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Posts tagged ‘Storefront Theatre’

A Chat with Charlie Kerr, co-writer and actor in AFTER WRESTLING

Interview by Bailey Green

We got to chat with Charlie Kerr, co-writer and actor in After Wrestling, on stage now at Factory Theatre. We spoke about his collaboration with co-writer Bryce Hodgson, how he navigates working with two different creative hats, and on ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Bailey Green: How did you and co-writer Bryce Hodgson meet? When did you start writing together and what’s your process like as co-creators?

Charlie Kerr: Brycey and I met when we were ten and twelve years old. I was home schooled until the fifth grade when I started public school. Bryce and I were actually both in the program for kids with learning disabilities together. As we grew up, we played in punk bands together and have always been collaborating on one thing or another. In 2014 he suggested we write a play together and something clicked. Two plays later, it’s still the same process of getting in a room together, talking things through and trying to make each other laugh.

After Wrestling – Charlie Kerr – photo by John Gundy

BG: What was the genesis behind After Wrestling? Was there a particular event or incident that inspired the story or did it grow from exploring broader themes?

CK: Yeah, Bryce and I had a friend die by suicide about seven years ago, and it shaped our lives in a really unique way. One day Bryce came to me with this concept for a play of a young man named Hogan whose life is falling apart because his best friend died by suicide and his sister, Leah, who is forced to take care of and live with her wacky, grieving brother. And from there it just grew and evolved.

BG: What has the transition from co-writer to performer been like for you?

CK: Anthony Shim, who also stars in the play, took me aside pretty early on and told me not to be a writer on stage and that was incredible advice. I really took it to heart. So yeah, during the rehearsal process I had to let go of the fact that I co-wrote the thing and approach the character like anything else I would act in. It’s been incredible and surreal to do it for an audience because I have been saying Hogan’s lines for like three years now.

After Wrestling – Leah Osler, Gabe Grey – photo by John Gundy

BG: There’s been a shift in the conversation around mental health in the last few years. Do you feel the stigma is lessening? What do we still need to focus on?

CK: It was less than a hundred years ago when Sigmund Freud first suggested that human beings’ best bet for dealing with their mental problems was talking through them, until then hypnotism was the gold standard for mental health issues. So I believe we are progressing bit by bit everyday. Like, I am twenty-six and when I was a kid struggling and I was self-harming and having panic attacks all the time, I had no idea what was going on. I just thought I was bad at dealing with life. I had no concept that I had a chemical imbalance that could be treated. Ten years ago. there was not nearly the open mental health discussion there is today. While writing this play, I took a mental health first aid course. I think getting educated the best you can on the subject is one of the most productive things you can do. I mean, in all walks of life we need to focus on empathy love and kindness. Something I think we should focus on is the stigma against getting medication. That stigma, in my opinion, is particularly toxic because for some loved ones of mine it makes the difference of life and death.

BG: What do you hope your audiences walk away with?

CK: I hope they laugh and I hope they are entertained. And ideally I would hope they would leave having compassion for those who struggle with mental health issues and empathy for those who are grieving a death of someone close to them.

After Wrestling – Gabe Grey, Leah Osler, Charlie Kerr, Anthony Shim – photo by John Gundy

BG: Tell me about Blood Pact Theatre and about partnering with Storefront and Factory Theatre.

CK: Blood Pact Theatre was created and founded by Bryce, Libby Osler, Bri Proke and I. We created it in Vancouver and put up our first play that Bryce and I wrote in 2015. And then we brought our company out to Toronto for our second show after it was selected from Storefront’s open submissions and that turned out to be a great partnership. Then last year Factory Theatre asked Storefront if they could recommend any plays for their new season and they suggested After Wrestling. That’s the coles’ notes version, at least. But yeah, it’s an incredible team! We couldn’t be happier to work with this many talented kindred spirits. It’s a dream-come-true.

BG: Any upcoming shows or artists you would like to shout out?

CK: Sorry, I have such After Wrestling tunnel vision right now because we just opened so all I can really shout out is like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, which I binged on netflix and loved. I saw Kat Sandler’s Bang Bang on my day off, which I thought was cool and made me laugh. Black Boys looks really good, Bunny looks awesome. I have seen two shows that Unit 102 put on and I love their work. The thing is Toronto is a city filled with great culture and a vibrant theatre scene. So you can’t really go wrong!

After Wrestling

Who:
Produced by Blood Pact Theatre with the generous support of Storefront Theatre in association with Factory Theatre
Written by Bryce Hodgson and Charlie Kerr

What:
When your best friend kills himself and Facebook stalking your ex-girlfriend just ain’t what it used to be, look no further than rolling in duck feces and living in the park. Unfortunately for Hogan, his sister and the cops don’t share his same enthusiasm for DIY self-help.

After Wrestling is a slacker-comedy turned suicide-mystery that finds itself in a booze- and grief- fuelled magic realism debate on love, life, and after-death.

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

When:
March 1-18, 2018

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

“The Actor’s Process, the Future of The Storefront & Working with Canadian Theatre Legends on George F. Walker’s THE CHANCE” In Conversation with Claire Burns

Interview by Brittany Kay

I got to sit down with one of Indie theatre’s fiercest ladies, Claire Burns, and chat about her role in George F. Walker’s The Chance on stage now at The Assembly Theatre. We spoke about working with Canadian theatre legends, her processes on and off the stage, and the future of The Storefront Theatre.

Brittany Kay: What has been your journey to where you are now?

Claire Burns: I had a really good teacher in Elementary school who did big musicals so I got involved at the early age of ten. One of my first roles was Fagin in Oliver!, pretty mature role for a ten-year-old. I then did musicals all through high school. From there, I went to UofT and got my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History, but at the same time I was in the UC Follies. That drama club led me to projects at Hart House with people I still know and work with. And then I went to George Brown for classical theatre training.

BK: You caught the acting bug?

CB: I started to get really jealous of all my friends who were in theatre. I had to give it a go or else I was going to live with regrets. No regrets, right? After George Brown, I’ve just been working. I did a couple professional gigs at the Blyth Festival and the Grand Theatre. Since then I’ve been playwriting and acting in a lot of independent stuff, including projects at The Storefront, which I was running for the last three years. In the last year and a half/two years I’ve gotten more into directing.

Photo Credit: John Gundy

BK: How did you get involved in this show?

CB: I met Anne van​ ​Leeuwen, who is the head producer for Leroy Street Theatre and the Artistic Director of The Assembly Theatre, through the Indie scene with the shows she did at Unit 102 and at The Storefront. She’s a wonderful person and I totally support everything they’re doing with The Assembly Theatre.

George F. Walker and Wes Berger (our director) work together a lot. George wrote this new play and wanted Wes to direct it. Wes contacts Anne to be in the show and she asks who’s producing it. He said “I dunno” so she’s like “I will!” The other casting happened. Wes and I worked on a project together called The River You Step In, which is an independent film that will be coming out later this year with Astrid Van Wieren and Wes asked me to audition for this show from that.

BK: Can you tell me a little bit about the show and the character you play?

CB: My character’s name is Jo and my mother Marcy, played by Fiona Reid, are down on our luck. Marcy owes a lot of money and I’m potentially going to jail. She finds a cheque for $300,000 made out to cash in our couch left there by a guy I slept with. Comedy ensues. What could we possibly do with this cheque? Opportunity-comes-knocking type of thing.

It’s a very well written play. My character has a lot of angst. She’s living with her mom. She lost custody of her daughter, who’s six because she has a drug problem. She’s a bit quick to anger, but her mom is insane. It’s a very cool role. Deep but fun.

BK: Why this story right now?

CB: I think it’s really relevant that it’s in Parkdale, with all the MetCap buildings and the rental control issues. People are getting kicked out of their spaces because they can’t afford basic living expenses because of minimum wage. I think it’s very current. This play is part of a larger series that George has written that takes places in one of those apartments (if you think of the apartments on Jameson). The fact that it’s about that demographic and being done in a storefront space that is within that neighborhood, I just think that there are so many levels of relevancy.

BK: What draws you to the play?

CB: I love that it is only three women on stage.

BK: YAS!

Photo Credit: John Gundy

CB: You just don’t see that kind of representation on stage very often. What drew me to it was the comedy of it, the quick turns of the script, the fact that it’s George F. Walker! I was just like oh my god. The fact that I studied him in theatre school and now I’m meeting him and I get to ask him questions about acting. I think it’s been an amazing process to be working with Fiona Reid, as well.

BK: What is it like working with those legends of Canadian theatre?

CB: George has written such a fast-paced script and I love the way he works because sometimes I’ll improv or I’ll paraphrase my lines, (which I’m not proud of because I was taught to in fact learn them) but sometimes with lines it just comes out of my mouth better, you know? Because it’s so contemporary, he’s not precious about his script. He’s like, “No, no if that feels better, change that.” It’s a really live rehearsal process. He likes when we add things in. He’s got such funny, great ideas. That’s been awesome.

I really like Wes. I really like working with Wes. Wes always says it’s like jazz. We know it really well, but then we get within it, we can kind of play little notes within the play. I really like that too, because as an actor, I never like to do everything the exact same way every night. There are always little nuances. Each night can feel different. He gives us the permission to walk on that tightrope and just really commit to the moment, the moment, the moment. The play is also in real-time, which is really fun.

Fiona Reid is a goddess. She is generous. She is so kind and welcoming and humble and talented. She really asked questions about the script that I think I would have been embarrassed to say. I would have not asked because I would’ve felt like I was holding up the process or maybe I should have figured that out in my homework. Having her in the room really empowered me. We were able to figure out details and plot specifics together. I like to work that way.

We can build the moments together and took the time to do so. She’s fantastic and so specific. She’s really fun in the dressing room. She knows how to dance!

BK: Why do Indie audiences need a voice like George F. Walker’s?

CB: I don’t think George is writing his plays for the upper middle class. I think he’s really writing plays that speak to a more economically disadvantaged audience. Indie is that. It doesn’t have the same kind of restraints. I think it’s great that Indie theatre can have such an established playwright play to their crowds. I hope Indie audiences come out to this play. It’s hard not to think about the producing side of things while being in a show too.

Photo Credit: John Gundy

BK: Which leads to my next question…you wear so many different hats all of the time. How do you juggle and stay sane?

CB: I don’t know… I tend to work on projects when people ask me. As it turns out, a lot of those projects end up being generated by me and by the people who I’ve worked with at Storefront and collaborators that I know. How do I stay sane? I stopped drinking, which is really helpful for me. It allowed me to understand that sleep is really important.

I still party and stay up late, but sleep and regular sleep has kept me saner. It’s interesting that you ask about staying sane. Running Storefront was always, always on the go and now that we don’t have a space, I’m able to breathe a bit more. I’ve had time to write. I’ve gone through some recent life things that have also been able to propel me to write more. With acting, friends will ask. Directing wise, I’m trying to figure out how to climb the ladder of that career. Producing is another bag and I’m trying to get better at how to raise money. And then there’s what I actually do to make money, which has now been more community outreach. Unlike the bar or restaurant industry, it allows me to work from home.

BK: What is the future of Storefront?

CB: I really think there’s going to be a backlash on digital technology and people are going to be seeking a space where you can go to experience something particular. So I think storefront theatres are going to be needed in the country. The future is getting the business model down. We can’t rely on government funding in a way that Tarragon, TPM, and Factory did in the 80s. We have to figure out a new model. We can take the model from the Chicago Storefront Theatre movement where they’re all nightclubs with theatres in the back. The model we want to adopt are spaces that can become party spaces at night. We’re not looking for a space because you have to have money before you even get the space. I am looking for people to join our board. People like Jen Agg from the Black Hoof, her views on feminism in the restaurant industry are super relevant to the theatre industry. There needs to be subsidization on a municipal level. The city needs to give some sort of incentive to landlords to rent to artists for less, give them a tax break or something because the real estate in this city is crazy if you’re not for profit. It’s definitely not dead. We’re also producing. We’re producing a co-pro with Factory and Blood Pact Theatre called After Wrestling. Then we’re doing a Feminist Fuck It Festival in April, which will feature female identified performers and writers.

BK: Yessss. What an amazing name. I want to come!

CB: Right! FUCK IT.

(Laughter)

And we just got funding from the Canadian Heritage to present work in 2018/2019. The presenting and the producing will keep happening, while working towards finding a space.

BK: Any other upcoming projects for you?

CB: We are working on a new adaptation of I Love You Baby Blue with Paul Thompson and Clare Preuss. We want to honour TPM’s 50th Anniversary since it was first done there. I’ve been working on a play called Teeswater. It’s a town near Blyth, Ontario. It’s where my family moved to in the 1700s from Scotland. It’s a trilogy, but the one I want to focus on is about my great-aunt Margaret, who was a lesbian and lived with a woman. I want to explore what a queer relationship was in the 1940s/50s.

BK: Do you have advice for emerging artists?

CB: Diversify your skills now! If you’re an actor and you want to be an actor 80% of the time, learn about production management or lighting design. Stay relevant. You’ll meet so many different people doing different kinds of jobs. Then you’re just already networking.

BK: Sound advice. What do you want audiences walking with?

CB: I just want them to think that it is so much fun. This play, anyone can enjoy it.

Rapid Fire Question Round

What music are you listening to? Tom Petty

Favourite movie? The Wizard of Oz

Favourite book? I’ve read 33 books this year and they’re all of my favourites. I just read a book called A Little Life. I read all the time. You’d have to pick a genre and we’d go from there.

What are you watching on Netflix? Mindhunters

Last Play you saw in Toronto? Lukumi by d’bi.young anitafrika at Tarragon.

Favourite Musical? Rocky Horror Picture Show

Food? Mannings or Sour Cream

Best place in Toronto? Kensington Market, Parkdale, Gladstone Hotel and The Beaver

Best advice given to you/mantra? My mantra today is don’t be a low priority to somebody. For this industry, is don’t take anything personally and don’t be jealous, it’s not worth it.

THE​ ​CHANCE

Who:
Written by​ ​George​ ​F.​ ​Walker
Directed​ ​by​ ​Wes​ ​Berger

Where:
THE​ ​ASSEMBLY​ ​THEATRE-​ ​1479​ ​Queen​ ​St.​ ​W

When:
October​ ​14-28th,​ ​Tuesday-Saturday​ ​8pm

Tickets​:
brownpapertickets.com

“It’s Mad Max meets The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Performers Amanda Cordner, Christina Bryson & Director Claire Burns on DIVINE at SummerWorks

Interview by Megan Robinson

When I walked into the rehearsal space for DIVINE, the women of the cast were already in costume. I caught sight of holsters and cow hide wrapped around their waists. Two actors were clasping plastic bottles molded into the shape of guns. It’s a hot room, and the cast was dressed head to toe. The women, a powerful group, sauntered across the stage and stood ready to begin.

DIVINE is a Western set in a post-apocalyptic Ontario where water has disappeared. Playwright Natalie Frijia, who is currently pursuing her PhD in environmental studies and theatre, first conceived of DIVINE during Storefront Theatre’s first playwrights unit.

The play portrays characters finding strength in a desperate situation. I can’t help but reflect on how the themes of the piece mirrored real life for the cast and crew. Days before rehearsals were set to start, Storefront Theatre was evicted from its space last December. DIVINE, and half the season, was cancelled.

After the run, I sat outside with cast members Christina Bryson and Amanda Cordner as well as director Claire Burns, who tried to remember the exact timeline: “We’d booked off work for rehearsals and everything,” Cordner said of the challenges that face artists who work in indie theatre; more often than not the people involved are also navigating their day jobs (or night jobs…Hi bartenders!)

But the show has landed on its feet and has a new home at SummerWorks. The changes that were made to fit festival needs have also opened up new possibilities. With a set that needs to be easily torn down, and a trimmed version of the original two-hour script, the show is perfect for touring and Burns went on to mention plans to share the show beyond the festival.

The idea of an Ontario in drought might be terrifying, but DIVINE is surprisingly playful in its telling of the story. However, keeping it light took some work. Bryson and Cordner explained that once they delved into the reality of their characters’ despairing situation, they had to be reminded one day in rehearsal that it was a comedy. Cordner, who plays Penn, rolled her eyes at herself and laughed, “I was bringing all the drama.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

“The play itself isn’t an issue play. It’s a kind of fantastical adventure story but underneath it is that message of conservation and sustainability. We don’t want to get to a place where we don’t have water,” said director Claire Burns. There’s a sweet spot in this work of marrying activism and theatre, but Burns is clear on her approach, “You catch more bees with honey.” “People never learn when you point fingers at them,” Cordner added. Burns nods, “It’s like subliminal messaging.”

The show itself may not hit you over the head with its message but by forging relationships last fall with the World Wildlife Fund and Wellington Water Watchers, DIVINE is a show supported by those who are actively working towards the preservation of water. “It was important to me that we had partnerships with legitimate environmental organizations,” said Burns.

Originally written with male roles, Claire made the decision to work with an all-female cast. Her reasoning? “The women were legitimately the best people for the roles.” I asked if they ever played around with women playing men, using fake moustaches or other costume devices, but Cordner and Bryson just laughed as Cordner explained, “Claire made it very clear from the beginning that we were not going to do that.”

Burns shook her head, “I hate that shit.” And she’s had plenty of experience with it. “The guys who played women were always making everyone laugh and then I’d get on stage with my fake moustache and it would just be dumb. We didn’t want to do that. We’re not trying to fool anybody that we’re not women.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

The choice to go with a female cast and crew has clearly paid off. When I asked the women to speak to the community they’ve created in DIVINE they didn’t hold back:

Claire Burns: “What I think is special is that I’m given the opportunity to get to know and get to work with so many powerful and smart women. With every show you work on you create these bonds with people and in this show in particular – I think it’s like 17 women working on this show – everyone is pulling their weight and so it’s such an easy process. I’m having such a good time. I’m really enjoying my community right now. I’m also enjoying that my community is being so generous letting me take this role and I’m so grateful that I’m allowed to shape this story in the way that I want. I’m also part of the                     queer community so I’ve put that into this, very much so…”

Amanda Cordner: (imitating Claire) “There will be a kiss. I don’t know where but there will be a kiss!”

Claire Burns: (laughing) “I’m very grateful it’s so fun.”

Christina Bryson: “It’s fun to get to kick-ass! How often, as women, do you get to do all this stage combat with like ten of you kicking ass at the same time?! That’s my favourite part.”

DIVINE

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Who:
Presented by Red One Theatre Collective with the generous support of The Storefront Theatre
Written by Natalie Frijia
Directed by Claire Burns
Assistant Director Molison Farmer
Dramaturgy Emma Mackenzie Hillier
Performed by Amanda Cordner, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Christina Bryson, Sarah Naomi Campbell, Haley Garnett and Rehaset; Ensemble Annie Yao, Sabah Haque, Kathleen O’Reilly, Khadijah
Producer Sedina Fiati
Associate Producer Olivia Marshman
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Lighting Design by Imogen Wilson
Costume Design by Sage Paul
Sound Design by Suzie Balogh
Fight Director Louisa Zhu
Assistant Fight Director Erin Eldershaw
Stage Managed by Lin-Mei Lay

What:
Ontario is out of water and a pair of bandits search for their last hope – a water diviner by the name of Penn. Stories say she can crack the world like a coconut and make water bubble to the surface with nothing but her hands. But the bandits aren’t the only ones hunting her down. And what if there’s nothing left for Penn to divine?

An all woman cast in Natalie Frijia’s post-apocalyptic wild west asks how we would survive in world without water. Would we turn to community… or to revenge?

Join the creative team of DIVINE for some post-show discussions – August 5 in the Factory Courtyard with Paul Baines from the Great Lakes Common and August 12 at The Paddock with guests from Wellington Water Watchers, the World Wildlife Fund and Surf the Greats.

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

When:
Tuesday August 8th 9:45pm – 11:00pm
Wednesday August 9th 8:00pm – 9:15pm
Saturday August 12th 7:00pm – 8:15pm
Sunday August 13th 1:30pm – 2:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

 

“Exploring Home, History & Family in TOUGH JEWS” In Conversation with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields

Interview by Brittany Kay

I sat down with two delightful men with 3 names – playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields to talk about their current production Tough Jews, running March 31 – April 16th. We spoke about the undeniable parallels in the sociopolitical climates we see today versus 100 years ago, why this story is incredibly important to stage now and how family is at the core of everything.

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

G. Kyle Shields: This is how I’ve been pitching it to people: it’s a Kensington-specific, period gangster drama that takes place in 1933.

Michael Ross Albert: Well the Second Act takes place in 1933.

Laughter.

GKS: Yeah, yeah. I’m just keeping it concise for people.

MRA: The first act takes place in 1929 on Yom Kippur, which was 10 days before the Stock Market crashed. We follow this family over the course of two moments of crisis.

GKS: In 1933, it’s only a couple of months after Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany.

MRA: And it’s at a moment not dissimilar to the political climate we’re in now, where the mounting anti-immigrants sentiments and Anti-Semitism is very prevalent all across North America, including very specifically Toronto, Ontario. The second act takes place shortly after the riot at Christie Pitts.

GKS: Do you know about the Christie Pitts riot?

BK: I do, I’m Jewish.

GKS: You know, most people don’t know about the riot.

MRA: I guess I realized what a bubble I lived in, in realizing how culturally significant that moment is for Toronto Jewish families. If you’re from here and your grandparents are from here, everyone has a story about the Riot or the time surrounding the Riot. It’s a big part of our Torontonian cultural heritage that’s sort of being forgotten.

GKS: And not really passed down outside of those circles too. I didn’t know about the riot before I read the show.

MRA: It was considered one of the biggest race riots in Canadian history. It’s pretty insane.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Is Toronto Jewish history your main inspiration for this piece? Where did the inspiration come from to write this story?

MRA: I had originally set out to write a play about the Purple Gang, which was a Detroit family, made up of first generation Jewish immigrants who kind of briefly inserted themselves into the major big time American crime families. For a short period, they were terrible criminals.

GKS: They were reckless. They were absolutely reckless.

MRA: They were responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which was one of the biggest gangland assassinations ever. I became pretty interested and started reading up on the different exploits that they were involved in and I wanted to write about them.

I realized that Detroit itself needed to become another character of the play but I have no personal connection to Detroit nor have I ever been there. I didn’t feel like I had the wherewithal to write about a city that I wasn’t from.

So I started thinking about this period of time that my grandparents would have lived in and the neighborhood that they’re from. I started researching that period and found all of these wonderful parallels to what I had initially been interested in. By shifting my focus it let me speak to the experiences that my family comes from and to make it a story about my city, so I was able to romanticize its past, but also be critical of it at the same time.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: How did you find your way into the hearts and minds of these people?

MRA: It was really about personalizing their experiences and thinking about the psychology of these types of people.

GKS: Who were also marginalized.

MRA: Yeah definitely. Marginalized people who were doing illegal activities…

GKS: They were forced to do illegal activities, because they didn’t have job opportunities like the rest of the population had.

MRA: They were trying to make the most of a bad situation, which comes with a moral compromise. Each of the characters within this story has a different place where they draw the line of that morality. Each of them exists within this familial structure and has a different relationship towards one another.

GKS: They were very actively secluded from the rest of society. Signs legitimately said, “No dogs. No Jews. Gentiles only.”

MRA: Yeah, those were signs that were hung up here. When buying real estate, going to the beach…

GKS: Going to hotels… There was almost an Anti-Discrimination Policy that got proposed to Parliament in, I want to say somewhere in the 1910s, that was very similar to the government’s Anti-Islamophobia law that’s currently being debated. It was intended to denounce Anti-Semitism, but the counter argument was, of course, it would hinder free speech. What ended up happening was that it gave a lot of Torontonians the license to put up those signs.

MRA: That’s where we come from and it exploded in this massive display of violence that went through an entire night with the riot at Christie Pitts.

The neighborhoods were so segregated. The city did not welcome immigrants. We had a Prime Minister that said, “None is too many.”

BK: So how does all of this comment on Toronto now and then? 

MRA: It’s taking a look at Toronto, which has become the most multicultural city in the world, and looking at what needed to happen in order to get here.

GKS: To go from a point where the city was 80% British to what we are now.

MRA: Within a lifetime. Within a couple of generations. The spooky thing and the really unfortunate thing is that we are seeing now, after all of this amazing progress, a resurgence of incredibly similar sentiments against Jews, against Muslims, against the LGBTQ community.

BK: All of this rich history, how does it make its way into the play?

GKS: The events of this history directly affect all of the characters and affect their decisions and how they live their lives and the actions they take in the play. A lot of what the characters are doing, are reacting to the historical events, whether or not they know it or whether or not they think it.

BK: For the people who have spent their whole lives in Toronto and have never heard about the riot at Christie Pitts, is this explained and talked about?

MRA: Absolutely. It’s really just the given circumstances of the play. The play isn’t so much a history lesson as it is a family drama that takes place against the backdrop of these critical events in our city’s history.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: So family is that core of your story? Why is that such an integral part of it?

MRA: When I was doing my research on the Purple Gang, I was going through my old notes and I wrote on the first page in big capital letters, “WHAT WAS THEIR MOTHER LIKE?”

Laughter  

GKS: There’s a certain something that the matriarch of this family goes through that propels all of her choices. Where she comes from is a major motivation and she makes a point to instill that in her children. “Never forget.” She never lets them forget about where they came from.

MRA: It all begins with family. Their business exploits, their major sources of conflict, of escapism, and love come from within this family unit. I really wanted to be able to explore history from a very personal place and to me the logical start was by creating this family.

GKS: It explores this family enterprise. There are secrets that they keep from one another. There are things that they do to protect one another that involve manipulation and deceit.

MRA: They’re living in extreme times and circumstances, but I’m hoping those tactics are still relatable to everyone because families are fucked up.

GKS: Families are fucked up.

BK: Very true. Very relatable.

GKS: Not only that, all they’ve got are each other. They don’t have the option to move somewhere else and restart their lives.

BK: G. Kyle, tell me about your character and how he fits into this dysfunction?

GKS: I play Teddy, who’s the youngest son of four. He has an older sister and two older brothers. The two older brothers run whatever racket they have going on. As the youngest, as it usually goes, Teddy is very much kept out of the loop. As the youngest in real life, I can relate to that.

In the first Act he’s about 19, so he’s pretty young but he’s coming into his own. We see him trying to be the thing that everyone else in the play wants him to be. Everybody makes a demand of Teddy. There’s a traumatic event that happens through the course of the First Act that informs the four years between Act 1 and Act 2. When we see Teddy in Act 2, we can see how they’ve changed him into who he is now. In a sense, we get to see him grow up. We see this really informed shift in his choices and his personal honour system and values and morality.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Tell me about the pop-up location, the speakeasy, and how it’s going to be an immersive audience experience.

MRA: The Storefront unfortunately lost its permanent home and as soon as we heard the news, we tried to think of it as a blessing in disguise for this particular production. We found this space, Kensington Hall, which is an old punk club.

GKS: It used to be an old booze can and two people have died there.

MRA: Maybe more people have died there.

GKS: May have been murder… Does that sell the show, do you think? That could be a selling feature?

Laughter.

GKS: I mean, it sells it for me.

More laughter.

MRA: We’re working with this amazing set designer named Adam Belanger, who has completely transformed the space. We’re creating a time machine essentially. It’s going to be a speakeasy experience, where the audience will enter through the back alley and as soon as you walk through the door it will be as if you have stepped back in time to the 1920s.

GKS: And when you take your seat too, it’s like you will be a fly on the wall.

MRA: The audience is complicit in the action. It’s not an immersive production, but it is site-specific and right in your face.

GKS: It’s gonna be loud. No one will be able to fall asleep in the theatre.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Why this story right now?

MRA: I mean personally it was my final project of school. I studied playwriting and it was my graduate project. Over the years, it has been developed at different companies all over the place. I had finally come to a place where I thought it was ready for a production. Current events just happen to unfold around it.

BK: Wow. What timing.

MRA: I didn’t write it with any kind of agenda.

GKS: You went into history and took this out and of course it happens to apply right now.

MRA: There are sentiments expressed in the play about the refugee crisis in the 1930s and the unwillingness of governments in Canada and the US to accept refugees. I felt around this time last year that it was important to remind people what that sentiment and the effects of those government policies have on the families. That contributed to thinking about doing the play sooner rather than later, but really, the world turned, it feels like, on a dime, you know? We’re seeing a legitimization of hatred and intolerance, which is very common to the circumstances these people in the play. It’s not specific to Jews, although the play is, but it does carry with it those universal themes of communities that are marginalized, who feel vulnerable in the face of governmental policies that exclude them from the norm.

GKS: …and excludes them from protection from that discrimination.

MRA: I’m so angry at the world right now, that it feels like a very important time for me personally to be staging this play.

GKS: That’s exactly what drew me into this play – that realization of the repetition of history. How I can see the patterns in my world today that are happening in the play as well. Then reading about the riot and the political events surrounding that time just kind of compounded all of that. We’re living in a time of increased intolerance and we need to remember what that does.

MRA: When the second act begins in 1933, we as an audience know there’s a dramatic irony in that we know politically what’s about to happen. This family and Teddy specifically are railing against the circumstances that they’re living in and they think that there’s a way to overcome it. We as the audience know that it’s going to get much darker before any type of light can shine through, before the city and the world can respect and welcome people that aren’t necessarily like themselves. I don’t think it’s so awful to remind contemporary audiences that the spectrum goes to an incredibly dark place.

Photo by John Gundy

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

GKS: That might be a Ben question. (Cue Director Benjamin Blais who has happened to walk by our table!)

BK: Yes, Ben, join our interview!

Benjamin Blais: I want people to walk away with a realization and sense of responsibility. One of the aspects of our production that I’ve extended or posed the challenge to the designers and to the actors in their portrayal is the concept of Photo Realism. Audiences are going to walk down this graffitied alleyway and turn the corner and walk into a door and, because of the fine work of Adam Belanger and the entire design team, it’s going to be like walking through a veil of time. They’re going to bare witness to this story of this family in a period of unrest and growth and then they’ll walk right out again into today’s world. But because it’s in Kensington Market, in a place where this speakeasy probably existed, they’ll be forced to recognize that they’re standing in a place where all of this happened. I want them to be able to look around say, “Holy shit, is the drama and the extremes of what I just saw still happening today? Is it happening to me?”

One of the themes that Michael is working with is this concept of the sins of our ancestors being repeated upon ourselves. Our choices, our ethics, our behaviour, our actions… What are the consequences to the people we love and how does that affect the society as a whole? What we become in order to survive… We do it with the best intentions to protect the family but what are the ramifications of that? I just want people when they’re watching it to really feel like flies on the wall. When they’re able to come out and be active in their world again to think: “What am I doing? How do I treat other people? What am I doing to survive?… I’m contemplating life of crime-oh shit don’t say that.”

But seriously, steal a little piece of bread to feed my family. Am I criminal? Are corporations oppressing people much like fascist nations were of the time? What do we have to do on the day-to-day to put food in our bellies? Are we animals? Are we really criminals?

Photo by John Gundy

BK: Nice. So happy you sat down.

GKS: I want people to walk away with the feeling that it really could have happened exactly that way. That it was a reality that it could and can still exist.

MRA: I always want an audience to walk away with a deeper, more developed sense of empathy. I think that in showing these particular characters, warts and all, that the audience should be able to find themselves in each of them. That they can think about the people and the relationships in their own lives that they could understand better. Whether that relates to politics or their community or just their immediate families and loved ones, so long as they can see that even if people are acting terribly, that there’s something relatable in them and universal that we share.

TOUGH JEWS

Who:
Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by Benjamin Blais*
Starring: Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Stevie Joffe*, Anne van Leeuwen, G Kyle Shields, Theresa Tova*, Maaor Ziv
Set Designer: Adam Belanger
Costume Designer: Lindsay Dagger
Make Up Artist: Angela McQueen
Fight Director: Simon Fon*

*Appear with permission of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. This is a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association production under the Artists’ Collective Policy.

What:
When a murder is committed in Prohibition-era Kensington Market, a family of would-be criminals is suddenly flung into the high-stakes gangland world of American organized crime. Set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the one of the largest riots in Canadian history, this darkly comedic historical drama is the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to rise above their station in a violent, intolerant city.

Where:
KENSINGTON HALL
56K Kensington Ave. (back alley entrance)
Please note: This space is not wheelchair accessible.

When:
March 31st – April 16th

Tickets:
toughjews.brownpapertickets.com

 

In Conversation with Sex T-Rex – Presenting their Double Bill at the Storefront until March 27

by Bailey Green

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sex T-Rex performers Seann Murray, Kaitlin Morrow, Conor Bradbury and director Alec Toller about their double bill, on now at the Storefront Theatre (Danny Pagett and Julian Frid were unable to stay for the interview but are also performing.)

It began with a quote from the movie Predator, “this stuff [chewing tobacco] will make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus.” And then one night, before an improv set, the announcer shortened the improv troupe’s name from Sexual Tyrannosaurus to Sex T-Rex, and it stuck. Performer Conor Bradbury laughs at the memory, “Hey, when someone’s right they’re right! There’s no need to be precious about your comedy.”

The group came together during their time at George Brown back in 2007-2008. Many elements of theatre school didn’t resonate with the actors but when they got together in stage combat class, then things really came alive. “It’s a triumvirate of violence really,” director Alec Toller jokes about the history of Sex T-Rex shows. “All of our action shows are centred around violence,” performer and producer Kaitlin Morrow adds. “Callaghan! was a lot of punching, Watch Out Wildkat is shooting and then Swordplay, which was loosely inspired by Princess Bride, has to do with, well, swords!”

Photo Credit: Cindy Lopez

Photo Credit: Cindy Lopez

This double bill features Watch Out Wildkat! and Swordplay: a play of swords. “Even though we have done Wildkat in 4 cities and Swordplay in 2, we’re still riffing, especially in rehearsals,” Morrow says. “You can always feel when it happens,” Bradbury adds. “There’s this unspoken ‘keep it’ feeling when someone makes a good joke.” Toller says that the group strives for clarity above all else, “We do so much mime, and fake action movie stuff that we’re always fighting to be so precise.”

Toller directs the group’s scripted shows (they also do improv shows) which are written plays with a sketch origin. “It’s very collaborative,” Toller says. “It functions more like a collective, so basically I’m the person not on stage… where I belong… but my job is to manage what everyone wants to get out of it. This show is a remount, so we’re trying to improve as we go, punch things up, and that can be challenging because we have an existing structure but we don’t have an audience.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Writer, producer and performer Seann Murray speaks to the group dynamic saying, “It’s very rare that we have camp A and camp B disagreements. Instead, we usually have eight ideas with each person having three and a half small ideas each.” Bradbury adds, “It’s almost like we’ll have one person who is camp A and one who is camp B, and everyone else just isn’t helping. But it always works out for the best. To have a bit of argument in the room means people care about the product.” Morrow adds, deadpanned, “So we just punch each other in the face until someone gives in.”

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Photo Credit: John Gundy

Murray writes the scripts for the group and describes the process:

“The first step is we identify the genre we want to work in. Then we watch movies and chat about the tropes we want to hit, what we want to see [in the show] from the genre. So it’s not just regurgitation, we want to honour the genre. Once we’ve consumed a bunch of media and batted ideas around, I write the script and we workshop it throughout the process. We often wind up with a small chunk of the script left, we stay true to the character and story more or less, but as Alec [Toller] said, there’s lots of really funny improvisers on the team so we’ll take a scene, work through it and put it back into the script.”

The group considers audience feedback invaluable. They often take their shows to Montreal Fringe before performing at Toronto Fringe. Montreal Fringe offers them the opportunity to try out new material and improve their work. “We change something after basically every show, we find something else we’ve never done before,” Bradbury says.

Photo Credit: Sharon Murray

Photo Credit: Sharon Murray

Morrow, the only female performer of the troupe, tells me how that for years she dealt with crippling nightmares centred around improv. Subconsciously, she wanted to get up and perform but she was terrified. Now, with 19 shows under her belt, she has realized that a bad set isn’t the end of the world and that the joy she feels from performing far outweighs the fear. “The first time I went up to improvise was for Shane Adamczak’s secret show Captain Spaceship in Montreal Fringe,” Morrow remembers. “He just assumed I was in the show because I was a part of Sex T-Rex, and when I tried to back out, he told me I couldn’t because there were no other women in the show. So I didn’t sleep for about a week, and then somehow I was backstage and then I was onstage and I did it. The relief was amazing, and you know, it wasn’t even bad!”

Watch Out Wildkat! & Swordplay: A Play of Swords

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Presented by Sex T-Rex
When: March 11th -­ March 27th, Wed­-Sun
Watch Out Wildkat! @ 7:30 PM & Swordplay @ 9:00 PM
Sundays @ 2:00 PM
Where: The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor Street West
Tickets: $20 for single show, $30 for both shows
Available at http://thestorefronttheatre.com/events/swordplaywatchout-wildcat/
Connect: sextrexcomedy.com