Michael Torontow

Artistic Director, Talk is Free Theatre (TIFT) Barrie, Ontario

Lane Dorsey

Joe Szekeres

Talk is Free Theatre’s (TIFT) company name from Barrie, Ontario has always piqued my curiosity since I’ve embarked on this new journey into professional theatre commentary.

When I profiled Arkady Spivak a couple of years ago, I forgot to ask him about the name’s genesis. I was so thankful he assisted in helping me obtain an interview with TIFT’s Artistic Director, Michael Torontow. After I spoke with Michael, I got in touch with Arkady again to ask about the genesis of the name:

From Arkady:

“There are many inspirations for the name; three more widely used are 1) free speech and an opportunity for artists to engage in projects without interference from other pressures, 2) the satire on everyone thinking they are doing something by simply talking about it performatively, 3) acronym TIFT is a Restoration verb which means to get something ready, to prepare.”

And in that same email, Arkady coyly wrote: “There is an inside meaning, but to reveal it would be to lose magic” with two smiley emoticons following.

Thank you for this explanation, Arkady, as I would never want to destroy TIFT’s magic for me. I like what Christopher Hoile from Stage Door wrote about TIFT: “[It] is one of the most vibrant, innovative theatre companies in Ontario. TIFT provides one of the best reasons why Torontonians who love exciting theatre need now and then to look beyond the city’s borders.”

I am planning to do just that going forward.

I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated Michael taking time to speak with me and to allow my Grade 12 Co-operative Education student to sit in on the interview and to hear a highly respected and articulate man speak about the company. Torontow will also appear in TIFT’s production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ in June. More about this upcoming musical shortly.

On a personal level throughout Covid’s continuation, he and his immediate family have been faring very well. Michael feels extremely grateful of course and privileged in many ways that, with many who have suffered loss over the course of the pandemic and endured so much hardship, he is very lucky. He and his partner live in a house with a yard and nature nearby in the Dundas, Ontario area. They got a dog over the course of the pandemic and have taken the advantage of being able to live their ‘little’ lives and be safe in venturing out to the grocery story when necessary.

Michael feels there is so much to say about the trajectory of Canadian live theatre regarding Covid’s influence. He is going into his first season as full-fledged Artistic Director with the company. He is excited just for a sense of normalcy within the industry once again when it comes to how everyone experiences live performance.

TIFT took some inspiration in learning from the pandemic last summer in venturing forward with the outdoor production of ‘Into the Woods’ and the ‘Plural of SHE Festival’, a series of shows performed by women and those identifying as women. TIFT continued to search for ways to keep the artist working, whether it was through first day readings (where they got people together on Zoom to read a play) and whether something would come from that. Some of these opportunities turned into development of full plays. For example, the recent ‘Judas Kiss’ came from one of these first day readings.

I could tell Michael was keen to share TIFT’s plans for its upcoming slate which will be announced soon as certain details are still being worked out on certain projects. Additionally, the pandemic has allowed the company to complete a great deal of reflection about moving forward with development of some service projects, to examine mental health in the rehearsal space, and to address some of the issues that have come up over the last couple of years. Through implementing these changes in future TIFT productions, Michael hopes the company can become a leading example of progress within the theatre industry that other theatre companies can look to for advice, guidance, and inspiration.

When I looked at the names of the company members on TIFT’s website, there are the crème de la crème of quality artists. I asked Michael if all these persons were gathered and sitting in front of him at this moment, what would he say to them?

He paused, and in a hushed voice said, “Oh my gosh!”

I know I put him on the spot, but he acknowledged he wouldn’t be able to keep it brief. But he did:

“Thank you for being a friend. There’s an element to which TIFT is what we are today because of all of you. We have an interesting symbiotic relationship with all of you where a strength of TIFT is that and what attracts great people to the company is that we do work that people want to do, whether it be original or anything artists want to create themselves. We will continue to do things differently and uniquely from how you might see things at other places. And you, dear artists, continue to inspire TIFT with the gifts you offer.”

What a beautiful tribute Michael paid to this company which proudly sees itself artist first and organization second.

Nevertheless, Michael also recognizes the company’s learning during this time how artists and audiences are aware Covid is still among us and not going away immediately. There may have to be a pivoting away from plans and goals depending on how Covid progresses.

He got to direct his first musical, ‘Into the Woods’ with TIFT as Arkady saw something within to venture into new territory as director as he had been thinking about that for some time.

In June, Michael will play the titular role in ‘Sweeney Todd’ directed by Mitchell Cushman. The production will take place at the Glen Rhodes Campus at the Neighbourhood Food Hub. (Link provided at the end of the article)

Without spoiling too much fun, Michael said audiences will be made to feel part of Sweeney’s story in an immersive and roaming production instead of just merely watching it. Nearly every inch of space in the church will be used. Guests will enter through the church, but they have no idea where they will be taken. There are certain scenes of the show where audiences will literally be among the action, perhaps even twelve inches away from the actors and artists. You may not know where to look, but that’s okay as that’s all part of the point as so much stuff will be going on all over the place.

Rest assured though Covid protocols and masks will be used since there are no understudies and TIFT does not want anyone in the cast, crew, or audience to get sick. Some staging of the scenes will be intention as the wearing of masks will also become intentional as part of the audience involvement and performance.

One of the things Torontow hopes to accomplish in playing Sweeney is seeing the human side of Benjamin Barker first before he became the murderous, demon barber of Fleet Street. The whole reason for Sweeney going through emotions and actions when he returns to London from Australia is the fact he is trying to get a sense of what he might have lost as Benjamin Barker. He wants his daughter back and he wants to find his wife.

Why do audiences need to see ‘Sweeney Todd’ now?

For Michael, one of the prevailing themes comes from one of the lines in the show: “Those above will serve those down below.” The play is all about a class issue and how Sweeney was easily whisked away to that penal colony in Australia by a Judge who, just because of his position in society, was able to take something from Sweeney and then shove him off wherever he wanted.

To a certain degree in our society for Torontow (even though he doesn’t consider himself an economist) the rich and the poor are diverging more and more, and the middle class is disappearing more and more. To be able to illustrate the difference between the above and below is a little bit of a nice reminder to people.

A month of rehearsals was already completed. The production was at the end of a two-month hiatus, and the company returns into a refresher and into technical rehearsals starting Tuesday May 31.

And once ‘Sweeney Todd’ has completed its run? What’s next for Michael Torontow?

Well, right away he is going to be part of the Porch Side Festival at Theatre Collingwood. Michael had performed the play ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ with TIFT a couple of years ago and will perform it once again in Collingwood. After Collingwood, Michael will then be developing new and exciting things coming up for late summer and early fall for TIFT.

He is one busy guy but the energy he exuded during our conversation was infectious.

Thank you so much for your time.

To learn more about Talk is Free Theatre, visit www.tift.ca.

To learn more about TIFT’s upcoming production of Sweeney Todd: https://tickets.tift.ca/TheatreManager/1/tmEvent/tmEvent328.html

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