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In Conversation with Kevin Matthew Wong, Co-Creator of THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Kevin Matthew Wong is known to have his creative hands in a lot of things. A creator/actor/director/musician/producer/artistic director/environmentalist… this man is one of the busiest working artists in the city and for good reason. The environmental work and passion he brings to the Toronto theatre community is incredibly important, urgent and inspiring. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Kevin to discuss his current piece The Chemical Valley Project on stage now at the SummerWorks Performance Festival.

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

Kevin Matthew Wong: The Chemical Valley Project is a show about the Sarnia Chemical Valley and its impact on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve, which is a community of 800 people that is surrounded by Canadian and American petrochemical factories. On the Canadian side, those factories represent 40% of all of the petrochemical industry in this country… so it’s a very small community with huge health impacts from these factories.

BK: How did this project come about?

KMW: I’ve known about the Chemical Valley for 3 or 4 years now. I’ve thought about creating theatre about it, but I didn’t know if it was right. I didn’t really have an “in”. What did I have to say about it?

I had also been thinking about documentary theatre recently and from our last show Bite-Sized, I think the strongest parts of it were the parts that were based in docu-theatre. I was lucky enough to meet with Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, who are two climate activists but also land defenders and water protectors from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. They’re incredible and they do such important work. I met them last year on my first visit to the Chemical Valley. I went to talks that they were on the panels for and did my research on them. Finally I got the courage to contact Vanessa and say, “Hey, do you want to just chat about what you do and your work?” I didn’t know it was going to be a theatre thing yet.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: It never hurts to reach out. It can create relationships and new working opportunities.

KMW: Exactly. Now we’re good acquaintances… I daresay friends! That was only just a year ago.

BK: Wow.

KMW: Yeah. it’s crazy. It’s been so fast. It’s a piece about so many things beyond just that base narrative… It’s about reconciliation of how this community gives people an in for understanding wider things about how Indigenous people and settlers interact in this country. How this story, in a settler or white community, would be totally different than what it is right now with an Indigenous community. There are tons of these stories that we aren’t able to tell in the show as it’s only 30 minutes long.

BK: It’s only 30 minutes?

KMW: Yeah! We’re in a double bill with a comedy magic show called Perfection, but for us it’s a step. We didn’t know that we were going to get into SummerWorks. We didn’t know that the piece would develop as quickly. We didn’t know that people would respond to it so strongly. People who I’ve never met have come up to me and said, “I saw your piece and I remember it and it’s making me think and want to do more.” It’s really timely.

BK: How has Vanessa and Lindsay Gray helped your piece dramaturgically?

KMW: They are a part of it. They appear through the show. You hear their words and see them. They have advised on the way that this story should be told and what’s missing. Every time we have a new version of the piece, we show them. We want to honour their words. The climate right now, artistically, is so much about voice. Of course co-creator Julia [Howman] and I are hyper-conscious of that.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: How did you first discover The Sarnia Chemical Valley?

KMW: I’m going to preface with the fact that I think a lot of our conversations on environment are very vague. They’re about degrees of warming and CO2 and methane and those are sort of abstract. A lot of the coverage we get on the environment is very American still. America pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and we’re all doomed. Per capita we have a huge impact in this country.

I stumbled upon a Vice documentary that talked about the Chemical Valley and Vanessa Gray was actually in it, but I didn’t put two and two together until we met. I also learned about the Valley following this major legal battle that Vanessa and two of her friends were involved in – she was dealing with it when I reconnected with her. I wanted to make sure people in the theatre community knew about this issue and unjust charge. That story is part of the show so I don’t want to give too much away.

BK: And what are petrochemicals for some people that aren’t as environmentally savvy?

KMW: They are compounds that are created from petrol. Chemical compounds made from petroleum.

BK: How do they affect our health?

KMW: They’re used for tons of things. In part of the show, there’s like a Ted-Talk-y/info-graph section describing and educating about different petrochemicals. For example, there are chemicals called styrene, which is used for Styrofoam and plastics. Petrochemicals are everywhere and in our everyday lives. Part of the show is about the way that we live our lives and how the way that we live creates a necessity for these products. I don’t imply that they’re essential. I think the playwriting is sort of cautious and conscious in that way. I don’t want to suggest that there’s no way to get away from them. It’s a big issue.

BK: An issue also affecting the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve?

KMW: Yes. It’s about the settlement and placement of this community in one location, when, historically, they are traditional people of the water. They’re not stationary. But with the Reserve system, Indigenous people are told to stay on the land that “we tell you that you own and furthermore the traditional lands that you take care of, we have treaties that you might not have even understood when they were signed, that form the legal basis of this country” which are also are very manipulative and sneaky.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: Why is being close to these factories unsafe?

KMW: In short, it has to do with leaks. I bumped into Trevor Schwellnus, the lighting designer, the other day and I mentioned this project to him and he said, “ Oh yeah, when I was a kid one of my buddies swam in the Sarnia blob.” The Sarnia blob was this oil spill into the water that took a lot of lobbying to clean up and it was there for years. That’s just one example of a very obvious spill. Spills are also not just liquid, there are also airborne spills.

It’s very hard for these chemical factories to track these spills and very often it is the community that tracks them and warns everybody else. One of the most tragic and impactful stories that I learned about was this spill of benzene into the air. They didn’t let people know about it and kids that were playing outside were affected by the spill and one child developed leukemia and passed away. It’s frightening when it’s the job of the Chief to go house to house to say what is happening, to stay in your house and to listen to the radio for the code for what type of spill it is, what the direction is, and the wind speed. All of those things impact your day-to-day life.

BK: That’s really scary.

KMW: The Chemical Valley is the sight of chemical activity AND legal action. It’s not only about the health effects but also about inequity.

BK: Yes, you use a wonderful term in your show description: Environmental Racism.

KMW: It’s not a term that people are using right now very often. It is quite particular in this country.

BK: Your piece uses projections and miniature object puppetry. Can you talk about this a bit?

KMW: I think people are interested in this visual style. It’s something I’ve been working on for the past three years and refining until this point. I’m very lucky to have Julia Howman as my co-creator and as the person who is creating these visuals with me. All of the projections take place on only two surfaces. One is the back wall of the theatre and the other is a sheet. The sheet is completely moveable. I manipulate it in different places in the theatre and different orientations. I’m not interested in seeing something on a screen. I’m so tired of people projecting something on the cyc and it’s flat. I can go home and watch a video on Vimeo. That’s not interesting to me. There are a lot of projections that are unsatisfying. Instead, what is it about the liveness of it that you can play with? The visual style, I hope, is augmenting that liveness and also giving you projections in a way that you don’t usually see them and also giving them to you in a way that they’re interacting with physical objects.

A projector is a light. We love staring at campfires. We love moving light. Moving light is this primal thing. Moving light and movement is a way for us to incorporate elemental things and even though you’re in this black box theatre space, we want you to have a little hint of the magic of nature.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

The miniature objects are different important objects that we interacted with on our way to creating the piece. Those are about scale. I’m always interested in seeing things in two scales at once, if possible, because to put claim to being environmentally conscious is about seeing things in a different scale.

BK: Oh, that was a beautiful line you just said.

KMW: It’s not just that these objects are cool, but it’s about us begging you to see things and re-examine them differently.

BK: How did you get into environmental theatre?

KMW: It depends how far you want to go back… like [back when I saw] Pocahontas?

(Laughter)

BK: What made you want to create and learn more and develop a whole theatre company based on environmentalism?

KMW: I think it started in high school. I ran both the environmental club and the theatre club. Very nerdy. But they never crossed paths. One very formative part of running the environmental club was going to town hall meetings and hearing about this thing called the Food Belt in Markham. That was about trying to protect land north of a certain street and make sure that further housing development didn’t happen because the best farmland in Canada is found half an hour away from Toronto. It was hearing the two sides of the coin at these meetings that made me realize that any piece of art that relates to the environment can’t be this one-sided thing.

In my second year at UofT, I had a conversation with a peer of mine, Nathaniel Rose, about making art that was based on environmental issues. We were in acting class and we loved the training that we were doing, but the Canadian classic plays where our scenes were from didn’t relate to the issues we found most urgent, which were environmental issues in this country. From that, we created our first piece, which was called The Broadleaf Plays. We’ve always had shitty titles (he laughs). They’re very blatant.

That became a project called Bite-Sized, which we presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year. The concept of that was how do we connect with younger, millennial audiences in presenting short bits of engaging stuff, which became 18 plays in 60 minutes with all things that related to Canadian environmental issues.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

BK: What and who is Broadleaf Theatre?

KMW: Broadleaf Theatre creates works based on local, national and global environmental issues. Broadleaf Theatre is whoever’s interacting with the company and whoever has interacted with our company and really all of the people who come to see the work. One thing about the environmental movement is that it’s very disparate. It happens in little chunks of leadership and community. You know… grassroots. When everyone is doing their own thing, that’s the movement. It’s not some top-heavy thing. What Broadleaf Theatre is, and who it is, is changing a lot. Of course I would definitely shout out Mirka Loiselle who is our associate producer and Angela Sun and who does the social networking for the company.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

KMW: Conversation… Conversation. I would love for them to join us at the Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering.

BK: Tell me more!?

KMW: It’s a beautiful event. It’s a weekend in Aamjiwnaang. There are classes on Anishinaabe culture and beliefs and the sacredness of water. It happens on August 18th-20th. It’s all free and accessible…they even provide free childcare. You can camp if you want to. It’s also where the Toxic Tour happens, where you go on a school bus with Vanessa or Lindsay and they will tell you about all the factories and history of the land.

BK: Damn.

KMW: It’s a wonderful event that I can’t stress enough. I think one of the big things about this show is that it’s always related to a real ask in the world. It doesn’t finish. One of the parts of the show that I’m still writing is this sort of meta thing… it’s not finished because it’s not. We want to have a longer version and more of the threads to go further, but it’s also not finished until you do something and even when you do something it’s still not really finished. That line is so blurry. Now that you know about this thing, the show is you, isn’t it? The show is whatever you make of it, whatever you do with it. Hopefully people engage with us, support Vanessa and Lindsay and learn about the traditional keepers of this land and the protocols of the land.

BK: Any shows you are looking forward to see at SummerWorks?

KMW: What Linda Said, The Only Good Indian, Divine, Perfection…you know there are so many good things to see this year.

Rapid Fire Question Round: 

Favourite food: Sushi

Favourite movie: Whatever documentary I’m thinking about in the moment.

Favourite play: Cock by Mark Bartlett.

Favourite book: The Giving Tree.

Favourite place in Toronto: The waterfront.

Inspiration when creating: Visual Art and just seeing as many plays as I can.

Best advice or mantra: Just do it. Just do the work.

The Chemical Valley Project

ChemicalValleyProjectJULIAHOWMAN1

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

Who:
Company: Broadleaf Theatre
Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Dramaturgy by Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Gray
Produced by Kevin Matthew Wong
Associate Produced by Mirka Loiselle
Music by Minha Lee and Michael Henley.

What:
Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin and Julia document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial past and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.

Chemical Valley Project is part of a double bill with Perfection.

Where:
Pia Bouman – Scotiabank Studio Theatre
6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 11th 6:00pm – 7:15pm
Saturday August 12th 1:45pm – 3:00pm
Sunday August 13th 6:30pm – 7:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

 

A Chat with Jason Maghanoy, Playwright of THE NAILS at SummerWorks

Interview by Shaina Silver-Baird

SSB: Is this play inspired by true events? If yes, how so?

Jason Maghanoy: This play is like all of my other plays: it’s all true but none of it is true.

SSB: Where does The Nails fall on the realism spectrum?

JM: It’s like real life… which sometimes doesn’t feel real, you know?

SSB: Where does the title The Nails come from? 

JM: There’s a line in the play that explains it and I don’t want to give it away.

SSB: Have you worked at SummerWorks before? Why is this festival a good match for your play?

JM: This is my fourth time doing SummerWorks. I always have fun doing it. The Nails is the most ambitious project I’ve ever had as part of the Festival.

SSB: What did you take into account when assembling your team?

JM: Tanya Rintoul built the team. She was the first person I brought on-board and she has been amazing. Rigorous. Ambitious. Smart. I love what she has created.

 

SSB: The play addresses family issues, racism, homophobia… Did you set out to write a piece that dealt with these things?

JM: Yup.

SSB: The play takes place in America. Is it specifically American or is that just the setting? How does it relate to Canadians?

JM: My dad lives in Texas and Houston is like… my CITY, you know? But the themes of the play are universal.

SSB: What can people expect from The Nails?

JM: A good time. Hopefully you’ll want to talk about it after.

SSB: Describe the play in 5 words. 

JM: Faith. Freedom. Love. Cruelty…Four words is enough.

The Nails

Who:
Company: jsquared.theatre
Written by Jason Maghanoy
Directed by Tanya Rintoul
Performed by Jeysa Caridad, Jake Runeckles, Alexander Thomas, William Ellis, Ellie Ellwand
Stage Management by Meghan Froebelius
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Lighting Design by David Costello
Sound Design by Jaiden Davis-Jones
Costume Design by Claire Hill
Production Management by Alanna McConnell

What:
Ally and Josh spend every summer with their father as he goes from small town to small town working for a construction company in America. But this summer is different. This summer they grow up. This is the summer that everything changes.

The Nails is a play about family. It is a play about faith. And it captures a world of freedom and extremism in all directions; love and cruelty exist within the same space here. Sometimes they feel like the same thing.

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

When:
Tuesday August 8th 10:00pm – 11:15pm
Thursday August 10th 7:30pm – 8:45pm
Saturday August 12th 4:15pm – 5:30pm
Sunday August 13th 1:00pm – 2:15pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

“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

 

Artist Profile: Chris Ross-Ewart, Sound Designer & Composer

Interview by Hallie Seline

“listening more critically and sensitively might be what saves the world” – Chris Ross-Ewart

I first met sound designer and composer Chris Ross-Ewart in the ultimate Toronto Summer Theatre setting – a Fringe tent (or rather this year’s Fringe “rink”) conversation. We got to speaking about making art and sound and all of the weird and wonderful ways you could do a one person show, which is where I found out about his upcoming project at the SummerWorks festival. It was a pleasure to re-connect with him to chat more about his show Explosions for the 21st Century, exploring sound as a character, and after completing his MFA at the Yale School of Drama, what he’s observed about making art in the States compared to Canada.

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

Chris Ross-Ewart: I was commissioned to create a 10 minute performance using only sound for a festival about a year ago. The response was positive and I was encouraged to turn it into a full length show.

HS: You describe the show as using sound design to explore your anxieties towards contemporary culture. What is it about sound that you are drawn to as a primary means to explore and communicate in your work?

CRE: Most political and cultural discourse occurs online these days, which confines our conversations to words, ideas, and abstractions.

I am curious how a more sensory approach to understanding and discussing the world might actually be more valuable. I’ve found many contemporary issues seem to have a very tangible connection to sound, and many people ignore the importance of sound both in how it is made and how it is heard. As I hope to prove in the show, listening more critically and sensitively might be what saves the world.

HS: After having completed your MFA at Yale, can you speak to me a bit about your experience training in the States and what you observed about making art in the States compared to Canada?

CRE: The US truly wears its heart on its sleeve, in the best and worst ways. Opinions and values are expressed very loudly and publicly, in a way I was not used to. This leads to both an amazing amount of artistic expression, and also a terrifyingly in-your-face political and cultural antagonism that we don’t see much of in Canada. It’s an inspiring country but extremely exhausting.

HS: What, in your work, do you find yourself currently drawn to explore?

CRE: I’m interested in how sound can be its own character; a living, breathing creature in the room. Technology is taking stories away from shared collective experiences into more personal ones. I’m interested in both sound that counteracts this, by pulling us back into the larger world around us and sound that enhances intimate and private experiences.

HS: What have you been inspired by lately?

CRE: I just saw the O’Keeffe exhibit at the AGO. I loved seeing her life’s process, how she evolved, how she dealt with critics, how she found the places she needed to thrive. It’s always inspiring to see someone grow and struggle and inquire continuously for decades.

HS: Current mantra or best piece of advice you are currently living by?

CRE: Don’t be a victim of your own good taste.

HS: What are you listening to right now?

CRE: Jeff Beck…and my neighbour’s birthday party.

HS: Describe your show in 5-10 words:

CRE: A TED talk on the side of the highway.

HS: Lastly, what are some other shows that you are looking forward to this SummerWorks?

CRE: the last chance you’ll ever have, The Only Good Indian, Icône Pop

Explosions for the 21st Century

Who:
Company: Pressgang Theatre
Written, Designed, and Performed by Chris Ross-Ewart
Directed and Dramaturged by Graham Isador

What:
With field recordings, audio effects, and a well timed air horn, Explosions for the 21st Century uses sound design to explore contemporary culture. The result is part lecture, part stand up, and part existential crisis. Written and performed by Chris Ross-Ewart, the show is an erratic, real time, exploration of why we make sound and how we listen.

Where:
The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street W, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 4th: 8:00pm – 9:00pm
Saturday August 5th: 4:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday August 6th: 9:45pm – 10:45pm
Tuesday August 8th: 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Wednesday August 9th: 9:30pm – 10:30pm
Friday August 11th: 7:45pm – 8:45pm
Saturday August 12th: 4:45pm – 5:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca

Connect:
chrisross-ewart.com

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

Interview by Hallie Seline

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson by Michael Cooper.

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

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

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

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

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

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

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

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Cooper.

Rapid Fire Question Round:

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

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

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

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

KC: Watching people I hate…

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

HS: That inspires me!

KC: Don’t edit that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

HS: Brilliant. Thank you!

 STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy

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

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

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

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

When:
March 16 – April 2, 2017

Tickets:
passemuraille.ca/stupidhead/

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