and by just sort of happenstance, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, who was in the table read playing the main character, who is actually supposed to be a man, (she was great, obviously), was really enthusiastic about it. I don’t know, just her response to it… the fact that she, who is so smart and able to analyze scripts in a very thoughtful way, still really loved it… which for someone who thought after four years that this play didn’t make any sense, it was incredibly inspiring.

So I decided that I would ‘fix’ it, and that’s why we brought it back to Paprika. We teamed up together, Vivien and I. It was really her enthusiasm that made this show go back into development. We worked on it last summer and did another staged reading in January and a production with Paprika in March and even now we are still…

HS: Re-writing?

RS: Yes.

HS: Still?

RS: Yes! Oh my gosh, the obsessive re-writing of this show is… crazy. Like it’s crazy. It’s crazy!

HS: And the show is going up in the next week?

RS: Yup.

HS: Alright!

RS: Well it’s really different now. At first it was like, new scenes and new elements, but now it’s really just about clarifying little tiny moments. I think it’s a testament to the actors and to Vivien and to the fact that we’ve all worked so long on this project together, that usually when the change happens we all think “Oh, good! There it is. That makes more sense” and everyone is on the same page about it.

The Cast of Genesis & Other Stories: Jared W. Bishop, Tess Dingman, Hayden Finkelshtain, Katie Housely, Wesley J. Colford

The Cast of Genesis & Other Stories: Jared W. Bishop, Tess Dingman, Hayden Finkelshtain, Katie Housely, Wesley J. Colford

HS: So the cast you have now, you’ve been working with them throughout your development with the show for the past year?

RS: Yes, since November, so they’ve played a really valuable part of the show’s development of where it is today. I think when you trust your actors, I mean you always have to let them try things out and see what works, but when they ultimately don’t know what they are doing, it’s incredibly helpful for the development of the script.

HS: It gives you a chance to see it fleshed out in front of you and realize when the script really isn’t working.

RS: Yes! Totally.

HS: So, let’s talk about the origin of Genesis & Other Stories. Where did the idea for this play come from?

RS: You mean, why would I write about a Christian play within a play? Well, religion and theatre, I think, are really the two obsessive, kind of crazy, kind of amazing things that I see people really dedicate their whole lives to, so I thought, why not put them together. (She laughs). For example, the idea that when you go on stage, you know, if you fail it’s just terrible and it’s often thought of as being just the worst for an actor. So I thought, well great, let’s talk about that. We have some characters who are all about that, who think “Oh I’ll just look stupid” and that fear underlines everything for them, while we have other characters who are working on this play and thinking “Well if I fail, it’s for the grace of God” and “I care about this play because it’s a part of the other thing that people really dedicate their lives to”. The idea of really having to put yourself on the line and having faith in something is a real unity between a lot of the ways that artists think and the ways that many people who are religious think.

HS: You know, I have never really thought of it like that, but it’s kind of true. It’s funny, we were discussing earlier how theatre can be a little cult-like sometimes and it can almost consume you.

RS: Totally.

HS: Well and I guess with both that and religion, there can be a fine line.

RS: Yeah, I think there is. And I also think that there is a really great parallel of following a script, you know, following text, which you don’t realize as having that kind of power. Which is so funny, because I’m a writer, and in our rehearsal room, the writer is present, you can ask me about the text. But ultimately, the writer isn’t present for most theatre and you’re just supposed to trust how you think and interpret it for your time, which is very similar to a lot of bible conversations. So for this to be a bible play, and for the characters to be arguing about how they should literally be following this bible play was just a very appealing little dynamic for me.

HS: So in a description of the show, it’s labeled as a “romp to get you thinking”…

RS: Oh my. Sounds exciting!

HS: Very! Specifically it’s described as follows: “Slapstick, satire and meta-theatre frame a surprisingly complex story about lonely people trying to fill roles that do not suit us.” Can you talk to me about the roles that humor and pain play in Genesis & Other Stories and about your thoughts on using humor to get to something a little more poignant in your writing?

RS: For sure. I mean up until very recently, and I really mean like February, I thought that comic relief was important in a dark story or it’s important to have pain and comedy next to each other, like there should be a moment of pain and a moment of comedy. We went through these drafts of Genesis & Other Stories where everything would just sort of stop, all of the ‘funny’ would stop and we would have our moment of ‘pain’, then the comedy would start again, and I’ve just really shifted my thinking on that. I think that a real comedy is pain, like it’s all mixed in together. It’s not like you inject the drama or place it in other scenes. Anything that really makes someone laugh from his or her gut is probably about pain. So I’m not equipped or interested in, at this moment in time, writing something that makes anyone in the audience want to cry. That’s not where I’m at right now, particularly. But at the same time, I don’t think comedy is a real escape, at all. It’s like facing something in a way that you feel you actually can face it. It’s the fun-house mirror version of reality, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not completely real.

So the fact there there’s a lot in the play about being in the wrong place, not being able to live up to expectations, not being able to be who you are, like there’s queer themes and gender themes and a lot of things about people being in the wrong role and then literally, on stage in a role where they don’t fit or can’t do, those situations can be funny, even though they can be awful or poignant at the same time.

Genesis & Other Stories - Promo Pic #7

HS: So you are performing at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church. Are you rehearsing in the church, as well, or are you just performing there for the duration of the Fringe Festival?

RS: We’ve rehearsed on and off a few times in the church, but we haven’t been able to be there every day.

HS: Being labeled as a site-specific show, how has being in the church with the show affected your actors or the play, itself, as you’ve said you’re still re-writing?

RS: I think it forces you to face exactly what you’re talking about, you know? I mean it makes you think, “What church is it? Where are you? What’s out the window? How old is it?” All of those hyperrealism elements come into play with site-specific and that has been really great. But it’s also meant that we can’t get away with anything cheap. I’m not interested in making fun of all religion and I’m not interested in making fun of Christianity, in particular, even. You really want to make fun of a very specific moment and a very specific character with a specific belief and so performing in an actual church has really heightened that kind of specificity for this story. In terms of the actors, I think to have them doing a play in an environment where plays aren’t really ‘supposed’ to be done, they’ve had to work so hard just to make that work, which they do, I think. It’s going to be totally theatrically valid, especially because of Vivien’s work, but it’s just because they are so used to thinking “Well, the lights will light me in a way that draws attention to me” and now it’s like, no, if you’re not good enough, no one will even know what you’re doing. So, yeah, they’ve really risen to that challenge in a fantastic way.

HS: What do you think someone can hope to get out of seeing Genesis & Other Stories that that they, perhaps, might not be expecting?

RS: I think probably that it will be really inclusive, I hope. I only say this because Performing Occupy Toronto, which was my last play, most of the response that I received from people is how they really expected it to be incredibly preachy or politically, it would be really one-sided, and I didn’t speak to anyone who felt misrepresented or angry or that their perspective was really left out of the show, so I hope that I am able to repeat that. I really hope that this play incorporates respectful perspectives from very religious people, from atheists, from somewhat religious people. I hope that will be what people can walk away with, unexpectedly, maybe… that everyone feels included. I think when you’re satirizing something, especially something like religion, or politics et cetera, it gets people’s backs up quite immediately, and I really like people to be surprised by the fact that you can have a thoughtful conversation in art and it doesn’t have to be anger-inducing. It can be thoughtful and enjoyable. I really think this is the case.

HS: Fantastic. Lastly, what song would you encourage your audience members to listen to before coming to see Genesis & Other Stories?

RS: William Tell Overture.

HS: And with that, we’ll see you at the Fringe in a church!

RS: See you at the Fringe in a church.

Genesis & Other Stories - Promo Pic #3

 
What: GENESIS & OTHER STORIES by Rosamund Small, directed by Vivien Endicott-Douglas, a production by Aim for the Tangent Theatre
 
When: The Toronto Fringe Festival – July 3rd to 14th, Weeknight and Saturday shows at 9pm, Sunday shows at 8pm
** With a special Pay-What-You-Can Preview Performance Friday June 28th at 8pm.**
 
Where: Trinity St. Paul’s United Church, 427 Bloor Street West
 
For more information visit http://www.aimforthetangent.com/genesis-other-stories/
 
Tickets: Purchase by phone or online – 416-966-1062 or http://fringetoronto.com/ 
 
Check out the trailer for Genesis & Other Stories here: 
 

Artists Profile: Britta Johnson – She’s Funny, She’s Sharp & She’s Pushing Boundaries with Musical Theatre Big-Wigs in “Life After”

by: Hallie Seline

Britta Johnson – Three-time Playwright in Residence with the Paprika Festival featuring her piece “Life After” – A New Musical to be shown at the Paprika Festival Fundraiser April 5th in the Tarragon Theatre Back Space.

HS: If you could describe yourself in five words, what would they be?

BJ: This is a hard question.
Whoops, that was five words.
So was that. My god.
And that. I can’t stop.
“Does not follow directions well.”
There. I did it.

HS: Tell me a little bit about your piece being featured as part of the Paprika Festival Fundraiser this Friday, April 5th.

BJ: “Life After” was born during my time as a playwright-in-residence with Paprika last year. I presented just a few plot sketches and songs in last year’s festival and had the amazing opportunity to return to it this year and let it grow into a more fully realized piece of theatre. The draft is still far from completion but it’s certainly at a point where I am ready to hear it and let an audience help me decide what the next step should be.

The story begins at the funeral of a man named Frank Carter, a celebrity self-help author whose car smashed into a truck just as his book was becoming a smash hit. The protagonist is his 16-year-old daughter, Alice, who finds herself running into some questions about the very nature of her relationship with a man who meant so much to so many but seemed like a stranger to her. The show hopes to examine some questions about life and death, celebrity and fame and coming of age. At its core, it really is a comedy (even though it talks about death an awful lot) and it features ten brand new songs.

HS: Any hints as to whom these Canadian Musical Theatre “big wigs” are who will be performing?

BJ: Well, the cat’s out of the bag! The names are on the facebook event. So I won’t just hint. I’ll tell you.

I am very pleased to announce that the reading will feature Sheila McCarthy, Trish Lindstrom, Steven Gallagher, Kelly Holiff, Laura Jean Elligsen and my incredible older sister, Anika Johnson. I can’t really believe I get to work with these people (except my sister. She had to say yes. Saying no would have been really bad form. But I’m still very excited she is involved). I have been doing some breathing exercises to ensure that I don’t pass out when I first meet the cast.

HS: How did you get started with the Paprika festival?

BJ: I was in my first year of university and found myself really craving opportunities to create my own work and connect with other people doing the same. I really took for granted how many platforms you are given for your writing in high school and how many resources you have access to just by virtue of the fact that that they all exist in the same building. Suddenly I was spending my days sitting in lectures about pre-renaissance chant music and trying to figure out how the hell to use an oven while neglecting my writing and composing, two activities that were central features to my lifestyle back in my hometown.  I finally decided to seek out some programs that would help to give me the structure I needed to get writing again, found Paprika online, applied for the Creator’s Unit and never looked back. Paprika has since connected me with my now dearest friends and collaborators and has given me the chance to work with some of the most inspiring theatre professionals in the city (not to mention the fact that there are sometimes snacks at the training days, which comes in handy because I still don’t totally know how to work my oven.)

HS: What has been the most notable experience or realization that you have gained from your involvement with the Paprika Festival?

BJ: That’s so hard to answer. I have had a countless number of hugely valuable experiences during my time with this festival. Perhaps the most important thing that I have realized is that the self-doubt never goes away and that’s ok. What I mean is that I often paralyze myself with self-intimidation. “Who do you think you are?”, “Your ideas are stupid”, “Why do you write musicals? You should be in an indie band or something if you ever expect to get dates” are all thoughts that often play on loop in my head and keep me from doing anything productive, even though I know deep down that creating is a valuable way to spend time whatever the outcome may be. Through my Paprika mentorships, I have realized that there is no amount of success that will make these thoughts go away. I have worked with Leslie Arden and Reza Jacobs, two of the most incredible theatre composers in the city who struggle with the same challenges. They both have explained to me that the trick is not to expect yourself to rise above these thoughts altogether but to learn to work with them and not give them too much power. They rarely reflect the actual quality of the work and even if they do, it was worthwhile to do the work anyways. The fact that the Paprika Festival focuses on process over product is something that has totally transformed how I go about creating. My goal is no longer to create something totally amazing. My goal is to challenge myself, to find the bravery to share my ideas even when they aren’t polished, to push my own boundaries even when it scares me and to dare to be dreadful.

HS: What is the strongest advice you have ever gotten as an artist and how has it affected you and your work?

BJ: Other than the afore mentioned valuable advice about feeling the fear and doing it anyways, I have learned a whole lot about process from working with Reza Jacobs on “Life After”. Reza has consistently encouraged me to just keep churning out new material and to not get stuck trying to perfect what has already been created. “Life After” has been the first show I have ever written for which I didn’t have a plot pre-conceived when I began. I applied for Paprika last year without a clue about what to write. (I honestly don’t know why they let me in. They asked me about my ideas in the interview and I was just like “Dunno. We’ll see.” And for some reason they had faith in me. Weird.) Reza always pushes me to just keep writing. If I have a thought, write it. If I have a question, write about it. Don’t get too stuck looking at what I have and trying to sculpt it into anything before it is ready. This process has been so freeing and organic and I think the concepts in the show are more complex because I gave them the time to be fully realized without stressing about what the show “needed to be.” The draft that has resulted is at times a little chaotic but ultimately more interesting.

HS: If you could choose one artists/musician/playwright to work with in the future who would it be and why?

BJ: Steven Sondheim. No question. He is the reason I tried writing musicals in the first place. He completely transformed everything about what I thought was possible in a piece of theatre. I have to hurry up and find out where he lives though. He’s getting old.

Also Tina Fey and Victor Borge (who is no longer alive but I didn’t think we were going for realistic situations here.) I could keep going… Shakespeare, Debussy, Carol Burnett. I guess you only asked for one. Sondheim tops the list.

HS: At In the Greenroom we like to discover how artists find inspiration, especially in their downtime. Where do you look to find creative inspiration?

BJ: All kinds of places! I have an incredible community of artists around me (some of whom I live with) and daily I am inspired and challenged simply by spending time and sharing my ideas with them. More specifically, when I am stuck writing a song I usually play music that I love, try to figure out why I love it and proceed to imitate it. It’s usually just a jumping off point and the music grows into being my own voice. But sometimes it doesn’t. I won’t tell you the parts of this show that are direct imitation but they are certainly there.

HS: What is your favourite place in Toronto and why?

BJ: That’s a hard one. Is it lame to say my apartment? I have amazing roommates, nice lamps and a good movie collection. Beyond that, Kensington Market (because I am very indie), the Island, Honest Ed’s, Future Bakery, Flip Toss and Thai (No. I can’t get into food places. I’ll never stop. There are so many food places I could say.) I love so many places. I love this city.

HS: What are you passionate/jazzed about these days?

BJ: So many things! I don’t know how to answer this…. Here are some things that I like… I’m really digging a Schubert piece I’m playing on piano right now. I just discovered the show “Portlandia” which I think may be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I’m obsessed with my friends. Honestly, I hang out with the most interesting and talented people. I have been so inspired by the other work I have seen in the Paprika Festival so far. The other two playwrights-in-residence, Jennie Egerdie and Sabrina White, are unbelievable. Remember those names. These two women are something special. I also just rediscovered Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds” and it’s taken over my life in a pretty extreme way. I’m just excited about this city and the people I know in it. A lot of really exciting work is happening. This was a poorly organized answer.

HS: It’s fantastic. Any plans for the near future?

BJ: In the immediate future, I have to figure out a way to finish off my school year without skipping town. I take procrastination to a whole new level, which makes this time of year a particular kind of hell.
Beyond that, I have a few writing projects on the back burner that I hope to invest some serious time in this summer. I will likely go visit my mom in Ireland (she moved to Ireland. How cool is that?), teach some piano lessons and keep on working on this show because it is far from completion. Honestly, I feel like I’m just getting started.
I also probably need a haircut pretty soon.

HS: What can people hope to expect from “Life After”?

BJ: I hope that people will laugh. I hope the story will ring true with the audience. I hope it will pose some interesting questions and look at loss and grief in a new and refreshing way. I hope that the music will heighten the story-telling in a way that is enchanting and entertaining. It’s hard to know what to expect. The piece is very much still in-process right now and I’m not even sure what features will be the most striking when I hear it read out loud. I look forward to learning as much as possible from having an audience in the room. I know for certain that the audience will bear witness to some dazzling performances. The cast I get to work with is world class. I also know for certain that it will make my mother cry so I will walk away feeling like I did something right. Saying that, I think my mother’s just deeply proud I kept up with piano practice and wear sensible shoes so the tears may not have to do with the writing. We’ll see.

Tickets for “Life After”, The Paprika Festival Fundraiser – $20 includes show, pre/post show receptions & talk-back.

For tickets go to the Tarragon Theatre website, call the Box office: 416-531-1827, or get them in person.

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

Shows have been selling out so catch them while you can!

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!