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  • Musicals 'Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812'

    Back 'Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812' A Crow's Theatre and The Musical Stage Company Co-production now onstage at Crow's, 345 Carlaw Avenue. Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Evan Buliung as Pierre Joe Szekeres VOICE CHOICE "Wondrous, theatrical, lavish storytelling that never lets up on its emotional impact! Such heaven! A theatre experience I will never, ever forget." A sung-through musical of seventy pages of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ sounds heavenly in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s. According to the billing on Crow’s website, the musical score “mixes indie rock, pop, folk, electronic dance, and classic Broadway music.” Such heaven. It’s a theatre experience I will never, ever forget. I may have to download the album to hear the score again. My suggestion - do whatever you can to get tickets. Now. The Crow’s and Musical Stage Company production has been extended to February 4. It’s Moscow, 1812, the upper-class echelon of society. Getting to know the ten characters will take a few minutes. ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Gret Comet of 1812’ is a story about the pangs of love, deceit, friendship, forgiveness, and familial bonds. The House Programme contains the Family Tree and how each character is connected. It would be a good idea to peruse it beforehand. At the top of the show, these characters are cleverly introduced via the opening song with a humorous comment about the names from Russian literature. Pierre (Evan Buliung) is a sad, sullen, and unhappily married man to Hélène (Divine Brown), who is unfaithful to her husband. Pierre feels as if he is wasting his life. He is a close friend to Andrey (Marcus Nance), who is off fighting in the war. Andrey is engaged to Natasha (Hailey Gillis), Sonya’s (Camille Eanga-Selenge) cousin. Sonya and Natasha have arrived in Moscow to wait for Andrey to return from war. The ladies visit Natasha’s godmother, Marya (Louise Pitre). Natasha has yet to meet Andrey’s sister, Mary (Heeyun Park 박희윤) and their father, Bolkonsky (Marcus Nance in a dual role) and has planned to meet them during this time, which ends disastrously between everyone involved. Natasha goes to the opera with Marya and Sonya and meets Pierre’s brother-in-law, Anatole (George Krissa), a handsome womanizer and ultimately ends up in an affair with him. (Let’s not forget Natasha is engaged to Andrey.) Natasha and Anatole’s affair has a dismal effect as each character has a stake of involvement. Several subplots all stem from this storyline of the affair. Co-designers Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan have created a jaw-dropping marvellous set design of three levels. Every inch of the Guloien is used to its maximum potential, and I tried to take in as much as possible pre-show. The actors enter and exit from all sides. Ross Kerr-Wilson has paid minute and careful attention to detail, from the gorgeous-looking red drapery to the glass decanter and drinking goblets on the piano. To the right of where I sat, it looked as if there was an altar with open religious books printed in what I thought might have been the Russian language. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design subtly underscores the moment's emotional intensity, especially in those heightened conflicts between the characters. For the most part, Ryan Borshuk’s sound design remains solid, as I could hear the lyrics in several of librettist Dave Malloy’s stirring ballads and duets. Listening to the lyrics in some ensemble numbers is still challenging because of the slightly uneven sound balance between the orchestra and singers. Still, the harmonies resound gloriously throughout the theatre. ‘Natasha…’ remains a truly spectacular moment in the theatre. Chris Abraham and Ryan deSouza direct with a regal style and elegant flair. Ray Hogg’s fluid and electric choreography becomes a wondrous, staged accomplishment. The energetic and vibrant movement of the show never lets up. The first act nicely sets up the story; however, it is the second act where the pacing takes off. The second half dazzled and riveted me, leaving me bereft of emotion for a few moments at the curtain call. The formidable ensemble cast is one of the main reasons to see the show. They remain committed to telling a story of passion, intrigue, and deception with a compelling and convicted truth. The show remains genuinely engrossing, and I didn’t realize the time passed. Each time Evan Buliung sang, I felt tears welling. His performance as the oppressed, spiritually lifeless Pierre remains solidly gut-wrenching throughout. His watching of The Great Comet in a silhouetted tableau stillness becomes striking and hopeful at the end. As Natasha, Hailey Gillis is initially charming and lovely when the audience first meets her. However, her deception to begin her affair with Anatole removes her from that childlike, dutiful innocence to a scorned woman who will ultimately and heartfully feel her error in her choice. Gillis never veers into histrionics as Natasha’s world comes crashing around her. George Krissa is the quintessential hunky and shirtless Anatole whose suavity and bravado seduces Gillis’s Natasha. Krissa smiles, flirts, and breaks the fourth wall to do the same with some female audience members sitting in the front row. His ‘bad boy’ Anatole is one to be remembered at his worst, especially in the final moments with Pierre at the end of Act Two. Marcus Nance believably creates two exciting and different characterizations in a dual role as Andrey and his old father, Bolkonsky. At the end of the second act, his Andrey may seem cold-hearted in responding to Natasha. However, at least Nance made me feel that Andrey’s reaction and motivation are valid because he has been wronged. Louise Pitre gifts a sense of grace as the strong, remarkable, and matronly Marya. As Sonya, Camille Eanga-Selenge's reaction to the letter Natasha has written in breaking off her engagement is another heart-wrenching moment in singing she ‘misses her friend’ (Natasha). Sonya’s song in the second act becomes a fervent wish that she loves Natasha and only wants the best for her cousin, even though it may mean the two of them may never save their close friendship. I left the theatre and rode in the car on the way home, not saying a word for a few minutes. Final Comments: Confession again. This English major never read ‘War and Peace.’ Seeing this outstanding production makes me want to tackle the classic sometime soon. Will I? That remains to be seen. But I did tackle ‘Les Misérables’ after seeing the musical years ago. There might be hope. At least this musical adaptation has given me a taste of Tolstoy’s text. Get tickets for this, please. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one interval/intermission. ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812’ runs until March 24, 2024, in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets: crowstheatre.com or call the Box Office (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010. NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 by Dave Malloy Co-presented by Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company Directed by Chris Abraham Choreography by Ray Hogg Music Direction by Ryan deSouza Composer, Librettist, Orchestrator: Dave Malloy Co-Set Designers: Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan Costume Designer: Ming Wong Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell Sound Designer: Ryan Borshuk Stage Manager: Sarah Miller Assistant Director: Paolo Santalucia Assistant Choreographer: Tyler Pearse Orchestra Members: Ryan deSouza, Aleh Remezau, Colleen Cook, Alex Grant, Clara Nguyen-Tran, Rachel O’Brien, David Atkinson Performers: Divine Brown, Evan Buliung, Rita Dottor, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Donna Garner, Hailey Gillis, George Krissa, Lawrence Libor, Marcus Nance, Heeyun Park박희윤, Andrew Penner, Louise Pitre, Brendan Wall Previous Next

  • Profiles Mathieu Murphy-Perron

    Back Mathieu Murphy-Perron Self Isolated Artist --- Joe Szekeres I had heard about Montreal’s Tableau D’Hote Theatre, but I was never able to combine seeing a production while I was in the city. When I saw that a colleague had connections to Tableau D’Hote, I thought I’d take a chance to introduce myself electronically and see if they would be interested in being interviewed for this series. When Co-founder, Artistic and Executive Director, Mathieu Murphy-Perron got in touch with me and said he was very interested in an interview, I jumped at the opportunity to get in touch with him. You’ll see from some of Mathieu’s responses that Tableau D’Hote takes on projects that are highly artistic indeed with some world premieres that have me intrigued. Mathieu co-founded Tableau D’Hote Theatre with Mike Payette in 2005 and they managed the company together for eleven years prior to Payette’s appointment in 2016 at the head of Geordie Productions. Mathieu sits on the Board of the Conseil québécois du Theatre as the Quebec Drama Federation representative and chairs the Board of the Pointe-St-Charles Art School. We conducted our interview via email: 1. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? Is your family doing well? I’ve been doing surprisingly well. I’m more on the introverted side of the spectrum, so the lack of social contact has not been too difficult, and the love and company of my partner and our feline companion has also helped tremendously. Family is holding up okay, though some are grappling with loneliness, which is hard to watch from afar. 2. I see the world premiere of Erin Shields’ ‘Thy Woman’s Weeds’ was postponed on account of Covid. How far along was the production before everything was shuttered? Will ‘Thy Woman’s Weeds’ become part of any future slate(s) for Tableau D’Hote Theatre? We were a couple of weeks from the beginning of rehearsals when the crisis hit, but we thankfully had yet to begin our set build which was a relief. We remain committed very much to re-staging the world premiere of Erin Shields’ ‘Thy Woman’s Weeds’ with our production partners Repercussion Theatre. Repercussion commissioned the play years ago and have been developing it with Playwrights Workshop Montreal since. This is too many years in the making. We won’t back down now. We would prefer to stage it once distancing measures have been lifted as it would not do justice to the story or the cast to arrange for an iteration of it where these seven powerful women all need to stay two metres apart. 3. What has been the most challenging part of the isolation and quarantine for you personally and professionally? I miss my bike. I live a life that requires me needing to zip through town quickly several times a day. I average 150-200 km a week. That’s down to 20-30 km. now. Not because I can’t bike, but I just have a hard time finding the motivation when I have less practical reasons to do so. There is always work to be done from home, so leisurely jumping on my bike for a stroll doesn’t quite get me going. Professionally, it has been imagining all the various scenarios and what they mean for our medium. The vast majority of creation models in North America are incompatible with the present crisis. Shows take years of planning and a certain level of certainty, and it seems we may not have that luxury for quite some time. I believe that this will call for more spontaneous creation although I remain unsure what that will mean globally for the craft of our art. 4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown? Tableau D’Hote is one of few companies creating theatre in English in Quebec. As an official language minority company, there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that English-speaking artists are not forgotten in the Quebec government’s plans to support the sector, particularly seeing as how the contracts that govern our Equity productions are very different from those of our French colleagues under Union des artistes. I’ve been involved in a fair bit of advocacy work to that end as well as mapping out our various scenarios and losing myself in grant writing. 5. What advice would you give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What words of advice would you give to the new graduates emerging from the National Theatre School? Follow your instincts, stay safe and don’t be too hard on yourself for not creating or not being happy with your creations. My go to mantra has always been a quote of Martha Graham’s. I think it still applies in Covid times: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable now how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” 6. Do you see anything positive coming out of this pandemic? There seems to be a better sense of community where once there was little. Neighbours helping neighbours. People caring for one another, particularly those in more vulnerable situations. If that could continue, we’d all be stronger for it. As a staunch cyclist, I also hope this forces us to examine our cities relationship with cars. So many streets have been transformed to make room for pedestrians and cyclists, and it really makes you realize how much of our landscape is dedicated to parked cars. It’s sad. Hopefully this will push us to imagine our cities as a place for neighbours to interact and gather freely, on a human level, and less as a place for us all to be driving around in metal cages never really seeing one another. 7. Do you believe or can you see if the Quebec and Canadian performing arts scene will somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19? It’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t be. Knowing the economic tendencies of bot the Federal Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec, I predict that there will be some drastic austerity measures when all this is over. Will the arts be spared? Maybe, but a weakened social safety net and gutted social services will undoubtedly have an impact on artists. We will need to remain vigilant and demand that our representative place people over profit, even more so after the crisis. 8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts and comments about this? Are there any advantages or disadvantages? Will streaming/online/ You Tube performances be part of a ‘new normal’ for the live theatre/performing arts scene? If streaming becomes part of the ‘new normal’ it will mean the emergence of a form of digital art. That’s fine. But it’s not theatre. I’m not here to say one is better than the other, but I am a theatre artist, and the very nature of our art calls for artists and audiences breathing the same air under the same roof. Our art will not be replaced by streaming. We won’t let that happen. 9. As co-founder, Artistic and Executive Director of Tableau d’Hote Theatre, where do you see its future headed as a result of this life changing event for all of us? I have the luxury of little to no overhead. We are a project-based company. I have years of projects lined up that I very much hope we will be able to produce but, if we can’t, we’ll put them on the backburner and think of projects that are better suited to this reality. We can wait this out. We’ll find new ways to create (we may even have a very small experimental summer project in the works), and we’ll take whatever time is needed to listen and heal to do just that. With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews: 1. What is your favourite word? Flabbergasted 2. What is your least favourite word? Crazy 3. What turns you on? Collective resistance 4. What turns you off? Capitalism 5. What sound or noise do you love? The rhythm and chants heard at protests. 6. What sound or noise bothers you? My Fridge was made by a Spanish Workers’ Co-op that closed down in 2015. It beeps incessantly as soon as it gets warm and I have yet to find a mechanic that services them given that the company shut down. I hate the sound of my beeping fridge especially at 2 am. 7. What is your favourite curse word? Ostidecalissedefuckshitdetabarnacle. (Personal note and aside: Gotta love the Quebeckers for their cursing) 8. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt? I’m a big believer in parallel universes. They ease my anxiety. Whenever I like to tackle something in the world but that I have neither the time nor the skills to do so, I tell myself that an alternate me is taking care of it in an alternate world. That said – bike messenger. 9. What profession would you not like to do? Police officer 10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? I’m agnostic, but I believe that in the off-chance God exists, they are more concerned with the life you live than whether or not you believed in them. So I’d like a knowing smirk that says it all. To learn more about Montreal’s Tableau D’Hote Theatre, visit www.tableaudhote.ca . Previous Next

  • Profiles Tracy Michailidis

    Back Tracy Michailidis “If people go and see good stuff at the theatre, they’ll want to keep going back to the theatre.” ​ ​ A new Canadian musical premiere is busily in preparation. Theatre Myth Collective, a collective of professional theatre artists led by Evan Tsitsias, is in rehearsal with his cast and crew for the world premiere production of ‘Inge(new) – In search of a musical’. The musical is written and directed by Tsitsias. More about the plot shortly. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Tracy Michailidis via Zoom. She appears in the show along with Cory O’Brien, Astrid Van Wieren, and Elora Joy Sarmiento. (Addendum: I've just received word Tracy has had to depart the production for family reasons. Mairi Babb will now step into the role of Bridget. Plot and show information about 'Inge(new) can be found in this profile). When I asked Tracy where she completed her training as an artist, she smiled, laughed, and then said: “Is training ever really finished when you’re an artist?” I couldn’t agree with her more. Tracy attended a High School for the Performing Arts with a focus on theatre and acting. She loved it but she was also academically minded in Social Sciences and Humanities. Upon high school graduation, she attended Queen’s University but did not take theatre in her first year there but was an English major thinking she might go into law. Within those four years, she realized by doing some extracurricular theatre at Queen’s and then joining the theatre department, she said: “Whom am I kidding? This is my passion!’ Her love of language and social science remains a positive training program for her as an actor. These specific subject disciplines help complement acting and figuring out a character’s behaviour. Tracy loves looking at new scripts and parsing through the language trying to understand why these characters use these words in what context. How is she feeling about the gradual return to the theatre even though Covid still lingers? Tracy paused momentarily and then was very honest. In March 2020, she was feeling burned out. As a mid-career professional actor, Tracy is always grateful for the opportunity to work, but she needed a break to restore both her physical and mental body because theatre takes the full attention of everyone involved. Something bigger was happening to everyone in 2020. She felt she had the time to be with her family, read, listen, and just be still in the moment. The time away allowed her to ask that question many of the actors I interviewed also asked themselves: “Why am I doing what I’m doing in light of the bigger picture of society regarding essential and non-essential services? She explained further: “Theatre has been an integral part of my life and it is good. It is transformative and can change people’s minds.” but she is fine with the reality theatre is gradually and slowly returning. From a contextual frame at that time in 2020, the quiet fed her body and soul even more. She felt it was equalizing and leveling that happened, so she started teaching on Zoom during Covid. Michailidis recalled how there was good work happening for her and the students while she was teaching singing. During her teaching, she felt she was receiving from her students as well and that’s what she needed. When it appeared the theatre seemed to return albeit slowly, Tracy was involved in some outdoor productions. There were a few works she started rehearsing that were then cancelled if Covid went through the cast. Out of all this growth and struggle, she continued to be amazed at watching artists be creative with the restrictions placed on them. In this gradual return in the last three years, Tracy has been seeing a lot of ‘pop-up’ shops including smaller companies like Storefront. From a producing standpoint, these smaller pop-up theatre shops have been cost-effective and easier to produce. She compared them to midsize theatres and believes Toronto needs more of them. She was reminded of this in attending a production at the Harold Green Theatre recently in North York in the space formerly known as the North York Performing Arts Centre. Now the space has been cut up into smaller theatres. (Who remembers ‘Showboat’ from the 1990s? I do.) Tracy loves supporting the Toronto Blue Jays. When she attends ballgames, she looks around and sees so many people around her. Her statement to me which made me laugh: “Why aren’t these same people out to the theatre? If we’re united together in community here in the ballpark for the love of the game and the sport, find or make theatre that does the same.” And to the heart of our interview today. What is ‘Inge(new) – In search of a musical’ all about? Part of understanding the musical is in the title, according to Tracy. An ingenue is a young soprano often in musicals. Tracy plays the ingenue in a transitional period. Chronologically, she’s not an ingenue anymore but this is how the character identifies herself for the roles she has played and the opportunities she has had. The character finds herself in midlife not knowing how to move forward or into what box she should place herself. She’s troubled. She thinks she has it all together, but she doesn’t. By seeing herself as she is, the character can begin to accept who she is. Tracy did a workshop/reading of ‘Inge(new)’ at least five years ago. Without giving too much away about the plot, all she will say is it deals with an understanding of authenticity. Even now post-Covid, the social movements that have stemmed from the pandemic led to how many boxes we are to check off in our lives. Some of these boxes don’t deal necessarily with age, but with how we look, how we are inside, how others see us, and how we see ourselves. One of the things Tracy loves about musical theatre is the inherent collaboration by its very nature. Evan (Tsitsias) has assembled many wonderful artists from actors to creative individuals behind the scenes. Everyone is building ‘Inge(new) together and, for Tracy, that’s exciting. How would she describe Evan as director: “He’s rigorous in the way he approaches the work. He listens to the actors, and he trusts all of us which means a great deal to me. As an actor, I’m a big fan of rigor and that makes me feel really safe, especially with a new piece. I feel braver for it. As we’re going through the rehearsal, we know the story isn’t really finished at this time. As actors, we keep digging away and asking questions all the time so while this new script is fun untested, each of us in the production is also vulnerable.” With Tracy’s comment, I was also reminded of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ and ‘Come from Away’ both homegrown but were always in constant revision from the various audience and critical reaction to both works. All good works of art take time to grow. Why should audiences come to see ‘Inge(new)’? For Tracy, first and foremost, come to see the play because it is a new Canadian work. She also stresses she finds the play really funny. Audiences and artists need to support each other in new work. Yes, there’s a lot of theatre going on right now, but there is good stuff going on out there and she adds: “If people go and see good stuff, they’ll want to keep going back to the theatre.” ‘Inge(new) – in search of a musical’ is about the theatre. What about those who are not involved in the industry? What can these audience members learn? ‘Inge(new)’ is a story about getting older. It’s also about intelligence versus wisdom. Tracy concluded our conversation with this statement: “We all have blind spots. When we attend the theatre, there’s that wonderful mirror that allows us to see ourselves when we can’t see ourselves clearly. I’m hoping audiences will come away from ‘(Inge)new’ seeing parts of themselves in the four characters.” ‘Ingenew-in search of a musical’ premieres May 25 and runs to June 4 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen Street East, Toronto. Showtimes are 8 pm and 2:30 pm on some weekend performances. Tickets are available: https://www.ticketscene.ca/events/43966/ To learn more about the upcoming production of ‘Ingenew-in search of a musical’ visit the Facebook page. Previous Next

  • Profiles Gerard Gauci - Resident Set Designer for Opera Atelier

    Back Gerard Gauci - Resident Set Designer for Opera Atelier "I'm not sure where AI technology will go in scenic design, but eventually it will have some role on stage for future productions." Bruce Zinger Joe Szekeres From Gerard’s website and our Zoom conversation: “Gerard Gauci is the Resident Set Designer for Toronto’s Opera Atelier. Educated at the Ontario College of Art and Design, he graduated with Honours in 1982. He was in the Communication and Design Department. Gerard wanted to work in the applied arts, and he studied to become an illustrator. The theatre has always been at the back of his mind. His work encompasses art, theatre, and museum design. He has worked with Atelier since its first fully staged production in 1985. He has designed the company’s complete repertoire, spanning Monteverdi to von Weber. His work for the stage has been seen across Canada, throughout the United States and Europe. Gauci’s sets have been presented by Houston Grand Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival in New York State, and the Opéra Versailles.” During our conversation, Gerard mentioned that his designs are all done by hand and rarely uses a computer. Ever since I’ve had the opportunity to attend some of Atelier’s productions, I’ve been highly impressed with Gauci’s designs. How did Gerard connect with Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg from Toronto’s Opéra Atelier? While working as an illustrator, he was commissioned to do a magazine cover for the monthly CBC Radio Guide (the TV Guide for Canadian radio). There was always an illustrated cover, and Gerard was asked to produce one about theatre. He’s always been interested in the fine arts and decorative arts of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and Italy. Gerard created a published cover that featured a Baroque dancer in a kind of allegorical costume set on a stage. Marshall and Jeannette subscribed to this monthly Radio Guide, saw the cover, and found it interesting. They tore it off and stuck it on the fridge door. Jeannette happened to be working with some photographers, and one of them said she and Marshall should meet this ‘guy’ who’s interested in all this Baroque stuff “you’re interested in.” Through one connection leading to another, Gauci received a phone call from them and wanted to meet one day. He did. Marshall and Jeannette asked if Gerard would design some props for “The Choice of Hercules,” a production they were doing in the theatre at the Royal Ontario Museum theatre. Gerard agreed and enjoyed the experience. Marshall and Jeannette then continued to ask Gerard to work on set designs. Thus, his connection with the two of them began, and a new chapter opened: “Thirty-five years later, I’m still here.” Where does Gerard see the world of opera and theatre’s trajectory over the next five years? He paused for a moment. First, he said that’s a good question as the industry is still in recovery from Covid. Many of the artists whom I’ve interviewed have also agreed with this, along with the fact everyone wants to establish once again where they were before 2020. He then added: “Technology is becoming a bigger and bigger factor on the stage itself. In terms of scenic design, projection is a huge part of what one now sees on the stage. There’s talk of exploring AI scenically on stage. I’m not sure where that will go, but eventually, it will have some role on stage for certain kinds of productions.” Gauci can’t speak as a director. In terms of set design, the world of printing is changing everything. For his entire history with Opera Atelier, Gerard has everything painted on stage: backdrops, set, and flats. He has a team of painters who do all this work. Gerard creates a small-scale rendering, and the painters reproduce it at a large scale on canvas with scenic paint. This is all changing now dramatically. In the early days, one couldn’t print anything at that scale. Today, if something is 25 feet by 25 feet, it can be sent out and printed. Gerard foresees that printing will probably overtake the world of scenic painting. Atelier did a production in Italy several years ago where all the drops would be printed in Germany. Gerard had to send scans of paintings. He called this both technological and concerning because he had no idea what the quality would be like coming from a printing press instead of the hands of a team of painters. Gerard was astonished when he saw the quality of the work: “These were drops that were 60 feet X 25 feet. They were enormous. The quality was superb, and it looked exactly like my painting. When you have someone physically paint it, there’s a kind of translation that has to happen because their hand is not the same as my hand. It doesn’t look exactly like me. What I had printed looks exactly like me and done in a fraction of the time and cost fraction of what it would cost to have something painted by a team of painters.” Gauci concurs something is lost because there’s an ineffable quality about a painting versus a print. It’s not the same thing. Printed versions usually have a bit of sheen, whereas scenic paint is designed to be very flat and not reflect light but absorb it. This kind of technology in the theatre has revolutionized the world of scenic art and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, as Gerard sees it, the world of scenic painting becomes less and less of a profession. It has been used less and less over the years because scenic designers have been thinking digitally for an entire generation. Why should people continue to see the opera? The pandemic proved to everyone the value of live theatre. Everyone watched online offerings when everything shut down, yet Gerard found that experience unsatisfying. He couldn’t be engaged with that screen in the way he was engaged in the theatre. When everything ‘returned,’ Gerard said he rushed back like everyone. He saw some shows – in his words, they were fine, but they weren’t great productions. The experience of being back in the theatre reminded him of how irreplaceable it is. As audience members, we participate in that production because there is an energy exchange between the performers and the audience. Then, there is the added exchange of energy among audience members. It’s a human resonance. There’s some life-affirming about the experience of being in the theatre. Gerard added something that many artists I’ve profiled have intimated the same thought: “I found I was moved far more in the theatre than I was looking at the screen.” For Gerard, opera strives to combine all the arts. The exciting thing about Baroque opera? It was seen as a synthesis of the arts – scenic, orchestral, vocal, and balletic. Emotions were big. It allowed spectators to participate in the opera. It’s about life, but it’s bigger than life. He also added: “It was an age of invention in the theatre. The Italians were the great genius of scenic design. They could create very magical effects that would happen before the eyes of spectators. Seeing these changes on stage was an exhilarating experience for an audience.” Gerard admires Marshall and Jeannette's commitment and tenacity. It takes incredible energy and determination to run any theatre company, even if for a very short period to keep it running and lively for almost forty years is an amazing achievement. They are high-energy people and have never wavered in their commitment to the company and its vision. Marshall and Jeannette’s energy is infectious, and most of all, it’s fun. For Gerard, these qualities are scarce, and he has always admired them for these qualities. As we concluded our Zoom conversation, I asked Gerard where he sees himself within the next proverbial five years: “Oh, gosh. That’s a good question. Throughout my career, I’ve worn three different hats – a theatre designer, a painter and a museum exhibition designer. I just like to keep going. I love juggling all of these things because ultimately one thing influences the other. There’s a nice relationship between these three things.” Gerard still loves painting. He has always been interested in curation and decorative arts of museums. The theatre has been his life for so long. Opera Atelier is not going anywhere so he hopes he will continue designing sets for the company. His final words: He’s just going to continue going on. To learn more about Gerard Gauci as artist, visit his webpage: https://www.gerardgauci.com/ To learn more about Opéra Atelier: https://www.operaatelier.com/ Previous Next

  • Profiles Alexandra Lainfiesta

    Back Alexandra Lainfiesta Theatre Conversation in a Covid World Sam Gaetz Joe Szekeres To know that professional theatre artists are reading this profile series has been a boost of inspiration for me, so I thank you all with plenteous gratitude. That’s how I came to meet Alexandra Lainfiesta. I had seen her at the Stratford Festival in Napoli Milionaria! and was delighted when she got in touch with me through Messenger. Her story and voice are quite unique. Born and raised in Guatemala, Alexandra moved to Canada at the age of 19 completely on her own to follow her love and passion for the live performing arts. She attended the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria, BC for two years and after graduation, travelled to Vancouver to pursue classical training for acting at Studio 58. In 2017, she joined the Birmingham Conservatory for classical training, and in 2018 did her first season at the Stratford Festival where she got to play some of her favorite roles which include Assunta in Napoli Milionaria!, Adriana in Comedy of Errors and Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII. Alexandra is a Jessie Richardson Award winner and currently has been focusing on her work as playwright. With support from The Stratford Festival, Alexandra has been developing a new operetta with Beau Dixon titled “Calderona” based on the life of Spanish actress Maria Ines Calderon during the Spanish Golden Age. She divides her time between Toronto, Stratford, Vancouver, Victoria, and Guatemala. We conducted our conversation via email and Zoom: In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family? I was in absolute denial for the first two weeks after rehearsals suddenly stopped at the The Stratford Festival for our 2020 season. I started to exercise at home, meditate and kept working on my script for the shows we had been rehearsing for. I had convinced myself that this was going to be over soon. Then, I waited, and waited…. and waited… and by end of April it dawned on me that this was going to take much, much longer, and so I went through a roller coaster of ups and downs, of gratitude for the time I now had in my hands to then frustrations and grief for the art we had created together in rehearsals that now was lost and slowly seeing the industry I had dedicated my life and heart to, slowly and painfully cancel seasons. My whole family is in Guatemala, and it was such a surreal thing to experience. Usually when something goes on there, it’s not happening here, but for the first time it was there as much as it was here. Nature, long phone calls from good friends and family, Whatsapp/Facetime/Houseparty were a huge support to my mental health in 2020. I’m grateful for it. How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum? Going through old photos, cards, letters. Writing. Lots of writing. I also spent a lot of time in nature and close to water. Water is an absolute healing and calming element for me. I stayed in Stratford for the majority of 2020 and now I am back in Vancouver. During the lockdowns I had time now to connect with dear friends across the globe whom I hadn’t talked to in years. I also created a small draft and demo of an operetta I had in mind with Beau Dixon, thanks to initial support from The Stratford Festival. I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create music through these times. I think the biggest take from all this time away from the industry I love, is how much I’ve grown as an individual and how much more compassion, love and understanding I have for others as well as setting my boundaries and living a much more grounded life. As many can relate, I am not the same person I was before the pandemic hit globally. The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else? Covid has definitely not been an escape for me. It became the “C word”. At one point it was everywhere. All conversations I was having with people over the phone, the news, social media, signs on the grocery stores, just absolutely everywhere. I am an extrovert who loves people and community gatherings. I’m Latina! So the lockdowns were absolutely hard. It was also quite shocking the first day I went grocery shopping and now everyone around me was wearing masks. I do have to say though, that the absence of theatre and work gave me the time to go in and heal many things I had procrastinated to deal with to heal. It also brought so much awareness of the many layers of social, gender and racial inequalities not only in our industry but in the world. I do have to say, I’ve been transformed by this global experience that is the pandemic. I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022? I think we are creative beings. As Steinbeck said: “The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” We will come up with something, yes it won’t be full head on, but we will do theatre. In 2020 I was very fortunate to have been able to work. I did several shows that were filmed, edited and then shared online, as well as outside festivals with limited audiences. Will there be theatre? Yes, not how we’ve known it, but it will be there until we can fully gather safely again, and we will. I’ve gone through enough hardships in my life to know that there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that ‘this too shall pass.’ I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world? I think we have less time for BS now. I believe that whatever we do, whether it’d be classical, contemporary or a new work, it must be grounded, now more than ever, in truth. And what is truth? To me, truth is when we belong to ourselves and only speak from the integrity of our heart. I don’t believe that there is an “absolute truth” or a “best”. There is just honesty and speaking from the heart. ‘There are as many Hamlets as there are actors’ and actors come with a diversity of identities and thoughts which must be celebrated. We are in the service of story-telling and representation. Truth transforms and it is time we show multiple truths on stage. The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre? Define “danger”. If it means exposure to harm or injury, I say no. That thinking is what has created this toxic idea that “those who make art must suffer”. The Theatre is a workplace and must be treated like one. If the word danger is more of the idea of the “possibility” that “something might happen and we don’t know what will”, then yes. I do think actors and audiences alike must feel that tension of possibility which can only be brought by being in the absolute present moment and the only way we can be present is by being self-less, because it is about the ‘other’, what we want from the other. Being alive is active. Possibilities are active. I prefer those words. And in regard to feeling danger during this time of Covid, I have to be honest, this isolation and this life of being in alert mode at all times and having privileges of liberty being taken is not new to me. I came to this country as an immigrant, completely on my own, and many of the feelings experienced during the lockdowns were somewhat familiar already. And yes, this will absolutely inform my work when theatre comes back because it has reminded me of the importance of human connection and how that is what keeps me alive and thriving. Live theatre is a living dance of thoughts and possibilities and it is always about the other and getting something from the other. Self-absorbed and self-centered theatre is beyond boring and exactly what makes teenagers never want to step into a theatre again. The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre? Yes, it made me sensitive to think and see beyond the obvious. It made me face fear and transform it. It made me want to come back to theatre to take the space that for years has been only been given and allowed to a certain sector of the population. It made me want to work towards taking on more leadership roles in our community. It made me sensitive to the work that needs to be done in order to achieve equity. I also because quite aware and sensitive to the fact that the Canadian government thinks of theatre as an “event” and not a workplace. Theatre is an INDUSTRY, and it is about time we start educating our government that we are a business that creates revenue and employs thousands of people across Canada. Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form? I love curiosity! Curiosity is active, alive, honest, inviting, and exciting. I became curious about systemic changes and my responsibility as a storyteller in this world and how perhaps I can influence that. I became curious about the human connection that was lost and how that has affected our mental health. I became curious about the creation of live theatre without being able to have a live audience. I saw an outstanding play reading of “Mojada” by Luis Alfaro, where the director, Juliette Carrillo, used the cameras and created this new hybrid of film and theatre to create something spectacular. The audience was being included in the reading through the camera lens. Same went for the performance of a play in Mexico City called “Bichito” (The Spanish language premiere of “Little One” by Hannah Moscovitch) in which director Paula Zelaya Cervantes did an outstanding job, again, merging a live performance with different cameras and having the actors either hold one camera and speak directly at it or take it with them to show certain scenes from their perspective and what they were viewing. I became curious about the conversations I was having with people. How profound, honest and grounded most of them are. I became curious about how it is okay to honestly answer the question “How are you?”. I became curious about all the kids whose introduction to school was during this time. To all the teens who had to graduate in 2020 from High School. I’m curious as to what this will do to the little humans who will one day be adults who experienced this pandemic as kids. And now, regarding what I will take back with me when theatre comes back in full force, I have to say that the spark that I know I will take with me is that of human connection. I do think that the greatest healing in our world will take place when live theatre and live music come back. Connect with Alexandra on Instagram: @alelainfiesta / IMDB: imdb.me/AlexandraLainfiesta You can also visit her website: www.alexandralainfiesta.com Previous Next

  • Profiles Kelli Fox

    Back Kelli Fox Looking Ahead David Cooper Joe Szekeres Although it was an early morning 9 am interview with Kelli Fox in Vancouver, B.C. (and noon hour for me in Toronto), she had me laughing so much during our 40 minutes. It was heartening to hear how she is conscious of the good fortune she has had within her 35 year career, but you’ll see from some of her responses she (like many artists) have had their love of live theatre come to a crashing halt. On her personal web page (which I will include at the conclusion of her profile), Kelli speaks of how her work is always centered on language. And that language was glorious to hear when I had seen her production of ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ which she had directed at Coal Mine Theatre and her appearance in ‘Sweat’ for Canadian Stage. Kelli has worked for 13 seasons at The Shaw Festival and 3 seasons at The Stratford Festival. She is the recipient of the Gina Wilkinson Prize in 2016 established to recognize women’s transitioning to directing in mid-career. Once again, make sure you access Kelli’s website to see samples of her work over her 35 year career. We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Kelli, for taking the time and for adding your voice to the conversation: It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level. Wow! It’s so complex! I’ve been ruminating a lot on the fact that, before this happened, I was feeling incredibly burned out. The last couple of projects that I did, I felt like I approached not as prepared as I wanted to be because I was just tired. I was longing for an opportunity to plant myself somewhere and not pack a bag for a few months. All of that was in my head. And then this (Covid) happened, and I thought, “Oh, my God, what have I brought upon us all? What have I wielded into being?” It’s been frustrating and scary and lonely, really. But I’m also trying to embrace the fact that I needed this rest. I needed to spend every night in the same bed for a year. And get a bit of breath and a routine happening in my life. And now, a year in, and I’ve also been resistant, and I know a lot of people have been doing some incredible work online; people are keeping theatre companies alive, keeping themselves present in the virtual world. I’m so impressed and have such admiration of people who have been able to do it. And I just felt like I could barely keep up with the old way of doing things. I can’t start re-inventing the wheel right now. I’m too tired, too burned out. And it’s not my world. I don’t understand it and don’t know how to operate in it. And then this winter I was invited to take part in a reading of a play ‘An Acorn’ by Caridad Svich through Impel Theatre in Toronto and organized by a young woman whom I know is just remarkable. They invited me to take part in this, and I had said. “Sure, of course” as it wouldn’t require very much of me other than to show up on the Zoom webinar and read the play. And the play spoke to me on such a kind of fundamental level, and for the first time in a year I felt like just being present with these other artists and reading these words, I felt nourished. I felt remembered what it was to be an actor again. I’m now in very early stages of trying to figure out if I can work in this media. The other thing that is beginning to come clear now is that when we do come out the other side of this pandemic, what the world looks like then is going to include this digital theatre work. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to get folded into our practice. So, I might as well start to get comfortable on how to work with it and what to do. With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed? Well, that’s the sad part for me. I come from a city (Vancouver) where theatre has not ever, in my experience, been really centered in the cultural life of the city. That’s why I moved to Toronto 25 years ago because I remember the first year I moved out to Toronto, within the first couple of years. I saw the influence of theatre in the city. A friend of mine, Corrine Koslo, was in a show at Tarragon. I called her up and said I’m attending the Sunday Pay What You Can and I’ll see you after the show. She told me, “Just so you know, the show was ‘Memory of Water’, it’s selling really, really well and when we do these Sunday performances the box office opens at noon, and you have to be in line by 11:30 am at the latest because the line starts to go around the block.” I showed up at 11 am and the line was already going around the block and the people at the front of the line had lawn chairs and thermoses. I thought, “I’m in a city where people care about this art form.” These aren’t theatre artists who are lined up, these are theatre lovers and theatre goers. I was so enthralled that it made me fall in love with Toronto. What’s making me sad now, a year in and it’s a complete erasure of the industry. We don’t hear a lot about it. Not that I’m dissing any of these people who are also just trying to survive during this difficult time. We hear a lot about the restaurant industry, we hear a lot about sports and the teams, and how they and the athletes are going to be able to carry on. It doesn’t seem to matter what steps people take to try make things safe in theatre. Even the film industry is somehow able to get an opening to move forward. It doesn’t seem to matter what the theatre does, nobody cares enough whether it survives to put a real political cultural will behind it. That makes me sad if I think about it too hard. As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry? Ooooo…..I miss, strangely enough, I miss sitting in an audience. I sometimes think back to previews of ‘Riverside’ at Coal Mine Theatre and sitting in that cramped little space with 70 other people, shoulder to shoulder, and feeling and breathing with other people. And in that space, it wasn’t the blood and sweat of the actors, it was the audience too engaged in that. I miss that jamming in of humans together into a shared experience. I would call ‘Between Riverside’ my first mainstage directing project even though Coal Mine is an indie company, it’s one with a lot of profile. I knew this was one people were going to see, and I was nervous. I was just so in love with the entire cast of ‘Riverside’. (At this point, Kelli named each of them with a big heartfelt smile) As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it? Just the privilege of being a working theatre artist. I think I’ve thought I understood what that meant. I know I’ve said to many people over the years I’m conscious of my good fortune, and that I’m one of the few that gets to make a living at this. I would never guess that 35 years in that a whole year would pass and I wouldn’t work at all. I’m not making a living at this. I’m in fact now going to have to start thinking about some alternative way to get some income because I can’t. I’m not going to hold out much longer. And that’s been a bit of a shock to me as to how much I had taken for granted even as I thought I was being consciously aware and grateful of my good fortune. Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry. Well, this was already started to happen before the pandemic: “The keys to the gates are in different hands” and that’s going to change what it all looks like and how it all operates. And I think that’s a good thing as it’s been a long time coming. I don’t really know what to expect when that happens when we all do show up to work together again. It’s not gonna be the same old guard putting us back on the same track to do the same kind of thing. It’s going to be different. And people like me are not going to be running that show so, I’ll see what the party looks like and who’s invited to it and what kind of work gets done. It’s a conversation too, and that’s partly what I love working live is that it makes the conversation interactive. It feels like real questions get posed and people walk away with real and live conversations in their heads about what they’ve seen and heard. Those are going to be different. I’m being a little bit cagey about how I’m wording this because I don’t want to get in to a too much detailed conversation about what we’re seeing. But what I’m seeing is a lot of change, and a lot of change at the gatekeeper level, and I think it’s good. I hesitate to talk about it too much because I don’t want to invest myself too much into a particular either-or form of outcome. I want to see what happens. Even if you have no problem with what was going on at Soulpepper before Weyni Mengesha (Artistic Director), just the fact she comes with a completely different perspective and completely different set of curiosities and interests and wants to focus on different areas that would never have occurred under previous artistic leadership, that to me is incredibly valuable. We need that. I’m so delighted that more and more of that is happening. Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry. Ooooooo….. what must I still accomplish within the industry? (Note: I stumped Kelli for a few seconds as I could see she was really thinking) Apart from in the late 80s when I visited the Shaw Festival and saw the work and had a deliberate conscious idea that I need to work there, to work with that company. I want to be in that milieu. And I worked really hard to accomplish that specific goal. And I was really pleased it worked out. I had a great time there. But apart from that, I’ve never really made a plan. I got very lucky when I started to direct because I had enough of a track record as an actor that people went okay, sure, let’s see what you do with this show. As things started to work out, people started to ask and that worked out. I asked Gina Wilkinson how she made that transition. And she said, “I just wanted to. And people let me.” I thought that sounded great and good for Gina. And in turn that’s exactly what happened to me. Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre. (Kelly let out an Uuuugghh)… I want to be surrounded by humanity and share in a live experience together. That’s mostly what I want. But God, I hope we don’t get a whole tsunami of Covid themed plays. I see a lot of stuff on Twitter, and these are conversations I try not to get involved in too much, about I hope we don’t see that. Or when we get back to the theatre, people are saying we’re going to do meaningful work, meaningful work, and the company’s program is ‘Sound of Music’ or ‘Singing in the Rain’. We just need to bring an audience back. And is an audience going to be a post World War 2 audience? We just want to see dance and a comedy. We don’t want to deal with death and destruction. We’ve had enough. We’ve been through a collective trauma, and it would make perfect sense for people to say, “Just do a tap dance. Please.” I would empathize with an audience that wants music and laughter, and artists that want to work in that capacity. I just want to be in a room with people and share a laugh. That said, there’s going to be the need to have a conversation about what audiences want to see. The important thing to me is that we get to a place where we’re comfortable. This is what worries about me about how long it’s going to take because we need to get to a place where people feel good about walking into The Coal Mine Store Front space and sitting shoulder to shoulder with 80 other bodies, and not feel concerned about that. That’s where we need to get back first before we get back to the theatre. I feel that’s going to be a long time. We need to be patient with each other and take a little space, breathe, smile and have that conversation. As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you? Wow!! I think what would be most important to me is if people thought of me as somebody who centered the work over herself as an artist. I think I’ve always tried. Obviously, I walk into the room with an ego, and all actors enter the room with an ego, and you can’t deny that. But I think, I’ve always consciously tried to say if I’m having an issue, is the issue I’m having about my ego or is it a problem I need to solve in the work. I never wanted to be too concerned about what people thought of Kelli after they saw a play in which Kelli played a racist. I never wanted people to walk out of a theatre after ‘Sweat’ worrying about what they thought of me as a human being. I want them to look at Tracy as a human being. To learn more about Kelli, visit her website: www.kellifox.ca . You can also follow Kelli on Twitter: @KelliFox14 /Instagram: @nelsonsdotter Previous Next

  • Profiles Brad Hodder

    Back Brad Hodder Canadian Chat Liz Beddall Joe Szekeres Augh!!!!!! I nearly ran out of time on the Zoom clock in chatting with artist Brad Hodder as there was so much I still wanted to ask him. Brad proudly talked about how his parents supported him and didn’t mind when he chose to pursue theatre professionally. He also had teachers in junior high and high school who encouraged him to pursue a path in the arts. He called himself really lucky and is very fortunate in his life that he met people along the way who helped him to this point in his career. Just looking at his resumé, I’ve seen several his performances at Stratford: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘An Ideal Husband’ were just three. Brad also was Assistant Director on two productions that were quite good: Groundling Theatre’s production of ‘King Lear’ and the Stratford Festival’s production of ‘The Crucible’. Brad has two upcoming productions at Mirvish this season that I am keen to see. In November, he is directing the musical ‘No Change in the Weather’ which opens at the CAA Theatre on Yonge Street November 19, 2021. And he will play Draco Malfoy in the all Canadian production of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ when it opens at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre on May 31, 2022. Brad and I conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much for your time: Since we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, tell me one teacher and one mentor in your life for whom you are thankful that brought you to this point in your life as a performing artist. Well, two of the same. I had a teacher in theatre school at the University of Alberta, my first year Acting Teacher, was a guy named Charlie Tomlinson. Big connections. Charlie’s family is originally from England, but he’s also lived in Newfoundland. Charlie’s father was at the Med School. Charlie was involved in the early days of CODCO here in the province in the 70s and 80s. I’d never met him before here in Newfoundland until I got to the University of Alberta. He had a profound influence on me, and we started a theatre company together here in Newfoundland that ran for ten years before I moved up to Ontario when I got into the Stratford Festival where I spent eight seasons. The other is Martha Henry who brought me to Stratford as part of the Birmingham Conservatory. I auditioned for Martha here in St. John’s when they were doing a national tour from the festival, and Charlie’s name was all over my resumé. When Martha was the Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, Charlie ran the Second Space there. They had quite a strong friendship and he definitely put in a good word for me. So, Charlie was a strong teacher and Martha became a real champion for me and a real mentor. I learned a lot from her. I ran the Langham Program at Stratford under her as well. She cast me in the lead in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and gave me opportunities. I got to assist Robin Philips simply because of Martha before he passed away. I was his assistant on ‘Twelfth Night’ that he was directing. I spent six intense theatre weeks with Robin, but he too had a profound influence on me. I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in dealing with Covid. How have you been able to move forward from these last 18 eighteen months on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed on a personal level? Well, we moved home to Newfoundland. I have a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old. We were living in Stratford and getting ready to move to Toronto for ‘Harry Potter’. When everything started happening, we made at the time a complicated decision to move back home to Newfoundland not knowing what’s going to happen. In hindsight it’s the best thing we ever did. That changed me that I’ve been home for nearly two years now with my family, my parents, my kids’ cousins, that kind of family time and recognizing (I know it sounds so clichéd, but everyone is so busy and things were happening so fast). Then when we didn’t have to be so busy and so fast, there was the reality that for all those opportunities I had in Stratford, I became Dad too. I was working six days a week in Stratford. I missed getting to go home in the summertime because I was at the Festival working. The kids and my partner would go home every summer for a month or six weeks but I couldn’t. Even at Christmas time, they could go home but I couldn’t because I started working at Groundling Theatre and we’d rehearse over the Christmas break. My time home at Christmas in Newfoundland was short, and my time home in the summer was non-existent. The silver lining during this time for me is being with my family, my kids, and my time to re-connect with Newfoundland which, I’m sure, Joe, you’ve heard from anybody that a connection with Newfoundland is a special place. It’s where work takes me away, but if it wasn’t for that I’m very happy in Newfoundland and it’s a great place to be. I have been transformed these last eighteen months. We were all on hamster wheels, and then all of a sudden, the hamster wheel stopped, and I started baking. I became one of those pandemic bakers and seeing what else I can do with sour dough discard, and how to laminate pastry. I’ve been running a lot. It’s been a good time. How have these last eighteen months of the pandemic changed or transformed you as an artist professionally? The art that comes out of Newfoundland, and the history of our art here is very different from anywhere else in Canada. The idea of a national theatre in Canada I’ve always found to be a little silly because each region is so large, and each region has such a different relationship with theatre history. The cultural icons from each region of Canada are different. The idea of a national theatre in Canada is a topic for another conversation. I’ve been very lucky. Very few people move to Newfoundland for work. There’s a company here called Terra Bruce that’s producing ‘No Change in the Weather’ that I’ll talk about shortly. Terra Bruce was doing a web series so I did a web series with them for a few months in the winter. Terra Bruce has a resident company so they’ve kept about 30 to 40 artists employed during the pandemic and paying them a weekly wage. We’ve got a building here where we’ve been rehearsing ‘No Change’. I also started a Chekhov reading group online with actors at the beginning of the pandemic and we’d meet once a week to reach each of the Chekhov plays, one act at a time. I led that until I ran away from all things online because it was feeding me the same way as live theatre and shows do. There’s been lots of work in Newfoundland, so I’ve come home. I’m working on this production of ‘No Change’ with people I went to high school with; we started out together in going to the theatre and making theatre together. Even though I lost touch with them, I’ve been reunited with them. My sister is doing the costume design for ‘No Change’. I did a movie here. I did a short horror film with my 12-year-old kid where I got to play the killer. I’ve never had the opportunity before. Professionally, I’ve been able to keep food on the table and the family supported. The dog (a rescue dog) gets really expensive dog food to help in digestion (and Brad and I share a laugh over this). I’m aware that so many of my friends have had to pivot and that has been big for them. For me, the biggest change was to leave Ontario with my family, but work wise I’ve been very, very fortunate and it’s not lost on me how lucky I am. It’s been nice to reconnect professionally with so many people here who I cut my teeth with. Getting to work with these people again has been a real, wonderful gift. In your opinion, do you see the global landscape of the professional Canadian live theatre scene changing at all as a result of these last 18 months? I think so. I think it has to. We’re already seeing it in the way we’ve been working here. For ‘No Change’, we’re rehearsing in mask; we’re singing in mask, and that in of itself has been a bit of a game changer. The way we build our rehearsal days, especially working on a musical, we’re building in there has to be time in the day for the room to air out. We can sing for 15 minutes out of the hour without masks on. Practical things have changed. Our rehearsal week has changed. We’re doing five days now instead of six days for this contract. We’re seeing what’s possible and how much time we have together. The rehearsal hall, to me, has to be a place where you can try lots of stuff. It’s safe and respectful. I love parameters and that’s a good thing, but some of these parameters that Covid has put us into can dull the creative impulse. So finding a way to create in these parameters is a challenge. I like the challenge of putting on a musical during this time. I’m really curious to the many social things that have been happening around us. What are the plays that will be here when we are fully back? Are we going to see a bunch of pandemic theatre? What’s going on with equality, and diversity and racialization in so many ways and how that informs our theatre. With theatre do we want to reflect back to audiences the way the world is OR the way the world could be? I don’t know where we go now because the world the way it now is might not be the way the world is going to be. But the world that it could be? It could be so many different things when coming out of pandemic and how difficult it is to get a positive message going globally. Theatre should be responding to the way the world is going around it. It should be for the people. I’m always weary of truth onstage, but LIFE, we want to see LIFE on stage. I still think I’m two years away of realizing how my life has changed right now. It’s emotional during rehearsals right now. In this long-winded answer, Joe, I hope the theatre is very different in a lot of ways in that it reflects all the things we want it to reflect. I was drawn to the theatre; it made a lot of sense to me so I hope we don’t lose that sense of safe space. Maybe we’re trying to open it up a lot more? How are rehearsals going for NO CHANGE IN THE WEATHER? What drew you to want to direct the story? Tell me about the characters and the artists playing them? How has this experience enriched you as an artist? What do you hope audiences will take away from NO CHANGE IN THE WEATHER? As director it’s a challenge. This is a show that they’ve had for a few years. It’s gone through a couple of incarnations and had a lot of work done on it. I was part of very little of it. I was going to be in the cast because I was a member of the resident company of this show. One day out of the blue I got a phone call asking if I would be interested in directing ‘No Change’. Before I moved to Stratford, I was doing a lot of directing than acting here in Newfoundland. When I was at Stratford, I was an actor and did the acting thing. But I have an interest in directing so I did the Langham thing towards the end of my time at Stratford. I started a small theatre company with Steve Ross. We would do late night one acts in the Art Gallery at Stratford, a midnight showing of a one act play for just a small, invited audience every night. I love directing. My insecurities as an actor leave me when I’m directing. When I think of a play, I never think of the part I want to play but the play I want to do. I often think I get hired as an actor, I love acting, but if someone told me tomorrow that I’m not going to be acting anymore, I’d be okay. I’m really curious and hungry about directing. I’m good at it and I want to do it. I enjoy it and I feel comfortable with it. It’s all positive stuff in directing. For me, this was an opportunity. I’m used to directing a couple of actors and no technical support, just to get a good play with a couple of good actors and tour it around. I love rehearsing. One of my goals as a director is how can we bring rehearsal on to the stage? How can we keep this living, breathing, thing of a play alive? Different directors approach that in different ways, and I’m still trying to figure that out. ‘No Change in the Weather’ has been a playground for me with this company that has such wonderful resources and support for its artists. The bells and whistles are here, and I was able to get the company of actors that I was really excited about. In its earlier form, ‘No Change’ was more sentimental and dramatic of a Newfoundland story. One of the things I wanted to do with Steve Cochrane’s adaptation of the story was turn it more towards a comedy and make it more of a farce. I just thought there was more strength in the story the adaptation wanted to tell. I thought the play is a lot funnier that people initially thought it was. Terra Bruce agreed to me wanting to work with the adaptor of the play and to be in control of the cast I wanted, and they were agreeable to that. I’ve a design team that complements the production extremely well. I feel like we’ve got really good people involved. One of the best things I’ve learned as a director is not working alone, but they have their people, they have a team. There was a sense years ago of the director as tyrant, the boss, the all knowing. I don’t run into that – the directors who excite me the most are very collaborative. The director needs the actor to help tell the story as opposed to the director who tells the actor how to tell the story. This process is almost like working on a new play. Getting these actors together and getting them to help me figure out the story – I love that process. I could stay in the rehearsal hall forever. For better or for worse, I’ve never directed a musical so this was just one of those things that is scary, but I should do it. There are lot of people involved whom I respect and I love, and I want to spend time with. It was something I got excited about – the challenge of it. There’s an ensemble resident company of actors here that I did this web series with This group of actors has been together for a year. Outside of theatre school, sometimes at the Festival, you get to work with one group of actors for 8 months to a year. It’s so rare when that happens. When you’ve got that group of people that I had here for a year, and now I get to create a play with them and complement them but filling out the company with other artists, but at the core there is this group of artists here that is of such value to me. ‘No Change’ is a real ensemble piece and it makes it hard to rehearse. Pretty much everyone is on deck the whole time so I can’t rehearse a small group if a dance rehearsal has been called. It’s not always easy, but this is a strong company and they’ve got a leg up since they’ve been together for a year, and I’m just fortunate they’ve accepted me as a director. The collaboration is there, the history is there. It makes the challenge easier but a lot more attractive. I hope audiences will leave ‘No Change in the Weather’ with having a laugh. It’s a comedy in the tradition of CODCO, even ‘Kids in the Hall’. Steve Cochrane who has done the adaptation has had a long history with sketch comedy. There’s a lot of Newfoundland music. There’s a political story at the heart of ‘No Change’ and the high drama surrounding The Churchill Falls blunder. Walter Schroeder, Executive Producer of Terra Bruce, fell in love with Newfoundland music and is passionate about the province and its artists. He is involved with the music he wants in the show, plus the story and politics he wants. There’s been a pretty collaborative and effective way of working with him. I hope the audience will see ‘No Change’ as a Newfoundland comedy but not the plaid shirt and rubber boots. A lot of Newfoundland jokes are old and have been told a lot. Like so many cultural stereotypes these jokes become stereotypes of themselves. We play with this and flirt with it but we’re trying to be aware this production is a Newfoundland comedy; a Newfoundland musical being created in 2021 and not relying on the Newfoundland tropes from 40 years ago. What intrigues Brad Hodder post Covid? Chekhov really intrigues me, and I want to direct. Obviously ‘Harry Potter’ is intriguing me at Mirvish and I’m looking forward to getting going on it. I’m really intrigued about what the next ten years will be like for my kids. I know that sounds cheesy, but I’m really curious about coming out of this pandemic and everything and what the next ten years will be like. RAPID ROUND Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I credit the late James Lipton and “Inside the Actors’ Studio’ for this idea: If you could say one thing to one of your mentors or favourite teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be? Thank you. If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would that be? Thank you (Brad says with a quick laugh and smile) What’s your favourite swear word? Fuck, but I’m told what I usually say is ‘Shitballs’. What is a word you love to hear yourself say? Satiated What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say? Patronize because I never know which way to say it. What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you? You are enough. With the professional life experience you’ve gained over the years, what would you now tell the upcoming Brad Hodder from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career as a performing artist? Be patient and take your time. What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally? Professionally, I want to direct all of the Chekhov plays. It used to be the Shakespeare history plays but after so much Shakespeare, I now want to hang out with Chekhov. Personally, I want to have really good, good adult children. That’s something I keep coming back to. I just want to make sure they’re okay, and they’re making other people okay, and that they’re a force of good in the world. I aspire to give them love and hope each day, and I hope they will do the same to others around them. Name one moment in your professional career as an artist that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while. Playing Edmund in ‘King Lear’ at Stratford because I never feel like I got it. What is one thing Brad Hodder will never take for granted again post Covid? My family or my work and TIME. Would Brad Hodder do it all again if given the same opportunities? Yah, unfortunately (and Brad has a good laugh) I wish, Joe, I wanted to be an action movie star and I honestly think if I wanted something like that I could be rich and famous. I’ve always to do theatre in a small black box. To learn more about ‘No Change in the Weather’ in November, please visit www.nochangeintheweather.com . Brad will appear next year in ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ at Mirvish in May 2022. To learn more visit www.mirvish.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Susan Ferley

    Back Susan Ferley Looking Ahead Peg McCarthy. Joe Szekeres I met Susan Ferley several years ago where she and I (along with others, including Derrick Chua) were asked by Jeremy Smith to judge Driftwood Theatre’s Trafalgar 24 (held at Whitby, Ontario’s Trafalgar Castle School). Susan is a highly articulate and intelligent individual when it comes to the live theatre industry, and I was sincerely hoping that I would have the opportunity to speak with her again and share in her love of the live theatre industry. That opportunity did render itself when I later learned she is the Artistic Director of the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre in Port Hope, Ontario. Since this profile, Susan has stepped down from her role as Artistic Director. I was grateful Susan was honest in saying it’s been a bumpy ride at the Capitol especially when Covid arrived over a year ago. She has a great deal of respect for the extraordinary Board of Directors and what they’ve done for the survival and flourishing of the Capitol Theatre. Even before we delved into the scripted questions, Susan and I discussed how theatre will change as a result of Covid. She believes virtual theatre will be part of the future, and it’s a challenge not only for her but for all of us who have grown accustomed to loving and to seeing live theatrical shows in an enclosed space on the stage with an audience. Susan studied in England and received her Master of Arts in Actor Training and Coaching. We conducted our interview via Zoom. Thanks for taking the time, Susan, to add your voice to the conversation: It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level. I’ve realized how connected I am to work and collaboration. I live on my own; I think of myself as a private person. I know I can survive on my own, but I feel diminished in some ways. It’s striving to find outlets. I’ve been cooking and baking more and realizing how, because I’m so focused on the work, friendships and family relationships were set aside. I’ve realized my personal need to connect with other artists and also with friends and family, and nature. Do I think of myself as someone in love with nature? No, I’ve often been in dark theatre rooms. Almost every day I go out for a walk. I’m looking out my window right now and seeing the trees glow green; the leaves aren’t fully out but you see that journey walking around and seeing the flowers starting, the forsythia, tulips popping up and daffodils in full bloom, and listening to the birds. The river here, The Ganaraska, is extraordinary. The sound of it too. If all else fails, I would walk along the river in the downtown area. Right now, because of the current stay at home, barriers have been put up. They don’t want you walking along the river because that’s what draws people to our community often. So, I can’t get close there right now. This community is so beautiful and has so much to offer. That’s been lovely, but I’ve had to re-assess who I am, where I am, what’s important and what I’ve missed in my life journey. With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artistic director of the live theatre industry been altered and changed? Phew…I’ve always felt the theatre plays a vital role in a community and I think, for me, it’s heightened that awareness. I’ve been reading. There was an article I read talking about a theatre in San Francisco where it spoke about theatre being an ‘empathy gymnasium’ where we learn about compassion; whether as an individual or as a community, for me, theatre provides an emotional gymnasium, a place where we can release. I know people are often looking for entertainment and want to laugh, and how important that is to gather in a room and to share a story and find an emotional release. It’s not always laughter, sometimes there are tears, sometimes memory. But just what an important role, for me, but also the arts play in the lives of individuals in a community and also more broadly in a community. It’s shared journeys, shared stories. As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry? (Susan laughed as it appears she just answered the question earlier) Gathering in a room, artists, actors, creative teams, technical teams; it’s the collaboration that is so important to me, that interaction where creativity is sparked. That certainly is missed. Heightened communication that is intellectual, emotional, psychological; sharing stories and also taking the creation (the production/the story being told) and sharing it. Through the sharing of the story there is also being informed and stimulated creatively as you learn from that interaction more about the creative process that goes into it. As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when the doors re-open? (Susan laughs) Just that, the human interaction and communication, the heightened communication, enriched communication through stories. The ability to gather and share an experience. Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry. It’s offered time for reflection on how we do what we do. Certainly, and this was very early, with the murder of George Floyd the awareness that has been brought to my/our collective attention. Our failings as artists working with other artists, playing with other artists. The failings of our institutions. Theatres are creative places and gathering places and welcoming and compassionate, and there have been failures, major failures. And so, hopefully, through reflection and the time being offered, there will be changes in how we work. Just thinking of theatres as institutions I find offensive, you know. It’s about creativity, challenge and shared stories, and a place going back to whether it’s that idea of gymnasium where things are shared, and out of the exercise of coming together and sharing a story we leave with greater understanding and compassion. I think there is potential for change, but lots to do. Watching the IBPOC/BIPOC round table from the Stratford Festival last summer was so heartbreaking at times. And then we don’t want to just wallow in that, and then you go, ‘How, what, has to happen to move forward from all this?’ Whether professional or non-professional the need to open, welcome, and be willing to hear, to listen, and to see other stories outside of our own story, and outside of our lens. We now have, one hopes, a heightened awareness of artists of colour. As a friend pointed out to me, there’s also diversity on other fronts. That awareness is starting to parallel with BIPOC/IBPOC artists so that we hear the artists. Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the live theatre industry. Well, with a greater awareness, to support and encourage. With my involvement with the High School Project (from my time at London Ontario’s Grand Theatre) and going off to England, and training and taking a program that was actor training and coaching, to enrich the skills that I have to support artists in development, artists that are emerging. I know that’s an area I’m interested in working with young and emerging artists, if I can be of assistance in helping them to reach and claim that potential and soaring. I’ve had opportunities to work in training programs and I always am exhilarated by that. The schools certainly have an increasingly responsibility in terms of assembling the IBPOC/BIPOC teachers so that the students of colour see themselves reflected in the faculty and trainers. Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artistic director, and as an audience member observing the theatre. I think there will be some Covid themed plays. I’m looking at to see if I can try to bring it to the Capitol Theatre is ‘February: A Love Story’ by Sudden Spark Collective. The artists involved with that project, Ellen Denny, is someone who came out of the High School Project in London, Ontario and has pursued a career as a performer, but more recently as a writer. She and her writing partner, Emilio Vieira, have created a love story in times of Covid. They describe it as a romantic comedy, and it very much is. But it’s also about life in the midst of Covid. So, while in my head, I might go, “Oh, I don’t know if this would go work on the subject of Covid,’ I think there will be some. This particular piece, ‘February: A Love Story’ is playful and filled with love and hope. Those are key things to get us through this time. Because of Covid, the play was also filmed. It may be on a Stratford platform so keep your eyes open. I think because of the isolation, and certainly I feel it as an individual, but I don’t think I’m alone in that shared experience of isolation from community and shared experience, that theatre can offer that potential for catharsis. Whether that’s coming together to laugh out loud, or whether to come together and through the experience find an emotional release whether laughter or tears. That is something that we need and want desperately to come together especially during this time. There’s a need to get back to that emotional gym for an emotional and psychological workout. It’s been hard on individuals, human interaction and communities. Theatre will play an important role and if it takes a Covid themed play to do it, so be it. Shakespeare was pretty good at it too when ‘King Lear’ was written during a time of plague and pandemic. As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you? Oh, dear, I’m never good about this sort of question, I’m afraid. I hope I’m viewed as having had a generosity of spirit. A joy and a passionate love for what I do and that’s whether in creating work with a group of people that is shared with another group of people. A sense of play and a love for all that theatre can offer, all that sharing stories can offer, all that creating and playing together can offer. To learn more about Port Hope’s Cameco Capitol Centre, visit Cameco Capitol Arts Centre – Experience Entertainment (capitoltheatre.com). Facebook: Capitol Theatre Port Hope; Twitter: @CapitolPortHope Previous Next

  • Profiles Irene Sankoff and David Hein

    Back Irene Sankoff and David Hein Self-Isolated Artist --- Joe Szekeres When it is safe to return to the theatre, and we will (sorry to disagree, Dame Judi Dench), if you have not gone to see the extraordinary ‘Come from Away’, make it one of the shows you definitely must attend. I know I would like to see it again. Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s apres 9/11 story of hope, of kindness, and of generosity is one that resonates with me in an emerging post COVID world now more than ever. Amid the statistics and the confusion of this coronavirus time, I know there are stories out there of front-line workers who have instilled hope, shown kindness, and born generosity of spirit. I had the good fortune to see the show three times: twice in Toronto (and once with the Canadian cast) and the New York/ Broadway company. Many thanks to Irene and David who were extremely kind and generous to participate in this interview when they have so much going on in their lives right now. How have you and your family been keeping at this over three-month isolation, and now with a slow re-emergence? IRENE: We’ve remained healthy. Not sure how with so many people we know having been hit by this wretched virus, but so far, we’re okay. We’re grateful for what we have and try to stay aware of our privilege. And wear our masks when we’re out near others but mostly stay home. I really miss my life from The Before Time. It was all gone so quickly, y’know? DAVID: We had been living in New York but have driven back with our daughter and two cats and renting a place – and we’re only now sorting out where we’ll be going forward. We’ve been trying to keep an eye on our five CFA companies who are all out of work – not just the onstage team, but the box office, front of house, crew, etc. And we’ve been trying to do some good, donating, buying a 3D printer for makers to make face shields and delivering them. What has been the most challenging and difficult for you and your family during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy? IRENE: In the early days it was fear over the outbreak at my Mom’s Long-Term Care Home. We spent a lot of time sourcing and delivering PPE as well as coming up with ways to keep the staff and residents’ spirits up, whether it was having food delivered or doing impromptu performance art outside the building. Now that the outbreak has resolved (knock on wood) I’m missing the community I had in NYC, as they drift away from that city and all over the map. I spend a lot of time texting or video chatting with them. So - keeping busy has not been a problem. Work has not slowed down (I know, I’m surprised too – and grateful). And then there’s the education and entertaining of our six-year-old. She is used to a lot of programming and stimulation, having lived the last three years in Manhattan. But she is LOVING being here – and running in and out of the house and hopping on and off her bike and making friends with kids across the street or over a fence while yelling “6 feet back!” DAVID: We’re surprisingly really busy. Between homeschooling our daughter and figuring out where we’ll live next, we’re doing interviews and as many benefits as we can, trying to raise some money or cheer on front line workers – many of whom are our friends. But we’re also doing work in film and television – and everyone in those fields seems to see us as writers at home with nothing to do – so there’s suddenly a lot to do! We’ve been working on the ‘Come From Away’ movie, a TV project, and a couple of other irons in the fire. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian and North American performing arts scene? DAVID: I don’t think there’s a way that it won’t – it’s been so challenging for every theatre company, performers, all our crew members – not being able to work. And at the same time, I hope that some writers out there – the ones without six-years-old to homeschool – are writing the next great Canadian musical. Or just recharging and being good to themselves, so that when it makes sense, they can write the next great Canadian musical! Zero pressure to be productive during this. But long term, I know that theatre will come back – our producers are determined that “Come From Away” will return – and its message of resiliency and coming together in response to a tragedy feels even more relevant now. IRENE: Yes. I definitely think COVID will have a lasting impact. You can’t come out of a moment like this unchanged, both metaphorically and practically speaking. I’m mercifully (for all involved) not on the business side of things - but when I speak to those who are, they are cautiously optimistic about the long term. They are constantly running through options and worst-case scenarios and running task forces, and I try not to bother them too much because I don’t know how they do it. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any sage and wise words of parental advice to the new graduates from the theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion? IRENE: I’ve always been a big fan of having a Plan B. I always had more than one and lived them for a long time. It gave me income, insight into humanity, and knowledge that I then used in my artistic pursuits, as well as confidence that there were many things I could do to earn a living. So, I was never desperate and always had the ability to walk away if I wasn’t happy in a situation. It also gave me friends who weren’t in the arts who could advise on life matters and who could frankly afford to come and support our shows. So, this seems like a great time to go to your Plan B. What else can you do? I’m not saying to give up, not one bit, but you’re going to have to be creative about HOW you are going to keep going while there’s nothing to go to. What else can you do right now to keep yourself fed, and to keep yourself learning so you’re not burnt out by the time this is all over? (Also, I don’t think it will ever really be ‘over’. But I’d love to be wrong about that). Before COVID, it was predicted that people would have 7 different careers in their lifetimes. Not jobs, careers. As people in the arts, we shouldn’t think we’re exempt from that. David and I are each on our third, maybe fourth careers? And that’s before COVID. DAVID: I obviously, often think about Newfoundland and what a hard place it can be to live – the winters are awful – it’s literally a rock in the ocean, the fisheries failing – all of that. But the people there have responded by becoming some of the best people in the world – kind, generous to both neighbors and strangers, and brilliant musicians and storytellers. Each winter, they get stuck inside, and they’ve learned to overcome them by coming over to each other’s kitchen parties and telling stories and singing songs – and making sure their community survives together. So, I think there’s hope that we can learn from this moment and become better. And to the graduates – many of whom were born during 9/11 and are now graduating during this – you have an incredible, unique story to tell – and that story and this time will bond you together as a group. Find the people you love who you’ve studied with and make art that you love. That’s what we did. Worst case scenario: you’ll have enjoyed the process. Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian and North American performing arts scene? DAVID: I think the pressure it’s putting on the system is exposing so many inequalities, which is painful, but acknowledging those issues and working together to find solutions is positive. We’re already seeing new theatre companies being founded to share unheard voices and we’re excited about the art that this moment in the Black Lives Matter movement will create – which as allies, we are trying to educate ourselves on and work to support. IRENE: COVID has shown so many cracks in the way things were all along it’s dizzying. But the positive side of that is we can look to ways to change during this pause. Inequalities in healthcare and education and access to technology are painfully more pronounced. That’s why performing arts schools all have students who look the way they do – not a ton of racial and/or socioeconomic diversity. And women are being squeezed out of professions again not just in theatre, but elsewhere as well, as men usually make more money so their jobs take priority, and child-rearing and domestic management still tend to fall to women somehow. I’ve had so many friends, in arts, science, business and even healthcare say something along the lines of “how did I become a 1950s housewife?!” Wait…I was supposed to stay positive. Oops. I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and YouTube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for theatre as we move forward from COVID 19? IRENE: I have no idea. If it is all going to be about streaming, I better learn how to use the TV. Although, I do have a kid. Isn’t that why people have kids? So, they can change the TV channel? They don’t even have to get off the couch anymore. Back in my day, you had to walk all the way over to the TV. DAVID: I don’t think anything will replace live theatre – that feeling of your heartbeat synchronizing with the audience members around you. But if theatergoers want to watch theatre right now on their computers, how can you blame them? And why would you discourage it? If you don’t want to watch it, don’t –there’s already theatres working out how to do live theatre with socially distanced seating, or in front of your house, or by phone or zoom – but I don’t have an issue with streamed theatre – the more theatre the merrier! What is it about the performing arts you still adore that will never be destroyed by COVID? DAVID: We stand at the back of the house at Come From Away and we watch the show, but we also watch the audience. I love hearing a thousand people laughing at once or hearing them all sigh together – or cry together and then pass Kleenexes down the row. There was that article about how everyone’s hearts start to sync in rhythm within a theatre. It’s such a gift to get to witness people coming together in a shared experience – which is really what our show is about – and I can’t wait till we can return. IRENE: I’m not sure I adore this, but somehow, from the very beginning and no matter where in the world we’ve been, David and I have always ended up writing cramped in the middle of the night on a closed toilet seat in a bathroom, one of us seated on the edge of the tub if there was one. There was no tub at the Broadway theatre, but everyone knew the bathroom in the stage manager’s office was where we worked. And lo and behold, we’re working in a cramped bathroom again right this minute. Apparently COVID can’t destroy that. But seriously, a line from ‘Carousel’ comes to mind that gives me hope. This isn’t quite it, but the sentiment is right: “As long as there is one person on Earth who remembers, it isn’t over yet.” With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests: What is your favourite word? DAVID: When I was a kid it was “Hawaii” – I’d say it over and over again even though I’d grown up in Saskatchewan and had never been there. With ‘Come From Away’, when we had to travel to meet our Australian company, we stopped there and it became our daughter’s favorite place – primarily because of the stray cats, so it’s as good a word as any. I also love the word “kindness” both for its practice and that it implies a “kinship” or “similar kind” with another person – recognizing our similarities rather than our differences. IRENE: Roller Coaster. What is your least favourite word? DAVID: This is such an only child word to pick – and I hate saying it to our only child too, but “No.” IRENE: Sprain. What turns you on? DAVID: A good Canadian self-deprecating sense of humour. IRENE: Surprising people. What turns you off? DAVID: People not listening, or not learning. I’m guilty of it too, plenty of times, but it drives me crazy. Also, when computers don’t work. It makes me crazy. IRENE: Ableism. ‘Isms’ in general. What sound or noise do you love? DAVID: Irene and my daughter’s laughter when they literally can’t keep it inside and it just burbles out. It’s my favourite sound ever. I spend a lot of time being goofy mostly so I can hear them laugh. IRENE: Rain. What sound or noise bothers you? DAVID: Chalkboard fingernails and my daughter crying. Or our cat, Gambo, “wowing” for breakfast at 5am. IRENE: Ignorant people talking. What is your favourite curse word? DAVID: Fuck. I also love the Newfoundlander’s “lard tunderin’ jaysus” though I never feel like it’s mine to use. IRENE: Fuck. Other than your current profession now, what other professions would you have liked to do? DAVID: I always wanted to be an animator or draw comics. Through Come From Away, I got to draw a backup Spider-Man story and I can’t wait to do another one. IRENE: Teacher. Being surrounded by small children. Is. The. Best. What profession could you not see yourself doing? DAVID: Oh man, there’s so many. Prime Minister since I’m terrible at decision making. Deep sea diver because I’m claustrophobic. Is scorpion zookeeper a thing? I might rather die. I have a lot of respect for all of those, but I couldn’t do them. IRENE: Teacher. There is no profession more underrated, underpaid and under-respected. Post-COVID I’d add ‘essential worker’. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? DAVID: “Excellent, you and Irene came together. Glad you took your time.” IRENE: “You can dance the way you used to, and it won’t hurt a bit.” To learn more about any of the worldwide extraordinary companies of ‘Come from Away’, please visit www.comefromaway.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Rick Miller

    Back Rick Miller ‘That’s how the young Rick Miller understood the world – by listening, hearing, learning and taking on a voice in order to better understand someone else.’ Joe Szekeres Joe Szekeres Rick Miller is one helluva busy guy. In 2020, he agreed to be one of the first few actors whom I profiled when all our lives had changed when the pandemic hit. We talked about his work when I first heard of his name in ‘MacHomer: The Simpsons do Macbeth’ at Toronto’s Massey Hall and, in a provocative turn, ‘Venus in Fur’ through Canadian Stage. I also saw him host the Dora Awards. I last saw him onstage at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre in 2022 in ‘Boom’. I had seen the production at Montréal’s Segal Centre before then and enjoyed it so much. When the opportunity arose to see it again in 2022, I jumped at the chance. Miller will have just returned from premiering ‘Boom X’ and ‘Boom YZ’ in Taiwan where he has performed both shows in repertory. In 2021, Rick travelled to Taiwan with ‘Boom’ where the production was adored, and the overseas audience response was for the show to continue. A lot of work has gone into the preparation of the two shows for Taiwan. Miller learned some Mandarin over the last two years he can speak during the show which will also be subtitled. Amid all the travel and craziness involved in moving the show overseas, ‘Boom X’ arrives at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre on May 10 and plays until May 28. An east-end Toronto guy, this will be his first time performing here and Miller is excited and proud to perform his work in his home and the neighbourhood which is so very important to him. He wants to give back to the community he knows and loves the opportunity to show those around him what he has been doing in travelling all over the world. ‘Boom X’ is billed on the Kidoons website as: “[Spanning] 1970-1995, this second in a trilogy of solo multimedia performances which collectively with ‘Boom’ spans 75 years of history, politics, culture, and technology on our planet. ‘Boom X’ picks up where ‘Boom’ left off, at Woodstock in August 1969 and takes the audience all the way to 1995 when the internet began to dominate our lives. Miller plays over 100 colourful characters from the days of disco, the oil crisis, Watergate, the Cold War, video games, punk rock, the (second) British invasion and more.” The form of ‘Boom X’ has altered from ‘Boom’. There’s a lot going on. It’s a busier show, technically heavy, and it’s a reflection of the beginning of the polarizing of the cable news that we started to live in at that time. The show begins that complex reflection of the media of the 1970s-1995 era, and that’s the magic and wonder of the live production that is high performance. Several weeks ago, I spoke with Rick in a coffee shop in the east end of Toronto and wanted to get caught up with him before he headed to Taiwan. He had just returned from performances in Regina with ‘Boom’ where he had never worked before. The show went extremely well in his words and there’s talk now of bringing ‘Boom X’ there, and Rick loves when that connection is made. On a personal and poignant note, he shared it was the first series of shows he had done since his mother passed away several weeks ago. Rick plays his mother over the course of this trilogy so he was curious how he would pull it off and how it would feel: “It felt less sad and more of a gift and honour to be able to tell [my mother’s story] and to share her voice and to play her in the show.” Rick says it’s hard to describe both the tightrope performances of ‘Boom’ and ‘Boom X’. On the one hand, they’re part entertainment, part documentary and part jukebox musical. Music is key and the heartbeat to these shows. It’s hard to pin down, but what comes across is a celebration of joy, humanity, light and humour. What leads out there is someone genuinely smiling and really trying to please. Artists shouldn’t be shying away from wanting to please and to give to audiences. It doesn’t all have to be introspective. While Miller doesn’t shy away from serious topics, audiences are looking for and want to be uplifted. ‘Boom’ and ‘Boom X’ are not only a history of the celebration of history, culture, and politics in all its complexity, but they’re performed with great spirit, joy, and humour and people love to see that. It’s a very high performance and Miller gives everything he’s got when he’s performing on stage. He literally lays it all out there in what he calls failure and sweat. The ‘Boom’ trilogy is a unique experience compared to what one can get online these days. He also said something that I find important as we all return to the theatre. Why bother going anymore? After the last few years, Rick stated the best writing in the world is happening on television and streaming platforms, but acknowledges: “It’s our responsibility as theatre performers to create something that is different from television and film. Don’t write or film-present a failed tv scenario on stage. That’s not serving the medium. If you want to bring people to the theatre, do something theatrical. You don’t have to spend a million dollars. Just be inventive and celebrate the fact people are in the room with you and create something special and unique.” Rick is proud to say his shows feel like events that leave an impression. He’s very grateful for this high compliment and praise he receives. He’s not simply a Vegas performer who can do voices. Miller feels he has the kind of skills that can leave an impression on someone’s heart and head. If he can bring something to light or jostle an idea through connection to an audience that leaves them even slightly transformed, that is a magical thing for him. That’s why he keeps doing these shows repeatedly. What keeps him grounded? Miller is 53 now and at that age where family responsibilities pull him in one direction and his parents in the other. He’s at that tricky stage of his life as a professional artist in asking the question: “What is the next chapter? or What is the last chapter?” To keep himself grounded, Rick practices mindfulness and meditation in this workout of his mind along with physical workouts. Essentially, he begins to understand how his brain works as everything is connected generally to well-being. By doing that, he puts all his thoughts, emotions, and craziness of our world into a little bit of perspective where he can breathe, set his feet on the ground, and set himself in the moment wherever he is. Rick calls himself a theatre performer even though he has done work in film and television. He takes this responsibility very seriously. People have paid good money to see him perform. They don’t want to see Rick do ‘Boom’ for the 400th time. They want to see him perform for the first time and Miller says that’s a huge responsibility on his shoulders. As we concluded our conversation, Rick mentioned how he is trying to ‘Fail better’, a Samuel Beckett quote. It means trying again, failing again, and doing better. Failure is part of any creative process whether you’re an actor, an athlete, a scientist, or an artist. You must try and fail, and only through that search and that failure do you find anything resembling success as it is fleeting. Rick doesn’t like hearing someone say they’ve arrived because everything is always changing in that sense. It’s a mindfulness thing. Everything moves on including one’s successes so don’t sit in outrage or exult in your own glory because these will pass. What’s next once 'Boom X' has completed its run? Over this coming summer, Miller will continue developing work with his Kidoons partner Craig Francis and then be back on the road in the fall with a tour of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jungle Book’. Next year there will be five shows on the road including the three-part ‘Boom’ trilogy. Boom opens May 10 and runs until May 28 at Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue. To book tickets, call the Box Office at (647) 341-7390 or visit crowstheatre.com. To learn more about Rick Miller and Kidoons, visit kidoons.com. To learn more about Rick Miller, the actor, visit rickmiller.ca. Previous Next

  • Profiles Martin Julien

    Back Martin Julien Looking Ahead to 'The Man that Got Away' Helen Tansay Joe Szekeres Since I’ve started the profile series, I’ve heard Martin Julien’s name or have noticed he may have responded to some Facebook comments these last few years. He has been a professional Canadian actor since the age of ten. Over time, he has also become a playwright, theatre deviser, lecturer, and scholar. Martin has been nominated for three Dora Mavor Moore Awards as Best Performer and was also highlighted as Toronto's top-rated theatre artist of the year by NOW Magazine in 1995. He holds a Ph.D. from the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies in the University of Toronto, where he was an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow (2015-2017). Martin was the senior editor of Theatre Passe Muraille: A Collective History, Playwrights Canada Press (2019), and his play ‘The Unanswered Question’ premiered at Ottawa's National Arts Centre in Artistic Director Peter Hinton-Davis’s inaugural season (2007). Recent acting credits include ‘Under the Stairs’ by Reza Jacobs and Kevin Dyer, YPT (2019), and playing the titular role in ‘Sir John A: A Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion’ by Drew Hayden Taylor, NAC (2017). Martin’s newest show ‘The Man that Got Away’ opens this week at the Buddies in Bad Times theatre. He took a few moments to answer questions via email. Thank you so much for taking the time, Martin. I’m looking forward to seeing the show this week: 1. Where did you complete your artist training? As an actor, at TMU in the mid-eighties. Before it was a university. When it was the Ryerson Theatre School. The director of my play, Peter Hinton-Davis, was in my class. As a performance scholar, I hold a PhD from the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies in the University of Toronto. 2. The twenty-first-century world of the professional artist has changed on account of the worldwide pandemic. What advice would you give to a young person who is/will or might consider a future career as a performing artist? As a veteran freelance player and deviser of theatre, I am far more interested in what advice such a young person might give to me! Those born since 2000 have the grand task of re-inventing a responsive ethics and practice for professional artists as we move on. We have two wonderful performers in their twenties – Ben Page and Tat Austrie – rounding out our cast of three, and they are my teachers. 3. Given the last three years of the worldwide pandemic, as a professional artist how are you feeling about the state of the live entertainment scene going forward? In your professional opinion, where do you see the world of live entertainment/live artist/theatre headed within the next proverbial five years? We must dedicate ourselves to clarifying new active relationships between creative practice, economics, and fairness. There seems no longer the funding for producing companies to invest in necessary rehearsal time and fair wages, while simultaneously there are important issues regarding artists’ health and scheduling which are being recognized. Where do time, money, and justice come together? The days of ‘the show must go on’ no matter what are over. 4. Personally, how are you feeling at this moment regarding the effects of the worldwide pandemic? I am also an educator of acting and theatre practice for young adults, and my personal feelings tilt towards both admiration and concern for this cohort of people. Crucial years of collaboration and collegiality have been lost, at a pivotal time of life for those just coming ‘into their own’. We must find ways to recover solidarity and trust in order to keep creating collective art. 5. Tell me more about ‘The Man That Got Away’ coming up at Buddies. What was its genesis? The play is based in my own personal history of growing up through the 1960s to 1980s in a loving and complicated family of my lesbian mother, my gay father, and me. It is a multi-faceted play that celebrates and critiques underexamined notions of queer identity through a unique personal lens, from the days of pre-Stonewall repression to ‘Gay Liberation’ to the AIDS epidemic. I sense that much of the ramifications of this collective journey are in danger of being ‘lost’, or simplified, in politics, art, and memory. It also celebrates and subverts my deep love of showtunes! a) Why do you believe it’s important for audiences to see ‘The Man That Got Away’ at this time? As a person in present-day society, I am appalled that the popular discourse continually insinuates that Covid-19 is the first epidemic to sweep North America since the influenza of 1919. Over the years between 1987 and 1992, in Canada alone, nearly 6,000 deaths have been attributed to HIV/AIDS. The vast majority of these deaths were gay men – often cared for by lesbian volunteers – who were often unrecognized and condemned by politics, religion, media, and the medical establishment. I fear this history of struggle and advocacy is being lost. At a time when trans and queer rights are both emerging and attacked in our civil dialogue, I feel it important to create public art that confirms and liberates the historical advocacy of LGBTQ2S+ rights and the beauty and breadth of queer culture. b) I thought I recognized the title of your show from a song title. I’ll be honest that I had to do a quick YouTube search to realize that the song was sung by Judy Garland in her 1954 film ‘A Star is Born’ opposite actor James Mason. It has been years since I’ve seen this film so it’s on my list to watch again. i) Am I reading too much into this or is the connection one that you are hoping audiences will make to your upcoming show? ii) From what I know about the life of Judy Garland, she was a tortured soul who battled many demons. Will your show focus also on demons/struggles/challenges you have faced in your life personally and professionally? Some audience members – Friends of Dorothy – will make the connection, and others will be learning something new about the depth and meaning of mid-twentieth century and mostly closeted and coded ‘gay culture’, and its relationship to Judy Garland. These ideas certainly have personal relevance to my family’s life growing up and are explored through the arts of theatre and performance in my show. I do not see Garland as a ‘tortured soul’ but perhaps, rather, a genius performer who was overused and abused by the ‘show biz’ industry. But also, her spirit was very good medicine for people such as my father Leo, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988 at Casey House hospice. 6. What’s next for Martin Julien once ‘The Man That Got Away’ completes its run at Buddies? A rest from the four years it has taken to create this play and production! That said, I am participating in a workshop for a new musical in early January, then returning to teaching music theatre performance at Sheridan College through the spring. ‘The Man that Got Away’ previews December 6 and 7. It opens on December 8 and runs until December 18. All performances will be held at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto. For tickets, call the Box Office (416) 975-8555 or visit buddiesinbadtimes.com for further information and/or to purchase tickets online. Previous Next

  • Profiles Michael Rubinoff

    Back Michael Rubinoff Looking Ahead --- Joe Szekeres Like many of the artists whom I’ve profiled this last year, producer Michael Rubinoff is one busy individual who continues to move forward as we all are outside of the pandemic. Over the years, I have heard his name and knew he was a producer of musical theatre here in Canada, but I was not aware of the extent of his influence in the industry. I’ve learned a great deal about him and am most thankful he was able to take a few moments to add his voice to the conversation. As you will see from his responses below, Michael helped to develop the 9/11 story in Gander, Newfoundland that continues to move audiences here in Toronto, on Broadway, in the West End and Australia. Outside of ‘Come from Away’, Michael continues his busy schedule. He is a Toronto based producer and lawyer who conceived the idea to share the compelling events depicted in ‘Come from Away’ as a musical. In 2011, he established the Canadian Music Theatre Project, an incubator for th3e development of new musicals, where he produced and developed the first workshops of ‘Come from Away’ and developed 29 other musicals. He is a producer and consultant to ‘Come from Away’s’ five companies around the world and received an Olivier award and a Tony nomination for Best New Musical for the show. He is producing the new musical ‘Grow’ which will have its world premiere at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario in April, 2022. He continues the development of new work at home and abroad. Michael was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross by the Governor General of Canada for his role in ‘Come from Away’. A proud graduate of Western University Law. @mrubinoff. We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you so much for adding your voice to the conversation, Michael: It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level. Despite the numerous challenges of this ongoing pandemic, it has reinforced that we are resilient. It is a rare global event in which everyone has been affected. That impact has been disproportionate, but even those most privileged have been at the mercy of a virus. It has exposed vulnerabilities we have not previously confronted effectively. It has widened awareness and increased support for necessary change on many levels. This time has also invited more meaningful conversations. I am hopeful this newfound resiliency can propel change at a faster pace. Prior to the start of the pandemic, I was operating at a constant 100 miles an hour, working on multiple projects at home and abroad. The pandemic brought that pace to a screeching halt. That has allowed valuable time to reflect personally and professionally. It has provided an opportunity to re-examine what is most important to me and the work I want to do in my next personal act. One of the most significant changes has been, after a decade of service, at the end of this academic year, I resigned from my position as Producing Artistic Director of the Canadian Music Theatre Project (“CMTP”) at Sheridan. This has afforded me the time to wholly devote myself to what I am most passionate about, developing new musicals. With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed? It has reinforced that what we do is necessary to foster social interaction and social innovation. We provide a valuable service and outlet for the public. We bring communities together. At the same time, this great intermission is a moment of reflection for the entire industry and has amplified the necessary need for a more equitable and inclusive industry. Time to take time has given the industry the opportunity to have very difficult and uncomfortable conversations. It has provided an opportunity to begin the concrete work on making change, in advance of the start of rehearsals and theatres re-opening to audiences. This moment has reinforced accountability measures that must be adhered to going forward. There is no going back to normal. Many challenges and missteps will happen, but the work must be constant to ensure safe and healthy environments for all. Further, if the theatre industry is to survive and remain relevant, it must be reflective of the communities it serves on stage, off stage and in the audience. In the musical theatre, where my work is focused, more inclusiveness in storytelling will only make the work that much richer, powerful and desirable to all audiences. As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry? As people we crave social interaction and connection. In the digital age, theatre is one of the last mediums that brings people together, in person, to collectively share an experience. Theatre is an event, that takes place in a moment in time in which an emotional bond is created between words, sometimes music, actors, and audience. This cannot be replicated online. I am missing most, standing at the back of a theatre and watching an audience of strangers, untethered to their screens, come together as a community. It is always powerful to witness and feel and I can’t wait to be there again. As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it? I feel so privileged to be a part of the theatre industry, that I try not to take any if it for granted. However, as a producer, I have never enjoyed being in tech. I have tremendous respect and admiration for all of the artists involved in that process. For good reason it takes focused time to implement and perfect the thousands of intricacies to create theatre magic. As mentioned earlier, I was always trying to move through life at a rapid pace. So, tech is going to be the thing I am never going to take for granted again when we return. I do encourage you to check up on me on that journey! Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry. As mentioned before, there is no going back to “normal”. Institutional change takes time, but it is being on the path towards eradicating systemic racism in our industry that I hope has changed. Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry. My commitment as a producer has primarily been to the Canadian musical and commercial theatre. On our journey towards institutional change, we need to encourage and foster a generation of IBPOC commercial theatre producers in this country. This work for me, personally, is an accountability measure to ensure we are meeting the objective of a more inclusive industry. I am working with a group of Canadian commercial theatre producers in consultation with members of underrepresented communities, to design a program that will educate, mentor and provide meaningful opportunities to emerging producers who want to work in this space. Canada has lacked this kind of programming and, with urgency, I am determined to share what knowledge and support I can, to contribute to the necessary change. Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre. As the individual that conceived the idea and developed a musical about 38 planes landing in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador on 9/11, I get asked about my ideas for a Covid musical a lot. Live theatre can share historical events in very compelling ways. I believe that musical theatre is one way to report and preserve history. Despite many doubters along the way, it was one of the reasons I felt strongly that the humanity exhibited on such a dark day should be shared in the musical form. Ultimately, successful musicals connect with an audience. Due to the length of the pandemic my ideas for a Covid themed musical continue to build. I do have a concept that I believe is compelling. However, I have learned that time helps best frame how you want to tell stories about immediate events and post-pandemic reflection will be necessary. I do believe this moment in history should be preserved in the musical form and I look forward to working on a project that will respectfully resonate with audiences. As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you? Canada has and will always be home. I believe in the brilliant Canadian writers, composers, creatives, talent and technicians. I also believe that we have our own stories that are important to tell, both the good and shameful in our history. The Canadian Music Theatre Project, which launched with the development of ‘Come From Away’, led a renaissance in Canadian musical theatre at home and around the world. Over a decade the CMTP developed thirty new musicals. Many of those shows have received professional premieres all over the world. We see Canadian not for profit theatres, commercial producers, schools and community theatres developing, producing and presenting Canadian musicals. This risk taking, in large numbers, on our own talent, was not always the case. Most importantly, we see audiences embracing this work with pride and a sense of ownership. So, if I am remembered for anything, I hope it is for the ignition of creation and the support of our Canadian storytellers to tell our stories. Previous Next

  • Profiles Nathalie Bonjour

    Back Nathalie Bonjour Looking Ahead Brian Medina Joe Szekeres For someone like myself who has never had any formal training or background education in dance, why is it important to reach out to those of us who have no expertise in this area? Director of Performing Arts at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Nathalie Bonjour was grateful to have a Zoom call with me where she was eagerly willing to engage in such a conversation. Her response regarding those audience members who have no training in dance: “I don’t think you need to have any background or academic understanding of dance especially in this [upcoming] piece of [Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart L-E-V Israel]. The music is very strong in this piece so audiences will be drawn in right away as is the lighting. This is a piece where audiences must let themselves be carried on the journey. The movement is very particular, very unique. There’s an energy as there is a tension in wanting to move forward but there is an extension back.” Bonjour emphasized clearly that it is the emotion and the tableaux on stage that speaks to audiences, and one doesn’t have to have any background or training to experience and feel that. I agree with her on this account as those dance productions that I have had the opportunity to watch, to listen, to hear have spoken to me on many levels. The Canadian premiere of Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart L-E-V Israel opens March 3 and plays again March 5, 2022 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. It will play in New York first before it opens here. Choreographed by Co-Artistic Director of L-E-V Israel’s Sharon Eyal this production opens Torque, Harbourfront’s international contemporary dance series. From a press release I received, Ms. Bonjour states that Journey: “invites us on an exhilarating journey through the extreme states of the heart, from anguish and fervour to passion and rage. It is a universal narrative, and we can all intimately relate to L-E-V’s vulnerable study on heartbreak.” Additionally, stunning costumes for the dancers, designed by Christian Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, emblazoned with one bright red bleeding heart will emphasize the sensuality and the emotion of the work. Bonjour spoke candidly and compassionately about the heartbreak for all those involved in the art of dance as the community has suffered just as all professional artists have experienced. But with the dialogue of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous residential schools, the truth, and their creators and creations, the dance community has become stronger in the last two years. Harbourfront Centre has been creative in finding ways to get through and keep going these last two years. The company had to learn how to become video producers and come together as presenters and learn how to support artists in other ways creatively. Like many of the professional performing arts companies, Bonjour recognized how programming changed at Harbourfront. There were a number of live streams and pre-recorded shows along with a lot of digital experiences in working with AR and VR in person. Outdoor installations and projections also filled the void so audiences from the last two years could still come down to the Harbourfront and remember there is a performing arts Centre there. Bonjour supervised The Junior Festival and The Summer Music in the Garden. Some of these editions were done online completely during the first summer of the pandemic. In the second year, Bonjour recognized how people have been on screens a lot and how could Harbourfront do something different? There was investment in commissions of works that could be seen later when Harbourfront re-opens. The Toronto International Festival for Authors has done two editions fully online. When theatres reopened but not to the general public, there were production residencies at Harbourfront for artists to continue working on their shows. As a larger organization in the ecosystem of the performing arts, Bonjour wanted to know how Harbourfront could help other organizations so when everyone goes back there are those smaller presenters as well. It followed through with a financial partnering with The Citadel where there was support of three solos by female choreographers. In August, Harbourfront welcomed the National Ballet of Canada as an outreach and it was so successful that Harbourfront will be doing it again. On the national level, Bonjour was part of an alliance that was created with other dance presenters - the NAC Dance Department, Danse Danse in Montreal and Dance House in Vancouver - to start an initiative called Digidance. In concluding our conversation, Nathalie and I spoke about how it is the anticipation in watching dancers move and intertwine with each other that makes dance productions visually moving for me. I have seen some Fall for Dance Toronto productions over the last couple of years and have been captivated by the dance artists’ electric synchronicity with each other. I’m looking forward to experiencing what Bonjour describes for Journey as a universal narrative on heartbreak since we’ve all been there at one time in our lives. I hope you will also join this journey. Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart L-E-V Israel performs live March 3 and 5 at 7:30 pm at The Fleck Dance Theatre, Queen’s Quay Terminal 3rd Floor, 207 Queen’s Quay West. Suggested ticket prices are $20 - $ 95, Pay What You Wish. Ticket link and website: www.harbourfrontcentre.com . Previous Next

  • Musicals Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

    Back Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Talk is Free Theatre (TIFT) at the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus Roman Boldyrev Joe Szekeres Clocking in at 3 hours and 30 minutes for opening night and told by an extraordinary cast, this ‘Sweeney Todd’ remains a monumental marathon of operatic song, dark satire, black humour, and ultimate revenge. Remember, it’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. The story can’t be told and unfold quickly. Keeping Covid protocols in place and ensuring safety for all audiences, TIFT ensures each performance is limited to 44 members. This was an extremely smart decision Director Mitchell Cushman made because I still got the sense a grand tale was being told to me although the setting in each of the rooms is minimalist. As we moved around the building, the audience becomes immersed fully in the action of the story. At one point, there is brief audience participation. A reminder to future audiences to make sure you wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking up and down staircases, and you may be asked or signalled to stand at the back of certain rooms of the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus. As the night settles and darkness envelops both inside and outside, stairwells are appropriately lit by ushers who ensure everyone is safe walking up and down stairs but remember to pay attention in doing so. What was reassuring was the fact the ushers and actors (while maintaining character) didn’t rush us from each room. The time is 1845. From TIFT’s website: “It is here we meet Sweeney Todd (Michael Torontow) whose real name is Benjamin Barker. Todd uses his new alias to resume work in his barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s (Glynis Ranney) struggling pie shop after being wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Cyrus Lane). After swearing vengeance against the judge that tore his family apart, Todd and Lovett plot a unique plan that helps them both and leads them down a dangerous, thrilling path with deadly consequences.” I saw the New York revival several years ago with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone as the infamous duo. What worked so well in that minimalist production? The cast played their own musical instruments and director John Doyle maintained the musical’s sense of grandiosity throughout. The New York production worked fine for me, but I felt distant from the action of the story from my seat in the house. This didn’t happen in TIFT’s production. I was mere inches away from some of the actors which truly fascinated me to be up this close. As we enter the building, Joel Cumber (billed as Ensemble) sits outside begging for money or scrap morsels. He wears ripped jeans, a torn jean jacket, unwearable sneakers, and a ripped t-shirt with backpack at his side. Hmmm. Okay…isn’t this a period piece? Without spoiling the reason for Cumber’s costume, let’s just say it all cleverly comes full circle at the end of the production. Did it work for me? Yes!!!! I heard myself gasp when it became clear. Before we enter the Sanctuary, we are instructed to sit where we see a lace tablecloth draped over the pew. We enter the Sanctuary where the setting sun casts an eerie glow of red and orange throughout the room. Immediately, members of the company are standing and posing on the pews like wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s. They are clothed in period costumes. Their faces with just the right touches of makeup have that look as if they have seen something awful which I’ve never experienced. There is another worldliness in their eyes and other than faces different from mine. When the klaxon sounds at the top of the show… Wow! These ghostly figures then come to life and sing ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ with such deep vibrancy of a sound from a long time ago that gave me goosebumps. My eyes darted around the room to see what each of the actors was doing. And here’s where it is fitting why TIFT (or Mitchell Cushman) decided to stage the production in this building. Sweeney appears at the front of the sanctuary with ‘Unto you is a born a Saviour-Christ the Lord’ right behind him. Torontow’s intense profundo vocals combined with a frightening gaze of terror in his eyes juxtaposed with the loving Gospel message behind becomes a key visual element of horror. Again, I say Wow! There is so much to admire about this production. Laura Delchiaro’s costume designs splendidly capture the era so well from filthy dresses to torn sweaters. Nick Blais’s lighting design hauntingly heightens the sense of dread and fear that hovers in the air. I was impressed with some of the period props Kathleen Black found, in particular the feather pen and ink Sweeney uses in the second act. Cameron Carver’s choreography remains sharp and purposeful, especially in staging some of the Greek chorus numbers commenting on the play’s action. ‘City on Fire’ comes to mind. Dan Rutzen’s sensational Music Direction remains one of the highlights of the production. Another wise decision was made to have four musicians as the focus then becomes the story and the song. It was truly gorgeous and marvellously enchanting to hear these vocals reverberate in the Sanctuary. Two of these numbers were Griffin Hewitt’s (Anthony Hope) singing of ‘Johanna’ and ‘God, That’s Good!’ at the top of Act 2. Because I know the show, I knew what each of the characters was singing; however, there were moments when I couldn’t hear some of the lyrics so someone who doesn’t know the show may not catch everything. Cushman’s successful vision of creating a human connection in this immersive ‘Sweeney’ remains consistently visible. Here’s where the immersive element fabulously works because eye contact between actor and audience member becomes that much stronger. Michael Torontow becomes a ferocious and voracious Todd, hellbent on revenge. His ‘My Friends’ in that intimate room holding with shaving blade so tenderly with audience members around still haunts me as I write this. There are moments where we do see Sweeney has been deeply hurt by what has happened in his previous life. Watch Torontow’s body language before Ranney sings ‘By the Sea’. Just watching Glynis Ranney as Mrs. Lovett, I finally realized the extent of her character arc. She must be everything to everyone – a mother figure, a confidant, a schemer, a ‘supposed’ lover, a caretaker, an accomplice to murder. Ranney powerfully packs believable, realistic emotions in each of these scenes. Her ‘Worst Pies in London’ is wonderful comic gold, especially in the way she beats the dough each time she punctuates a note. So good. Cyrus Lane believably and shockingly reveals the madness of Judge Turpin quite disturbingly (which is how it should be). During his self-flagellation scene, Lane’s controlled but highly accentuated work made me close my eyes quickly as he believably uses the whip on himself while the ensemble behind the plexiglass window realistically provides the whipping sound. A third wow factor. Andrew Prashad’s The Beadle becomes just as terrifying as Turpin. The look on Prashad’s face and in his eyes when he kills the bird in the cage caught my eye while someone standing next to me inhaled in shock. As the Beggar Woman, Gabi Epstein demonstrates her impressive vocal range when she sings ‘Alms, Alms for a miserable woman.’ She locked eyes with me at one point and the inherent sadness emanating from them proved just how focused Epstein was at that moment. Memorable. Lovebirds Johanna and Anthony Hope (Tess Benger and Griffin Hewitt) provide some relief from all the intensity and mayhem until she is captured and taken to an asylum. Benger’s ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ sung from the Sanctuary balcony lovingly soars to the rafters. Their comic duet ‘Kiss Me’ beautifully becomes delightful. Another wonderful bit of much-needed humour is Jeff Lillico’s playfully haughty shyster Adolfo Pirelli who confronts Sweeney Todd on who the better barber is (until we learn of Pirelli’s secret). Lillico punctuated those moments with precise intention in each word sang. As the sidekick to Pirelli at the beginning, Noah Beemer’s dutiful ragamuffin Tobias Ragg sweetly tugs at the heartstrings in the duet ‘Not While I’m Around’ with Ranney, but that all the changes while the course of events spirals quickly downward. Final Comments: I’ve read so much about Talk is Free Theatre over the last couple of years of the pandemic about the company’s ingenuity to tackle well-known theatrical works and present them in new ways. I never got the chance to see last summer’s ‘Into the Woods’ which took place in the woods in Barrie. I didn’t want to miss what the company had planned this summer. Talk is Free refreshingly presents ‘Sweeney Todd’ uniquely, resourcefully, and grandiosely. Worth a trip to see it. Running time: 3 hours and 30 minutes. Covid protocols in place. Only 44 audience members each performance. Show runs to July 3 at the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus, 1470 Gerrard Street East, Toronto. For tickets, visit tickets.tift.ca or call 1-705-792-1949. SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by Hugh Wheeler Presented by Talk is Free Theatre Director: Mitchell Cushman Music Director: Dan Rutzen Choreographer/Associate Director: Cameron Carver Set and Properties: Kathleen Black Lighting Designer: Nick Blais Costume Designer: Laura Delchiaro Musicians: Samuel Bisson, Gemma Donn, Stephan Ermel, Dan Rutzen Cast: Michael Torontow, Glynis Ranney, Noah Beemer, Tess Benger, Joel Cumber, Gabi Epstein, Griffin Hewitt, Jeff Lillico, Andrew Prashad Previous Next

  • Profiles Duff MacDonald

    Back Duff MacDonald Canadian Chat Grant Landry Joe Szekeres I’ve seen Duff MacDonald’s name over the last few years in theatre programmes and through some of the social media websites. His name sounded familiar to me, and I soon figured out where I recognized it. I saw him play in the first Canadian company of ‘Les Misérables’ at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra. Duff was also part of the first National Touring production of ‘Les Mis’ in 1989-1990. Duff also played "Eamon" in the recent Grand Theatre (London ON) and RMTC (Winnipeg) productions of ONCE. According to his bio, Duff proudly hails from the Saskatchewan prairie land. He has recorded albums and sang in many venues across Canada and the United States ranging from coffee houses to large auditorium venues. He is proud of the training he has received. He obtained a full scholarship to go to North Dakota State University to study opera. He also studied at Vancouver’s Gastown Actor’s Studio and private studies in Acting with June Whittaker, Linda Darlow and Uta Hagen. Duff has also completed voice-over work in commercials. He has been seen in film and television roles like the recent LOCKE AND KEY (Netflix), CARTER (CTV Drama Channel), GOOD WITCH, TITANS (Netflix), CLAWS OF THE RED DRAGON, Incorporated (SyFy), Tru Love (Winner of 35 Worldwide Film Fest Awards), Cinderella Man, Foolproof, The Music Man and most recently in the nation-wide spot for AMERICAN EXPRESS/AEROPLAN and BOSTON PIZZA as the gold Professional Sports Trophy Model. We conducted our conversation via Zoom as Duff lives in St. John’s Newfoundland, at this moment. Thank you so much for the great conversation and laughter, Duff: Since we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, tell me about one teacher or mentor in your life for whom you are thankful and who brought you to this point in your life as a performing artist. I am very grateful for a number of people in my life who brought me to this point in my life as an artist. In the beginning, in my small town of Watson Saskatchewan, there was this lady named Jean, and she played the piano. She took me on. She was best friends with my mother and father for years. Both my mother and Jean were teachers. I just remember going over to Jean’s house and her teaching me a lot about music and singing and singing some old classic tunes. She was always the woman who was coaching me through all of that early stuff. Later on, I became part of ‘Saskatchewan Express’, a teen talent competition and I won and became part of this group of performers similar to “Up with People’. We toured all over Saskatchewan and I learned so much in the early 80s when I was 16 from all of those musicians. We had a 12-piece band behind us, and we had dancers; it was a big production sponsored by the lotteries. The woman who ran that, Carol Gay Belle, who worked for the CBC, she was also a huge influence on me as a kid in my teen years. I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in dealing with Covid. How have you been able to move forward from these last 18 eighteen months on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed on a personal level? Oh boy, that’s a big one. Initially, it was a shock as it was with everyone. I was just about to go away and do a show. Personally, I did a full pivot turn. We performers spend a lot of time on our own, and as a writer and painter, I have a lot of different creative outlets. So, right away, the first thing I did was turn to my creative side and that really saved me during most of Covid until I ran out of projects. I produced a web series with a friend (check it out on Duff’s personal web page), two of them actually, a comedy series and another web series where I was interviewing people from all over the world. That brought me a lot of joy and peace in checking in with people around the globe and gaining a global perspective on what was exactly happening in our country and other countries. This really helped me to check in because the media was going crazy, but when you talk with other people in other countries, one on one, it really changed my whole view of everything and cut out all the crap the media was feeding us. I became grateful personally. I had my own apartment; I was in seclusion. I didn’t have a family; I wasn’t attending school. Everything just stopped for me, and I turned into a creative monster (and Duff says this with a good laugh). How have these last eighteen months of the pandemic changed or transformed you as an artist professionally? Well, they’re synonymous for me as an artist because I’m self-employed so everything is melded together. As an artist, it encompassed so many things for a lot of us. The rug was pulled out from all of us, but as artists, we’re very dependent on the community, the audience. That’s our living. When that disappeared, it really affected me but I used that artistic talent as a way of survival and it changed everything and started to focus on that. Also, my technical skills and my game went up about ten notches because artists were all forced to audition in our own homes, with our own lighting and our own camera. Luckily, I had done my comedy web series called ‘The Duff Show’ and learned so much about filming myself with green screen. So when auditions were coming up where they were doing live one on one Zoom calls, it didn’t shock me as much as some. My technical and voice-over side that all went up. My agent didn’t worry about me technically because he knew that I had seemed to have everything in order. Tell me further about ‘No Change in the Weather’ opening in St. John’s shortly. Are you hoping to bring it to Toronto after St. John’s? ‘No Change in the Weather’ …(and then Duff stopped for a moment to catch his breath and continued). I’m almost going to cry because it has been such a gift. The past couple of months were really, really hard even with the creative projects I had. After a while for me I kept wondering when I was going to get a job. I’d be so close to getting national commercials. I was starting to really doubt myself. I was away camping and got a call to audition for ‘No Change in the Weather’. I started looking into it and reading the script and doing some research as the play had been done previously. I saw there were some Ron Hynes music in the production. Ron is a Canadian institution on the East Coast, especially in Newfoundland. ‘No Change’ just came along out of nowhere and I got the job. Again, I put together a self tape, had all my equipment together. I had clips that I professionally recorded at the time. Everything just lined up and I had sung ‘Sonny’s Dream’ which is a Ron Hynes song in another show before, and I was auditioning for the character of Sonny. So it was a really sympatico moment where it all happened really fast as they were only looking for a few people. I’m part Irish, and Newfoundland has deep Irish roots here. ‘No Change in the Weather’ is the story of a family that comes home for their mother’s wake and to celebrate her loss and her life. They all come together on an island called God’s Pocket. The family doesn’t want the wake to be a downer so they’re trying to celebrate their mother. And then I show up as Sonny, and I haven’t seen anyone in 20 years as Sonny works for the government. There is a connection to the Churchill Falls political incident and blunder. I represent the political side of the show, and everyone has a lot of disdain for my character. It’s a beautiful story of this family coming together and finding a place of peace amongst all the craziness. It’s funny, it has some great Newfoundland tunes, some Alan Doyle and Ron Hynes music, some really classic Irish music. It’s full of heart and laughter. It really has been a gift for me and for the company. There are beautiful voices, and the talent in the production. The production is different from ‘Come from Away’ as this is Newfoundland people. It’s quite a bit different from ‘Come from Away’ as ‘No Change’ deals with the political slant, and it’s got some real Newfoundland heart. Bob Hallett, one of the members of Great Big Sea is Executive Producer of the show. Our director is Brad Hodder who is going to be in the Mirvish production of Harry Potter when it opens next year in Toronto. Steve Ross, who has completed 18 seasons at Stratford, is in the show with me. (Note: a profile of Steve Ross can be found through OnStage). These are only a few heavy hitter artists in the show as there’s more in the cast and it’s going to be a good show. It runs at the CAA Theatre in Toronto on Yonge Street and blow everyone away. We’re just performing ‘No Change in the Weather’ in St. John’s Newfoundland from November 12-14 as a tester and we come to Toronto November 19-27, 2021. In your opinion, do you see the global landscape of the professional Canadian live theatre scene changing at all as a result of these last 18 months? I really do. There were some theatres that took the proverbial ‘bull by the horns’ and embraced this challenge and clicked in right away to continue connection to audiences. Some went virtual right away. I have a friend who lives in Texas who filmed a whole play virtually. The actors were not all in the same place. They were filmed separately and edited together to look like they were all in the same room. $20 was charged for the link to see the show, and they made some cash. That theatre wasn’t waiting around waiting for things to start up. The theatre scene has changed and I hope it doesn’t stay this way at half capacity. Ontario just went full capacity so fingers crossed, but what has happened is that theatres realized they can make money virtually: ‘Diana: The Musical’, ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Come from Away’ are the first three examples that come to mind. I think theatres are realizing that some want theatres to be live for them and as you and I know, Joe, there is nothing like that in the world. Nothing beats live. But, there’s also that clientele who can’t attend live theatre and can afford $200.00 tickets. Filmed productions of live musicals are getting pretty good, and there are those who would like to see it as well but can’t afford to go live. I hope it doesn’t go back to zero capacity but theatres are thinking things through. Look at Stratford with the outdoor tents. I think theatres will be a little more prepared for things now that we are slowly emerging from Covid. What excites/intrigues/fascinates/interests Duff MacDonald post Covid? Oh, wow! (and Duff and I have a good laugh at his initial response) Well, I’m fascinated by the human condition and how people operate under the conditions we’ve been under and how we’ve adjusted and not adjusted. I’m also fascinated by the strength of the human spirit. So many things happened during the pandemic – Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but we persevered through it all and learned some important lessons. Things won’t be the same ever again, but I’m fascinated by how things have to be taken to the extreme in order for humans to learn. It’s incredible how hard we have to fight to get what we want and get to where we want – and we’re still doing this, really Saskatchewan? really, Alberta (Duff is making reference to the Covid numbers in both provinces) What excites me are the possibilities of what we can do. What disappoints/unnerves/upsets Duff MacDonald post Covid? Stupidity (and Duff and I share a good laugh again) and no lack of logic. Where does Duff MacDonald, the artist, see himself going next? Like I said, I’ve been really trying to up my game. I see myself being better. I want to be as good as I can possibly be. As every audition come through, I want to do my best. If I don’t get the job, at least I know I did my best. Everything else is out of my control. I believe that’s the mantra of my industry. Where does Duff MacDonald, the person, see himself going next? Uh….(and Duff starts to laugh again) it’s so hard to separate the Duff artist and the Duff person. It’s so hard…as a person I’d love to care less MORE. (and Duff laughs again.) I’m in my 50s (almost 55), so when you hit your 50s, it’s I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a fuck. I wanna care less about what people think MORE. RAPID ROUND Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I give credit to the late James Lipton and The Actors’ Studio for this idea: If you could say one thing to one of your mentors or favourite teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be? Well, that’s kinda obvious. “Thank you.” If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would that be? (Duff laughs) “Fuck you.” It’s part of my performing artist mantra in not giving a shit. What’s your favourite swear word? (And another good laugh from Duff) Actually, I like, and it’s a bad one…by the way, Joe, are you able to print these words? Okay, here it is. It’s a strange thing, but I always say, “Cock!” I ended up on a tv show and that was a line we had to say. The other character had to say, “Cock and balls!” But for me, for some reason, it’s “Cock!” What is a word you love to hear yourself say? It’s actually an Italian word, and when Italians pick up the phone and say (And Duff, in his best Italian on the spot, says): “Pronto!” I don’t know why, I just love saying the word: “Pronto”. What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say? Well, it’s two words: “I can’t” What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you? “Hang on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride” (and Duff says it again this time in an on-the-spot Bette Davis with an imaginary cigarette between his fingers). And then make sure your readers know they can watch my comedy show live, “The Duff Show” and see me do it live. With the professional life experience you’ve gained over the years as an artist, what would you now tell the upcoming Duff MacDonald from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career? Oh… take more dance classes and study more. Study music more extensively. What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally? Professionally, I’m also a writer and would love to have one of my scripts produced. Personally, I would like to be independently wealthy. (and another laugh from Duff) Name one moment in your professional career as an artist that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while. Hmmm…one moment…I would have probably stayed in ‘Les Misérables’ another year. The show was on its way back to Toronto after touring. I was offered another year and I said, “No”. Because I was a cocky 22-year-old. Can you imagine I said that? Who says “No” to another year of full-time work in “Les Mis”? Little idiot, me. What will Duff MacDonald not take for granted ever again? Oh, boy, it just hit me (and I could tell Duff was tearing up). My parents. Yep. Would Duff MacDonald do it all again if given the same opportunities? No. Completely, I call it divine order. Everything that happened, happened for a reason and put me where I am. I totally believe good and bad it all brought me to this place, and I’m talking to you, Joe. To follow Duff at Facebook: @duffmacdonaldmusic, Twitter: @DuffMacDonald and Instagram: @duffmacdonald To learn more about Duff, visit his webpage: duffmacdonald.com Previous Next

  • Profiles George Masswohl

    Back George Masswohl Moving Forward Selfie Joe Szekeres Performing artist George Masswohl has graced Canadian stages in highly charged performances over the years. I had the opportunity to see him play opposite Fiona Reid in a solid production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Canadian Stage. A little tidbit of information I also discovered. George sang the title role of ‘Sweeney Todd’ off stage for Vancouver Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre when the actor playing the titular role developed vocal issues. Wow! I applaud George’s dedicated professionalism to ensure a quality production for the entire community. Recently, until the pandemic was declared, George also appears in some little play in Toronto with packed houses called ‘Come from Away’ where he plays Claude, the mayor of Gander, plus other roles. By the way, the Toronto company is extraordinarily wonderful, so if you haven’t seen this production make sure you do when we can all return. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the Canadian and Broadway cast members for this column, and ‘Come from Away’ is one show I do want to see again. George is also a member of The ROWDYMEN, a band dedicated to the preservation and the propagation of the vibrant music of the people of Newfoundland. Hopefully, the band will play somewhere in Toronto when it’s safe for all of us to return. I also discovered from his Facebook page that George studied English Language and Literature at my alma mater, The University of Western Ontario (Go, Stangs!) Excellent choice, by the way. We conducted our conversation via email. Thanks for the conversation, George: It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion? If I’m being perfectly honest, I feel differently from moment to moment. As things drag out, and confusion reigns, despair and hope come in waves. But so far, I’ve always managed to come back to hope. I renew this effort every day. That is my current way of living. I’m keeping it in the moment. How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months? It’s been tough on my family. My partner and stepson and I have all been shut down. She is a dancer and yoga teacher and he was working, variously, as an usher at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, at an escape room business, and at the Beer Store – which is a filthy job in an environment where most patrons seem to be non-compliant vis a vis Covid protocols, and management less than vigilant. Almost all of these have become impossible for me now. Beyond our household, it’s even tougher. My sister struggles with the new difficulties in her already difficult work as a counsellor at a women’s shelter and with caring for our 90-year-old aunt, who lives with her. In addition to all of this, we are still in the aftermath of having lost our mother last year after a long and difficult series of illnesses. Having said all of this, we are remarkably upbeat and, as mentioned above, fiercely committed to coming back to hope, finding the joys where they can be found…and doing our damndest to incorporate fun into our days wherever we can. As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally? The part of me that thinks it’s over…that 35 years of constant hustle has come to a dead end. Watching my colleagues, all at different phases in their journeys, going through similar angst. Trying to imagine, at age 53, what I’ll do for the rest of my life if that part of me, heaven forbid, is right. Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon? I was working on recovering from hip replacement surgery to return to my cherished community and the role that I love in the Canadian company of ‘Come From Away’. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? I have been working with my band, ‘The Rowdymen’ with Greg Hawco and Gerry Finn. It has been a saving grace for all of us. Not a money maker at this stage, but it has kept me creative, and for that and them, I am very grateful. Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty? I think it’s best for me to defer to their wisdom and ingenuity. The smart money in this business has always subscribed to the credo that the best way to ensure your employment is to create your own work. If they were to ask me for advice, I think I’d offer that up, and encourage them to do whatever they can to reimagine and rebuild the industry. I’d also pledge to continue to do the same – and pledge my support. Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19? Oh, well, there has to be something. Can I tell you in a year? Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene? You better believe it. Many theatres, like many other small businesses, have shuttered forever. Our associations are tapped out and struggling to maintain relevance in a desert landscape. Funding is stretched beyond previously imaginable limits. Our artists are suffering immeasurable psychological stresses. On top of it all – and not surprisingly as it has ever been thus – much of the rest of society seems blind to the connection between the content they voraciously consume and the value of the artists who create it. Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown? I’ve been involved in quite a bit of it, mostly as fundraising for various entities struggling to survive. I’m not sold on it as a vehicle for theatre. We need communal experience…book clubs, concerts, poker games, choir, sports, church, THEATRE. Having said that, I’ll be involved in a live stream on Boxing Day. Stay tuned. 😉 Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about the art of performance that Covid will never destroy for you? My creative spirit. The fire of creativity in me is burning hotter than it ever has. I went through a bunch of years where, for various reasons, I didn’t care about anything. I was telling everyone I was retired – and they were starting to believe me. But even through that, I was, somehow, able to preserve an ember to carry forward. I never really know quite how, but I know that I have an undeniable drive to survive. My creativity is at the centre of that flame. To learn more about The Rowdymen, visit their Facebook page: The Rowdymen, Twitter: @TRowdymen Instagram: @The_Rowdymen Previous Next

  • Profiles Marie Beath Badian, Filipino Canadian playwright

    Back Marie Beath Badian, Filipino Canadian playwright “You can’t take anything for granted that there is going to be an audience.” Caroline Mangosing for Vinta Gallery Joe Szekeres Marie Beath (pronounced Mary Beth) Badian is a Canadian Filipino performing artist whose plays have been commissioned by The Blyth Festival, The Stratford Festival, Prairie Theatre Exchange, and Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. (www.mariebeath.com ). Like any writer, she thinks very deeply about all her characters before she puts pen to paper. Commissioned by The Blyth Festival, Badian’s play ‘Prairie Nurse’ opens Saturday, July 15, at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre. This play, along with ‘The Waltz’ (a terrific production staged at Toronto’s Factory Theatre earlier this year), is part of a multi-generational story spanning fifty years and set in rural Saskatchewan. The third, ‘The Cottage Guest,’ is in development 2.0 and has just been finished in draft form. Badian had a workshop on ‘Guest’ in February of this year. The litmus test is to be in a workshop of the play and listen to the actors. If the characters are speaking in the way Badian imagined in her head, that’s a huge relief. ‘Guest’ needs a bit of tweaking and Marie Beath is hoping the play will hit the stage in the next couple of years. We had conducted our conversation several weeks ago, and at that time, rehearsals for ‘Prairie Nurse’ were just getting underway on June 26. Badian would miss the first day of rehearsal because it was her ‘kiddo’s’ (I like that) Grade 8 graduation. Sometimes, the family unit must take priority, and I’m all for that. Badian had completed her training and received her diploma from Toronto Metropolitan University. She was the second last of the diploma programme. She graduated in 1999 and then grandfathered into the Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2007. Does Marie Beath consider herself a Toronto girl at heart: “Oh, yeah. I was born and raised in Scarborough. I didn’t move very far. I’ve been living downtown since 1997. [Toronto] has always been my home and will always feel like that when I’m away.” Badian calls it an exceptional privilege to return to live theatre. It’s still tremendously unique to sit in the audience beside people and experience the play. For her, it feels incredibly novel and fleeting. There’s joy in seeing people’s faces once again. Badian does not take this generosity in this return to the theatre for granted. To decide to attend the theatre is a crucial choice. Before the lockdown, Marie Beath was feeling exhausted. Sitting in a theatre felt like a chore, and she now feels guilty that she went through that experience: “You can’t take anything for granted that there is going to be an audience.” Marie Beath and I both agreed on this point strongly. At one point, we wondered if the lockdown meant the end of the live theatrical performing arts because we are not essential workers. That’s the reality regarding sacrifice and heroism among the healthcare essential workers in the grand scheme of things. Her mother was a nurse for forty years and Marie Beath worked at the Ontario College of Nurses for a long time. The community of nurses has always been a part of her community’s lifeblood. Knowing that their diaspora and the family legacy of these front-line individuals put into perspective what essential work truly meant, especially essential work for the soul. On its website, the Capitol Theatre describes the plot of ‘Prairie Nurse’ as a laugh-a-minute comedy of confusion based on a real-life story. The story involves two Filipino nurses who come to work at a small-town Saskatchewan hospital in the late 1960s. Cultural clashes, personality differences, homesickness, and the amorous but dim-witted goalie from the local hockey team complicate the women’s lives and create chaos at the hospital. Add a doctor more concerned with fishing than his patients and an overly romantic candy striper. ‘Prairie Nurse’ is based on the true story of Badian’s mother’s immigration to Canada. Confident that 'Prairie Nurse' is being well taken care of under Megan Watson's direction, the playwright is adjusting to the unusual experience of having one of her plays performed multiple times. Badian considers it a privileged position in Canadian theatre and is always amazed when her work is produced. Even with 'Prairie Nurse' no longer a world premiere, Badian still feels the same jittery excitement as before. She is over the moon with the cast the director has assembled. It’s unique and exciting, and she was delighted to hear who they were after the fact. Megan and Rob Kempson (Capitol’s Artistic Director) have been so thoughtful about the casting process of the play. What’s delightful about all productions of ‘Prairie Nurse’?: “It gets to introduce me to new people in the Filipino diaspora that I hadn’t known before and that there is work for them. I don’t know the two actors who are playing the nurses. I think they are fairly recent grads. What’s exciting first is that this production [at the Capitol] marks the ten-year anniversary of ‘Prairie Nurse’. It’s also exciting that these two ladies who were in school when the play premiered now understand there is work for who they are authentically as part of the diaspora.” For many years, Marie Beath has been friends with Rob Kempson. She is impressed with how he and Erin Pierce (Capitol Theatre’s Managing Director) have made their values of the live theatre performing arts come to fruition and how exciting it is to be part of the season. Badian holds Canadian actor Deborah Drakeford in high esteem and is thrilled to have her involved in the production as the ornery head nurse at the hospital. She’s a chain smoker at the hospital in the sixties, becoming a riot as the play unfolds. What is a message Marie Beath hopes audiences will take away after seeing ‘Prairie Nurse’?: “Joy, the joy and the laughter that I feel is so inherent about the story. I hope audiences will also take away a different perspective of the period piece of the fabric of Canada in 1967. It’s a gentle and loving way to remind people of the value of the Filipino diaspora in health care. It’s a way to reflect health care that if we have ever experienced health care in Canada, it has been at the hands of a Filipino caregiver.” ‘Prairie Nurse’ begins performances July 14 and runs to July 30. All performances take place at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope. For tickets call 905-885-1071 or visit capitoltheatre.com. To learn more about Marie Beath Badian, visit her website: www.mariebeath.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Fiona Mongillo and Lucy Jane Atkinson

    Back Fiona Mongillo and Lucy Jane Atkinson Looking Ahead Into 2023 L: Fiona Mongillo (Ann Baggley) R: Lucy Jane Atkinson Joe Szekeres When you miss a live theatre production and begin kicking yourself because you heard it was good, you wonder if there will be that minute infinitesimal opportunity of a chance to see it again. Thank you to the theatre gods for aligning the stars, to Crow’s Theatre, to Fiona Mongillo and Lucy Jane Atkinson, for bringing Dennis Kelly’s ‘Girls & Boys’ to Toronto. I missed it at Stratford’s Here for Now Company last summer. Mongillo returns to the solo role in which she appeared last summer with the production directed once again by Atkinson. Artistic Director Mongillo founded Here for Now in 2012. According to its website, the independent professional theatre company based in Stratford, Ontario: “aims to challenge and inspire its audiences by producing a bold annual theatre season, comprised of new or underproduced plays. Here For Now focuses on the stories of women and also seeks to amplify all unheard voices.” Recently I had the chance to interview both Fiona and Lucy in a Zoom call and really enjoyed speaking with them. They have known each other for a decade. Fiona calls Lucy her favourite director on the whole planet. They had just completed a rehearsal for ‘Girls & Boys’ and were tired but invigorated. Atkinson is excited to return to the production after six months of being away from it, but she has also said the script is a very heavy and draining piece as there are more layers to uncover. I’m doing my best not to read any reviews of last summer’s production but the brief plot synopsis still intrigues me. Fiona assured her synopsis of ‘Girls & Boys’ would be “super brief because it is so difficult to talk about this play without spoiling it.” Essentially, it is a woman who shares her life story with the audience about her relationship with her husband, her children, her career and how the events that have occurred in recent years and the turn these events took. What drew the two ladies to ‘Girls & Boys’? For Lucy, she saw the production when she was working at London England’s Royal Court Theatre Box Office a few years ago. She has loved Dennis Kelly’s work for years and the production featured Carey Mulligan and was directed by Lyndsey Turner. Lucy remembers it was about mid-point in the show she saw at the Royal Court and describes the moment as “all of the air left my body. It just hit me in a way that I can’t remember another time that I’ve had that physical response to a piece of theatre.” Atkinson calls herself predominately a new writing director. A lot of the work she does is female-focused with small casts that specialize in monologues normally up to three-four people at a perch. Everything she does is very intense and close and ‘Girls & Boys’ is all these things as it fits everything she has wanted to do with the script. For the past five years, Lucy has been waiting for someone to allow her to direct ‘Girls & Boys’. She sent Fiona the script along with several other titles with the caveat being Kelly’s story. In Fiona’s own words, the initial reading of ‘Girls & Boys’ scared the shit out of her and she said no to it, absolutely not. She closed the script and thought she might not be up to it or perhaps Here for Now audiences might not be up for Kelly’s story either. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it for a couple of days. She read the script again and then read it aloud to her husband. She told him: “I should probably do this play.” And he said: “Yep. 100%” She added further: “It’s a really brilliant piece of writing. The only reason I was initially hesitant and balking at it was if audiences would be up to the intensity of the story or maybe I wouldn’t be up to it. That’s not a really good reason to say no to something because that’s really fear. So I said yes.” Since the show concluded its summer 2022 Stratford run six months ago, has Atkinson’s vision for Kelly’s script been transformed? Lucy found it a good question. She thought for a moment: “The interesting thing – when we rehearsed it last summer and I directed it then, so much of what we were doing was world-building for Fiona. It is just her on the stage talking to the audience and making eye contact with them as everything had to feel so truthful and so embodied.” For the two of them, the real mission of the show is honesty and being as truthful as you can possibly be. A great deal of time was spent building the house so Fiona could walk around it in the scene and know where everything was. There was the building of an intricate timeline and printing out of photos of everywhere where she lived. There was also printing out photos of her kids. This was all done so it would appear real in Fiona’s memory. This time in preparation for the Crow’s run, both ladies concur: “We don’t need to do that quite so much because it’s all there already. What we’re really looking at is just deepening from what we had before. Last summer if we found the top three layers, then we’re now looking for that fourth, fifth and sixth layer and trying to get into the guts of it. This is my mission this time around is to go to these next layers.” What do the ladies hope audiences will come away with after seeing ‘Girls & Boys’? For Lucy, it’s a very provocative play and she hopes to provoke people to think about power dynamics between the sexes and within relationships. ‘Girls & Boys’ is a piece that sets out to poke at sore spots, and she hopes audiences are receptive to that and don’t flinch when they are poked and instead stay engaged when they go home and really think about what has just transpired on the stage: “It’s a delicate balance. When I saw it at Royal Court just after the curtain call and the audience was filing out, there was a fistfight between two men. It was insane and crazy as it became obvious to me people were triggered by it. On the train ride back home, my partner and I had an argument about the play as well. This was one of the only arguments we ever had.” Lucy hopes audiences don’t shy away from these reactions and will take the time to look at them in the same way Fiona did when she read the script and took the time to consider, re-evaluate and explore why she was fearful. I hope the audiences trust us enough. This is not to say that ‘Girls & Boys’ is traumatizing. There are some moments that are quite hilarious. For Fiona, what theatre brilliantly does is hold up a mirror so we can take a look at ourselves. In that reflection of showing the entire spectrum of the light and the dark, ‘Girls & Boys’ is meant to impact us, teach us, shine a light on within us and create room for reflection and growth. ‘Girls & Boys’ achieved these goals in the summer run. Although she did have that initial fear an audience might not be ready for the play, Fiona thinks she underestimated the Here for Now audiences last summer. “We don’t always need to go to the theatre to be entertained or feel comfortable. Sometimes we go to the theatre to have catharsis, to be uncomfortable in order to sit in discomfort. That is an equally important experience ‘Girls & Boys’ provides, and that’s what I hope audiences will experience. What’s next for Fiona and Lucy once ‘Girls & Boys’ concludes its run at Crow's? As Artistic Director of Here for Now, Fiona says she will be on a very high workload since two months have been taken away. There will be grants to write and details to hammer down since the Here for Now 2023 season will be outdoors. The season will be launched March 1 at the Box Office. For Lucy, she has a show of hers that has been touring for the past year that has come to London, England so she will be doing a remount of it. She is also directing some shows for drama schools. There is a musical she has been working on for the past five years and a fifth draft has been finished so there will be some revisions and deletions on that. As a freelancer, Lucy says there are always little bits and pieces of things to continue examining. ‘Girls & Boys’ opens January 26 and runs to February 12 in the Studio Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets visit crowstheatre.com or call the Box Office at 1-647-341-7390 ex 1010. To learn more about Here for Now and its 2023 summer festival, visit www.herefornowtheatre.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Al James

    Back Al James The Self-Isolated Artist IMDB photo by Jon DeLeon Joe Szekeres As a practicing Catholic, I’ve always liked the phrase ‘By the Grace of God’. I passionately believe it is through the Almighty’s grace that, sometimes through goodness and sometimes through surprises, our lives have been lovingly and carefully determined for us. Enter Al James and his family. Al, his wife Kathy, and their two children Frances and Henry, attend the same Catholic Church I do. The James’s have attended this Church longer than I was. When I started attending several years ago, I noticed there was one little guy who used to peer around his father when the priest entered from the back of the Church. With the biggest smile on his face, this little dude waved to the priest and reached out to touch him. The priest always called him by name and waved back to him. Other parishioners around me always smiled when they saw this selfless response. I recall asking a person next to me who the little guy was and found out his name was Henry. Several weeks go by. After church one day, the parish priest was talking to a gentleman and I was waved over. The priest said this man was looking to speak to someone from my school, but Father knew I had an interest in drama. This gentleman who was talking to the priest was Al James. The priest turned to me and said, “Joe, you have an interest in drama. I was looking for Mike, but you can answer Al’s question. Joe, this is Al. Al, this is Joe. Talk!” And the priest immediately left us alone. In a few seconds of stunned silence, because I don’t believe either of us expected it, I looked at Al. He looked back at me. We both let out a huge laugh. And a wonderful friendship started from that point. There are many things I respect about Al. His Catholic faith and immediate family are the most important elements in his life. He is a devoted Catholic who also takes his career as an actor very seriously. Over the years we have spoken about the industry and about our communal faith. 1. How have you, Kathy, Frannie and Henry been doing during this time? Actually, we’re managing quite well during this period. We are fortunate enough to be able to continue working and, for the most part, have not been too affected by this pandemic as far as daily routine is concerned. Obviously having the kids at home during the day has been a big adjustment, but we managed to make the transition in stride. 2. Were you involved in any industry projects when the pandemic struck? I wasn’t involved in any projects when it occurred. 3. Have there been any personal or professional challenges for all of you during this time? Personally, I’ve welcomed the time spent at home among my books and guitars and have been enjoying the time spent with the kids, but I’m aware that this has been a trying time for many. The most challenging part of this isolation period for me has been trying to take it one day at a time instead of trying to determine what the near future or distant future may hold in store. 4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? I’m continuing to work on the creative projects I’ve begun and am also getting in more time for my daily prayer devotions, studies and reading. 5. What advice might you give to other performing artists who have been hit hard by this turn in world events? I’m not one to be giving out advice, but if I were to add anything to the attempts to help ease or comfort those during these difficult and challenging days, I’d invite my fellow artists to reach out to those who are worse off and stay in touch with them. I’ve been contacted numerous times from fellow colleagues asking how I’m doing and if my family and I are well. It’s brought me a lot of comfort to hear from them, and I’ve also reached out to others as well. 6. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID-19? I believe lots of positive things can come from this if we allow them to come. As I mentioned earlier, the need to reach out to those whom I regularly wouldn’t think to contact has shown me that, in future, I don’t need a time of crisis as an excuse to connect or re-connect with others. 7. From your experience, do you see any changes in the Canadian performing arts scene on account of COVID-19? I don’t know how the industry will be affected, at least not in the long run. Whether any permanent changes will occur may depend on the duration of the general ‘lockdown’. 8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. Any advantages to doing this? Disadvantages? Are you doing or will you be doing any of this? I’ve had a couple of self tape auditions for voice over gigs and I assume this will continue and most likely increase over time. I think it’s a good idea to be prepared for more ‘at home’ auditions. 9. What is it about performing that you still love which hasn’t been affected by this pandemic? Live performance on stage is what I love more than any other format. The shared energy and dynamics of performing in front of a live audience has always been my favourite. I love how every performance is different. As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests: 1. What is your favourite word? Supernatural 2. What is your least favourite word? Spiritual 3. What turns you on? A hint of wit and sarcasm in a woman 4. What turns you off? A lousy sense of humour 5. What sound or noise do you love the most? Laughter 6. What sound or noise bothers you when you hear it? Pop Music 7. What is your favourite curse word? Motherfucker 8. Other than your current profession, what other profession would you have liked to try? Writer 9. What other profession could you not see yourself doing? Politician 10. When you arrive at the Pearly Gates, what do you think God will say to you? “Not yet” Previous Next

  • Musicals Chicago

    Back Chicago The Stratford Festival David Hou Joe Szekeres Simple Math Equation: “If Roxie Rocks Chicago, does ‘Chicago’ Rock The Stratford Festival?” You don’t have to look in the back of the textbook for that answer. ‘Chicago’ blows the roof off the Festival Theatre. It’s gonna sell out quickly so make sure you get your tickets while you can. Once I heard the rights were attained to produce the show for the Festival’s unique thrust stage theatre and what Donna Feore calls in her Director/Choreographer Note: “the rare opportunity to completely reimagine the production [since] ‘Chicago’ is a big show, and dance is not locked in time.”, I was curious how she would stage the production since for me the definitive versions in my experience were the New York cast with Bebe Neuwirth and Joel Grey plus the touring production at the Princess of Wales years ago. Both excellent. But a totally reimagined and re-staged ‘Chicago’? Yes. A thousand times, yes. Feore’s optimal staging of the plot with prizewinning, divine and to die for choreography work divinely and magnificently as every inch of the thrust Festival stage is utilized to maximum effect and capacity. There are musical moments where so much occurs, but it just reinforces Billy Flynn’s showstopper ‘Razzle Dazzle’ that life is a circus at times. This entire company is having one hell of a good time and their contagion infected the audience so quickly. It’s one time when I felt I didn’t care if I caught that boozy bug. It is the 1920s. Vaudevillian wannabe Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) has fatally shot her lover Fred Casely (Chad McFadden). Claiming he was a burglar, Roxie convinces her dull mechanic husband Amos (Steve Ross) to take the rap. When Amos finds out the truth, he turns Roxie in where she is remanded to the Cook County Jail to await her trial. It’s at the jail where Roxie meets Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider-Shaw), a fading vaudevillian star who killed her husband and sister after discovering they committed adultery. Velma has slick defence lawyer Billy Flynn (Dan Chameroy) retained by prison matron Mama Morton (Sandra Caldwell) who offers to put Roxie in touch with him. Flynn agrees to take Roxie’s case as well after she persuades Amos to pay his substantial fee. Michael Gianfrancesco has re-created a jaw-droppingly realistic speakeasy set from the 1920s. Even amid the sense of disorder on stage after a night at the club, there is a sense of order present. A ghost lamp appears centre stage. Tables are placed throughout and some chairs are overturned. Some glass bottles in cartons are also found on stage. Gianfrancesco’s set is two level as there is a rounded railing out front from which actors can be placed. Dana Osborne’s Costume Designs are fantastic recreations of the 1920s from flapper dresses to flashy loud pin-striped suits and matching vests. Michael Walton’s Lighting Design and Peter McBoyle’s Sound Design all contribute gratifyingly to the flash and dazzle of the era. A huge shout of appreciation and gratitude to Mr. McBoyle as well for the fact I could hear every single lyric in each musical number. And the music! That gloriously sexy-sounding music under Franklin Brasz’s direction evokes that heightened and gritty acute sense of smell in picking up the stale stench of booze, billowing cigarette and wafting cigar smoke that jutted out from these seedy nightclubs. And those musical numbers! The first note of ‘All that Jazz’ and the roar of applause which was repeated for ‘Cell Block Tango’ (and what an inventive way to involve the male dancers in that number). Chameroy’s entrance in ‘All I Care About Is Love’ is executed in such perfect timing the audience once again roared with approval. So good. As Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, Chelsea Preston and Jennifer Rider-Shaw initially may resemble kewpie-eyed bimbos out to make a fast buck in whatever way possible. No way! Preston and Rider-Shaw beautifully play Roxie and Velma not as vapid chorines but as intelligent and smart (and yes, sensitive, even though they both have committed murder) gals who work with Flynn to get what they want. And, as we all know with society’s fascination with celebrity behaviour, they get away with it and we love them even more for it. Plus, a bonus with Preston and Rider-Shaw. The pipes on these ladies. They can belt a tune, parallel harmoniously in song, and carry out a Feore dance with splash and aplomb. Underneath that “Sad Sack’ skin of Roxie’s dimwitted husband, Amos, Steve Ross radiates so much compassionate empathy (as R. Markus points out in a perfect diva Mary Sunshine reporter moment in their song ‘A Little Bit of Good’) that I wanted just to walk up there and give him a big bear hug right after his ‘Mister Cellophane’. Ross just inherently knew when to pause during the song both for comic and poignant effect. Such good work. Dan Chameroy is primo slick as defence lawyer Billy Flynn that he would make it appear as if being swindled would be just fine. His eleven o’clock ‘Razzle Dazzle’ number that life is sometimes just for the ornate show brought down the house once more. Beneath that smile of Sandra Caldwell’s Matron Mama Morton lies a deceptive individual who would sell her own mother to make a fast buck. I love the line “Ask any of the chickies in my pen/They’ll tell you I’m the biggest mother hen” from ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Who really cares if Mama cares about these gals under her guard? She’s out to make a fast buck like all those individuals in Cook County to get themselves out of the prison, and they’re having a hell of a good time in the process. That’s all that counts to them. This five-star hot, torrid, athletic and kinetic ensemble tackles Feore’s choreography with great gusto and hearty aplomb. From what I could see from my seat, every dance move was also keenly connected with facial and eye contact that radiated passionate licentiousness. Feore’s choreography remains one of the highlights of the production, and it appeared to me this ensemble wanted to do justice to the work. Final Comments: If you have seen the New York/touring revival of ‘Chicago’ now playing in New York or on tour, you owe it as a treat to yourself to come to Stratford before the door of this speakeasy is closed. “Chicago is a winner. Dynamite from beginning to end. Flawless in performance.” Running Time: approximately two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. As of the writing of this article, Covid protocols are in effect at the theatre. ‘Chicago’ runs to October 30 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford. For tickets, www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600. Chicago, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins with script adaptation by David Thompson Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse Music by John Kander Lyrics by Fred Ebb Producer: Dave Auster Director and Choreographer: Donna Feore Music Director: Franklin Brasz Set Designer: Michael Gianfrancesco Costume Designer: Dana Osborne Lighting Designer: Michael Walton Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle The Company: Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Chelsea Preston, Chad McFadden, Steve Ross, Stephen Patterson, Bethany Kovarik, Amanda Lundgren, Heather Kosik, Bonnie Jordan, Celeste Catena, Sandra Caldwell, Dan Chameroy, R. Markus, Amanda De Freitas, Devon Michael Brown, Philip Seguin, Gabriel Antonacci, Robert Ball, Henry Firmston, Jordan Mah, Eric Abel, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia Previous Next

  • Profiles Dylan Trowbridge

    Back Dylan Trowbridge Looking Ahead Tim Leyes Joe Szekeres In the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, my discussions with most Canadian, American, and European artists led me to understand just how their professional lives have become forever changed and dramatically altered. In all honesty, I’m still wondering how this pivot back to the indoor live theatre will look for them and their colleagues as necessary worldwide social movements have spotlighted the need for change. I first came across Dylan Trowbridge’s name in the early stages of GhostLight. All of the co-founders of GhostLight wanted to create a space to keep the theatre community active, inspired and connected while the industry was shut down. During the last few days, theatre news from Broadway indicates the theatres in Manhattan will be open this fall. Still no word about the indoor Toronto and Ontario theatres. Yes, there are pockets of outdoor theatre and I for one am pleased to hear this news, yet still Canadians wait when we can all return indoors. You’ll see from Dylan’s responses he has tried his best to remain positive and to keep moving forward. From the University of Toronto website: “[he] is a Toronto-based actor, director and teacher who began his career at the Shaw Festival where he played the title role in Christopher Newton’s production of Peter Pan. Other Shaw Festival credits include leading roles in The Lord of the Flies, The Matchmaker, Widowers' Houses, The Coronation Voyage and Rutherford and Son. Dylan made his West End debut in 2009, playing Neil Kellerman in Dirty Dancing at London’s Aldwych Theatre. He also spent two seasons at the Stratford Festival, appearing in Mary Stuart, Measure for Measure, Titus Andronicus and The Grapes of Wrath. Additional theatre credits include: Tribes, Julius Caesar (Canadian Stage), Taking Care of Baby (Critics Pick Award for Best Supporting Actor), the English language premier of Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline (Factory Theatre) and Tiny Dynamite (Theatre Smash). Dylan is a founding member of Theatrefront, with whom he co-wrote and performed in Return (The Sarajevo Project), earning a Dora nomination for best new play. Film and television credits include The Handmaid’s Tale, Anne with an E, V Wars, Impulse, American Hangman, Dark Matter, Private Eyes, Alias Grace, Orphan Black, Bomb Girls and Hemlock Grove. As a director, Dylan’s productions of The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy and Space Opera Zero! for Toronto’s Eldritch Theatre have earned multiple Dora nominations, and one win. Other recent directing credits include Herringbone and The Yalta Game (Talk is Free Theatre) and Every Brilliant Thing starring Gavin Crawford (Festival Players). Dylan is the Artistic Associate of Theatrefront, the Associate Artistic Director of The Festival Players of Prince Edward County and the Co-Founder/Co-Creative director of GhostLight, Canada’s online platform for mentorship in the theatre (ghostlight.ca).” We conducted our conversation via email as Dylan is an extremely busy family man. Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation, Dylan: The doors to Toronto indoor live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you and your immediate family been faring during this time? Thanks for asking this, Joe. While this has been a profoundly challenging time, I have tried my best to seek silver linings where I can. I’ve got two amazing kids, and I have spent a lot more time with them over the last year than I would otherwise have been able. When everything shut down last March, I took the opportunity to teach my youngest son how to read. We had a great time with it, and we never would have been able to do that under normal circumstances. We established some fun family traditions during the pandemic: Thursday night campouts in the living room (or on the balcony in the summer). Takeout and old episodes of ‘Survivor’ on Friday nights. Because there are four of us and a dog packed into a condo, I have been fortunate to avoid the massive challenges of isolation that so many people have had to deal with over the last year. We’ve tried to make it fun however we could. About indoor live theatre shut for over a year, there is a void for sure. More than anything I have missed the social interactions, the ridiculous jokes and meeting new people. I miss the event of theatre. The anticipation when the lights go dark. The thrill of audience and artists sharing a space. How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum? I’ve tried to keep busy! A few days before all the theatres shut down, Graham Abbey and I had opened a production of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at U of T. We’d had such an inspiring experience working with these students, and we were discussing the possibility of creating more training and mentorship opportunities in the near future. Then when March 13th hit, and, like everyone else, all our immediate theatre plans evaporated. Graham called me and we began a conversation about building an online platform for theatrical mentorship. We wanted to create a space that would keep the theatre community active, inspired, and connected while the industry was shut down. Through that conversation we laid the groundwork for what would become GhostLight (www.ghostlight.ca ) Alongside co-founders Stephen Barnard, E.B Smith and Adrianna Prosser, we spent the next several weeks developing this platform, recruiting mentors and creating our launch event Friday Night at the GhostLight (featuring Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Torquil Campbell, Colin Mochrie). In May we launched our first series of free classes lead by some of the great theatre artists in this country, and we continued to do so throughout 2020—offering 19 classes to over 300 students. Then, in September, Graham and I returned to U of T to teach Advanced Performance: Mainstage Drama. In that class we created two digital theatre pieces: an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosamund Small’s play ‘Tomorrow Love’. It was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities that exist when creating theatre online. I also shot a couple of Film and TV projects: ‘Marry Me this Christmas’ for the Bounce Network and ‘Titans’ for HBO Max. In April I directed a new play workshop for Alberta Theatre Projects (a company I have long admired), and a “First Day Read” for Talk is Free Theatre. I also work with Festival Players of Prince Edward County (https://www.festivalplayers.ca ) as associate AD. We are busy planning an exciting season of outdoor theatre, music, dance and comedy for July and August. The late Hal Prince described theatre as an escape for him. Has covid been an escape for me or would you describe this year long absence from theatre as something else? I think he must have meant that theatre is a great escape from ordinary life, and that I can understand and relate to. Theatre allows us to live in wonder and to transcend the ordinary This year-long absence from theatre has not been an escape for me though. It definitely has caused me to reflect and re-evaluate my life and my work in a healthy way. As actors and theatre artists, so much of our identity is wrapped up in our creative lives. This year forced me to cultivate an identity outside of those parameters. I have learned that while I love being an actor, I don’t need to base my sense of worth upon it. It’s also taught me to keep an open mind about what theatre is, and what it can be. The popular opinion (and I totally understand it) is that theatre is defined by live assembly in a physical space shared by actors and audience. But this year has taught me to challenge that. We are storytellers. When the traditional parameters of our story telling are taken away from us, how do we adapt? I have been profoundly moved by digital theatre. I have been wowed by digital visuals in online plays. I have laughed heartily. I have witnessed beautiful, genuine connection between actors over Zoom. I have witnessed student actors deepen their understanding of the craft in an online classroom. So, while it hasn’t been an escape, it has been enlightening, transformative and satisfying. I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022? My understanding of this virus and the various vaccines is limited, so anything I say here is complete speculation. My instinct is that it will be at least a year before people are attending theatre in a way that resembles to what we are used to and accustomed. Once we get everyone vaccinated, it will take some time for audiences to gain the confidence to gather in large groups again. My hope is, in the meantime, theatre-makers will be inspired to get creative with their approach to alternative strategies. I started my career doing outdoor theatre in Montreal. There is a magic to it when it’s done well. And it can attract non-traditional audiences. I think we will also see companies getting innovative with hybrid models of theatre: a live performance in a real theatre with a tiny audience and live streamed to a greater audience in their homes. I’m curious about how this challenge can create new models of theatre. The advent of Zoom theatre has opened up performance possibilities that transcend geography. While I don’t expect we will return to ‘normal’ in 2021, I am confident that this obstacle will lead to innovative approaches that could transform the way we create and attend theatre. I think theatre historians will look back on 2020-2021 and expound on on its vital transitional moment in the way we create theatre. The most important thing in all this? All levels of government must prioritize supporting arts organizations. As things stand, there is no scenario that will allow us to generate the ticket revenue sufficient to meet our costs. If we want a thriving performing arts sector on the other side of this pandemic, it is vital that we keep companies afloat. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world? What our industry has endured over the last 14 months will forever change the way we create theatre, and the way audiences experience it. The most important moment we have experienced as a result of Covid is the reckoning that took place, and continues to take place, at arts institutions across this country. The closure of theatres created an opportunity for theatre artists to shine a spotlight on the systemic inequity and racism that has been taking place in our theatres and cultural institutions. I believe that a positive, permanent transformation has begun to take place. I anticipate that we will continue to see healthy, innovative leadership models evolve because of this, and that will affect everything from programming, to process, to casting and hiring practices. With regards to how we will create theatre in a post-pandemic world, my hope is theatre artists will be inspired to devise work that celebrates what makes the medium unique: liveness, gathering, collaboration and imagination. Great theatre can be like a party or a concert. It should be an event. Unpredictable. Dangerous. Exhilarating. I expect that there will be a greater urgency to the work we do and a hunger in the audiences that experience it. Have you felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will influence your work? In 2006 I created a play with actors from Bosnia called ‘Return: The Sarajevo Project’. These artists grew up during the war in Bosnia and experienced legitimate, tangible threats to their lives every single day for several years; it affected everything. Their work was raw, spontaneous, and unpredictable and I learned a great deal from being on stage with them. I have not experienced that kind of sustained and palpable danger. Covid has been frustrating, stressful, and inconvenient. It has posed a threat to my livelihood and my ability to pursue my dreams. But it would be inauthentic to suggest that I have a deeper understanding of danger that I will bring to my work as a result of this. The word I keep coming back to is “urgency.” I will create theatre with more urgency when this is over. I’ll make up for lost time. I’ll relish the opportunities to collaborate with great artists in a shared space in front of an audience. I’ll enjoy it more. I’ll play more. And I won’t take one second of it for granted. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made an impact on your life in such a way that you will bring it back to the theatre? In 2019 I suffered a serious concussion while rehearsing a play. I was unable to act on stage for the entire year. Then I lost a very close friend to a tragic accident. And then Covid hit. These three events permanently altered the way I see the world. Life and health feel much more fragile now. Everything we experience is raw material for the work we do. I hope and expect that these challenging events will have a positive impact on my work as an actor and director. Once again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form? Covid has intensified my desire to do three things that I have been unable to do: traveling, creating theatre and socializing. I want to meet new people and see new places. I think that our work requires us to feed our imaginations by seeking out a multitude of perspectives and pursuing new experiences. That’s what I plan to do as soon as I am able to do so. Follow Dylan on Instagram: @dylantrowbridgeyyz Previous Next

  • Profiles Matthew MacKenzie

    Back Matthew MacKenzie 'This was a Covid romance where my wife Mariya were able to get married and welcome our son into this world, against all odds.' Credit: Nastya Gooz. Matthew appears with his bride Mariya Joe Szekeres What an interesting name for a theatre – ‘Punctuate! Theatre’. This name caught my eye immediately and I wanted to find out more. And there is more. Recently I received a notice about Punctuate Theatre’s touring production of the world premiere of ‘First Métis Man of Odesa’ that will run in the Franco Boni Theatre at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. Punctuate bills the production as a ‘romantic comedy for an unpredictable world.” ‘First Métis Man of Odesa’ is now playing in Kamloops BC until March 25. The production then travels to Toronto at The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8. It will then travel to Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre from April 22 – May 13 with its final stop in Vancouver from May 25 – June 4, 2023. Written by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova and directed by Lianna Makuch, this world premiere according to Punctuate’s website is “based on actual events. This captivating real-life love story is set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Award-winning playwright Matthew MacKenzie joins forces with his wife, award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova, to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the war in Ukraine.” I had the opportunity to conduct an interview via email with Matthew MacKenzie. He trained at Montréal’s National Theatre School in their Playwriting Program led by Brian Drader: The name ‘Punctuate! Theatre’ immediately captured my attention. Could you tell me about its genesis? "I was not with the company when it was founded, but my Managing Director Sheiny Satanove says “The name Punctuate! Theatre was a collaborative effort between the five founding members. In their initial meetings, they determined what type of theatre they were interested in making - subversive, relevant, and thought-provoking. It was important to them (and still is to the company today) to use our productions to give audiences something to think about, to ‘punctuate’ their thoughts. From there the name was born!” In your professional opinion, how have the changes from the worldwide pandemic affected where you see Punctuate! Theatre headed in future. "The changes forced us to stop touring our work for a couple of years, but we are happy to be touring the country again in ‘23 with ‘First Métis Man of Odesa’. One of the exciting things to come out of the pandemic is a virtual Indigenous playwriting unit we have formed with our partners: the Pemmican Collective. It went so well during the height of the pandemic that we decided we wanted to continue with it into the future. We are currently supporting the development of fifteen Indigenous projects through the unit." Tell me about the plot of ‘First Métis Man of Odesa’ to whet future audience appetite. "The play follows my partner Mariya Khomutova and my love story from a meeting during a theatre workshop in Ukraine, to Mariya visiting me in Toronto, to me returning to Ukraine, where I met Mariya’s parents in the magical city of Odesa. Two days after I flew back to Canada after that trip, Covid really hit, and countries closed their borders–so we suddenly didn’t know when we would be able to see one another again. A month after that trip, we learned that Mariya was pregnant. So I had to figure out how to fly across the world in the midst of the pandemic and sort of sneak into Ukraine. I was able to do this after we had been apart for four months and we married on a perfect summer morning in Odesa. Back in Canada, we had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops, with Mariya finally accessing healthcare shortly before the birth of our son, Ivan. We were just about to return to Odesa for our son to meet his grandparents there when the Russians launched their full-scale invasion. Since that time, when pretty much everyone my wife has ever known has had their lives turned upside down, we have welcomed my mother-in-law Olga and contended from afar with the horror Putin is unleashing on Ukraine." From the release I received, the play was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre during the height of the lockdown in 2021. It was written by you and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, 'First Métis Man of Odesa' makes its on-stage debut and offers a continuation of the initial story told in the radio play. Have you made any major changes from the radio play script to the one that will be presented this month? "The big difference is that Russia had not invaded Ukraine when we did the radio play, so the effects the invasion had on Mariya and I provided the inspiration, both dark and hopeful, for the second half of the play." It has been wonderful to return to the theatre even though we are still in Covid’s embrace. Again, in your professional opinion, why is it important for audiences to see ‘First Métis Man of Odesa’? "This was a Covid romance, where Mariya and I were able to get married and welcome our son into this world, against all odds. I think people will respond really positively to a good news story coming out of this terrible time. And much like Covid, the invasion has had a profound impact on our lives but has been something out of our control. I think seeing the human side of how the invasion has affected people will really resonate with folks." Once the run of the play has concluded at the Theatre Centre, what’s next for Matthew MacKenzie? "I’ll be travelling to South Africa to participate in a residency in Johannesburg at The Centre For The Less Good Idea, where I will be developing a new play titled Genital Posturing Of The Vervet Monkeys Of South Africa." To learn more about Punctuate Theatre, visit www.punctuatetheatre.com . To purchase tickets for the Toronto production at The Theatre Centre, call 416-538-0988 or visit www.theatrecentre.org . Previous Next

  • Profiles Sabryn Rock

    Back Sabryn Rock Moving Forward Kristina Ruddick Joe Szekeres The first time I saw Sabryn perform was with Jeremy Smith’s wonderful summer Bard’s Bus tour of Driftwood Theatre. During those summers, Sabryn performed in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’. I remember watching these three performances and thinking Sabryn is destined for even more phenomenal roles on future professional stages in Toronto and across Canada. And she has given exceptional performances over these last few years including ‘The Royale’ at Soulpepper for which she received the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Play. Selected Film and Television: Two Sentence Horror Stories, Departure, The Expanse, Holly Hobbie, Carter, Taken, People of Earth, Black Mirror, The Girlfriend Experience. Selected theatre: Rose, Caught (Theatre Passe Muraille), Once on this Island (Acting Upstage/ Obsidian) as well as Caroline, or Change Romeo and Juliet, Three Musketeers, The Merchant of Venice (Stratford), Ruined (Obsidian/Nightwood). Sabryn has been nominated for several Dora Awards. As a director she’s directed shows and workshops for Summerworks, Shakespeare in Action, Obsidian and the Musical Stage Company. She recently directed Contractions, an experimental play/film hybrid over zoom for the Studio180 At Home series. Sabryn also loves to read (especially out loud) and has now narrated seven audiobooks. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival and the Actors' Conservatory at the Canadian Film Centre. We conducted our interview via email as she is one busy lady. Thank you so much, Sabryn, for taking the time: It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion? I’m feeling very disappointed and yet not at all surprised that the numbers are surging. I have a lot of anxiety and insecurity about what the future will hold. But I have to say, being a freelance artist who often lives paycheque to paycheque prepared me well for the whole ‘not knowing’ aspect of all this. I just wish the circumstances weren’t so dire and serious for so many. We will absolutely emerge to some new way of living- it’ll be what it is for that time and place and life will continue on…how that will look I have no idea. I think (and hope) people will be a lot more cautious about illness, handwashing and mask-wearing in the vulnerable seasons forevermore and generally more conscious about the safety and wellbeing of folks. Also for me, personal space and physical boundaries shifting in a big way! I, myself, have enjoyed the distance and the lack of expectation that I have to hug everyone or shake everyone’s hands all the time (especially strangers or acquaintances I don’t know well); that’s a surprising perk to all this for me because I find often in our industry, people assume everyone is comfortable letting them into their personal, intimate space for touch. I will say though that I am fortunate to have a husband and cats who I can hug all I want when I feel like it. Some people aren’t that lucky right now and I totally understand that- the deprivation of physical touch can be harmful for so many. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months? I count myself very, very blessed-I can’t say that enough. I am faring just fine all things considered. I know that speaks to my privilege as I have been able to keep working, have a comfortable home and a partner who hasn’t lost work at all this year. Another odd perk was getting to spend so much time with my husband during the first lockdown- getting to take the time to eat lunch together everyday was a simple yet profound joy we wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise. It’s really made us value one another in a new way. It has been difficult not being able to see my folks consistently who are in Saskatchewan, especially now that the holidays are around the corner and choosing to stay put to keep us all safe. They’re lucky that they’re in a very spacious place that isn’t as dense but numbers are crawling up there too, so…I just keep begging my parents to stay home and pray they’ll keep safe and healthy so we can be reunited soon. As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally? Honestly, seeing all my peers struggling and not knowing how to help besides reaching out and checking in on people. The theatre companies, the freelancers, the people who rely on contract work not being able to have a consistent livelihood or have any concrete plan for the future has been really tough to witness. Also, not knowing when we’ll be able to gather in a theatre again to watch or put on a play for an eager audience of patrons is unnerving. And yet, and I’m unsure if it’s ignorance or naivete, but I seem to have adopted the “everything will be okay” mentality and am trusting that professionally my career will be where it needs to be when it can be there. I just hope that the many theatre companies and creative people who are taking huge financial hits right now are able to pull through and pivot in ways that can sustain them. Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon? I was one of the few who didn’t have any concrete plans for 2020. I had made a conscious effort to lay off theatre for the year and focus on screen and voice and I was very lucky in that regard because all my friends and colleagues were losing work. It just felt like I was in the same position as I would’ve been anyways: having no idea what jobs would be coming or when I’d work again; with the huge caveat that lockdown definitely hindered any or all opportunities for actually being on set or a studio for a large portion of this year...but I was fortunate to have been working almost right up until March so was able to coast for a few months without worrying much about my financial situation. And thank goodness for CERB! I did have a workshop of a new play in development I’m directing that we had to postpone for a few months and settled on doing a three day zoom workshop instead. It was useful for many reasons as far as hearing the play with actors and dramaturgy etc. but we were also hoping to do some physical exploration at this stage and that just wasn’t possible over zoom. The production is tentatively slated for fall 2021 but only time will tell if that’ll happen so all we can do is wait and see and come up with a contingency plan in case we have to postpone which at this point, is looking very likely. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? Lots of reading, cooking, cleaning for those first three months and then I got really tired of being cooped up and feeling like I couldn’t find a satisfying creative outlet. I actually completed The Artist’s Way for the first time ever in the summer which was such a huge help. Even just writing everyday shifted my mental health in a big way. The artist dates I went on and the creative tasks reinvigorated me and my creative spirit which I so desperately needed. Once things started opening up later in the summer, I was very lucky to have booked some work again on set and in the studio as well as a few directing gigs for virtual theatre including a zoom production of Contractions with Studio 180 which was another elixir I needed. Getting to collaborate with other artists and using my director brain after months of creative atrophy was the burst of a new energy I needed. It was such a joy and privilege to have those opportunities and although zoom can be challenging at the best of times, the constraints forced some really creative problem solving which I also didn’t realize how much I missed. I also started doing some virtual teaching at Randolph College in the fall as well as some outreach work with Studio 180 and both been a nice side gigs that are safe to do from home. Teaching is something I’ve regularly done to supplement my income prior to Covid and I truly love it. The shift to zoom has been surprisingly easy if not a bit exhausting on the eyes, although I really can’t imagine doing theatre school training-most of which is so physical- over a computer. These students are so dedicated! Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years? For my fellow performers and colleagues, be sure to keep engaging in creative outlets and lean on your supports. Reach out to mentors, past collaborators or friends if you need connection or want to create something. I think a lot of people are eager to collaborate right now- I have friends sending scripts for feedback or brainstorming virtual projects just because they need the outlet and I think that’s a great way to cope. For some, they’re not in a position to do that right now so I would say making sure to do something that’s good for your mental and physical health and wellbeing everyday. Meditating, long walks with a great podcast, calling an old friend, baking something for a pal just because..anything that makes you feel happy, calm and engaged. Also, therapy has been a huge help for me. As far as helpful resources and options since it’s difficult to find a therapist in these times, I know Equity launched LifeWorks earlier this year to support members https://www.caea.com/News#LifeWorks-June-29. For ACTRA members there’s a new Expanded Access- Mental Wellness Support Benefit I was just reading about that sounds promising. Info available here: https://www.afbs.ca/fraternal-benefits#additional-benefitsI For recent theatre school grads I would say: stay positive and optimistic, stay ready, keep reading plays and pushing yourself to learn and engage as much as possible. Take a virtual class. Write those emails to casting directors, artistic directors, people in the community you admire…propose virtual coffees. The hustle to get your name out there has always been hard but now it’s even more of a challenge so it’s time to think outside the box and stay on top of it. Stream those online readings and productions which there are no shortage of internationally but also here at home there’s lots on offer with shows streaming online with Acts of Faith at Factory Theatre, Contractions with Studio 180 (shameless plug J), Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered just to name a few. Look for inspiration everywhere as you might be surprised where you might find it. Write everyday if you can- it helps so much. Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19? As far as theatre goes, I think this time off has forced many organizations and companies to recalibrate; to look at how things are run and re-examine structure and operations that have oppressed so many for decades. The BLM movement and the protests in the summer shone a light on so many systemic issues within the world but in our community, it really inspired many to voice their experiences with the #inthedressingroom campaign. Reading the many tweets and posts, I didn’t find any of these stories particularly surprising unfortunately as I’ve both experienced firsthand or heard of all the micro and macroaggressions towards artists of colour over my career. I think a lot of people are taking this time to stop and reflect on how they can better advocate for and foster, support, and protect BIPOC artists so that when we meet again in a physical space, there are some tangible practices put in place to change the trajectory forever. I also think that having all this extra time at home, many are realizing that the six day work week isn’t necessary and that we can likely accomplish just as much in five days- arguably maybe more with TWO days off: one to do groceries/laundry/spend time with family and one to actually accomplish the work. I know I definitely do not miss only having one day off a week. I myself, have found that this lockdown time has really changed my perspective on what really matters in life. Yes, I love my career and performing but getting to have quality time with family, connecting with friends whom I haven’t spoken to in ages, those are the things you won’t ever get back. Jobs will come and go but loved ones are what matters most to me. Balance and boundaries are key. Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene? I think it already has on so many artists and companies. Many people leaving the business or finding a new livelihood out of necessity, companies having to shut their doors, losing their space and folding because they can’t financially sustain themselves…I think the fabric of our performing arts scene will forever be changed. However, I think this is such a fascinating time and will absolutely inspire and birth some incredible new work and from the ashes, new companies will rise. It’ll just take time. Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown? I think it’s amazing the way people have pivoted so quickly. Even just having the ability to lean on streaming is going to be a huge asset to many as things may remain up in the air for the foreseeable future. It would be foolish not to utilize this; I think it is the only option for many actors and companies if they want to keep getting their work or name out there or maintaining audience engagement and some type of revenue. Unfortunately, these things can be very pricy endeavours if quality is a priority and not everyone has it in the budget to outfit a full home studio right now or create and develop a streaming platform like Stratford. There is so much more content on offer online right now specifically because of Covid, so the challenging part is getting viewers. I find it overwhelming sometimes to decide what to watch and who to support with all the choices. Streaming can also be pretty frustrating depending on if there are any technical difficulties or if you have crappy internet and I find it really hard to fully sit down and engage at home when I can be multitasking and doing a million other things at the same time which I can’t do in a theatre. Personally, I have also been trying to stare at screens less in my life since I’ve been forced to engage with work in this way now more than ever so I may not be a great target audience member lol. But I think people have got to do what they got to do and if it’s helpful to utilize YouTube or streaming for the benefit of their spirit, creativity or livelihood, all the power to them. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you? I really miss the live feedback from an audience, that energy; the shared experience of people coming together in a space and breathing, gasping, laughing together (you know, all the risky and dangerous stuff right now). Heck, I even miss the oblivious patron unwrapping candy at the most inopportune moment which then in itself turns into another shared funny/baffling moment between audience and performers! Covid will never destroy my desire to get together for several weeks and create something out of nothing with a talented group of people and sharing it with live humans in a physical space. I think when I first step into a theatre again when it’s safe to do so, I won’t take it for granted ever again. Previous Next

  • Musicals Six The Musical

    Back Six The Musical Now onstage at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre Credit: Joan Marcus. Pictured: Julia Pulo (centre) and Jaz Robinson Joe Szekeres Sassy, Sultry and Sexy Girl Power! This ‘Six’ is a Ten! I have read online and heard through the Sirius XM Broadway Channel that ‘Six’ is an immersive concert cum theatre production. My first initial thought – which is it? A concert or a theatre production? For this Toronto production, it doesn’t matter. ‘Six’ is just plain ol’ terrific fun. Yes, it's all superficial entertainment but that's okay. These Canadian beauties sashay with sassy, sultry and sexy Girl Power energy. Enjoy that. Plus, we get a twenty-first-century history lesson about the six wives of King Henry VIII that hopefully may encourage young audience members to want to study the Social Sciences. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s sharp, witty, and clever book is a modern retelling of Henry’s six wives in a pop concert format with this Toronto stop of the ‘Divorced/Beheaded Tour’. I loved the tongue-in-cheek tour title. Some of the show’s merchandise includes the proverbial ball cap embroidered on the back with the tour’s title. The show’s premise is easy to follow. Each wife shares the story of her initial encounter with the king. In this process, they tell the audience the band’s lead singer will be the prize for whoever they determine had the worst experience at the hands of their shared husband. History tells us two things regarding these women – they were either divorced or beheaded, with one wife outliving the king. For those unfamiliar with the wives' history, a brief synopsis of each woman is given in the program. Here’s a quick rundown: Catherine of Aragon (divorced), Anne Boleyn (beheaded), Jane Seymour (died), Anna of Cleves (divorced), Katherine Howard (beheaded), Catherine Parr (outlived her husband). Two recognizable modern female singers are the ‘Queenspiration’ for each wife. Upon entering the Royal Alexandra Theatre auditorium, Emma Bailey’s Scenic and Paul Gatehouse’s Sound Designs create a regal look and sound. A closed curtain is adorned with the regal colour mauve and gold stripes. The musical sound of a spinet playing Elizabethan songs can be heard preshow. At the top of the production, each wife enters solo through a pulled-back curtain. Finally, the semi-circular stage of two risers with band members (The Ladies in Waiting) playing becomes visible, and off we go. Gabriella Slade’s colourful, sometimes glowing and stiff costume designs are reminders of a futuristic Jane and Judy Jetson wardrobe (I think my age is showing here). Tim Deiling’s Lighting Design is reminiscent of pop concert performances from The Spice Girls and Back Street Boys. Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s strutting choreography delightfully ranges from swaying hips and pelvic thrusts to elegant arm movements and finger-pointing. Directors Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage keep the show’s pacing tight. It appears many in the audience around me have either seen the show or, most likely, have listened to the live or taped album recordings. I’ve done neither and wonder if I should have done so. Tom Curran’s orchestrations strongly indicate why the production appeals to young people. It’s loud, but not deafening. Liz Baird’s enthusiastic Music Direction becomes roof-raising. There are moments when I can’t hear all the lyrics because it’s loud; however, this time, it’s no big deal. That’s why YouTube is there. If you know the songs, simply sit back, and enjoy. This ensemble Canadian cast remains the reason to see ‘Six’. They’re freakin’ good. Each of them is beautiful; their vocal range is astounding, and the harmonies gloriously soar to the rafter heights of the theatre. The opening song, ‘Ex-Wives,’ becomes a dazzling spectacle of light, sound, music, and dance. As the first and faithful wife Catherine of Aragon, the lanky Jaz Robinson uses her height to sometimes emphasize that her response will be ‘No Way’. Julia Pulo’s Anne Boleyn (Aragon’s lady in waiting and usurper of her husband) comically explains what happened to her in ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’. Maggie Lacasse is Jane Seymour, whom Henry has supposedly and truly loved. She dies in childbirth, giving him the male heir he wants. Lacasse’s heartfully poignant ‘Heart of Stone’ slows the show’s pacing momentarily and allows the audience to listen to the song’s moving lyrics. She hits a high note in the song, sending the audience into rapturous applause. Krystal Hernández’s Anna of Cleves is a riot in ‘Get Down’. At the performance, she makes eye contact with an audience member who relishes the opportunity to stand up and do what she asks of him. Elysia Cruz’s Katherine Howard’s sharp commentary of ‘All You Wanna Do’ becomes a potent reminder of why she is the other wife who is beheaded. Lauren Mariassosay is Catherine Parr, the wife who outlives Henry. Her letter to Thomas Seymour, the man she loved before the King entered the picture, is also touching. Can’t forget the four Ladies in Waiting, the band members, either. They become integral parts of the show. I found my eyes going to them periodically and watching them play their instruments. These musicians are most certainly enjoying themselves as the wives are. The last few minutes of the show are a re-mix akin to what occurs in the conclusion of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’. This is the only time when tonight’s audience is allowed to pull out their phones. Final Comments: Why should you see ‘Six’? I enjoyed it, but something became apparent as I left the auditorium. This production is a celebration of womanhood. In our twenty-first century woke world right now, there’s a danger either of the erasure of women or a usurping of their individuality by ‘others’. 'Six' is a celebration of women getting and understanding each other and their uniqueness in a way we men cannot. How do I know this? On the way out, women were reaching out to other women, and I heard comments like: “I feel your tears, sister”. “I get it, sister. Let the tears flow.” “I’m crying too, sister.” Ah, the power of theatre, when it hits. Running time: approximately 80 minutes with no intermission at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West. The production runs until May 26, 2024. Tickets: www.mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333. SIX THE MUSICAL by Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss Scenic Design: Emma Bailey Costume Design: Gabriella Slade Lighting Design: Tim Deiling, Sound Design: Paul Gatehouse, Orchestrations: Tom Curran Music Director: Liz Baird Music Supervision: Joe Beighton Choreography: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage Performers: Jaz Robinson, Julia Pulo, Maggie Lacasse, Krystal Hernández, Elysia Cruz, Lauren Mariasoosay, Hailey Lewis, Julia McLellan, Abigail Sparrow, Darcy Stewart Previous Next

  • Profiles Nina Lee Aquino

    Back Nina Lee Aquino Self Isolated Artist --- Joe Szekeres What a delightful conversation this afternoon with Factory Theatre’s Artistic Director, Nina Lee Aquino. An absolute pleasure in hearing her speak, rather candidly, at times, about how she has been coping as a self-isolated artist. Nina Lee is choosing to remain optimistic in the face of this pandemic. Just from listening to her today, I felt reassured that she is another strong individual to lead Factory out of this darkness right now of uncertainty and confusion into whatever the future may hold. She put me at ease very quickly with her witty sense of humour combined with her dynamic spirit of counsel and fortitude especially in how she is looking where she will take Factory over the next few years. Nina Lee and I conducted our conversation via Zoom: It has been nearly three months since we’ve all been in lockdown. How have you and your family been keeping during this period of isolation from other immediate family members and friends? Well, it doesn’t feel like isolation other than the fact than I’m just really at home for almost 24/7. In terms of workload for myself if anything it’s been a lot more. We’re a family of 3, my husband, Richard, and 13-year-old daughter, Eponine. Surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly everyone has been busy. I mean everyone in the family. My 13-year-old daughter is juggling her school which has fully transitioned online. She’s had a couple of theatre gigs – online workshops or online presentations- with different theatre companies (YPT). Her movie also premiered online with the virtual edition of the Canadian Film Festival. She’s done some PR work. Apart from school, she’s had her own theatre work and the responsibilities that come with it – reading the script, making sure she’s being a good actor, and doing her homework. That’s occupied her time. Richard is a theatre artist. His teaching online during the lockdown time with Humber is done. He’s involved in advocacy work with various boards of directors that have transitioned online. He’s had some theatre gigs and some online workshops where he gets hired as an actor. And there’s me balancing Factory Theatre and PACT. I also have to help ensure the bigger picture nationally of what theatre companies are going through that I am there with them to help contribute, to help solve, to comfort or agitate (at times). I have to be at the very top helping the theatre companies go through this crisis together and be a unifying force in many ways. So, that’s the work I do with PACT. And then there’s Nina Lee Aquino, the artist. Lots of little Zoom meetings, fielding phone calls where I’m comforting the distressed and the confused. I’m also helping to comfort the anxieties with the emerging artists. I have fresh theatre graduates from York University who are really scared and confused and just want to know what they’re stepping into in this theatre community right now. So there are a lot of meetings of this kind going on and they add up in the day with virtual coffee chats, ‘talk it through’ with a lot of listening. My June calendar has filled up but July’s calendar is looking good. I think I’m due for a vacation in whatever form that takes for awhile because at some point I really need to stop and recharge. It is unrelenting but that is the job and the role of Artistic Director. And then we have to be a family of mother, father, daughter, husband, and wife, and just be together as a family only. We can be together in a space but are we really together and present for each other? I’ve scheduled no Zoom meetings on Saturday or for a certain day. Because of this COVID situation, because I try not to do anything on Saturday or Sunday, then I’m restless. It’s not like I can go out. It’s just so weird where I’ve been working at home for 40 plus hours and now, I’m not expected to leave the house except for essentials. What has been most challenging and difficult for you during this time both personally and professionally? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy? Personally, I think it is connected to the profession. Before COVID we as a family have accepted that our personal and professional lives will always be closely intertwined. I’ve stopped fighting as these are two beasts that need to live together. I’ve stopped attempting to place things in innate little columns as it just doesn’t work for our family. There’s an acceptance in the three of us that personal is professional, and professional is personal. Who we are as human beings is who we are as artists. The challenge right now really is about space. That is the one as a family we are trying to manage in this tiny Toronto shoebox of a condo. We have a dog too. The navigating of the physical spacing doesn’t really work with the professional space that is required which in turn is also emotional space. With the advocacy work I’ve done the last couple of days, how do you shed that for awhile? The final piece because personal and professional are merged – for the first time, my daughter is getting a clear idea of what I do. I have to allow her to witness me at work going through everything from the hardest bits to the glorious bits. At 13 (a crucial age), when she’s trying to figure her own shit out, what a way to learn things that I can be there and have those candid conversations with her. My kid has turned out really cool so I know we’ve done something right with her and we’re just going to go with the flow. My lovely husband has gifted me with a bike so that I can, in those small moments, hop on it, go ride around and come back. As a family, we rode our bikes together last weekend and then had dinner in a park together. I wouldn’t have thought that a bicycle would be a gift. Just give me a diamond necklace or get me shoes. The bike has come in handy. My husband gets to go out more as he is freelance. He does the grocery shopping, the errands because he’s the driver. For me, besides bike riding, I should think of something else to be able to unload for a bit. I should try to find a hobby outside all of this is a challenge. That hasn’t changed. Maybe I’ll try to grow some plants in my balcony but wish me luck because I’m horrible. My cactus died. Who kills a cactus? I know it’s awful, but I should also have some outside interests and I’m going to try. I’m a work in progress. I can’t even begin to imagine the varied emotions and feelings you’ve been going through personally and professionally with other key players and individuals with regard to Factory Theatre’s future. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts and theatre scene and on Factory Theatre? Yah. Here’s the difficult part of these COVID conversations. There’s just no answers as information keeps evolving every 48 hours. The only certain things are that it’s here and what are the safety measures to combat the spreading of COVID. We’re still talking as if it’s going to go away. Right now, we are transitioning to new conversations of “What if COVID is going to stick around like the common cold?” “What if it never goes away?” “How do we deal with this shit?” Part of me is still not accepting and that we will come back as normal as normal can be. Part of me thinks there’s going to be a season next season. Part of me says there will be people who will come through our doors and sit side by side. And it’s just not going to happen. That uncertainty is killing the vibe. No clear answers with very conflicting events that are very confusing. It’s also scary because what do we follow? What do we do? Not all provinces are ready to open while some are. For me, who also freelances on the side, what are the possibilities of doing my gigs in Winnipeg when Ontario is on semi-lockdown? It’s tricky. I worry in thinking about it. If it’s here to stay for a while, it affects what I had planned for next season. Now I have to look long term. It’s a delicate juggling balance as AD. In postponing productions, what other artists are you screwing over that season or next season? With Factory, I’ve roughly 3 seasons roughly sketched out with commitments whether it’s commission or a verbal promise. One way or another, it’s hard emotionally to balance but that’s what Covid is doing. The easy thing is to sanitize and clean theatres all you want. The programming and long-term commitments to artist and custom tailoring programming to the safety measures of this illness and virus are the impacts of COVID on Factory Theatre and on future seasons. I’m really worried about the artistic side, and the audience side is another concern. These are things that sometimes keep me up at nights. It’s not going to affect next season, but I can see it affecting at least all three seasons following. Do you have any words of wisdom to console or to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees at Factory who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion? In terms of within Factory between me and Managing Director Jonathan Heppner, we’ve come to the fact that no matter what happens we will figure it out. If there’s anything that I am confident about is this uncertainty of COVID is that like true theatre artists we will work with it, around it, through it because we’re theatre artists because we make the impossible, possible. Full stop. For the grads, I was asked to speak to York University’s grad Zoomation. I was newly appointed as Professor Adjunct. Given the circumstances that we have gone through in the past couple of days, the pandemic is one thing but to be on the brink of a real awakening. That is really the lasting impact that I’m hoping. This pandemic requires us to sit still for a while that we use it to our advantage. To the theatre grads – you only need to look at your social media feeds to get what you need to get and to learn, and you are afforded the time to do so. There is no excuse anymore to not know anything. In choosing your own artistic path, coming out of this, we can be better human beings. The knowledge is out there. Stories were given out freely and put front and centre for us to now use and to learn from. For our theatre community given the racial injustice protests these last few days, this is a real awakening. We need to do better. It’s ok to say, “I fucked up.” This is action. There is also an expectation of re-thinking your programming to what we’ve just learned to have a really inclusive season. There is time now so break down your default theatre artist list and create a new one. Read new plays, make new connections to artists who don’t look like you. Read new voices. What can I do to show my solidarity to be a better human being? The resources are there. What can I do now to be a better ally and show my solidarity? It may mean starting all over again, but now is the time to start doing it. It’s good, it’s needed. We needed this pause. Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene? We need to make sure spaces are safe in theatre for mental health and the racial injustice protests from this last week are showing this. COVID 19 has proven regarding our work schedules, at least from the theatre administration side that with some jobs, we don’t need to follow the strict ‘labour-esque’ work schedules. Sometimes, some of our work can be done from home. Right now, my staff at Factory is fucking kicking ass since they’ve been working from home. I love it. Even though we miss each other, my staff looks healthier, no one looks burned out, there’s no lack of rigour since they’ve been working from home. We can be a bit more flexible. It’s not just about counting hours, but it’s also about quality. YouTube presentations, online streaming seems to be part of a ‘new normal’ at this time for artists to showcase their work. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19? I have come to accept the fact that as long as we’re creating, we’re good. Factory has done several virtual presentations, very successful. I am done labeling what we’re doing. I think that’s part of the problem. We’re just going to do what we do best. There’s space, there’s actors. The three virtual presentations in May and June was a way for me to pay artists and to keep the creativity going while we can. It’s also pure audience engagement and it’s our duty to check in with everyone’s souls and that Factory audiences are ok. First and foremost, I am a theatre artist. Like the virtual presentation of ‘House’, we need to be aware of new medium. Let’s play with it. That’s what theatre artists do. We push with certain things, but we have to be open to learning how to play with the new technology. There are digital artists out there who are good out there and it’s important to reach out to them. I don’t want to say no to discovering new things and new forms as they may go hand in hand. As theatre artists, discovery is one of our tenants, and we need to open to new tools and to whatever form and structure theatre may be through artistic sensibilities and telling great stories in whatever medium possible. As AD, there is a need (of funds, resources, tools) to invest in playwrights writing in a different stage. I’m not abandoning the traditional theatre format, but I have to look at investing in new processes for delivering work. Maybe Factory Season can be traditional and a couple of virtual plays online. I will never say no to creation. What is about your role as Artistic Director of Factory Theatre that COVID will never destroy? I think it’s very clear from our nice conversation so far is the thing that COVID did not affect at all is the advocacy work. The COVID can cancel my artistic programming, the COVID can re-arrange how I work administratively. That’s good it didn’t destroy advocacy to look after my community, local, Toronto, and the larger community. It’s both a burden and an honour. It’s just exhausting as you can’t stop taking care of a community. The community is playing catchup in this re-awakening. With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests: 1. What is your favourite word? Metamorphosis 2. What is your least favourite word? Universal 3. What turns you on? Hmmm…a really good design jam session with my creative team. Yah, Yah. 4. What turns you off? Indifference. 5. What sound or noise do you love? The first sound cue in a cue to cue session. That first official sound cue when we’re running a tech rehearsal. 6. What sound or noise bothers you? Car honk. 7. What is your favourite curse word? Holy Fuck. What is your least favourite curse word? (Thank you, Nigel Shawn Williams, for this addition to the question) Cunt. When I hear it, it makes me go…(and Nina Lee shrugs her shoulders). (At this point, Nina Lee and I laugh together a tad awkwardly but also a tad conspiratorially at this second part of the question.) 8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt? If I had the intelligence and the ability, I’d love to be one of those pure mathematicians. The ones that create proofs. That world to me is magic to understand numbers in such a meta magical way. If not, maybe a conductor of an orchestra. The waving and knowing you can control music coming at you from all angles. When I watch conductors of an orchestra, man, I wanna be there. 9. What profession could you not see yourself doing? Oh my God, 98% I think first and foremost my friends (including Nigel Shawn Williams) would vouch for this – anything to do with nature ‘cause I hate it. Mountain ranging, gardening, even mowing the lawn, I will mess it up, fuck it up, or I will not care for it ‘cause I hate it. 10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? “How the fuck did you get you get here? Seriously? Who gave you a pass?” I feel like I’m destined to go to hell. I think God does cuss, I really think he does, but it’s okay ‘cause he’s God. To learn more about Factory Theatre, visit their website: www.factorytheatre.ca . You can also visit their Facebook page and Twitter accounts. Previous Next

  • Dance 'Liminal' by Throwdown Collective

    Back 'Liminal' by Throwdown Collective World Premiere presented by DanceWorks Courtesy of DanceWorks web page Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator Toronto’s DanceWorks started 2023 with an interesting, visually appealing and esoteric tale of change and evolution conceived and performed by a superbly disciplined trio of artists from the Throwdown Collective. I’ve always marvelled at modern dance and how choreographers and dancers can tell a myriad of narratives, apparently abandoning the confines of classic technique and randomly shaping their bodies, leaping, writhing, running and stretching to tell a subtle, off-beat tale. Such is the approach to Throwdown Collective’s “Liminal”. The program states the piece, “examines time and perception with theatrical imagery and dynamic physicality”. This performance certainly showcased theatrical imagery and dynamic physicality, but I was often puzzled. Don’t get me wrong, this 60-minute performance, which I would call more movement than actual dance, was created and performed by three extremely gifted artists – Mairéad Filgate, Zhenya Cerneacov, and Brodie Stevenson. Their enormous dedication, skill and herculean physical control are a sight to behold. They lift each other, fall into each other’s arms, run, roll, embrace, convulse, pulsate, gyrate, snap, and even tie a necktie in trilateral unison. Though the messaging often had my companion and me scratching our heads, the individual investment of these artists in the work was ultra-impressive. Performed in a black-box style space, David J. Patrick’s and Great Lakes Scenic Studios provided a small portable revolving stage. Narrow shafts of pre-show light beamed through clouds of ethereal smoke projecting two rotating and intersecting vertical lines centre stage. Haphazardly strewn about the stage were men’s shoes, shirts pants, and brightly-coloured rumpled suits, and ties (courtesy of costume designer Sorcha Gibson) that seemed to have spilled out of a laundry bag as someone was running to the cleaners. The performers entered wearing only their undergarments, equally spaced themselves on the revolving floor and proceeded to dress in slow motion. They jumped on and off the revolving stage, undressed and dressed again, connected, hugged each other, fought each other, folded, unfolded, in almost complete silence. Mute madness and mayhem? I wanted more human sound to help me connect. This transcendent compendium was supported by a fabulous original score by Joshua Van Tassel. His eerie drones, clanging phrases and pugnacious percussive underscored the roller-coaster of activity on the whirling wheel. From hard-hitting jabs to a single heartbeat, his choices here were spot-on. Lighting designer Arun Srinivasan once again shows us his brilliance in illuminating a space. I’ve recently seen other shows designed by this Lord of Light and he never fails to impress. His wonderful use of specials, motion gobos, and pattern projections combined with colourful side lights and narrow steep beams from above created equal parts mystery and psychedelia. Brava! It was a full house at this final performance with query and conversations abounding at the post-show reception. Throwdown Collective has created a buzz in Toronto’s theatre scene. Their work is unexpected but thoughtful. Even though I wasn’t always sure the meaning of what I was watching, it was executed brilliantly! Previous Next

  • Solos 'Sea Wall' by Simon Stephens

    Back 'Sea Wall' by Simon Stephens Presented by BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS AND QUIET THINGS CREATIVE IN ASSOCIATION WITH ONE FOUR ONE COLLECTIVE, and now onstage at Toronto's Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen Street West Cass Van Wyck. Pictured: Jamie Cavanagh as Alex Joe Szekeres Jamie Cavanagh’s naturalistic storytelling makes ‘Sea Wall’ an engrossing piece of theatre. Now onstage at the Assembly Theatre, Simon Stephens’ ‘Sea Wall’ becomes an engrossing piece of theatre that left me bereft of emotion for a few moments at the end of the show. Belinda Cornish directs the one-act monologue with confident precision to ensure a naturalism that remains intact throughout the approximately 45-minute running time. Jamie Cavanagh is Alex, a photographer. He enters from the back of the auditorium at the top of the show and walks down the aisle to the stage. He looks at some of the props placed there. Even though he says nothing for a few minutes, something magnetic about Cavanagh’s presence draws attention to him. Alex is an inquisitive man. The question of Christian religion and faith belief figures prominently in the early sections of the monologue. Alex is uncertain of the presence of a religious figurehead but enjoys thinking about the topic and discussing it with others. He likes swimming and the opportunity to be at peace in the water. Alex wonders if a religious figurehead exists; he considers perhaps he might have experienced a connection while swimming. As his monologue continues, we learn Alex is deeply in love with his wife, Helen, and the two of them are overjoyed at the birth of their daughter, Lucy. We also learn Helen’s father, a retired British general, lives in the south of France by the water. Life is good for Alex, Helen, and Lucy. When she is eight, Alex and Helen take their daughter to the French seaside for a holiday at the request of Helen’s father. Alex likes his father-in-law and enjoys learning more about him while spending quality time with Helen and Lucy. While on holiday, Alex has a most interesting conversation with his father-in-law about a seawall near his home. Alex learns that this seawall is a mighty thing. According to his father-in-law, it doesn’t just drop a few meters but hundreds of feet. There is an incredible suffocating blackness at this seawall. This seawall becomes a metaphor for how things can change so quickly in life. The auditorium’s house lights do not dim for the 45-minute running time, which is an integral part of the staging. It’s a good choice because ‘Alex’ can make direct eye contact with each audience member. I noticed he had made eye contact with me a few times. At one point, Cavanagh (as Alex) asks a question and looks directly at an audience member sitting in front. She nodded in response that she wanted to know the answer to his question. (I won’t state the question because that’s part of why you must see the show.) Jamie Cavanagh’s nuanced and realistic performance is the highlight of the production. His thick British accent makes me pay careful attention. It all feels believable as he moves around the stage with purpose, reason, and intent. It’s as if he speaks directly to me, and I forget the other audience members sitting around. Cavanagh instinctively knows when to pause for a quick laugh from the audience or when something needs to be highlighted. During these carefully timed dramatic pauses, I am inching forward in my chair because I’m on every word. I don’t want to write any notes in my book about the production because I don’t want to miss anything. ‘Sea Wall’ is a theatrical treat you owe yourselves. Please go and see it. Running time: approximately 50 minutes with no intermission. ‘Sea Wall’ runs until Sunday, October 8, at the Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen Street West, Toronto. For tickets, visit www.assemblytheatre.com . BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS AND QUIET THINGS CREATIVE PRESENT IN ASSOCIATION WITH ONE FOUR ONE COLLECTIVE ‘Sea Wall’ by Simon Stephens Directed by Belinda Cornish Performer: Jamie Cavanagh Previous Next BACK TO TOP

  • Opera Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski

    Back Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski A 'life-changing' experience for these ultra-chic Co-Artistic Directors of Opera Atelier Photo of Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski courtesy of Opera Atelier website Joe Szekeres To have the opportunity to speak again with Co-Artistic Directors of Opera Atelier, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, was personally and highly energizing. I hold no background in opera or dance, yet these two art forms have intrigued me since I began reviewing. I'm grateful Marshall and Jeannette, two classy individuals, continue to reach out to me to attend Opera Atelier performances and encourage more audience members to become intrigued by opera and dance and their theatrical form. Pynkoski stated if audiences aren’t entertained, then the company must re-examine what they are doing since entertainment is the goal for all audience members and not just a select few. I spoke with Marshall and Jeannette a couple of weeks before Christmas as they were quite excited to share some very important news about their ‘life-changing’ experience in Versailles, France. In April 2022, when they were directing and choreographing a new production of Grétry’s 'La Caravane du Caire' for Opéra de Tours, Marshall and Jeannette received an email from Laurent Brunner, Directeur of the Opéra Royal and of Château de Versailles Spectacles, asking if they were familiar with Marc Antoine Charpentier’s opera, ‘David et Jonathas’. Marshall and Jeannette have listened to Charpentier’s opera for over a decade and have always marvelled at the invention and power of this example of the seventeenth-century biblical drama. I smiled when Marshall said there must be some plans afoot with this simple request, especially with the proliferation of work he and Jeannette have accomplished with Opera Atelier. What they might consider simple became uber mega wonderful for me in hearing what had happened. Château de Versailles Spectacles had already planned and scheduled a major concert performance and CD recording of Charpentier’s ‘David et Jonathas’. However, due to the appearance of a very significant donor, the project had suddenly been catapulted into a fully staged production. The set was to be designed by the great French designer Antoine Fontaine and his son Roland, with lighting by the equally celebrated Hervé Gary. Perhaps most exciting of all, the costumes were to be designed by the greatest living French couturier, Christian Lacroix. Additional donors came on board through the organization known as ADOR (Les Amis de l’Opéra Royal). A DVD deal was signed, and the set design grew in size and complexity as the project expanded to include eight dancers (including two of the Artists of Atelier Ballet), nine on-stage chorus, eight superb principals, including the internationally renowned tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen as David, soprano Caroline Arnaud as Jonathas, and bass-baritone David Witczak as Saül. They were joined by a forty-piece orchestra on period instruments (Ensemble Marguerite Louise) and a large off-stage choir under the baton of the young superstar French conductor Gaétan Jarry. What’s more, this was the first time in its history that the Royal Chapel (still a consecrated space) was used as a theatre. Marshall and Jeannette accepted this “enormous undertaking in a very, very short time but such an exciting project that it was out of the question that anyone would say no.” Jeannette stated they had about twelve days to put together a two-hour opera. Normally there is a much longer rehearsal time (at minimum a four-week rehearsal), but over the years the two of them and Opera Atelier have learned to streamline the process with nine hours a day of non-stop rehearsal with short meal breaks. Everyone barely slept over this time. I could hear a bit of nervous laughter in her voice as she recalled wondering if it would all come together. It did as Jeannette added: “It was a wonderful success. It was an over-sold-out house. Everyone performed beautifully, and the production was well received both by the public and the press. There was highly informed press from the United States, England, France, and Germany. People also flew in from Israel to see the production.” Marshall also shared no one stopped working. Microphones could not be set until after 11 pm because there was so much natural light that came into the chapel because of the window. The creative team had to wait until it was night and then wait for the ambient light from the Chateau to be turned off and the rehearsals to finish. And the piece de resistance for Marshall and Jeannette? At the After Party in the Salon of Hercules, they received confirmation ‘David et Jonathas’ will now travel to Potsdam in addition to future performances in the Royal Chapel on a regular basis. There is the release of the CD and DVD of the production in 2023. I sit here as I finish this article and am astonished at Opera Atelier’s tremendous worldwide influence gently steered and guided by Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg. I continue to marvel at Opera Atelier performances and look forward to seeing what they have planned. And so should all of you. To learn more about Opera Atelier, visit www.operaatelier.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Jamar Adams Thompson

    Back Jamar Adams Thompson “[The rehearsal process for ‘Tyson’s Song’] has demanded from us a greater amount of trust in our vulnerability with each other and our ability to hold space and grace with one another.” ​ Joe Szekeres The last time I saw Jamar Adams Thompson appear on stage was in Cahoots’ Theatre Production of Steven Elliot Jackson’s ‘Three Ordinary Men’, directed by Tanisha Taitt. I remember being so moved by that production that I could not speak for a moment afterward. Jamar was part of a terrific ensemble that kept me riveted by the story’s action. He was appreciative and humbled by the audience’s experience of ‘Three Ordinary Men’ at the time, and he says that experience will remain part of his heart forever. Knowing that Jackson’s story deeply touches audiences means the world to him. We interviewed via email. Jamar is a University of Windsor alumni and holds a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) Honours in Acting. He is smack dab in rehearsals for the upcoming Canadian premiere production of Peter N. Bailey’s ‘Tyson’s Song, ’ which opens April 26 at Toronto’s Factory Studio Theatre. This is Adams Thompson’s debut working with director Ash Knight and production company Pleiades Theatre. Working on the production with a team that he calls passionate and intelligent has made the process both inspiring and challenging as an actor. He calls Ash Knight: “one of the most passionate directors I know who really speaks true to his convictions.” Knight is always keen on exploring the most interesting choice in a character’s objectives and motivations. For that reason, Jamar feels he has never felt more born for a role. ‘Tyson’s Song’ is a story about two best friends, two brothers, on one last big night out in the city. The play is a conversation not only among brothers but also one that is unspoken for many of the viewers who might relate to these characters. This conversation, this story, ultimately unpacks some very real issues in the Black male community of mental health, the absence of genuine emotional support and positive emotional outlets, and questions of masculinity, identity and self-fulfilment. It is a story of real pain but also one of hope. Adams Thompson truthfully claims that ‘Tyson’s Song’ found its way to him. Unbeknownst to each other, two close friends of his had forwarded the e-drive submission about the show, demanding that Jamar audition. When he read the submission email the next day, it was as if I was coming home after a very long pilgrimage: “The email mentioned “Black men’s mental health” and “Brotherhood” and specifically sought second-generation Jamaican/Caribbean-Canadian artists. I have and will always remain an advocate for the continued discussion of mental health and support among all people, but to know that someone was finally writing a Canadian story for someone like ME was nothing shy of a dream come true.” Excitement would be an understatement describing how Jamar feels about the upcoming premiere. He recognizes the pressure artists always feel when presenting new work. Still, as surreal as that may sound, this is the first time Jamar has had the chance to explore a character from his particular side of the Black diaspora. Although many more stories are being told and written for his people in general, there is still so much more room for the stories of Caribbean people in Canada. Jamaica has influenced so much of the culture in Toronto, from its cuisine to music to art and, most notably, its cultural slang. Despite this influence and the abundant population of Jamaicans in the city, their stories have not made footing in the theatre as they have in the poetry, music and dance scenes, or even the visual arts. One of his biggest hopes with the premiere of ‘Tyson’s Song’ is to motivate a greater ushering of Caribbean and Jamaican-Canadian stories within the city. ‘Tyson’s Song’ appeals to me for several reasons. One is to learn more about the stories of the Caribbean people in Canada. I also want to see Jamar’s work in a completely different setting from ‘Three Ordinary Men.’ I also have a personal connection to Jamar’s fellow actor, Kyle Brown. I taught him when he was in high school: “WOW! What a full-circle moment for you as well! You'll be proud of him. Kyle and I hit it off very strongly from the auditions. We had the pleasure of working together in the callback, and right away, a palpable grace came with his presence. It was so easy to play off one another and help each other shine.” Jamar calls Kyle an incredibly generous and honest performer. Their most significant discovery with these characters is their unique ability to relate with both of them. They each carry a bit of Tyson and Bryan and could easily have read for the other’s part. This unique empathy has allowed them to bridge many hidden gaps and barriers in connecting with the characters and each other in a way that he thinks has surprised them both. What’s next for Jamar Adams Thompson once ‘Tyson’s Song’ concludes its Canadian premiere? He jokingly stated in jest that a nap would be ideal, as I’m sure any actor who is presenting new work would. But he’s not one to rest too long. Jamar has been keeping busy in hopes of pursuing his MFA (Master of Fine Arts degree) quite soon. While his goal is always acting, be it on stage or in front of the camera, he is taking more steps towards participating in his own play premiere. Writing has not so secretly been a large aim in fulfilling his purpose as a storyteller! His hope is to have some scripts and anthologies that he has been working on come to life at a theatre near us. He closed off our email conversation with a 😊 and said: “Stay tuned.” ‘Tyson’s Song’ runs from April 24 to May 19, 2024, in the Factory Studio Theatre (125 Bathurst St.). Tickets are pay-what-you-choose starting from $5, at PleiadesTheatre.org or FactoryTheatre.com. Previous Next

  • Dance 'Tessel' Toronto's Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre - short film

    Back 'Tessel' Toronto's Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre - short film Toronto's Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre Photo of Yvon Soglo by Esie Mensah Creations. Joe Szekeres Disclaimer: Before I begin, I must once again state that I hold no background or specific training in the study of dance and movement. For this review of ‘Tessel’, I will comment on the production elements and storyline. Recently, I held a fascinating conversation with artist Esie Mensah: 'Looking Ahead' Theatre Talk with Esie Mensah — OnStage Blog on her journey as a Black artist where I learned she was in the final stages of preparing her short film, ‘Tessel’ which premieres June 1. Esie articulated strongly how she has had to change her story narrative as a Black Artist to continue moving forward in her career as in the Canadian canon and mosaic. I will honestly state that I had to watch ‘Tessel’ twice because there is so much hidden underneath the messages that we see presented. More on this in a moment. I had forgotten to ask Esie the meaning of ‘Tessel’ during our previous conversation, so I had to ask. ‘Tessel’ is a shortened version of the word ‘tessellation’ which means an arrangement of shapes closely fitted together, especially of polygons in a repeated pattern without gaps or overlapping. In this case, ‘Tessel’ refers to the editing of the film, how the artists’ work, while filmed independently, come together in the film to represent the interconnectedness and power of the collective as Black artists. Okay, this gave me a starting point and this definition is now clear to me in understanding the film. Esie calls her short film ‘a crucial conversation on what it means to be an artist in his historical unprecedented time.” There are fourteen black dancemakers from across Canada involved in the making of this important short film. Additionally, ‘Tessel’ is the one-year anniversary of ‘Blackout Tuesday’ where organizations around the globe publicly committed to institutional change to help the Black community. ‘Tessel’ begins with the sound of the calming effects of water as a dancer in silhouette moves in quiet solitude. We then see a variety of dancers, male and female, move and dance whether there is music playing in the background, whether there is silence or whether the artist hears the music cerebrally and then moves the body to coincide with the music that is possibly heard inside the head of the individual. There are at least two male artists in the film, so I thought that was an important distinction to notice. Along with the movement and dance of the artists involved, I heard many individual voices underscoring the dancers’ movements. I’m assuming these voices were from some of the dancers who we were watching. This overlaying dialogue of important conversations and deep questions focused on messages that have probably been demanded of and from these black artists as they have progressed through their careers at various stages. At my first viewing of ‘Tessel’ I didn’t want to write anything down except just sit back and see where the story would take me. And I was gripped intensely from the first moment of seeing the dancer/artist moving with the sunrise/sunset in the background. The time of day wasn’t made clear so I’m guessing that since it is the beginning of the film, and the dancer is moving at sunrise. Vibrant and lush colours are beautifully filmed and sharply captured from the landscape right down to the texture of some of the clothing the dancers wear. The song ‘Mami Watah’ resonated within me as I listened carefully to the vocals while admirably and silently applauding the individual stories the artists told me through their movements, sometimes restricted, sometimes freely, sometimes direct and deliberate while others were sinewy and gentle. Even though I hold no formal background in any kind of dance or movement training, I was captivated by the movements of the artists and watching their facial expressions at times focused with contentment and stillness with eyes that appeared to be mystical and spiritual. Some of the questions and statements I heard underscoring the dancers also caught my attention, two in particular: “When you hire me as a dancer, you hire all of me. You don’t just hire what you see visually.” AND “The beauty of dance, as one of the first forms of art and storytelling, is that we are able to connect in most ways people can’t.” How utterly true these statements of every performing artist whether as a dancer, an actor, a singer, or any combination of these. Final comments: Make sure you pay attention to the credits at the conclusion of the film as they also give some important information that highlights the significance of the one-year anniversary of Blackout Tuesday, and of the Black community in their quest to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion in all elements of the arts. Four words appear at the end of the film: spirituality, humanity, care, and the principles of love. For me, this short film bravely captures these four elements in a symbiotic relationship to each other while wonderfully highlighting the solo work of the brief moment of each artist. Give ‘Tessel’ a look. Film streams free on June 1. ‘Tessel’ is a co-production with Fall for Dance North and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. For further information to access ‘Tessel’ for viewing, visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com . Artists: LIliona Quarmyne, Lisa La Touche, Kevin Fraser, Eugene “GeNie” Baffoe, Livona Ellis, Natasha Powell, Alexandra “Spicey” Lande, Ravyn Wngz, Lua Shayenne, Raoul Pillay, Yvon “Crazy Smooth” Soglo, Gabrielle Martin, Ronald A. Taylor, Esie Mensah. Producer: Wayne Burns Previous Next

  • Dance Fall for Dance North ARISE: 2022 Signature Programme

    Back Fall for Dance North ARISE: 2022 Signature Programme Toronto's Meridian Hall Front Street Erica Cheah Guest Writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator Dance, dance, and more dance! But not just dance, a multimedia feast for the senses. That’s what’s on full display at Toronto’s Meridian Hall until Oct. 8. Fall For Dance North is Toronto’s Premier International Dance Festival. Back live for its eighth season (the first since 2019) FFDN has curated a 2-and-a-half-hour show packed with an eclectic, international buffet of dance, film, and live music. The brainchild of Artistic Director, Ilter Ibrahimof, FFDN offers mixed bills that include performances by large-scale local and international companies for a supremely affordable ticket price of, get this, $15!! Unbelievable! The aim of FFDN is the “whet Toronto’s dance appetite and inspire audiences to seek out more dance throughout the year”. Well, after attending the other night, I’m hungry for more! The show brought five distinct offerings to the stage, most world or Canadian premiers – an enthralling tap number with live music, a comedic short dance film, a Hawaiian ancestral dance, another short film accompanied by a scintillating 13-piece string ensemble and an evocative show-stopping piece by students of the National Ballet School! Every piece was set on a bare stage with nothing but props/instruments and simple lighting to frame the performances. Act one started with the world premiere of Canadian choreographer Dianne Montgomery’s ‘Softly Losing, Softly Gaining’. The six-member troupe, accompanied on stage by musicians Bryden Baird on trumpet and Drew Jurecka on violin, gave an energetic, nuanced and highly stylized 30-minute routine. This cast dressed in bright shirts, pants and suits (Cori Giannotta, David Lafleur, Jonathan Morin, Veronica Simpson, Kai Somerville and Tarra Tresham) was mesmerizing. With impressionistic-style projections by Todd Kowalski and warm hues by lighting designer, Siobhan Sleath, these happy hoofers were synchronized and precise with wonderful shading in their crisp and clean tap sounds. I was often so caught up in their dance story and conversations, I forgot they were tapping. I couldn’t stop smiling! Next up was a silly 15-minute dance film called, “…Savannah?”, directed, choreographed, and starring Zui Gomez, co-starring Alicia Delgado, first presented as part of FFDN’s inaugural short dance film series, 8-Count. While stylistically shot in one-take in an empty loft apartment, the duo seemed to just be kicking around and having high-energy fun but without much point or purpose. If anything, the film served as a much-needed “filler” for the backstage crew to set up the next performance. The curtain rose again to reveal the 28-member company of Hawaii’s Kuma Hula of Kamehameha High School and Ka Leo O Laka/Ka Hikina O Ka La performing “Kau Hea A Hiiaka”. This Canadian premiere by choreographer Kaleo Trinidad featured Hawaiian ancestral costumes (designed by Trinidad), drums and powerful traditional meles (songs), supported by a video projection with a conservationist message – nature in the Pacific Isles is being destroyed by pollution. Like the ancient ancestors, we need to be the curators of our planet’s rebirth. I found the storytelling in these tribal dances – especially the drumming sticks - fascinating. The group moved with military precision and had powerful choral work. However, many of the beats were repetitive and hypnotic and caused more than a few heads near me to nod off. Kudos to the impeccable organization of stage manager Janelle Rainville for having props, instruments and cast members glide on and off the stage so magically. Act 2 started with yet another world premiere of dance film, “Zipangu” (Marco Polo’s word for Japan), directed and choreographed by Indigenous artist Michael Greyeyes, with live music provided by Ensemble Soundstreams. In the film, we see a semi-nude single dancer (Ceinwen Gobert), painted gold, representing a waking mythical Japanese Goddess. Her modernistic dance stylings with wild gyrations and sharp, staccato movements evoke transformation, a portrait of earth itself. Below the screen in stark lighting was a sensational 13-piece string ensemble (violin, cello, double bass) playing a haunting, bellicose original score by Claude Vivier under the nuanced direction of conductor David Fallis. These talented musicians had an impeccably balanced sound. Close your eyes and you could hear the power of a full orchestra. I was connecting more with them than the rather monotonous visuals on the screen above. The program ended sensationally with 146 professional young students of our own National Ballet School brilliantly performing choreographer Jera Wolfe’s inspiring and explorative piece, “Arise”. This 30-minute lyrical-ballet routine featured highly disciplined 12–19-year-olds pouring their very souls into thrilling storytelling and exploring how, according to the playbill notes, “collaboration and support for one another enable us to rise up and face challenges in our lives.” Dressed in simple grey T-shirts and shorts designed by Robyn Clarke, these brilliant young artists moulded their bodies into exquisite shapes and moving waves with exquisite principal dancers in pas de deux and pas de trois silently landing their jumps with ease. The seamless fluidity of movement, precision, focus, athleticism, and flawless technique had me and the entire audience transfixed. Lighting designer Simon Rossiter’s use of dim lighting on the ensemble while bathing principals in warm side glows, perfectly enhanced the movement. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in such beautiful theatre. Hats off to the genius of choreographer Wolfe for his stunning use of the expansive Meridian stage. Moving and placing 146 bodies into intricate formations in any space is no easy feat. I also can’t imagine how stage manager Jennifer Lee managed to corral all those kids into first positions! Brava! This number alone was worth the already-low price of admission. I had never heard of Fall for Dance North prior to last week. After witnessing this celebration of their eighth season, I regret missing their first seven! I can’t wait for next year’s festival. Previous Next

  • Profiles James Grieve, Director of Fisherman's Friends, The Musical

    Back James Grieve, Director of Fisherman's Friends, The Musical Looking Ahead ​ Joe Szekeres Last week, I had the opportunity to interview James Grieve, the director of ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ after the opening night show at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. According to his website j.grieve.com, James is a freelance theatre director and was formerly Joint Artistic Director and CEO of the UK’s national theatre of new plays Paines Plough from 2010-2019 alongside George Perrin. During their tenure the company produced 44 world premieres on tour to 291 places across the UK and internationally by playwrights ranging from debutants to Olivier, Tony and BAFTA winners staged in historic proscenium arch playhouses and student union bars, at music festivals and The National Theatre, in village halls, Off-Broadway, on BBC Radio and televised on HBO. James’s freelance directing credits include a new production of Kander & Ebb’s CABARET for Gothenburg Opera in Sweden in 2020 and the new musical THE ASSASSINATION OF KATIE HOPKINS for Theatr Clwyd which won Best Musical Production at The UK Theatre Awards 2018. James’ new production of LES MISERABLES for Wermland Opera in Karlstad, Sweden, was described as “world class” by DN and played for nearly two years in two theatres. His production of Brian Friel’s TRANSLATIONS for Sheffield Theatres, English Touring Theatre and The Rose Theatre Kingston won Best Production at The UK Theatre Awards 2014. In 2001, James founded the new writing company nabokov with George Perrin and Ric Mountjoy. The company forged an international reputation for presenting theatre events everywhere from pubs to warehouses to music festivals to Off-Broadway, including James’ production of Mike Bartlett’s ARTEFACTS in London, New York and on tour. James trained as assistant and associate to Josie Rourke, and as staff director to Howard Davies at The National Theatre, and on The National Theatre Directors Course. He was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2020 for services to theatre. This was my first opportunity to conduct a live interview after a performance so many thanks to Mirvish Productions for this opportunity to speak with James. From what I could tell looking around me on the opening night of ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical, the audience exited the theatre in tremendous high spirits because there was pure blissful joy emanating from the stage. What words of encouragement did James give to the cast before opening night: “I just told them to enjoy themselves. When you spoke about that joy earlier, Joe, that’s very real on that stage. Although they’re acting as characters, these are very real human beings who love deeply and passionately performing and acting, but most of all singing. The musicians love making music and they change instruments in the blink of an eye.” James then laughed and said he didn’t have to go and motivate them. They do it themselves before each performance. James is equally as thrilled to be invited to this ‘beautiful, beautiful, Royal Alexandra’ and to be warmly welcomed by the crew and everyone here. The creative team for ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ had been in Toronto for just over a week and a half and it has been a thrill and a privilege to bring the show over the Atlantic and to receive such a wonderful reception. Why does Toronto need a show like ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ right now? James calls the production a universal story about ordinary people who don’t seek fame and fortune but have extraordinary spirit and talent. Fame and fortune find them instead. ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ is a story about friendship, community, and love: He further adds: “In a complicated and oppositional world and difficult a lot of the time, there’s space for a story that reminds us of the real importance of the core values of being a human being. Family, friendship, community, and a love of music all play a part in this. Through telling the story of these guys, we’ve come to understand more of what they stand for as a group. The world needs some sea shanties now and then.” As an artist for what he calls ‘twenty-something years’, James feels extremely fortunate to be part of the theatre industry which is not a straightforward profession. He feels tremendously fulfilled hugely and personally in doing something he loves and that is a rare and wonderful thing for him. For any aspiring artists, singers or dancers who might have seen this opening night show or who will see an upcoming performance, James tells them to work hard, delve into their passion and find out what makes them happy as an artist because the theatre industry is very competitive and a difficult profession. How has he felt about Covid’s ongoing presence worldwide and its effect on the theatre industry? As an artist, what James felt he missed the most was the sense of community that comes not only from working in theatre but going to the theatre. It’s extraordinary to be in a live audience that you can’t get from watching television at home. What James felt was missing was the ritual and the preparation of going to the theatre – getting dressed up, going to the city, getting a drink, sitting down, reading the programme, and waving to people whom you might know in the audience. James has returned to the theatre with a renewed sense of theatre's importance in a constantly shifting and changing world. Although we are still in the throes of Covid, this extraordinary special thing theatre does every night for audiences has almost a greater value than ever before at a time when people need human contact to experience something collectively. ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ runs until January 15. After Toronto, the production returns to Nottingham, England, home of Robin Hood and continues its UK tour running through until June 2023. One of the most exciting parts for James is the show’s return to the Hall for Cornwall in May. ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ opened there a bit over a year ago in its home county among the people whose lives and culture they are representing on the stage. James fervently stated everyone is excited to take the show back home to Cornwall. What’s next for James Grieve once ‘Fisherman’s Friends, the Musical’ concludes its run? “I am doing a new musical about the life of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister who has led an extremely colourful life. We are putting his story on stage in London and I’m really excited to do that.” To learn more about ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’, follow fishermanonstage.com Previous Next

  • Profiles Mitchell Marcus

    Back Mitchell Marcus Moving Forward Dahlia Katz Joe Szekeres Just hearing about all the accomplishments of Mitchell Marcus within the professional performing arts community makes him a mover, shaker and leader within the theatre industry. Recently named to Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 (2019), he is the founder and Artistic & Managing Director of The Musical Stage Company – Canada’s leading and largest not-for-profit musical theatre company. Over sixteen years, The Musical Stage Company (previously Acting Up Stage Company) productions have been recognized with 105 Dora Award nominations, 23 Dora Awards and 19 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards and programming partnerships have been built with Mirvish, the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre Centre, Canadian Stage, AGO, TIFF, Massey Hall, Obsidian Theatre Company, and the Regent Park School of Music amongst others. Outside of The Musical Stage Company, Mitchell was the Associate Producer for the inaugural six years of Luminato, producing over 100 productions for one-million attendees annually. Mitchell has twice been the Creative Producer for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize as well as the producer of the Dora Awards. He organized four years of It’s Always Something, working with a team that raised over $500,000 annually for Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto. He is active on committees that service the arts community, serves as an advisor to the Metcalf Foundation for its Creative Strategies Incubator program, a member of Sheridan College’s Performing Arts Committee, a member of the Dora Eligibility Committee, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective. Mitchell has held positions in the arts management departments at UofT and Ryerson University. Mitchell is the recipient of the 2017 The Leonard McHardy and John Harvey Award for Outstanding Leadership in Administration, a Harold Award, and was a finalist for the 2018 Roy Thomson Hall Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation recognizing contributions to Toronto’s musical life. I am grateful and thankful he took the time to participate in the conversation via email: It has been an exceptionally long six months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion? Without discounting all the sadness of illness, destruction, injustice and loss, I have loved watching and participating in a global demonstration of resilience. There are, of course, so many things we are no longer able to do, but it’s been astonishing how quickly we can pivot as a species, adjusting to working-from-home, moving our lifestyles to the beauty of our outdoors, and adapting our thirst for global adventure into one more local. More importantly than the resiliency and speed of adaptation, I’ve loved seeing how many of us have found silver linings in this new routine which has forced us to challenge our expectations of what we thought life would bring and return to a simpler, more true sense of self and aspiration. In that regard, while I am certainly feeling scared about the increase in COVID-cases and frustrated by the barrage of human injustice that makes headlines every day, I am actually feeling quite optimistic and content. It’s fascinating to witness a historic moment of change like the one we are in. And I’m hopeful that what we are learning and reflecting upon during this time is going to lead to something very special on the other end. Look at how much we are accomplishing and look how much change feels within reach. If we can do that during social distancing, imagine what we are capable of once we have the freedom of movement and connection once again. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months? I’m very proud of how my family has navigated this time so far. We’ve really stayed optimistic and made the most of each day: I absolutely loved being a part of my kids’ education during the Spring in a hands-on way; We used money from cancelled vacations to rent a farm near Orangeville for a month in July and organized family colour-war events and daily swim lessons; It’s the first time in my life that I have been home every night of the week for dinner and been able to tuck my kids into bed; And each weekend is now filled with lots of hiking and bike riding. I don’t mean to be painting an overly rosy picture – there have been many nights of deep worry and anxiety. But there has also been much joy in togetherness. Personally, I’ve been digging more into mindfulness during this time. I’ve been practicing meditation for nearly four years, but it’s gone into overdrive over the last six months. My nightstand is stacked to the ceiling with books on anti-racism and books on mindfulness/spirituality. I’ve loved getting to learn new things and to dive deep into the philosophical exploration of imagining what the universe is telling us in this moment and how to apply it to my life. As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally? The most difficult part of the last six months has been mourning the loss of live theatre and recognizing the immensely devastating impact it is having on independent artists. I feel enormously grateful and also enormously guilty for having a full-time job in the arts. I am deeply thankful for the existence of CERB and relieved that it will be extended in some form. Our team is doing everything we can think of to keep work flowing and money going out the door. But it’s very heavy to realize how many people in our industry, in our community, are struggling. At the end of the day, I often have to shut off all technology and curl up with one of those mindfulness books and a glass of wine and retreat into my own Zen place. But I also recognize the luxury of being able to shut out the pandemic and the privilege I’ve been afforded when doing so. The biggest challenge has been trying to stay in the present and not plan into the future. I am a planner by nature and my skill as a leader has been to keep our focus on multi-year strategic initiatives that make change. But it’s impossible to plan for a future we don’t yet understand. So I’ve had to work really, really hard to not get too far ahead and keep all of us at The Musical Stage Company focused on how we want to respond to the challenges and needs of today, abandoning past plans and paths that no longer feel relevant, and avoiding drawing too many conclusions for the future before we have a full understanding of what future we are planning for. But as someone who always likes to have the answer immediately, it’s been a real exercise in patience. Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon? When we shut down, we were a few weeks away from the world premiere of KELLY v. KELLY by Britta Johnson and Sara Farb. We’ve been working with Britta and Sara since 2014 and we’ve been deep in development for KELLY v. KELLY for a couple of years, so this was a particularly painful project to not see materialize. It was also going to be SO good. I’m rarely confident about a production – especially a new work – but this show was in such great shape with a team that was firing on all cylinders. We also lost major milestones this season including UNCOVERED: DOLLY & ELVIS which was to play Koerner Hall in November, and the Canadian premiere of NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 that was to open at the Winter Garden Theatre in January. Without question, KELLY v. KELLY will see the light of day as soon as it is safe to do so. Thankfully we were able to postpone before we had spent too much of the money earmarked for the project. We put all the funding for it aside, not to be touched until it can be revived. So, it’s in the uniquely positive position of being ready for production with the funding to get it there. We’ll have to see about everything else. More than ever it’s important to me that the stories we tell are relevant and resonant for the moment in which they are being shared. The projects that were the right “why-this-project-why-now” in the old world may not be the right projects in the one that awaits us. That’s the funny thing about programming – you are often responding to an indescribable energy in the zeitgeist. If we want theatre to matter when we return, we need to make sure not to cling to what was and be hyper aware of what people need on the other side. Having said that, our commitment to new Canadian musicals is unwavering. We have run 17 workshops for new musicals since COVID hit and have no intention of slowing down. That is the joy of new material. The writers are naturally infusing today’s emotions and thoughts into the works. They are living, breathing stories being developed during a global pandemic. So even though none of them are about living during or after COVID-19, their ongoing evolution will ensure that they are necessary and healing in the world that awaits us. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? Working and raising kids! Honestly, it fills my days completely. Work has not really gotten much quieter even though we aren’t in production (turns out navigating global pandemic is more work than producing theatre). We produced 80 concerts this summer, we are in production for an UNCOVERED film, we are running workshops, our youth programs are going national, etc. By the time I’ve completed a day of Zoom meetings, cleared an inbox of emails, and spent some time with my kids, I’m ready for bed. But the weekends have been quieter than normal. There are no readings to attend or shows to see. And my kids’ programs have all shut down. So, I’ve loved the pace of my weekends. We’ve just been outdoors as much as possible, biking, hiking, and camping. Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years? Here’s two of my favourite quotes from Pema Chödrön: “When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.” And “Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.” I don’t mean to be cliché, answering your question with inspiring quotes, but I really believe this is the only way forward. Something has died. We have to take the time and space to grieve it. But we also have to open ourselves to the exciting possibility of reinvention and rebirth that comes after an ending. In that regard, I guess my advice for recent grads is to recognize that this death has levelled the playing field. None of us know the way forward, and the most senior arts leader doesn’t have any better strategies for the future than a recent theatre grad (who may in fact have more objectivity on what could be possible). We are all now pioneers building a more equitable, more sustainable, more relevant theatre. Seize this once in a lifetime chance to be a part of the rebirth by charting your own course and helping to mould the industry that awaits you. Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19? I think it has taught us to slow down. I think it has taught us not to take simple connection for granted. I think it has removed some of the allure of ruthless ambition and replaced it with a focus on empathy and equity. I hope these lessons stay with us. Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene? It absolutely will. Hopefully COVID itself will succumb to a vaccine and we won’t have to have the distancing and health measures in our lives forever. But I hope we will forever be impacted by what this time has taught us about equity and treatment of people. And I hope that audiences are so hungry to gather together again that they race to the theatre in unprecedented numbers! Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown? For me, producing theatre has always been about serving and enriching an audience. It is about giving a willing group of people something that their souls needed that they didn’t realize was needed. Ultimately, the medium doesn’t matter as much as the power of the message and the unbridled attention of an audience. If this exchange is happening successfully on YouTube and via online streaming sites, may it live forever! I am skeptical however about how well this is working. There is a sense of ceremony when we gather in person and devote our entire energy to a story. I fear that we haven’t yet figured out how to permeate the digital fourth wall in the same way to achieve the same outcome. But this is definitely the ‘trial and error’ phase. I have no doubt that artists will successfully navigate this new medium and make it into a powerful mode of soul nourishment. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you? My heart knows the power of hearing the exact right piece of music to capture a moment or emotion. It is like nothing else. And no pandemic can keep that magical experience from happening each time I witness it in a theatre, outdoors, or online. It will withstand the test of time. You can follow Mitchell on his social media handles: @mitchellmarcus and at Musical Stage Company: @musicalstagecom. Previous Next

  • Profiles Michael Therriault

    Back Michael Therriault Looking Ahead David Cooper. Joe Szekeres First time I saw Michael Therriault on stage was in the Canadian production of ‘The Producers’ as Leopold Bloom. He won a Dora for this performance. While he was performing in a production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in New York, Michael received word that he had been cast as Gollum in the Toronto premiere of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Musical’ and he won a second Dora for his performance. Therriault also reprised his role in the West End production. Therriault also portrayed Tommy Douglas in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) TV Special: ‘Prairie Grant: The Tommy Douglas Story’ for which he was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series. Michael attended Oakville’s Sheridan College and graduated with his degree in Music Theatre Performance. He was also a member of the inaugural Stratford Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you, Merci, for the conversation, Michael: It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level. I think I’ve learned that I am a bit more resilient than I had imagined. When Covid began, I was quite anxious about how life would be with this new virus. The idea of spending months this way, let alone a year, seemed terrifying. But we’ve all adapted to this strange way of living and I find that really surprising and strangely encouraging. I also think, when things get back to normal, I will be even more aware of how precious time with friends and family is. I think we all will be. With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed? I’ve been inspired by theatre’s resourcefulness and ability to adapt. The Factory Theatre here in Toronto did some amazing live-streamed shows that still had the thrill of a one-time event that I hadn’t imagined possible on Zoom. The Old Vic in London has been doing similar things as well. Both The Shaw and Stratford Festivals are planning outdoor experiences that sound exciting. Also, it’s been fun seeing colleagues’ creativity expressing itself in new and surprising ways: A lighting designer has turned to photography; a sound designer is renovating boats for example. As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry? I miss the community aspect: meeting every day to create together and be inspired by each other. I miss the thrill of first days, celebrating openings and closings as a company and the late night “aha!” moments you have when you are rehearsing. As I read about the passing of colleagues during this time, I particularly miss our tradition of getting together in a theatre for a celebration of life and collectively thanking our passed colleague with a standing ovation. It’s a very moving gesture that always reminds me how fortunate I am to be a part of this community. As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it? I think many of us will be even more aware of how special it is to being in a room full of people to share an experience together. Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry. This past year has had society investigate some big social issues that will no doubt have a positive impact on live theatre going forward. I think our productions will become even more inclusive, diverse, and compassionate. Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry. I really just hope to keep learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that some of the joy I had as a young actor can occasionally get shadowed by fear: fear of being bad, of getting it wrong, of being found out. I’d like to continue to work to put joy and fearlessness in the forefront. I’ve always thought that the ‘it factor” that people talk about is really just people working joyfully. Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre and as an audience member observing the theatre. When we gather again, we may feel the need to explore this experience we’re having in the stories we present on stage. That makes a lot of sense. But I also think we will be relieved to explore other stories as well. The collective need to “move on” will be just as great. As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you? I’d like to be thought of as inventive, creative, fearless (I’m working on that) but most important joyful. The work I’ve done that I am most proud of was filled with joy. It felt like flying. And I think finding more joy in life is always a good idea. Previous Next

  • Profiles Vern Thiessen

    Back Vern Thiessen Theatre Conversation in a Covid World --- Joe Szekeres There are times looking back on my 33-year teaching career when I wish I had known the names of more Canadian playwrights and the crucially important stories they had shared with audiences. Vern Thiessen is one writer whom I place here. A local semi-professional theatre company had produced Vern’s play ‘Vimy’ of “a seminal nation-building moment in WWI in terms of the lives of four men from different parts of Canada, and their interaction with the nurse who cares for them.” (www.canadiantheatre.com ), and when I had seen this extraordinary production, I wanted to know more about Vern and his work. He is one of Canada’s most produced playwrights. His work has been seen across Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia. His works include Of Human Bondage, Vimy, Einstein’s Gift, Lenin’s Embalmers, Apple, and Shakespeare’s Will. He has been produced off-Broadway five times. Vern is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Dora and Sterling awards for Outstanding New Play, The Carol Bolt Award, the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award, the City of Edmonton Arts Achievement Award, the University of Alberta Alumni Award of Excellence, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, Canada’s highest honour for a playwright. After seven years living in New York, Vern returned home to Canada to teach and write. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta. We conducted our conversation via Zoom and shared a few laughs as I got to know Vern briefly during this time. Thank you so much for the interview, Vern, and for adding your voice to the conversation: The doors to Toronto live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family? We’re very lucky, I’ve had very good health over this year as has my family. We’ve had a couple of extended family members who have contracted Covid very early because they were coming back from travels afar, but they’re all fine with no long-term issues there. Thank you for asking. How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum? Well, I’m really lucky, Joe, because so many of my compatriots have lost their livelihoods particularly actors, I think were hit the hardest in the theatre. Not only because the theatres are closed but their secondary businesses like bar tending and those in the service industry were closed down. I consider myself very lucky. I have been writing. I’m also lucky because I don’t have young children and I’m not taking care of older parents. Many of my theatre friends are squeezed between these two things – they have young kids and elderly parents for whom they’re caring. I don’t know how they’ve been surviving, and certainly not creating any art. I’m in this lucky group that’s not being squeezed in those ways. On top of that, I’ve had some outstanding commissions that I could finish. I’m teaching and doing work that I’ve already done. Playwrights can write on their own and squirrel things away for future, so I’m sure after Covid lifts and everyone gets back in the theatre you’re going to see this tsunami of plays because people like me have three plays we’ve been working on. To be specific, I’ve been working on an adaptation of ‘The Diviners’ by Margaret Laurence for The Manitoba Theatre Centre which I’ve been commissioned to do. We’ve done some workshops via Zoom at MTC. I’m also just finishing a brand-new play I’ve been working on called ‘Bluebirds’ for Theatre New Brunswick which we’ve developed over the summer again through Zoom. ‘Bluebirds’ is the story of three World War 1 Canadian nurses in France. I’m working on something new that’s different for me, a family thriller, and a couple of other things in the mix. I’ve actually been quite busy writing this year and very thankful for that. Outside of the writing and teaching, my wife and I, right as the pandemic started, we happened to be moving into a new house that we were renting which was awesome because it has a huge garden plot. I hadn’t gardened in twenty years, and I come from a gardening family. I thought, “I’m gonna put in a garden” and that was a lot of fun. I’ve done a lot more cooking because my wife is busier than I was during the fall and spring so I had time to tend the garden and make some meals and become a better cook, not chef, because that would be pushing it. I’ve taken the opportunity to get to a number of things I haven’t done in a long time like play my guitar and take tap dancing lessons to get out of my comfort zone. I tap dance only for fun and nobody will ever see me tap dance except my teacher. I’ve also done quite a bit of dramaturgy and teaching online, and Covid has allowed us to connect as theatre artists across the country in different ways we didn’t do before. Just trying to use the time the best way I can – doing some family history research, things like that. The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you, or would you describe this near year long plus absence from the theatre as something else? No, I certainly wouldn’t call it an escape. Theatre can be an escape from your life, but I don’t think Covid has been an escape from it or from anything. If anything, Covid has been a reckoning. I’ve been lucky because theatre for me has been an escape from Covid, right, I’ve been allowed to work and do my writing while this horrible thing has been happening. Certainly, Covid itself, I wouldn’t call it an escape at all. Call it a challenge. The only thing that it has allowed me and other theatre artists to really do is to really re-think how we create. Mainly I’m talking about the professional business in Canada, the United States and Europe to some extent. Double that with Black Lives Matter and the re-thinking of how we create with our BIPOC brothers and sisters has really and completely been a revolution in Canadian theatre in the last year which I think is fantastic. I wouldn’t call it an escape, but I would call it a reckoning. In one way it has been awful because we’ve lost our abilities to make our living but, on the other hand, it has provided this opportunity for us to really re-examine and change the way we make theatre in this country for the better. I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022? I don’t know. I think that really, really depends on what happens with the pandemic and how it’s managed. If I was in Australia, well, the theatres are full here because the country handled the pandemic very differently. Obviously if I’m in Texas and they’ve 40,000 people watching a baseball game, The Toronto Blue Jays no less, well I can see the theatres being full down here (Vern rolled his eyes at this point so I could tell what he was feeling and didn’t have to ask him anymore) no matter what the cost to humanity. So I guess it really depends on where you are. I can see in small towns or some smaller cities that have professional theatres – Barrie, North Bay, Thunder Bay – might actually have full houses very soon. It’s going to be a bit more challenging for the commercial theatres in the bigger city centres. Even then, Nathan Lane just did something on Broadway with 25% capacity. I feel it will roll along, go back a little bit and then roll along some more and go back a bit and forward. The agreement I would say that around the world, full time, people in theatres at 100%, yes, it will probably be 2022 at the earliest, I hope, I hope it’s not later than that. I fully expect to have a production. In fact, I’ve booked productions in the US for next fall. I’m not sure how much capacity they will be at, but the fact paying me a royalty for doing my play gives me sufficient reason to believe they will have an audience. I feel like we’re slowly going to come out of the cave. I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world? It's transformed me personally on many levels that we’ve already talked about in terms of my family and how I look at my family and friends, and how I communicate with people. I think it’s transformed on the business side my collegiality with people across the nation. Before Covid, it was pretty unlikely you were going to do a workshop over Zoom with a bunch of artists across the country. We did a reading of ‘The Diviners’ at Manitoba Theatre Centre which was an entirely Indigenous cast, and they came from everywhere from Alberta all the way to Quebec. That is something we would have never considered before the pandemic. Covid has changed me and my practice in a way because it’s broadened my field of vision across the country in a way that we were forced to do because of Covid. So that’s been very, very positive. It’s really changed me. It’s less about Covid than it is about what has happened with Black Lives Matter and our attempt to de-colonize Canadian theatre. That has had a huge impact on me, and again I make reference to ‘The Diviners’ because it was a really good chance for me to engage with the Metis community and the Indigenous theatre workers in Winnipeg, in Manitoba and, as a white settler dude, not only white but old, white, straight and male, it’s changed me because I’ve really had to re- think what my position is in the theatre community and world. In terms of what I’m creating (regarding transformation), that’s interesting. It’s hard for me to say as I think I’m too close to it. Am I writing stuff that has been really influenced by Covid? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I might look back on it five years and go, “Oh yeah, that was my Covid play” because those characters in the play are all in the same room OR they can’t connect. In ‘Bluebirds’ those nurses are three front line workers, so has that influenced me? I don’t know if I’m conscious of that. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly, in ‘Bluebirds’ there’s been a shift in the writing of the play which will premiere next fall, I hope. There’s a focus on these women doing extraordinary work in very dangerous conditions with a flu pandemic coming in at the end of the first World War as well. That may have been by Covid, but I’m not sure how conscious I was of that in writing it. The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre? For sure, there has to be a certain kind of theatrical danger. We’re not talking about real danger. I don’t want to see actors in a place where they feel like they will physically hurt themselves, or, as an audience member, I don’t want to be in a position where I feel like I might be in a place where I might physically hurt myself. Certainly, to be in a dangerous emotional place for actors and audience, I think, is critical to the theatre. It’s not only something that should happen, and that is what transforms us because we have to come out on the other side of that. I believe that theatre should be dangerous that way. We should be excited to be there, not bored to be there or feel like it’s an obligation. We should walk out of it feeling that we have been transformed in some way, I don’t mean in any religious sense, but something should have shifted inside of us whether in my brain, my heart, my soul (if that thing actually exists within us). Yes, I agree with her. Have I ever experienced that? Absolutely. Endangering and fear are two close things that are related and certainly, as a playwright, I don’t know of any playwright who doesn’t feel an enormous amount of fear when they open up their file and start to write. It’s engaging that fear and danger that is both exhilarating and makes the time go by and fly by as you’re writing. It’s also transformational as well, right, that you’re actually putting something down on the page that has never been there before. Hopefully, down the line some actors will read it and an audience will be transformed by it in the same way you were transformed as you wrote it. So, yes, I have been in that situation. I feel danger certainly. Nobody has coughed on me, and I don’t feel the danger that I might feel as if I were in Rio de Janeiro or in that ballpark in Texas. But I certainly felt that the theatre itself was in danger, and how are we going to survive this? We’re lucky to have some great extraordinary leaders, and frankly the federal government has stepped up to the plate to give us some money early on. That was critical to ensure that some artists could survive. The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre? I think that hits it, doesn’t it? Sometimes, I feel as if we are overly sensitive. I feel as if we are all a bit fragile right now, and that it is very difficult to take criticism or difficult to understand how things are changing so quickly. The way we are making art changes so quickly, and our institutions this year are changing so quickly that there is a deep sensitivity to making sure we are doing it right, and that we’re creating art in a responsible way that we never did before. It’s tricky because sometimes it can lead to a fragility that is not necessarily healthy. Sensitivity can mean a lot of different things. Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form? I’ve become much more curious and sensitive about how other people are making art and writing plays. I belong to this Tuesday evening group of theatre people from around the country. We meet every week on Tuesday evening to read a play. We’ve been doing this now, next week will be a year. We missed a couple of times around the holidays. I think our group has read 48 plays. I do read plays and I don’t think I would have read the breadth and depth of that cannon of work had it not been for that group. So, it has made me more sensitive to what is going on. I’ve actually had time to read plays that are going on around the world that I wouldn’t have had a chance to do because I’ve had the time and the desire to do it. This time has also made me curious about other things in my life, as curiosity is always a key tool for the artist anyway. To come full circle to the first question you’ve asked me, I’ve always been curious about tap dancing. I’m also interested in taking some cello lessons. I’ve connected with a musician friend, a professional well known cello player, and we’ve decided to create something together. I think curiosity is broadening how we create theatre and who we create it with, and who we create it for. My actor friend, who is well known, lost the whole season this year. I won’t mention his name and lives down the street from me. On Easter morning, he got dressed up in this gigantic bunny suit that he rented from ‘The Theatre Garage’ (which must be hurting these days). My friend just walked around the neighbourhood and that was his piece of art for the day. We have a fair amount of children in the area, and the kids loved it. This was his chance to get out and perform, but also engage with his community. I’m not saying this is a piece of theatre, but maybe it is? That was his way of creating a bit of theatre…and that he went to direct a bit of traffic on the main street still wearing the costume. That kind of curiosity exists within me too – maybe I should write something different this time. I think that, if anything, this Covid time has made us more curious about different things, and that’s a good thing because we can get stuck in our ways. Previous Next

  • Profiles Jim Millan

    Back Jim Millan Looking Ahead David Leyes. Joe Szekeres Jim Millan has had quite the diverse career in the theatre and beyond, and his work has taken him to some places that I would love to see one day. I knew he had founded Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre and directed some productions there, but I had no idea of how extensive his work has been. He has directed comedy, dramas, magic and musicals on 5 continents in 38 countries in 17 languages and premiered over 185 new works in his career. Jim has a long series of innovative creations in theatre, comedy, magic and variety that has taken him from Canada to the West End to Radio City Music Hall, Las Vegas, Broadway and beyond. His unique talent is in demand as director, writer, producer, deviser of diverse and unique new entertainments built on his decades of experience in the traditional and less traditional theatre. In the 90’s Crow’s Theatre had produced the Best Play winner at Toronto’s Dora awards 4 out of 6 years. During this period Jim made his reputation directing such daring plays as Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Come Good Rain, High Life, The Chet Baker Project, Dali and others. Praise for Crow’s Theatre and Jim Millan included USA Today calling it “everything theatre should be, dangerous, daring and disturbing.” He directed the Canadian premieres of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shopping and F*cking and numerous other revolutionary new works from New York and London. Crow’s Theatre in Toronto has continued to thrive under new stewardship and is now a multi-million-dollar hub of cutting-edge theatre. He also was one of the founders of the Toronto Fringe and Crow’s was its corporate parent in the first year. Outside of his company, Jim began a decades-long collaboration directing the Kids in the Hall comedy group, which started in 2000. This work brought him to the attention of US producers. Five North American tours and special headlining performances have kept the 1990s comedy icons in the public eye, and they are now writing a new AMAZON TV series. Among his more explosive creations, Jim teamed with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman to create Mythbusters Live, which sold out across North America and toured Australia and New Zealand multiple times. Among his favourite experiences, he worked alongside Teller and Todd Robbins on Play Dead off Broadway, Mexico City and at the Geffen in LA. Another large-scale adventure was as the original Creative Director for The Illusionists, which opened in New York City in December 2014 and set an all-time record for a magic show on Broadway. As a comedy writer/director he created with his comedy partners SPANK: the 50 Shades parody which played over 400 cities and it has been produced in Australia and Poland. Jim’s love of comedy and unique entertainments were displayed in Off Broadway hits, The Marijuana-Logues with Doug Benson, Arj Barker, Tony Camin and Tommy Chong, and the Korean martial arts comedy Jump. Jim is also in demand as a creative consultant, having stepped in on SPIDERMAN: Turn off the Dark on Broadway working with Bono, Edge, writer Glen Berger and the creative team to help save the biggest musical in Broadway history. It ran for 3 years after its revamp. He is also a creative producer of the Governor General’s Awards Gala in Ottawa (which are Canada’s Kennedy Centre Honours). Past entertainers he has celebrated at the awards include Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Sandra Oh, Andrew Alexander, Catherine O’Hara and Ryan Reynolds In development for the next twelve months, he has a play he co-wrote and will direct based on the book The Darkest Dark, by Astronaut Chris Hadfield, that premieres at Young People’s Theatre when possible. He is also collaborating with Lucy Darling on a new TV comedy and also with Penn and Teller for a touring project inspired by their TV show Fool Us. We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much for adding your voice to this important discussion about the evolving world of live theatre in a post pandemic world, Jim: It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level. I see the fragility of the world we’ve all lived in up to this point differently. Lots of us tended to tie our self-worth to our work, our status, that things are either progressing or regressing in our work lives. That work was disproportionately important in what many of us thought success or happiness or contentment was. I’ve got a teen daughter and a pre-teen son as well. What became very clear was that the pandemic gave me a pause to see where I really was in my life and where my kids were in their lives. My work has been international for quite a while, so there have been times where I’ve been away three or four months during the year. And so I am grateful for this time and this has felt grounding to be here at home and to help the family and other people who need it. With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered? Well, when we come back, the gatekeepers will have changed. A lot of the organizations will have had to do a lot of soul searching. And so, we will have the traditional crisis of live theatre, which is how do you balance all of the challenges of attracting an audience, building an audience, making an audience care and balance it with the influx of new priorities and realignment of so many of our assumptions. To me, that’s an exciting time. There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t come back. There will be a lot of people who will step away, both audience and artists. I think there will be a huge attrition in the audience attendance. I was an Artistic Director in Toronto after SARS. At that point, before SARS happened, you could have 6 or 8 hit plays going on in Toronto that would be sold out. There’d be a review in the newspaper and the next day the first half of the run would be sold out because people would just get on the phone and know that if they wanted to catch that production, they would have to be quick or there might be limited availability ‘til such and such a day. Well, that went away. We’d lost the habit. I hope it’s the opposite and there is instead a pent up thirst. That’s a little bit of weather forecasting and the one thing the pandemic has taught us: we don’t know anything. An image that I have nostalgia for is that lots of theatres around the planet have things are set on stage exactly the way they were on March 13, 2020. Costumes on hangers in the wings, things in dressing rooms, props on tables, sets; we didn’t come back as quickly as we hoped. As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry? I miss the people. I realized a number of years ago that one of the skills or changes I’ve observed in myself is that I’m a better collaborator than I’ve ever been. And because being in this business for a while is humbling, and it’s energizing and defeating and you certainly learn, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to work with great people, that the experience, the journey of making something is equal to whatever the output is, if not more important to you as a person. And so, I miss that adventure terribly. Also, I think when all of the things converge correctly that honest exploration, that adventure process you go through with the other people ends up, no matter how exhausting it is, giving you a lot more than you put in because of the sum of the energy of the group. I just miss people. I miss the fun of it. I miss the laughter. I miss rehearsal halls. I miss having a problem that’s insurmountable, and then gifted people working together, take it apart, parcel it out, solve it, surprise each other and then you go on. A big challenging production is like the film version of ‘Lord of the Rings’. A huge number of small incidents, victories and defeats and somehow just getting to the end without too many people dying along the way is your duty. And pretty exciting. Crisis reveals character. Some say it builds character and yes, over time that can be true. And what has been interesting to me is that the people who have been able to flourish have found a way to take their creative energy and be of service. That has been a salvation for me. Being of service to my family, to my children, other artists that I know and just community people that have been hit far harder than I have by this storm has been key. As artists, as this clarifying, challenging time is upon us, when we come back, those of us who are able to come back, will have a greater sense of purpose and perhaps will have refined our values because of what we’ve all been through. When we get back into a room again, we’ll be looking at all kinds of people who have been traumatized in all kinds of ways. There will be a lot of laughter, a lot of healing. I hope there will be renewed sense of purpose and renewed joy in making things. We’ve been through a storm that has affected all of us differently, and I hope there will be a kindness and generosity of practice. We’ll work on it together. As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it? Being busy. (Jim laughs again) I’ve been really, really busy for around 20, 30 years. I always knew I was blessed to be that busy and have opportunities and be able to complain about having to travel so much. I also miss working in different situations and cultures with artists whose careers and taste and experiences are vastly different. I love being surrounded by people smarter and wiser than I am. Also, the challenge of making something original with fun people. Describe one element you hope has changed in the live theatre profession. Oh, I think it was a tremendously hierarchical organized creative endeavour. That’s not even taking into account the more commercial world I’ve often worked in, in the States and other places. I hope the assumptions of privilege are shattered – whether that’s white privilege, male privilege, class privilege and the pomposity of some of the folks who having been doing it longer. I’ve long observed that change was coming. This last year, I think, “the theatre” has been shaken to its foundations, which is a good thing. I don’t think I’m the only person who is curious as to what happens next. As the business of theatre, as the cultural force of theatre re-opens and touring begins (I’ve directed a lot of things that have toured significantly) it will be interesting to see what the audiences choose. Will they go on the new journey being offered by new artistic leadership like the late 60’s and 70s because the work connects with both existing audiences and emerging audiences? I’m ready to lend a hand. We’ll see. Crow’s Theatre was born in the second wave of founding of Canadian theatres centered on Canadian voices in the 80s. We were looked at skeptically. Brash new voices. So I hope this re-emergence will be a new wave of Canadian theatre. I’m ready to help and certainly know a lot of people who are in that world and there will be a time and place. I’d like to spend more time in Canada now. I’m not planning to do as much of traveling as I used to do. Let's hope that there’s an opportunity for all of us to find ways to support this next wave. We won’t know what the needs are. The challenges are post-pandemic and that’s why I think it will take a multi-layered effort from not just the artistic community but also the audience, the funders, particularly the philanthropists, the corporations. If we don’t rise to the moment, we’ll see theatre fall back significantly. I think in the short term it will take a lot to get people back, and then it will take very nimble minds and strong backs to carry us through this next period and do the next, ultimate thing – attract young people – to come to see it. If we’re not getting young people to come to see what we do, then it’ll be the progress of 50 years of significant Canadian theatre production lost. I witnessed Canadian work being culturally important, and not just being a side bar knowing that plays, playwrights and our artists can make a difference. For that important progress not to be diminished, we need to have a lot of hands on deck. Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry. I need to keep lifting up younger artists. I need to keep surprising people and myself. I need to lead by example because the best artists I encountered when I was young were ones able to teach me without it always being necessary to explain themselves. The people that were inspiring were able to talk the talk and walk the walk. You need to be inspired because art needs to be brave. Artists who last and also keep challenging themselves need to keep having fun, idiotically persevering and be generous of spirit. If we keep playing the game the right way, the next generation will play the right way. It’s not as if the game doesn’t evolve and we don’t evolve, but there’s just something to be said for those who have done it for a while, and to be open hearted to sharing how we do it, humble in the face of it, as it’s been a privilege to be able to do it this long and still have a chance to do it. My next Toronto-based project is a new play I’ve adapted from one of Chris Hadfield’s books ‘The Darkest Dark’ for Young People’s Theatre. It was supposed to have been on stage and running at this moment if all of our plans had come together. It’s scheduled for when it’s safe for all of us to gather. It’s nice to be doing a show about bravery and courage. It’s certainly got an inspiring message. Magic and wonder are what artists need to accomplish now and always. Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre? I don’t believe there will be a wave of pandemic plays. (Jim then laughs and says) I don’t think anybody is going to be doing a lot of those. I think when the Fringe, which I helped found, happens in person again 15 months from now or whenever that will be, I think the person who gets into the Toronto Fringe by lottery and announces “My Pandemic Days” will have exactly zero people in line to go see it. That’ll be a hard “no” from all of us who lived it. (And Jim laughed again). I’m very curious to see what some of the writers who have been able to flourish have been up to. I hope those others who have been maintaining their energy and just hanging on will get busy again. I think it’ll be indirect, and I think there will be a lot of plays about revolution. I think there will be a lot of comedy, which I look forward to. We all are looking forward to some comedies. As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you? I think the work was daring. I think my work has a great sense of humour. At least to me, and luckily, some other people think so, too. A boldness. Creating an honest and challenging question with the form and a playfulness with the audience so the show isn’t just like everything else. That I did my very best to surprise them. Previous Next

  • Profiles Justin Stadnyk

    Back Justin Stadnyk Looking Ahead Courtesy of Talk is Free Theatre website Joe Szekeres ‘There are other voices in today’s world right now that are more important than mine for them to tell their stories, and for them to lead and be seen leading.” Justin Stadynyk’s final comment during our recent conversation resonated strongly with me. He is more than happy to allow these voices to take their course and proper place in society. He hopes to still be performing in the next five years but also hopes to take that creative bug he has to be on the writing team of a show or the re-creation of a show. I applaud artists who will do their best to make something like this happen and I believe Stadnyk will do just that. He and his wife (who owns a few Winnipeg dance studios) have one newborn and one toddler boy in the house. He stated that he prefers shorter work contracts for now as he doesn’t want to be too far away from home. After we ‘zoomed’ each other, I did a bit of research and discovered I had seen him perform in 2009 at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra in ‘The Boys in the Photograph’ (formerly titled ‘The Beautiful Game’ when I saw the show in London’s West End). I wished I had told him that during our conversation, but it’s here now in print and that’s the important thing. He will appear in September for three days in Barrie Ontario’s Talk is Free Theatre’s ‘Giants in the Sky’. Just what is ‘Giants in the Sky’ aside from a song title in ‘Into the Woods’? Over September 9-11, 2022, and September 16-18, 2022, culture, music, and theatrical performance are bringing rooftops, balconies, and fire escapes of the city of Barrie, Ontario to life, and it’s all free. Performing in some manner has always been a part of Justin’s life. He reminisced that he sang on the playground when he was a “young, young kid.” He attended a Winnipeg high school that had a good performing arts program. He jokingly stated he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers and decided to go somewhere else. As soon as he graduated high school, Justin relocated to Oakville, attended the Musical Theatre Program at Sheridan College, and graduated in 2006. This thing called Covid still hovers around all of us, including the performing arts. For Justin, these last two-plus years of absence from live entertainment have placed a lot of things into perspective for him. Justin proudly states his path during the pandemic slightly veered as he and his wife had two boys born during this time. One was born days after the initial shutdown and the other was born five months ago. He calls these last two years a re-shuffling in a perspective shift: “it feels nice that things are slowly getting back in, and it seems as if people are okay with that. Before there was the hustle of the artist trying to get the work, and now, for me, the work seems more meaningful and has a weight to it. Talk is Free’s GIANTS IN THE SKY will allow me a three-day event of musical theatre songs that I love and love to showcase.” What was it that drew Justin to the upcoming ‘Giants in the Sky’ project? He found this a great welcome back for the artists to come together to share their voices in this festival. He recognizes artists are trying to find their comfort level returning to performance as it is nerve-wracking since one can’t just simply return and pick things back up again. Not only does he consider his 45-minute performance set ‘Corner of the Sky’ a nice welcome back to theatre, but also the vast array of programming that has been put together by Talk is Free for the two weekends is fascinating from drummers to poetry readings to opera singers, jazz singers, musical theatre artists, impersonators. Stadnyk calls ‘Giants in the Sky’ a great chance for the artists to ‘wet their whistle’ again with arts and not be forced to put an entire evening aside for one style. Stadnyk will perform outdoors in a back alley for the comfort of those who might not be ready yet to venture indoors into a packed theatre. He has selected an array of songs from the musical theatre canon from classic to pop. He doesn’t have to stick to one genre of the musical theatre category in case a specific song might not be someone’s cup of tea. Additionally, Justin is also a ten-year entrepreneur and works in Yoga and Meditation. He completed his teacher training for Yoga in Brazil in 2011/2012. According to his website, his primary business is: “just music™ . It has become the “go-to” music editing company for choreographers all over North America and the world. The mission of just music™ is to provide a resource for the creative arts and sport communities to create non-jarring, seamless music edits along with providing other music services in order to allow choreographers the time and head space to flourish as just that, the choreographer.” Justin started Yoga when he was playing Gilbert Blythe in the Charlottetown Festival’s production of ‘Anne of Green Gables’. It was called Moksha Yoga then and now it’s called Modo Yoga. He fell in love with yoga as he discovered it helps with his singing and dancing in his musical career. What he didn’t expect from yoga was how much it would help in his acting because of the ability to practice letting go of everything and being in yoga for however long the session: “It is the same with acting.” Justin explains: “One has to let go of the day and be in the moment for the length of the performance. This is hard as there is so much going on in our lives especially surrounding the pandemic now. It’s important not to be able to push down your feelings and stories but to shelve for that moment so you can pick them up later for performance if necessary.” He smiles and concurs how good of a question it is to ask someone where he/she/they see themselves in the next five years. His favourite part of the arts is creating. Some of Justin’s favourite shows have been world premieres and not re-creations of something. He would love to start working on the other side of the table as part of that creative process and perhaps become a writer, an assistant director or a director. If these opportunities presented themselves in the next five years, Justin would like to dabble in them more. And finally, what’s next for Justin Stadnyk once ‘Giants in the Sky’ is complete and he returns home to Winnipeg and his family: “I’m working on ‘Into the Woods’ with Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The pandemic has made many companies realize they need a bigger insurance policy with standbys and understudies. This is a different role for me as I will be a standby for two of the roles: the Baker and the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. So, in true form to what I said about my five-year plan, I’m really looking forward to the creative process where I get to sit and watch all of these people create and then I get to learn the roles…It’s going to be a new experience for me to be sitting taking notes up in the back and rehearsing things, but I’m excited to be doing it in Winnipeg. I’m happy this is happening more and more in theatre companies.” To learn more about Talk is Free Theatre’s ‘Giants in the Sky’ festival, visit www.tift.com . Previous Next

  • Musicals 'SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL'

    Back 'SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL' At The Princess of Wales Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade Joe Szekeres With a bemused expression on my face as my guest told me, I spotted some audience members wearing platform shoes, bell bottom pants, sparkly slacks, tops and tees, and the ‘big hair’ from the disco era which brought back some fond and embarrassing moments from my high school years at the opening night of ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’. Just like I did with ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Story’ which also played at Mirvish, I did make strong connections to some of the characters and events from ‘Summer’. The plot deals with the Disco Queen (rumoured that Ms. Summer never liked this title) at three stages of her life. There’s Duckling Donna (played with such ease by Olivia Elease Hardy, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in future shows). Disco Donna (a sexy and seductive Alex Hairston) and Diva Donna (a glamourous Dan’yelle Williamson). What’s clever about this production is the use of Ms. Hardy as Mimi, one of Donna’s future children. Ms. Williamson also plays Donna’s mother, Mary Gaines. At times, the production reminded me of a glitzy Las Vegas show revue. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography sharply reflects the hip swiveling, finger pointing, dance moves of the seventies. When the three Donnas sing together, hot damn do they ever sound good especially in their rendition of ‘MacArthur Park’. Those ladies look terrific on stage backed by a company of a marvelously fit dancers who sometimes appear androgynous. There’s nothing wrong with this revue looking format since I love spending time in Vegas as I’m sure many of us do if we can go. Nevertheless, that glitter and glitz flee quickly away leaving me feeling distant from the emotional element surrounding Ms. Summer’s checkered past in a failed relationship with one of her many lovers. The reason I felt distant (and sorry about the spoiler alert here). Ms. Summer clocks said lover on the face with a coffee table book that has a picture of Barbra Streisand on it. Whether or not Ms. Streisand’s picture is intentional as a joke or comment, here is a point about two strong women in the music industry who have probably had their share of high ranking official men try to take advantage of them in one way or another. I had read many years ago there was tension between Streisand and Summer when they recorded ‘Enough is Enough’ and was hoping there was reference. Nope. There was also a vulgar insinuation of Ms. Summer getting down on her knees, not only for praying, which really bothered me especially since she is no longer with us. This one hour and forty-minute female empowered jukebox musical sans intermission isn’t a terrible show as there are some strong performances throughout. Much like ‘Beautiful’’s mini concert near the end, Ms. Summer’s iconic ‘Hot Stuff’ and ‘Last Dance’ brought the house down. Ms. Williamson’s rendition of ‘Friends Unknown’ brought a nearly minute and a half long audience applause which brought her to tears. Steven Grant Douglas’s performance as Summer’s second husband, Bruce Sudano, is good but I wished there was more character development for him to show that not all men are like the ones Ms. Summer had to deal with in her career. I couldn’t make out the object appearing down centre stage at the top of the show. When the performance began, and it was a stereo turntable with a Casablanca record label recording, I thought that was quite inventive to tweak my interest. The videos on the panels at the back worked fine for me in order to help establish the various locales. I quite liked the images of the paintings Ms. Summer had completed when she stepped back from her career to be with her family and her own personal health diagnosis. SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL Runs to March 22 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto. For tickets, call 1-416-872-1212 or visit www.mirvish.com . Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff Music Supervision and Arrangements by Ron Melrose. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo Directed by Des McAnuff Previous Next

  • Musicals 'Dion: A Rock Opera' World Premiere

    Back 'Dion: A Rock Opera' World Premiere Now onstage at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre Credit: Dahlia Katz. Jacob MacInnis as Dion and members of the Chorus Joe Szekeres "A suggestively sexy seventy minutes of Dionysian pleasure. Electrifying dramatic staging. But it’s not for everyone. The stretching of sexual ethics might be troubling for some audience members." Based on ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides and set in the City State of Thebes somewhere in time, Coal Mine’s world premiere of ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ explores the myth of the god Dionysius, the son of Zeus and Semele (who died in childbirth). In this re-working adaptation, the self-proclaimed, non-binary Demi-God Dion (Jacob MacInnis) leads the Thebans out of the city to drink wine, get drunk and enjoy the Dionysian pleasures that come with it all. The arrival of conservative right-wing leader and King of Thebes, Pentheus, (Allister MacDonald), brings conflict because they have heard of Dion. Pentheus learns Dion is their cousin. Mother of Pentheus, Agave (Carly Street), and uncle, Cadmus, grandfather of Dion and Pentheus (Allan Louis), are two who ran away with the Thebans. We also learn a bit of the backstory behind Agave and Cadmus. Destruction ultimately reigns when Pentheus is seduced into ‘dressing’ as a woman and going to the hills to see what’s happening at all this Dionysian debauchery. ‘Dion’ is a suggestively sexy and sometimes violent seventy minutes of Dionysian pleasure that might make some audience members feel a tad ill at ease. That happened to me periodically. But that’s what theatre does. It pushes audiences to new perspectives, sometimes received and sometimes with questionable pushback. Peter Hinton-Davis is an artful director. He masterfully stages some electrifying and intensely dark visual scenes that are attractive and uncomfortable to watch, most noteworthy in grappling with the issues of sexuality. Kiera Sangster creates distinct choreographed ‘swivel and strut’ movements, especially among the Chorus. Thankfully, I could hear every word Composer Ted Dykstra and Librettist Steven Mayoff had markedly constructed, so a grateful handshake to Sound Design of Tim Lindsay. The double entendres in the lyrics, snappy dialogue, and gorgeous-sounding rock vocal work remain primo, thanks to Music Director Bob Foster. There are moments when I thought I could hear musical sounds akin to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar. ' The Chorus singing: “Dion, Dion, Dion, my God, Dion” is only one example. Scott Penner cleverly creates a practical set design within the intimate confines of the Coal Mine Theatre - an elongated brick walkway in the centre with the audience on both sides. The end of each walkway (which I will call Stage left and right) mirrors each other. A circular mirror hangs on each back wall, with two chairs underneath. There are two beautiful-looking backsides of Greek statues from the audience's viewpoint. One of these statues is male, and the other is female. Penner’s costumes vibrantly dazzle throughout the show, most noteworthy in the Chorus’s initial appearance at the top of the show and Dion’s shimmering gold lamé dress. Bonnie Beecher’s blood-red lighting hauntingly foreshadows what will come. It assuredly catches the eye with a striking visual effect as the audience enters the auditorium. Additionally, there is another striking visual moment where Dion and Pentheus appear in their own spotlight. This moment clearly reveals who is in control. This nine-member cast kept me riveted with their arresting performance work. I held my breath, though, and considered how far they might go in pushing the twisting of sexual ethics. There were a couple of moments when I needed air. Nevertheless, the cast is extraordinary. The Chorus of Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg and Kelsey Verzotti take their places onstage the last few minutes of the pre-show. They enter quietly and walk to their chairs, exuding confidence. Their ‘fashionable’ costumes also draw attention to them. When the performance begins, these four strong artists remain in synchronistic simpatico with each other throughout the running time. SATE plays Tiresias, a blind prophet and former advisor to Pentheus. She introduces the audience to an understanding of the word EVOE emblazoned in large dark letters on each of the costumes worn by the Chorus. SATE sings the opening number, ‘THE WORD IS EVOE,’ with a remarkable, understated, sensuous passion that might appear to boil over at any moment. Since the story is set in a Dionysian world, I wondered if EVOE might be a deliberate and twisted play on the misspelling of the word LOVE and all its connotations in our woke twenty-first-century world. Carly Street and Allan Louis represent the other side of this Bacchanalia frenzy, respectively, as Agave and Cadmus. While we have younger people singing about the gluttonous revelry of wine and intoxication, there is something unique about Agave and Cadmus. She is angry at her father, Cadmus. Yet, beneath her anger, there is an inherent sense of dignity and grace about Street’s Agave. Allan Louis is a smartly dressed yet very mysterious Cadmus. When the two finally join in the reverie, everything changes for both. Allister MacDonald and Jacob MacInnis deliver gripping work as Pentheus and Dion. They are another reason to see the production. Fearless and audacious, MacDonald and MacInnis attack their roles with a lustful gusto that raises the sexual chemistry in and of the moment. MacInnis struts and prowls both in a sinewy and feline-like seductive fashion. At first, MacDonald is the exact opposite. They’re enraged, hot-headed, and about to explode until Pentheus and Dion confront each other head-on. MacInnis and MacDonald’s vocal work are sublime in their musical numbers. Neither of them sounds hoarse or ragged. However, MacDonald and MacInnis push this twisting of sexual ethics and mores. Pentheus’s ‘dressing’ as a woman might or could be viewed as becoming a woman in our woke world. I hurriedly scribbled down a line one of the characters sang during the performance: “The truth is…What is the truth?” Is this what it’s come to? Our woke twenty-first-century world cannot state what truth is even within sexual ethics. These questions can make for an exciting discussion, perhaps at a talkback after a performance. I hope Coal Mine has scheduled some. And Another Thing: Some audience members of religious persuasion might find this mythical re-telling and adaptation somewhat sophistical and dubious. Potential theatregoers may not be as accepting of the implications of the sexuality presented. Let’s not forget that good theatre must continue challenging its audiences to new perspectives. ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ does just that. But be prepared for any pushback from those audience members who might disagree. Running time: approximately 70 minutes with no interval/intermission. ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ runs until March 3 at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Avenue. For tickets: https://tickets.coalminetheatre.com/ WORLD PREMIERE ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ Composed by Ted Dykstra and Libretto by Steven Mayoff Directed by Peter Hinton Davis Musical Director: Bob Foster Choreographer: Kiera Sangster Set and costumes: Scott Penner Lighting: Bonnie Beecher Sound by Tim Lindsay Band Piano: Bob Foster; Guitar and Percussion: Haneul Yi; Bass: Kat McLevey Performers: Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg, Allan Louis, Allister MacDonald, Jacob MacInnis, SATE, Carly Street, Kelsey Verzotti Previous Next

  • Profiles Dennis Garnhum

    Back Dennis Garnhum Self Isolated Artist Courtesy of Grand Theatre, London, Ontario Joe Szekeres The four years pursuing my undergraduate Arts Degree at King’s College, University of Western Ontario (now known as Western University) solidly shaped my personal and professional interests in the Arts. One of those areas where I still believe the city holds its appeal is in the performing arts sector. When I attended Western, Purple Patches was one of the central student theatre groups on campus which provided a creative outlet for likeminded individuals. I also remember the extraordinary Grand Theatre where I saw some wonderful productions nearly forty years ago. When I started reviewing for On Stage, I wanted to make sure the Grand was included. I have seen some terrific world class professional theatre there recently, and I am always grateful when the invitation has been extended to me to come to London to review their opening night performance The Current Covid pandemic has thrown the professional performing arts sector into a tailspin that has many, who hold a vested interest in it, still reeling from the devastating impact. It’s going to take an extraordinarily calm and clear-headed individual to sift through with a firm grasp and clear vision to move forward into an unknown and uncertain future. I spoke about this quality trait in an earlier profile regarding the Stratford Festival’s Director, Antoni Cimolino. I also place The Grand Theatre’s Artistic Director, Dennis Garnhum, in this same category with Mr. Cimolino. Mr. Garnhum became Artistic Director of the Grand in the fall of 2016. His credentials have been profoundly notable within the theatre community. Since his arrival and return home to London, Dennis has created several new programs with the Grand. He has also launched a new partnership with Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Program that now positions The Grand’s High School for its next phase of development. Across Canada, Dennis has directed many plays, musicals, and operas with a number of companies. At the Grand Theatre, he directed Timothy Findley’s ‘The Wars’, ‘Prom Queen’ and ‘Cabaret’. He was set to direct the premiere of ‘Grow’ before it was cancelled on account of the Covid pandemic. Dennis and I held our interview via email: 1. How have you and your family been keeping during this two-month isolation? We have found some creative ways to fill our days: I work for the Grand in the basement, my husband’s office and broadcast studio (he’s a journalist) is the bedroom, and our daughters bedroom doubles as her school room. We started tiny school: 4 kids, 5 parents all on zoom. One class a day taught by a different parent. I teach drama and art! 2. What has been most challenging and difficult for you and your family during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy? The most difficult thing is to not be able to reach out and touch and play. Our daughter, Abby, is most affected by it. We always have a minimum hour of outdoor time daily and I have organized and reorganized the house a few times. 3. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts scene and on the city of London itself? We will refer to the time before and the time after COVID no doubt. Ultimately, I think the ultimate impact will be positive: streamlining, priorities and abundant passion. We will focus on doing less, better, and with more imagination and thrill. The City of London too will learn from these things, and I do believe prosper. People will discover London is a perfect city to live in: it has a lot more space than the larger cities, combined with great things to do: Population will rise. 4. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees of The Grand who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of fatherly advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion? First of all, I have great compassion for the loyal Grand team whose jobs and lives were interrupted with very little notice. People who work at the Grand live in London and make their lives mostly around being with us - so that is without doubt the most painful thing of this time - not being able to continue to make theatre. My hope is that we return to work sooner than later, that we will return to a company and a city willing to enjoy live theatre. The last thing we did was to have a staff breakfast on that fateful day (March 13) and one of the first things we will do will be to sit together and share a meal again. I miss these beautiful people. This past year the Grand Theatre’s production of GROW was workshopped at Sheridan College and at Goodspeed Opera House. Both events used incredibly talented graduating students. They are now out in the world - waiting. I can see their bright faces. My advice is just to be clear with one thought: We’ll return. You’ve lived this dream this long - keep it in your heart - don’t focus on the dark thoughts - and think how glorious it will be when you are able to be on our stages. And you will. 5. Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene? Only positive things. Everything will be reconsidered. The best part, I think, is how we will appreciate what we had to a greater extent. I think it will make for extraordinary conversations. 6. I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and You Tube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19? I think online streaming was a brilliant first effort and reaction to a need. What do we have? Computers - and go! I think it’s usefulness is nearly done - and won’t play an important part in live theatre in the future. It’s film. I think it will speed up meetings and allow for some very creative shoutouts etc. But, live theatre is live theatre: people sharing stories in a room. 7. What is it about the Grand Theatre that you still adore in your role as Artistic Director? Well, I adore everything about this role. Everything. What I appreciate the most right now, is that it is a complete honour to be working at the Grand Theatre during this point in history - and I know my role is to be part of team who sees it through to bright, bright, better days. With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests: 1. What is your favourite word? Beautiful. 2. What is your least favourite word? No. 3. What turns you on? People. 4. What turns you off? Long lines. 5. What sound or noise do you love? My family laughing at the same time. 6. What sound or noise bothers you? Car horns. 7. What is your favourite curse word? Dang. 8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt? Architect. 9. What profession could you not see yourself doing? Giving out parking tickets - too stressful. 10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? “I have a Muskoka chair by the lake waiting.” To learn more about the Grand Theatre, visit www.grandtheatre.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Bahareh Yaraghi

    Back Bahareh Yaraghi Self Isolated Artist Anita Alberto Joe Szekeres The first time I had seen Bahareh Yaraghi’s work onstage was during Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’. Her confident performance as conniving Laura Cheveley certainly made me pay attention to this character and to the story itself since Wilde’s tale of the context of cheating in Victorian England took on a different meaning in our #metoo world today. I then saw Ms. Yaraghi as daughter Emmy in ‘A Doll’s House Part 2’ when central character, Nora, knocks on that same door she slammed years ago. For me, it was interesting to watch from an acting perspective just how Ms. Yaraghi approached the daughter-mother relationship in ‘A Doll’s House Part 2’. Well, the mother-daughter relationship was taken to an entirely complex level of intrigue in female empowerment when I saw Bahareh’s divine performance (as I called it in my review) in ‘Oil’ at ARC just this past February. The audience viscerally witnesses a mother’s tumultuous relationship with her child (as a baby waiting to be born, a young person and adult) at three extremely different time frames. For me, Ms. Yaraghi has always captured a natural and convincing vocal delivery which makes me want to listen to the story she is telling and the journey she is about to take me on with her. I am most certainly looking forward to her next performance once the pandemic is lifted. She received her BA from McGill University and then trained at Humber Theatre School. A six time Dora award nominee, Ms. Yaraghi has performed on numerous stages in Toronto and across the country. She has been an ARC company member since 2012 and has appeared in past ARC productions since then including ‘Bea’ ‘Moment’ and ‘Pomona’. We conducted our interview via email: 1. How have you been keeping during this crisis? How has your immediate family been keeping during this crisis? I’m grateful to say that all my family and loved ones are all safe and healthy around the globe. We are so privileged in so many ways to be living in Canada, so my husband and I try to keep our focus on the positives, as opposed to all the uncertainties and sadness out there in the world. I’ve learned that if I literally take it one day at a time, my spirit feels much happier that way. 2. As a performing artist, what has/have been the most challenging and difficult element (s) for you? I MISS PEOPLE!!!! I miss interacting, hugging, talking, and collaborating with PEOPLE! Ok, I got that out of my system. As an artist, one of my biggest joys is to be in a room filled with fellow artists, creating work together and ultimately sharing that work with our community. Not being able to do that right now – or for the unforeseeable future – is of course extremely challenging and scary. But all artists around the globe are in the exact same position – so, staying patient and shifting my focus to my TODAY is what is most important right now. The rest will fall back into place when the time is right. 3. Were you in rehearsals, pre-production or performances of any production was the pandemic was declared and a quarantine was imposed? What has or will become of any of those productions in which you involved directly or indirectly? Yes, I was in the middle of ARC’s production of OIL. We had begun the 2nd week of our run, when we quickly realized we had to make the tough, but necessary, decision to cancel our 3rd week of performances. It was such a beast of a show and I was so proud to be telling it with such a wonderful group of humans. It was heartbreaking to have to close it early, but we considered ourselves very lucky to have had 2 weeks with it and to be able to share it. I was also supposed to start rehearsals for Soulpepper/Necessary Angel’s WINTER SOLSTICE that following week which, of course, was sadly cancelled as well. Fingers crossed you will see both productions programmed in the future. 4. What have you been doing during this time to keep yourself busy? I’ve kept myself quite active, socially. Zoom, phone, and FaceTime conversations with friends and family that I always feel I don’t have enough time for. Now I do and that’s a great feeling. I’m finding that physical exercise and meditation are vital to me right now, and they help me feel strong, calm and light. Otherwise, lots of cooking!! Which I absolutely love (I read cookbooks like they’re novels), lots of catching up on movies/tv shows with my husband, and lastly, I’ve been keeping busy working on the future of ARC with my fellow collaborators. There’s lots of exciting ARC news in the works, so stay tuned! 5. Do you have any words of wisdom or sage advice to other performing artists/actors who have been hit hard by this pandemic? Any words of advice to new actors out of theatre schools? The other day a good friend of mine said, “I don’t think I’ve got this covid thing figured out yet.” I understood exactly what he meant: he doesn’t know how he’s ‘supposed’ to feel, how he’s ‘supposed’ to use all this new-found free time, how he’s ‘supposed’ to feel creative when he’s not necessarily inspired, how his perspective ‘should’ be changing because of all this world change. However, I don’t think most of us do. My only advice to anyone would be to keep yourself strong and healthy – physically and mentally – as best you can. Stay hyper-sensitive to the things that truly bring you joy and peace, that truly enrich your spirit, and perhaps start contemplating on the things you will choose to reintroduce back into my life, or the things you’re ready to part ways with, when life and society picks back up. I think this “covid thing” can be a great opportunity for change. But it will require great thought, great strength, great belief and bravery. OR… Netflix and a bag of chips to ease the soul is also time well spent in my books! 6. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19? The earth and the animals are much happier. The air quality is much more refreshing. And the rat race has been calmed. There’s so much relief in all of that. On a simple level, what I love is that we’re being reminded over and over again that we are all connected, that we need one another, and that we need to take care of each other otherwise we all fall. 7. In your opinion, will COVID 19 have some impact on the Canadian performing arts scene? I have no idea what the future of theatre looks like. Or sport events. Or concerts. Or any event where the energy from a live audience changes everyone’s experience. All I know is that we need immense patience. And the need, desire and hunger to tell and hear stories will come back strong and it will be powerful. I look forward to the re-emergence. 8. Some performing artists have turned to online streaming or You Tube presentations to showcase and/or share their work. In your opinion, is there any value to this presentation format? Will online streaming or You Tube presentations become part of the ‘new normal’ for performing artists? I haven’t watched any of them. I haven’t had the desire yet. I admire the artists testing the waters and finding new ways of sharing their work. Some artists may need to keep creating; and some artists might need stillness and time to process. Everyone has their own pace and might need different creative outlets (or none at all) during these extraordinary times. There is no right answer. But the search is necessary, and I appreciate that very much. 9. What is it about the performing arts community that you still love even though it has been tremendously affected by this pandemic? Oh, it’s one of the best communities in the world! I feel so lucky that I’ve devoted my life to it, even with all its challenges. My husband is not in the performing arts community and he always says, “theatre artists are some of the most intelligent, humble, hilarious, compassionate, well-spoken, and worldly people I’ve ever met.” And it’s true. The theatre community is rich in heart. And if your heart is full, it gives you a different kind of energy. And that energy remains strong, even through a pandemic. As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are ten questions he used to ask his guests usually at the conclusion of the presentation: 1. What is your favourite word? Love 2. What is your least favourite word? (It’s two) Shut up 3. What turns you on? Wisdom 4. What turns you off? Excuses 5. What sound or noise do you love? Laughter 6. What sound or noise bothers you? Someone in pain that I cannot help 7. What is your favourite curse word? F**K 8. Other than your own at this moment, what other profession would you have liked to do? I wish my parents had put me in dance when I was a child. I think I’d be good at it. 9. What profession could you not see yourself doing? A surgeon 10. If Heaven exists, what do you think God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? “Let’s dance, B”. Previous Next

  • Profiles Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley

    Back Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley The Self Isolated Artists Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star File Photo Joe Szekeres When I received an email from Ted Dykstra (Chief Engineer) today, I noticed at the bottom under his name he calls his Coal Mine Theatre, “Off-off Broadview theatre”. Very classy and clever, indeed, as he and his wife, Diana Bentley (Co-Chief Engineer of Coal Mine) have modelled their 80 seat theatre after the intimate, exciting and often daring productions that can be found in New York City’s ‘off-off Broadway scene’. To this day, I have never, ever, been disappointed with any of the intriguing and enthralling productions I have reviewed at Coal Mine. I must attribute its success to Diana and Ted, their dynamite slate of plays, and the outstanding actors/production crew members who continue to grace the stage here on Danforth Avenue. I have had the honour to have seen both Ms. Bentley and Mr. Dykstra perform at some of Canada’s finest theatres, and I must include Coal Mine here as well. Ms. Bentley gave a daring and brave performance as Filigree at Coal Mine in ‘Category E’. I will always remember how moved I was the first time I saw Mr. Dykstra’s co-creation of, what I believe is, one of Canada’s most famous plays, ‘Two Pianos, Four Hands’. I was pleased when they agreed to be interviewed via email: 1. How have you and the kids been doing during this tumultuous time of change and upheaval? Ted: Pretty well. We have an 18-month-old named Henry who thinks he hit the jackpot, as he of course has us to himself 24/7. Diana: I think, like most people, there are good days and then there are harder days. We are enjoying having this time at home together and with Henry, but of course we miss the other parts of our lives that we love like the Coal Mine. 2. What has been the most difficult or challenging for you during this isolation? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during the time? (I know with children your attention will have to be on them first and foremost) Ted.: My son and daughter Theo and Rosie are with their mom, and we miss them very much. They miss us too, but I think they and Henry miss each other most of all! The other thing would be speculating on the future, which is “a mug’s game” but I sometimes do it anyway. Diana: We split the days so that one of us takes care of Henry while the other works. Right now I’m working on a television show that I’ve been wanting to pitch for a few years, and a one woman show that I have had sitting inside me for a year. Both are exciting and I’m happy for the time to draw my focus to them, but also trying to be gentle with myself. Right now we’re gearing up for a Coal Mine Zoom Board meeting so we’re still working too! 3. I believe ‘Cost of Living’ was in pre-production and intensive rehearsals when the pandemic was declared, and the quarantine imposed. How many weeks were you into rehearsals? Can you possibly see ‘Cost’ perhaps being part of this upcoming 2020-2021 season or a later season? Ted: We were to start rehearsals March 17. Our New York based actor Christine Bruno arrived March 15, a Sunday. We had her set up in an air bnb close to the theatre, had rented her a mobility scooter, (the play involves two characters who are physically disabled) and stocked her place with groceries. Because she needed to isolate for two weeks on arriving from the states, we decided that we would delay the whole show by a week. So she would isolate for a week, then we would begin rehearsals at the theatre, skyping her in for the first week. But two days after she arrived, we knew it was game over due to the acceleration of the virus’ spread. So we sent her back on the Tuesday. It was very sad of course. Diana: We are very committed to making sure ‘Cost of Living’ happens. The big question is when, but that’s the question for everything right now. When we return to making live theatre, when audiences feel safe to come back and then of course what shows we will program. Lots of questions and bridges to cross 4. Any words of wisdom or sage advice to performers/artists/actors who have been hit hard during this time? I’m sure this pandemic has hit hard on the new graduates of theatre schools. Any words of wisdom for them? Ted: Our jobs have never been assured, by anyone. This is a golden opportunity to learn this. I don’t think any of my neighbours in East York have thought once that they miss the theatre at this time. Rightly so. They have far more important things on their minds. So why are you wanting to do it? It’s an important thing to know for yourself. Good time to think about it! And if you have to do something else other than your heart’s desire to live for however long, like the rest of the world does, show yourself and the world you can do it well and without complaining. We are so lucky to be living the lives we are. And you can still write, read, create, dream - all the things you love. Don’t stop. Diana: Have faith. Go inward. Listen. 5. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19? Will COVID 19 have some lasting impact and influence on the Canadian performing arts scene? Ted: Well if I were the environment, I’d be wishing the virus would stay a good long time, so there’s that! A life doing theatre has taught me a lot about humankind. Unfortunately, one of the conclusions I have reached is that no society, country, nation, continent has ever learned the lessons necessary to stave off their end. And this is, I think, a truth about humanity. We survive. We change, but usually only because we have to. As soon as we stop “having to”, we start to forget why we were doing it, and comfort and greed once again come to the foreground. Flip side of that? We keep inventing, writing, discovering, expanding in as many good ways as bad. But there isn’t anything we know now about being human on the inside then the Greeks knew 2500 years ago. Maybe we are waiting for a worldwide “aha!” moment. I sure hope it comes. But any time soon? I don’t think so… And would I love to be wrong? Of course! Theatre will continue, and some great plays will come of this time, as they have of every other time. But that’s nothing different. That’s what theatre does. So it will continue to do that. Diana: Gratitude and not taking anything for granted. 6. Some performing artists have turned to streaming and/or online/You Tube presentations to showcase or perform their work. In your opinion and estimation, is there any value to this during this time? What about in the future when we return to a sense of a new normal. Will streaming and online productions be the media go to? Ted: It’s not my cup of tea. Theatre to me is meant to be experienced in a room full of people. Theatrical performances are meant to take place in front of people. This raises the stakes, makes it so much more exciting. Watching a live play online, where actors are performing for no one, is what I would call television. And real television is an awful lot better. In fact it’s fantastic right now in terms of variety and excellence. No contest. Diana: For some people/ artists I am sure that will be exciting and essential. For Ted and I the Coal Mine is very much about the live experience so I’m not sure we’ll follow suit- but anything is possible! 7. What is it about performing and the arts scene that you still always adore? Ted: Great plays. The community. Great artists. My colleagues, friends. Memories. Moments. The anticipation excitement and hope on the first day of rehearsal. Working with designers, volunteers, stage managers, bartenders who are all infinitely better at their jobs than I could ever be. And the audience. The people who pay good money to see what we do because they love it and want it in their lives. Without them we are nothing. And after 45 years doing this, I can say without reservation that no matter what happens to The Coal Mine, we have been blessed with the finest patrons I have ever had the privilege of working for! Diana: The artists. I miss them so much. As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are ten questions he used to ask his guests at the conclusion of his interview: 1. What is your favourite word? Ted: Geselig. It’s a Dutch word that has no direct translation that describes the feeling of comfort, coziness, acceptance, serenity given by say a fireplace in the winter with your favourite drink in hand and a blanket and two or three of your most favourite people in the room who share the feeling and are enjoying it as much as you, with no worries present whatsoever. And it’s snowing outside. The big, slow, thick flakes. Diana: Cantankerous 2. What is your least favourite word? Ted: The N word. Diana: Bitch 3. What turns you on? Ted: My wife. Diana: The Giggles 4. What turns you off? Ted: People who can’t laugh at themselves Diana: Narcissism 5. What sound or noise do you love? Ted: My kids’ laughter. Diana: The sound of our son talking to himself in his crib in the morning. 6. What sound or noise bothers you? Ted: Anything whatsoever no matter how small that I can hear when trying to go to sleep. Diana: Loud crunching. 7. What is your favourite curse word? Ted: It’s a phrase I came up with when I was directing Shakespeare in Calgary. “Fuck my balls.” Diana: F**k 8. What profession, other than your own, would you have like to do? Ted: Astronaut. Diana : Fiction writer. 9. What profession could you not see yourself doing? Ted: Easy. Stage Management. Diana: Dentist 10. If Heaven exists, what would you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? Ted: “You were a good dad, so we’re gonna let the other stuff slide.” Diana: “High Five!” Photo of Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley by Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star File Photo To learn more about Coal Mine Theatre and its upcoming season, visit www.coalminetheatre.com . Previous Next

  • Profiles Marcus Nance

    Back Marcus Nance Theatre Conversation in a Covid World Jerald Bezener Joe Szekeres Marcus Nance’s name is one I’ve heard in the Canadian professional theatre circuit for some time, but I never had the opportunity to see him perform. When he agreed to be interviewed and sent me his bio, I most certainly want to see this gentleman perform in future as his credentials and credits reveal extraordinarily fine work. American-Canadian bass-baritone Marcus Nance is equally at home in opera, musical theatre, concert, and cabaret. The New York Times described him as “a thrillingly powerful bass-baritone” while the Globe and Mail says he “has a rich voice and strong stage presence”. Marcus Nance garnered international attention as Malcolm in the world premiere of Atom Egoyan’s opera ‘Elsewhereless’ with Tapestry New Opera Works which earned him a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination for Most Outstanding Male Performer. For Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, he created the role of Moses in the world premiere of the epic opera ‘Beatrice Chancy’, performing alongside opera superstar Measha Bruggergosman. His other opera credits include Porgy in excerpts from ‘Porgy and Bess’ with the Nathanial Dett Choral and the Toronto Symphony, Sparafucile in ‘Rigoletto’ with the Tacoma Opera, Compere in ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ with Chicago Opera Theatre and an array of exciting roles and concerts with Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Chautauqua Opera, Vancouver New Music, The National Arts Centre, Shreveport Opera, Ash-Lawn-Highland Summer Festival, Natchez Opera Festival, Orchestra London, Victoria Symphony, North York Symphony, Chautauqua Symphony, Fairbanks Festival Orchestra, Windsor Symphony, the Monterey Bay Symphony, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Hawaii Opera Theatre, London Symphony, and the Monterey Bay Opera. New York audiences saw Marcus Nance on Broadway as Caiaphas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, in Baz Luhrman’s Tony Award winning production of ‘La Boheme’, in New York City Centre ENCORES! productions of ‘Kismet’ and ‘Of Thee I Sing’, as Alidoro in ‘Cenerentola’ with New York City Opera Education and in concert at the Metropolitan Room. Recent projects include Rev. Alltalk in Volcano Theatre’s workshop of the reimagined production of Scott Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha’, Van Helsing in Innerchamber’s concert version of ‘Dracula’, and as Judge Turpin in the Shaw Festival’s production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ where the Toronto Star proclaimed that he “gives the production’s standout performance as the corrupt Judge Turpin: with his stunning singing voice and commanding physical presence, he is horribly convincing as a man who aborts justice and tramples morality…”. He has spent nine seasons at the prestigious Stratford Festival where his assignments have included the monster in ‘Frankenstein Revived’, Bill Bobstay in ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’, Caiaphas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, Queequeg in Morris Panych’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Rev. J.D. Montgomery in Gershwin’s ‘My One and Only’. He has also made seen as the Mikado in ‘The Mikado’ for Drayton Entertainment, and Clairborne in Charlottetown Festival’s world premiere of ‘Evangeline’. Expanding further his creativity and artistic horizons, Marcus Nance has has made his film debut as the Singing Accountant in Mel Brooke’s feature film ‘The Producers ’ starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and his television debut as Rev. Moses in the opera ‘Beatrice Chancey’. He has also appeared in concert at the Cornwall Concert Series, Primavera Concerts, Elora Festival, Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, the Metropolitan Room in New York City, Stratford Summer Music, the Elora Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival and as a regular guest with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra. We conducted our conversation via email, but I had the opportunity to speak with Marcus briefly via Zoom: In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time? By nature, I am a positive and happy person. So, a year ago when rehearsals at the Stratford Festival abruptly stopped, my goal was to make good use of my time and to not sit around and wallow in self-pity. It was easy at the beginning because I never dreamed that a year later, I would still be waiting to get back into the theatre. So, between that day and now I have had my ups and downs. Days of panic and days of joyful discoveries about life and purpose. The biggest disappointment was not being able to play the monster in Morris Panych’s production of ‘Frankenstein’ in the new Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival. I was so excited to be asked to play this character. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. But as the death toll from the Coronavirus began to rise, I got over myself and realized that just being alive at this time in history was a greater gift than any role I could ever be offered. I am heartbroken at all the lives we have lost. How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum? I have actually stayed busy doing a number of different things. One: My husband (music director Franklin Brasz) and I always work in the summer. So to have a summer off is highly unusual. We decided to make lemonade out of lemons, and we bought a tiny trailer. We spent the summer and fall camping all over Ontario. I absolutely loved it. I love cooking outside, going on hikes, hanging out on the beach, and drinking gin and tonics all night. I can honestly say that camping saved us and kept us from falling into depression. In the end it has made this a summer to remember. A life highlight. Two: Many years ago, I tried to get involved in the tv/film world, but an experience of blatant homophobia caused me to flee that world with no intention to ever go back. When COVID hit, my agent wrote me and suggested I be submitted for tv/film as that industry was still able to produce safely. I figured I had nothing to lose so I said yes. To my shock this has kept me busy all year. I never thought it was possible, but the opportunities empowered me and helped to erase the negative experiences I had to deal with earlier in my career. It really made me happy to know that the world is changing for gay people. Three: I started teaching voice again. I was asked to give masterclasses in Nevada, California, and Colorado. I also rejoined the faculty of Sheridan College and started giving private voice lessons from my home (via Zoom of course). I love working with young artists. Four: I started modelling again! I contacted a modelling agency I had worked with many years ago and they were thrilled to have me back. I shot two fun campaigns. At 56 years old who would have thought? Five: Lastly, I was given some incredible opportunities to film performances for online streaming. Highlights being a Christmas concert for Stratford Summer Music filmed at the beautiful Knox Church in downtown Stratford, and filming my cabaret “Voice of a Preacher’s Son” on the Stratford Festival stage for their upcoming series “Up Close and Musical” for stratfest@home The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else? COVID, an escape? No! Covid didn’t allow me to escape because it gave me too much free time to think. I was consumed with BLM and the racism that was being exposed all around me. I was consumed with the racist US president and with those that supported him. I was consumed with watching people die while others were protes7ng masks. Had I been performing eight shows a week at the Stratford Festival, I would have had a place to escape from the world. I would have put my energy into performing and laughing in the wings with my friends. So COVID was not an escape for me. I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022? That sounds about right. My gut is telling me that the world needs another year to get everything in order. The new strains of COVID, the lack of enough vaccine, the COVID deniers… yes, we need another year to fix all this and allow ourselves and our audiences the 7me needed to allow everyone to feel comfortable coming back to the theatre. I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world? I have more appreciation for what I do. Not that I didn’t appreciate art before but having been in the business for over 30 years, one does start to take it for granted… feeling that it will always be there. I now know that that’s not true. Anything can be lost to us at any 7me. I have spent a lot of hours on YouTube as of late, watching ballet dancers, opera singers, orchestral performers and theatre performers and I can’t help but feel the pain of all these amazing people who suddenly lost their jobs because of COVID. All the work that goes into perfecting their crafts and suddenly they have nowhere to share that talent. I don’t think anyone of these people will take their art for granted ever again. The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre? COVID is dangerous, so yes, I have felt a sense of danger for me and for others. The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre? This time of COVID has forced us to sit still and to listen. I am sensitive by nature, but my heart is more open than it ever was to the world and to those in need of being heard or acknowledged. Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form? I will answer this by saying that I have always been curious about what it means to “follow one’s own path” and COVID has forced me to do that. To be creative, to try new things, to work toward the impossible to see if it’s actually possible. In the last year I feel that I have done these things and I have discovered so much about myself. This pandemic is not over and this next year will most definitely test us. Can we continue to strive and grow? Do we have it in us to stay healthy and hopeful for another year? I think so and I hope so. To learn more about Marcus, visit his website: www.marcusnance.com . Previous Next

  • Solos shaniqua in abstraction

    Back shaniqua in abstraction Presented by Crow's Theatre in association with paul watson productions & Obsidian Theatre. Now onstage in the Studio Theatre at Crow's. Roya DelSol Joe Szekeres ‘A compelling, complex, and carefully nuanced experience. bahia watson becomes one of our country’s finest storytellers.” I have always been fascinated by the titles of plays and novels. When I’m in a bookstore (how many of those are left?), I always pick up the text if the title fascinates me. The title of bahia watson’s solo performance, ‘shaniqua in abstraction, ' immediately stands out. Its unique use of lowercase letters and the word 'abstraction' sparked my curiosity. Press material describes the one-woman show as ‘defiantly pushing back the boundaries defining Black womanhood.' I’ve always been intrigued by watson’s use of lowercase letters in her name. Is this her signature trademark? If so, it makes me pay attention whenever I see her name listed in show credits. She’s a charismatic force on stage, as evidenced by her role as Sonya in ‘Uncle Vanya’, which she played last year at Crow’s and this year at Mirvish. I’ve seen watson’s work on stage, and she becomes a tremendous force in bringing characters to life, which is remarkable to watch as an audience member. watson is shaniqua, an actor who has come for a casting call and (according to the press release) slips into a musing multiverse of narrative stories. The intermission-less, one-woman 90-minute sharing of perspectives ultimately leads the audience to a kaleidoscopic explosion that spins into a big black hole called shaniqua. Sabryn Rock directs the production with controlled precision. She allows watson to leave her indelible impression as shaniqua. The result of all this? watson delivers a compelling, complex, and carefully nuanced performance of many varied characters. One is an enjoyable highlight which sets the titular character as a comic television show host of SISTAHOOD. The word ‘abstraction’ caught my eye when I knew I would be at the theatre. I rarely see that word today, so I researched online like a good student to ensure I knew what it meant. Collins defines it: “Abstraction: the act of taking away or separating; withdrawal.” A lot is going on here that challenges me, and that’s what good theatre is supposed to do. It challenges audiences to think. And ‘shaniqua’ does just that. For one, as a male, I greatly appreciate women's uniqueness. But can only women honestly know what makes them unique compared to men? I haven’t made up my mind about this question yet. As a white male, do I or can I truly understand the boundaries of defining Black womanhood to which watson defiantly pushes back? I haven’t experienced that in my life at all. There are moments in Bahia’s characterizations where I can sense this understanding of Black womanhood could explode – loudly. Thirdly, watson (the artist) is in the process of removing and separating herself from the white gaze of producers who are considering her for roles on the stage or in film. The varied characters she creates on stage become the performance's integral focus. Echo Zhou (Set), Kimberly Purtell (Lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (Sound), and Laura Warren (Video) seamlessly combine a visual look and sound that strongly accentuates watson’s varied characters. Costume Consultant Des’ree Gray has selected an orange jumpsuit and pink blazer for bahia to keep the audience’s focus on her physicality. At the same time, she strides and glides around the stage courtesy of Jaz Fairy J’s sharp choreographed movement. And Another Thought: ‘shaniqua’ becomes a vital character study of an assertive woman who begins to understand her place. shaniqua is not just one woman. She is connected to assertive women who want to mark their place in the world even though the voice in the theatre tells her to stick to the script presented to her. The production becomes coarse, gritty, and rough at times; however, when such personal feelings are explored with genuine truth and in the capable hands of bahia watson, then the live experience becomes worth it. Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no interval/intermission. ‘shaniqua in abstraction’ runs until April 28 in the Studio Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. Call the Box Office at (647) 341-7390 or visit crowstheatre.com for tickets. CROW’S THEATRE, in association with paul watson productions & Obsidian Theatre, present shaniqua in abstraction, written and performed by bahia watson Directed by Sabryn Rock Set Designer: Echo Zhou Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell Video Designer: Laura Warren Choreographer: Jaz Fairy J Stage Manager: Loralie Pollard Previous Next BACK TO TOP

  • Profiles Eric Woolfe

    Back Eric Woolfe "I find theatre artists are often really conservative in their imagination...We’re reluctant as theatre artists to engage the imagination of our audiences" Dahlia Katz Joe Szekeres Artistic Director Eric Woolfe of Eldritch Theatre thinks of himself as a guy who works in show business. He tries not to refer to himself as an artist. Born into the performing arts profession, Eric grew up in London, Ontario, and worked at the Grand Theatre. His first professional job at ten was in the Grand’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ given to him by Director Bernard Hopkins in 1982. Actor Barry Morse appeared as Scrooge as did London Ontario actor Tom McCamus as Bob Cratchit. By age fifteen, Eric took semesters off school and worked across the country for the last forty-some years. Eldritch bills itself as Toronto’s only theatre company specializing in ghoulishly giddy tales of horror and the uncanny. During our Zoom call, Eric enlightened me further, saying ‘Eldritch’ is an old archaic word that means ‘strange and eerie.’ It became a bit of a joke that the name Eldritch was used as the title of the theatre company: “Our first show was for the Summerworks Festival almost 25 years ago. It was called ‘The Strange & Eerie Memoirs of Billy Wuthergloom.” We were running overtime by about a half hour for the time limit the Festival gave us, so I came in with a hacked piece of the version of the script which fit in the time. Just as a joke for the director, I crossed out the title and wrote ‘Billy’s Eldritch Diary’ to shorten it, and we thought, why not call the company The Eldritch Theatre?” Eldritch Theatre operates from Toronto’s Queen Street East’s Red Sandcastle Theatre. They were two separate entities until they married when Eldritch took over the space in December 2021. The art form of puppetry remains an important part of Eldritch Theatre. The first show performed by Eldritch was a one-person show. Rod Beattie travelled with the Wingfield plays nationwide. Eric thought if he did a one-person show, he would play all the different characters while Rod did his own show. Woolfe compared it to writing symphonies in Vienna in the time of Beethoven. Eldritch puppets are both strangely grotesque yet beautifully alluring simultaneously. That’s the trump suit for Eric. Yes, puppetry is an art form, but he quickly discovered that it exists in the audience's mind. In turn, it is the audience that creates the performance: “A puppet is an inanimate object being wiggled by someone. It doesn’t have sentience. It doesn’t move on its own and we know it … Nobody is fooled, but the audience creates the existence of that puppet character in your mind when you’re watching it...we imbue that inanimate thing with life.” Woolfe’s extensive knowledge of puppetry kept me on his every word. Since the supernatural and horror plays into Eldritch’s season, using a puppet can connect further with an audience, more so than, say, a character in a costume. Eric spoke about an earlier play from Eldritch about Jack the Ripper. The first scene was a dream sequence of one of the last victims who was having a nightmare about Alice in Wonderland and a giant, 15-foot-tall caterpillar puppet. That puppet could be funny one moment, threatening, sexual, aggressive, angry, weird, and jump from these different tones and from word to word and line to line because he was a puppet. If that exact text were done with an actor in a giant caterpillar costume, the only thing that caterpillar could be would be vaguely stupid. There’s no same ability to stretch tone and get under people’s skin when using human beings. Often puppetry and magic go together at Eldritch: “Magic is an opposite art form of puppetry…if it’s a puppetry performance, we are complicit to suspend disbelief to make that puppet come to life because wonder has been created. If it’s a magic trick, it works when the audience resists suspending their disbelief and has no other ability to explain what has just been seen.” The last three years for the theatre industry have been challenging for commercial theatre. Eric refers to himself as ‘the angry outsider.’ He despairs and feels terrible for those theatre companies that find it challenging. Woolfe doesn’t find many things terrible right now in the larger sense regarding the industry for Eldritch. Everything has been pretty good. Eldritch shows are selling well at Red Sandcastle. The audience demographics for Eldritch are not all dying or people in their 80s. Eldritch audiences are leaving their houses and coming to see shows. People come because they feel the Sandcastle Auditorium is not a COVID trap. His upcoming show at Eldritch is ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot.’ Directed by Dylan Trowbridge and coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the play’s premiere, show dates run from February 8 – 24 inclusive; Eric told me that Dylan has been pushing for a few years now that Eldritch should present a Shakespearean play. Woolfe calls this ‘Macbeth’ a one-person, surreal, classic comic telling of the Bard’s classic with puppets and magic. He’s terrified about the upcoming production because it’s a lot. He plays every single character. Here’s what he had to say about the state of the theatre: “The real truth is I don’t like a lot of theatre. I find theatre artists are often really conservative in their imagination. I think in Canada, there are way too many plays set in kitchens and way too many stories about a broken family getting together at their father’s funeral. We’re reluctant as theatre artists to engage the imagination of our audiences…People interested in conservative theatre from years ago are not coming out anymore.” Woolfe even believes that when tackling the classics, often, when theatre companies present Shakespeare, what they’re really presenting is a kind of museum piece where it isn’t even really the play they’re doing. It’s a comment on other performances of another production of another play. For example, Eric said there have been pieces from ‘Hamlet’ handed down from generation to generation. Assumptions have been based on the text that are not based on the text. Instead, these scenes are based on performances of actors making choices that are copied and copied and copied. Younger, diverse audiences have not been reached yet, according to Eric. Why? The style of plays still echoes this old model of theatre viable in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, ‘Macbeth’ is slated to begin performances shortly, but it’s a weird Macbeth. Eldritch’s idea is to blow up that preconceived notion of the old model of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. I’m most certain that, under Director Trowbridge’s artistic vision, ‘Macbeth’ will be ‘aggressively unconventional yet still rooted in the actual words.” The Scottish play was one of my favourites to teach because there are witches, ghosts, and magic. It’s also Woolfe’s favourite; however, he has never really liked any production he has seen. Instead, he likes versions of Shakespeare that upset people because the plays don’t obey the rules, don’t bluster, or don’t attempt to entertain. He then made a most appropriate analogy: “As people make theatre, we try to worry that it’s good for you. We’re trying to make healthy plays, and sometimes in theatre, we’re like restaurants: “We have the best broccoli. Come and get the broccoli. Eat our broccoli; it’s good for you, and all we’re selling anybody is broccoli.” Broccoli is great, but it’s only one thing on the plate. There are all these other tastes and things you can serve. If the food happens to be good for you, that’s fantastic, but you don’t have to tell people. It shouldn’t be the selling point. The selling point is that this meal is wonderful and has broccoli that will taste good. Eldritch’s ‘Macbeth’ will be approached like this. It’s a horror play about fear with puppets and cartoon noises, and it’s everything that should be in a Macbeth without the bluster and stuffiness and attempting to do it properly. There are four sold-out school matinees. A steadily growing demand for tickets extends the production to February 24. Does he listen to feedback from audience members, reviewers, critics, and bloggers? Woolfe prefaced his answer by saying he was always the kid in school who never liked to do the assignment the way the teacher asked. For example, if he wrote an essay, he would try to do something slightly different than the assignment. He spent a lot of time on it and did more work. Why did he do this? He thought the assignment may have been stupid or lacking any reason why it had to be done. So, when the graded assignment was returned, Eric was always that kid who was a tad annoyed when the teachers said he didn’t follow the conventions for the work. Eric reads the reviews. He listens to honest feedback. If every feedback or review is five stars, no one will pay much attention to what is said in the article. Woolfe remembers every bad review as opposed to the good ones, but the thing to answer regarding feedback, whether it be from audience members, reviewers, critics, or bloggers: “We are entering a world where people expect to be able to get entertainment that appeals to their specific tailored individual tastes...Theatre has to reflect this. Over the years at Eldritch, we are building our little niche market and our growing fanbase of weird nerds who don’t go to all theatre but like the horror stuff of comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, sci-fi movies and strange things with puppets and Tarot cards…This is our audience base. Everybody is welcome here at Eldritch Theatre, but it is a specific tent.” What’s next for Eric once ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot’ concludes its run? A series of play readings of some older plays from early on in Eldritch’s existence is happening through February and March. The season's final show is ‘The House at Poe Corner,’ from April 11-21, 2024, written by Woolfe and Michael O’Brien. To learn more about Eldritch Theatre, visit eldritchtheatre.ca. You can also find the company on Facebook. Tickets for ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot’: https://www.ticketscene.ca/events/45534/ Previous Next

  • Profiles Jewelle Blackman

    Back Jewelle Blackman Moving Forward Zak Kearns Joe Szekeres It was Carey Nicholson, Artistic Director of Port Perry’s Theatre on the Ridge, who encouraged me to reach out to Jewelle Blackman for a conversation. As soon as Carey mentioned Jewelle’s name, I remembered this lady who was the Assistant Director for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada several years ago. In an email Jewelle sent to me, she told me she was considering looking into directing at that time and found the experience of working on ‘Superstar’ at the Oshawa Little Theatre a ‘great experience’. Jewelle appeared in the Tony/Grammy winning original Broadway company of Hadestown playing the role of “Fate”. She is now playing the role of Persephone in the Broadway company. I won’t spoil her answer here in what was happening when the Broadway theatres were closed. She is a multi-talented artist from Toronto who has played the violin for more than 30 years and graduated from Queen’s University with a Double Major in Music & Film. She also completed a Summer Performance Certificate Program at Berklee College of Music. Other favourite credits include The Who’s Tommy (Acid Queen); Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Jewelle) both at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; We Will Rock You (Teacher); The Lion KIng (Nala/Shenzi) Mirvish; The Wizard of Oz (Mrs. Banks) Young Peoples Theatre; Dreamgirls (Deena Jones) The Grand Theatre/Stage West. Film/TV: Nine Lives; The Coroner; Kim’s Convenience; Shadowhunters. We conducted our interview via email: It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion? I’m trying to take it day by day. If I try to plan too far ahead it becomes somewhat overwhelming because how can I plan for the future when the present is so uncertain and unpredictable? Covid has been around a lot longer than I think any of us truly expected and there is no definite end in sight at this point in time. That’s a lot to swallow. Will we emerge to a new way of living? We already are, aren’t we? We’re all adapting as best we can and navigating the unknown some days with more hope than despair. The situation is fluid. As I always say the only thing constant is change. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months? Some days good, some days not so good. March and April were particularly difficult. But early on I participated in a virtual group mediation group which I think really helped to calm me and force me to look at and approach life with a new eyes. My immediate family have already remained healthy which I am very grateful for. I have also been navigating a lot of personal changes which greatly affect my son and myself. But we are all here still thriving. As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally? I would say being seen, recognized and appreciated as an artist. People have their opinions of you and what your limits are based on your sex or for me, specifically my race. It feels like a constant battle at times. Personally, this affects how I view myself and my worth. I'm working on this because regardless I should feel strong and confident in my value regardless of what others think or believe. Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon? Well as I was on Broadway in Hadestown’, I will never forget March 12. I was in the middle of my last understudy rehearsal for the role of “Persephone”. My put-in was the following day along with another understudy and the producers literally walked in on us and announced the news. We were all shocked...I think we all knew and felt that something was going to happen, but the reality of it all struck really hard. I believe that Broadway will re-open again and Hadestown will be there in full force, and I will get to bring my “Persephone” to life….I just don't know when. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time? Hanging out with my 9-year-old son Zion. Working on my own passion projects. Hanging with my family. Supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement…. And walks...I take lots of walks to clear my head when it begins to feel like too much. I've also done quite a few online performances. Oh, and auditioning for film/tv quite a bit. Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years? Spring will come again….this pause is an opportunity to really focus on what about this business really fuels you. What can you do to change it and make it a more just and equitable and comfortable space for all performers. Especially your colleagues and friends of colour. Theatre will re-emerge and thrive...but the goal should not be to go back to before but to go forward with the intention of change. Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19? Personally, this has given me so much more time with my son which is so valuable and that I am entirely grateful for. On a global level it has definitely seen the rise of voices that have been silenced for so long the opportunity to be heard, and also the chance for people to reflect on how their own actions in the past may have been hurtful or detrimental to others. Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene? I think more care and concern will be given to what stories are shared on stages and that it is not white male-dominated any longer on stage, behind the scenes and in boardrooms….that is my hope. Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown? If it works for you definitely do it. If it feeds your soul do it. Just remember to get compensated. This is your gift and your craft and your career. It has value and it has worth and should not be consumed for free. Donating your art is one thing but being paid for a service that is provided should also not be ignored. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you? The ability to create. The ability to share. No matter the size of the audience...there is a feeling that nothing, not even Covid can dampen. You can follow Jewelle on social media :@elleshelley on Instagram AND @jewelleblackman on Twitter. Previous Next

  • Profiles Kim Blackwell

    Back Kim Blackwell Self Isolated Artist --- Joe Szekeres What’s the old saying for ‘The Hyde House’? It’s worth the drive to Acton. Well, I’ll tell you, for the last two summers, it has been well worth the drive to 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ontario to see some phenomenal surprises at this gem of an outdoor summer theatre. There’s good stuff going on here. I remember writing the first review for 4th Line the first summer I attended and figuratively kicked myself in the behind why I hadn’t made it out there before. I’m saddened at the fact audiences might not have the opportunity to be there this summer. Sigh. Managing Artistic Director, Kim Blackwell, is still hopeful there will be a change as the first show is only postponed. I am truly praying the theatre gods will change things for the better. I know it sounds corny, but 4th Line has been one of the highlights of my summer for the last two years, and I’ve always looked forward to it. And the fact that next summer will be the 30th anniversary makes this company’s work even that more special to attend. Thank you so much, Kim, for having this interview with me via email: 1. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? Is your family doing well? Thanks for asking. I have been ok - no one in our family is sick so that is of course the best possible news. My daughter is doing school remotely and she like waking up at 8:55 am and going downstairs to the den to do school in her PJs. She loves that. My husband is working at home as well, as he works in IT. We miss seeing my parents and my husband’s mom but obviously everyone is being careful about staying at home as much as possible. As an interesting side note - I had a stress related heart issue in January of this year and now I laugh and say, “I thought my heart attack was going to be the biggest thing to happen in 2020.” :) We went to Mexico on March 10th and then the entire world went crazy and we had to fly back a week early. The stress of that was quite something. My husband, daughter and I spend days and days just seeing each other. That has been quite a time of getting to know each other all over again. We have all been so busy for several years and running around almost non-stop. This sudden stop has forced us to slow down and cook together, eat together and talk to each other more. 2. Tell me briefly about the shows that were to have been presented this summer at 4th Line. Were any of them in rehearsal or pre-production before the pandemic was declared and everything had to be shut down. Will these shows be a part of the 2021 summer slate? We have only postponed the first show so far. That show was Alex Poch-Goldin’s ‘The Great Shadow’ which was to be directed by Deb Williams. We have moved this world premiere play into the opening slot for the 2021 summer season - which will be our 30th anniversary season. The Board of Directors will make a decision about the fate of the 2nd show on May 22nd. That is Maja Ardal’s ‘Wishful Seeing’ based on the book of the same title by Janet Kellough. When the pandemic started to hit in February, we slowed all pre-production work right down to see how things would develop. As such, very little planning had started in terms of designers, etc. We had not gone into rehearsals. For either production In ‘The Great Shadow’, set in the roaring '20s, the stars of the silver screen are heading to Canada as Trenton, Ont. embarks on a quest to become Hollywood North. Sparks fly in this world première when small-town Ontario residents collide with the Hollywood elites. From Alex Poch-Goldin, the playwright who brought you ‘The Right Road to Pontypool’ and ‘The Bad Luck Bank Robbers’, ‘The Great Shadow’ is a raucous comedy, packed with romance and intrigue in the golden age of film. ‘Wishful Seeing’ tells the story of saddlebag preacher Thaddeus Lewis played by 4th Line founder and creative director Robert Winslow, who stumbles upon a murder mystery on the shores of Rice Lake. It's a historical thriller set in 1853, with a colourful cast of characters set against the backdrop of a rapidly growing pre-Confederation Canada, and reminiscent of the popular television series "Murdoch Mysteries." 3. What has been the most challenging part of the isolation and quarantine for you personally and professionally? Well, personally, it has been that we bought a house right before the lockdown and are moving to Peterborough in June of this year. And we are preparing to rent out our house in Toronto. This move, after living in Toronto for 20 years, would have been a wild ride in normal situation, now it is so crazy. And my daughter is missing the last 40% of grade eight, she’s been at the same small school for 10 years. She is missing the typical grade eight celebrations. My heart hurts for her. We miss hugging our parents - my husband and I - I worry about them being so isolated. My mom has Lewy Body dementia and the isolation and lack of mental stimulation is not good for her, especially. My parents are in a retirement residence in Peterborough and the staff are so vigilant about keeping COVID out of their home. So I am deeply grateful for all that they are doing but we really miss seeing them. And with my husband’s mom - she is alone in her home with our dog. Thankfully she has the company, but we miss her and we miss having our dog with us. Professionally, I am gutted by the loss of the first show of the season and the possibility of losing the entire season. I am sick for all the artists who have lost work. I worry about future of our theatre and theatre in general. 4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown? There are lots of meetings around creating multiple different plans and budgets, meetings with staff, board, stakeholders. There is planning and programming decisions to make. We have created some initial online programming including Artist Talks and a reading. We will be developing more online work to keep engaged with audiences. I workout as much as I can. I am binging shows on Netflix, Prime and Crave. The best so far have been ‘Chernobyl’, ‘Once Were Brothers’ and revisiting ‘The Wire’. I am cooking and baking like crazy. I baked bread for the first time in about 20 years. I am trying to meditate and read. And some days I lay on the couch and am terribly sad about it all. I am mourning the many losses… 5. What advice would you give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What words of advice would you give to the new graduates emerging from the theatre schools? Oh gosh - I am not sure I’m a good person to give anyone advice. I think we are going to be in this for the long haul. Theatre will be one of the last sectors to come back online during this pandemic. I think patience will be needed. I do think people will come back to the theatre eventually, because we all have an innate need to gather together and share stories and communal experiences. 6. Do you see anything positive coming out of this pandemic? I think people were in a severe state of burn-out going into the pandemic. I saw people being terribly frazzled and run off their feet. I think the pandemic has allowed people to stop and breath. Of course they have been saddled with many new stresses - financial and job related primarily. Perhaps coming out of this, people will be able to slow down and prioritize their lives and say no to things more often. 7. Do you believe or can you see if the Canadian performing arts scene will somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19? I guess people are getting more savvy at digital interaction and disseminating their work in a digital platform. There is already so much digital work to chose from, it’s amazing. I think the pandemic will reaffirm that we all love the relationship between art and audiences which is at the core of our art practice. And we will be much more sensitive to that innate relationship when we can be together again. 8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts and comments about this? Are there any advantages or disadvantages? Will streaming/online/ You Tube performances be part of a ‘new normal’ for the live theatre/performing arts scene? See above - I know that government funders really want us to explore digital platforms for our art, especially in the short-term. And of course we will/are. But in the long term, theatre needs to be experienced live. That is what makes it transformational for audiences and artists alike. 9. As 4th Line Theatre’s Managing Artistic Director, where do you see the future of 4th Line headed as a result of this life changing event for all of us? Well, that is the $64,000 question isn’t it? I hope we return to a version of normal in the not too distant future. I hope to welcome audiences back to the farm as soon as it is safe. I think we, at 4th Line, are ideally suited to do that earlier than some theatres because we are outdoors, and we can achieve social distancing without much fuss. I worry about the theatre’s fiscal viability, of course. But I know that when we started the theatre in 1992, we started small and very community based. And if we have to, we can go back to that simplicity. 2021 will be our 30th season and I am trying to imagine that a return to our roots might not be the worst thing that ever happened. When audiences are ready to come back to the farm, we want to ensure we are there to welcome them. With a respectful nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews: 1. What is your favourite word? Daughter 2. What is your least favourite word? Taxes 3. What turns you on? Funny people 4. What turns you off? Lack of personal and professional integrity 5. What sound or noise do you love? It’s a tie between the sound of my daughter’s voice and the roar of an audience’s laughter. 6. What sound or noise bothers you? Many sounds - I have moderate misophonia - especially candies being unwrapped in the theatre. ;) 7. What is your favourite curse word? The ‘c’ word 😉 8. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt? Criminal law 9. What profession would you not like to do? Garbage Collector 10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? “ I know, I am surprised as you are!!!” To learn more about 4th Line Theatre, visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca . Previous Next

  • Musicals 'The Wild Rovers'

    Back 'The Wild Rovers' Now onstage until November 5 at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street Credit: Ritche Perez. Pictured: Members of The Wild Rovers' Ensemble Joe Szekeres "It’s not a total train wreck of an opening night. The terrific-sounding harmonies in some songs, the fantastic band led by conductor Kelly-Ann Evans, and some clever drama school staging make up for the insipidly silly plot." Like all kids who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I remember ‘The Irish Rovers’ on CBC television. The only song I remember was ‘The Unicorn.’ Fast forward to The University of Western Ontario in the late 70s/early 80s, and ‘Wasn’t That a Party’ was the anthem for most first and second-year undergraduates. Feeling nostalgic, I took to heart Executive Producer Bob Hallett’s programme note. ‘The Wild Rovers’ would not focus on the actual band members or their lives but instead capture their larger-than-life magic, incredible charm, and easy humour. Canadian East Coasters have this gregarious, ‘joie-de-vivre’ nature when they gather and sing at kitchen parties or pubs. Granted, the beer and wine must also help. I discovered that when I visited Newfoundland a few years ago. We Ontarians don’t seem to espouse this joy of life as the East Coasters. And as for the opening night of ‘The Wild Rovers’… “Well”, (as Samantha Stephens used to say on ‘Bewitched’). Younger readers may have to Google her. Readers my age and older will hopefully get the reference. Outside of the terrific-sounding harmonies, the fantastic band led by conductor Kelly-Ann Evans, and a couple of clever drama school staging techniques, this ‘meh’ jukebox musical didn’t capture more of the charm and spirit for me as I had hoped. Steve Cochrane’s book becomes confusingly silly, and I soon lose interest in the plot. But I push through. In the opening, we meet pseudo-story narrator Maggie (Sean Panting). A bit of a groaner as to why he’s called Maggie, and I won’t spoil it here. The story begins waaayyyy back in 19 89 (c’mon, now you’re starting to grate on my suspension of disbelief). We then meet ‘The Wild Rovers’ – Billy (Steve Maloney), Jordy (Philip Goodridge), Josephine (Julia Dunne) and the bus driver, Sheila (Vicki Harnett). The band is on its way to Grand Falls, Newfoundland, when they oddly encounter Maggie and somehow enter a portal and are whisked away to a magical world called Athunia, not to be mixed up with their sworn enemies, Ethunia (and yes, the two terms are pronounced similarly). “Uh oh!” (another ‘Bewitched’ reference from Samantha Stephens. Google it if you must). This ‘madcap’ plot challenge tests my suspension of disbelief even more. I’m trying to remain focused, but I’m losing interest. Quickly. Somehow, amid all this transport back in time, we meet those who live in Athunia/Euthania. Since the pronunciation sounds similar, I couldn’t tell where they were from. Princess Hiya (Melanie O’Brien) will soon marry Prince Farid (Powell Nobert). After this, I lost interest in this ‘magical story’ and no longer cared about these characters. But onward, I tried to decipher as best I could. Somehow, a magical egg is found (?), and courtier Roguish Rick Castley (Liam Lynch) will help find this egg. And then there’s a reference to a dragon that didn’t interest me. God, I don’t care about the book’s plot anymore. Is there something that can save this opening night for me? Do I need a beer or a glass of wine to keep me going? Some of the musical numbers save the show from being a train wreck. The actors are pouring their hearts out in song, and now it becomes ‘magical’ for me to listen to them sing. The opening number: ‘The Orange and the Green’ is lovely. Other highlights: ‘Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?’, ‘Drunken Sailor’, ‘The Unicorn’ and ‘Black Velvet Band.’ At one point, artist Liam Lynch demonstrated an impressive falsetto range. Director Jason Byrne has staged some clever drama school techniques that nicely worked for me. The use of cardboard to show the band travelling via bus is clever. When the plot switches to a ship at sea, some of the cast move a board with a sailboat on it up and down to indicate the waves in the water. Again, drama school technique, but it works here. Final Comments: I had seen the production of ‘Let’s Dance the Musical’ staged by Terra Bruce. It was another jukebox musical, but I enjoyed that one because I could look past some of the flaws in the book. After all, the singing and the choreography on that opening night did make for good theatre for me. The terrific songs and harmonies and the onstage band in ‘The Wild Rovers’ are splendid. I wish more were going for the production in the insipidly silly plot. Running time: approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. The production runs until November 5 at The Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. For tickets, call (416) 314-2901 or visit ticketmaster.com or terrabruce.com to learn more about the company. Walter Schroeder and Terra Bruce Productions present ‘The Wild Rovers’ Book by Steve Cochrane, Inspired by the Music and Magic of The Irish Rovers Book Writer: Steve Cochrane Director: Jason Byrne Musical Directors/Arrangers, Additional Music: Kelly-Ann Evans and Josh Ward Production Design: Graham McMonagle Lighting Design: Leigh-Ann Vardy Sound Design: Don Ellis Puppet Direction & Design: Baptiste Neis Performers: Julia Dunne, Philip Goodridge, Vicki Harnett, Liam Lynch, Steve Maloney, Powell Nobert, Melanie O’Brien, Sean Panting, Nicole Underhay Band: Alex Abbott, Sultan Dharamshi, Keith Doiron, Kelly-Ann Evans, Grant King, Paul Kinsman, Dan Smith, Josh Ward Previous Next

  • Profiles Anne Plamondon

    Back Anne Plamondon Looking Ahead Michael Slobodian Joe Szekeres What a delightful time I had chatting with Anne Plamondon via Zoom. When I mentioned during our conversation that I had received a press release which describes her as a ‘radiant choreographer and performer of dance’, she was extremely flattered that she is regarded in this manner because she considers radiance a beautiful quality of light, hope, well being, luminous and glowing. Anne hopes that her work can make an audience feel elevated especially now in our world. Art can be possible in any subject addressed; however, Anne also spoke of the fact that our present world can not always be considered a happy place as our world can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time, and audiences will see a profound depth in ‘Only You’, her upcoming dance presentation this week at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. We both agreed that we are not out of the pandemic and its dire effects yet; however, Anne recognizes these last two years have changed the world of dance for her. She isn’t sure that she has fully noticed everything that the pandemic did change and that it will take awhile before any of us really see what has been changed. Anne’s first thought on the dance milieu when the world changed two years ago was on the emerging next generation of artists and their preparation within schools in what she calls that big black hole in teaching. Her concern was how these artists were going to learn and to be prepared moving forward into the industry. Yes, schools and students had to continue via Zoom. If students and schools must do this, they can. It’s not impossible to maintain and keep the inspiration alive but learning via Zoom is not enough in dance because the art speaks so much when people move together. For Plamondon, dance is “a language of the body, of touching, reunion and communicating through the body from one person to the other”. The art of dance is not conducive to distancing six feet from each other. The whole point of dance is a gathering of the audience and the performers, and the curiosity of meeting the other person. The process of dance is about sharing the body language in the studio during the rehearsal. If dancers can’t be in the same room together or can’t enter each other’s bubble, then a huge part of dance has been cut and that’s troublesome. As a dancer and choreographer, Anne cares a great deal about what she calls partnering work. She enjoys the narrative in her dance in seeing how it starts, where does it go and what is left. It is something she has loved doing. She was lucky enough to have amazing partners in her dance career. For Anne, if the partnering work cannot happen then there is what she calls a great deal of ‘missing out’. For someone like myself who holds no background or education in dance, Plamondon wants audiences to realize that not every dance piece has to have a narrative running through it. For her, dance sometimes goes mysteriously ‘beyond the words’ and audience members may not have to understand everything. There could be images, movement, or combination of movement with music in the language of the body that might just create an interesting picture on the stage for audiences to follow and to feel something emotionally. That on its own can be poetic and touching. Today, she feels a sense of urgency to speak about her work candidly and honestly and to do it well since this great two year pause of nothing. Everything has to matter and to mean something. Anne considers herself ambitiously curious now more than ever. She was to have brought her show ‘Seulement Toi/Only You’ to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre March 17, 2020, as part of an important step for her company. She wanted to bring a partner into the process after completing two solo shows. Thankfully, ‘Seulement Toi/Only You’ returns and runs April 8 and 9 at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront. Anne says she is super excited to return to Toronto as she feels she has developed a strong relationship with the city since she has danced her many times. She considers ‘Only You’ a stepping stone to make and provide group work for her company since she has only completed solo works and solo evenings before. Making duet work seems to be a natural evolution for her to start bringing other people into the process of dance for her company. When she choreographs for herself, Anne relies on personal life connections for inspiration. She performs and creates for herself so there is no distance between the two. Choosing a partner for ‘Only You’ was extremely important. After she selects the partner, Anne then decides what both must do to keep the integrity of the two persons. Every step of the process is extremely important in the conversation of the relationship between the two dancers in trying to figure out who they are as individuals together. Before the pandemic, Anne was interested in a need for connection and a need for understanding the other in synchronicity. But the title of the piece made Anne realize that after all this stuff of the last two years, it’s just her. She has to find her road for life and walk that road. This is the personal part of ‘Only You’ and also a self quest. ‘Only You’ is also personal in that she went from only dancing for other people and a moving on to choreographic development. There was a transition for her. Anne is still a performer, but she only performs her work. She considers herself fortunate in her career that she has worked with phenomenal creators such as Crystal Pite and James Kudelka in that she was a muse for someone else’s vision. But she has moved forward. What’s next for Anne Plamondon after April 9 after Harbourfront? After Toronto, she and the company travel to Ottawa and the National Arts Centre and perform ‘Only You’ there. In June, she starts a new creation with eight Canadian dancers including herself. It’s the St Sauveur Festival in Montreal directed by Guillaume Côté. Anne was commissioned a thirty-minute piece this August to create a work. She has selected dancers from across the country. She points out that during this time everyone is talking about thinking locally. Anne makes a good point when she says that local is Canada for her, so she has dancers from Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal. Although some of the dancers have worked with each other in the past while others haven’t, Anne confidently states she is taking a leap of faith that she has selected the perfect group for this piece at the Festival which premieres August 3. As we began to wind down the conversation, I asked Anne a question what I’ve asked other artists in some profiles. What would she like future audiences to remember about her and her work ten years from now? I think I caught her off guard because she paused and said that it was a monumental task to think about this right now. Then she confided that she felt humbled in being asked this question. For Anne, she loves the art of dance and its discipline. Sometimes, dance might or could be misunderstood by audiences who may connect to music or theatre more. She feels she has a responsibility as a dance artist to bring the standards and the quality, the craft and the integrity of the work in that direction of excellence, otherwise the discipline can suffer tremendously if dancers don’t aim for excellence in the industry. ‘Seulement Toi/Only You’ performs April 8 and 9 at 7:30 pm at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Harbourfront Centre, Queen’s Quay Terminal, 3rd Floor, 207 Queen’s Quay West. The performance is 60 minutes in length with a short question and answer following the show April 9. For tickets, visit harbourfrontcentre.com. Previous Next

  • Profiles Allen Macinnis

    Back Allen Macinnis Toronto Profile Young People’s Theatre Facebook page. Joe Szekeres Sadly, as I write this, I never had the opportunity to meet Allen in my short time reviewing at Young People’s Theatre (YPT) for On Stage Blog. I only began reviewing for YPT in May 2019. I wished I had now. “Le sigh”, as my niece says. Why the glum sound? The company press release showcases Mr. MacInnis’ extensive forty-year theatrical career in which he has devoted nearly half of it (nineteen years, specifically) to YPT. I had no prior knowledge of the impact he has left on the face of Canadian theatre across the country most notably on the youngest audience members, including babies. However, as Executive Director Nancy Webster stated in this same release, Allen will first program YPT’s 2020-2021 season as well as direct before he steps down. It will be a “long good-bye in order to allow for a smooth transition into the company’s next chapter with a new artist at the helm.” I better get moving in YPT’s new season to track him down, to introduce myself, and to wish Allen well in the new chapter of his life. Hey, as a retired high school teacher, I will let him know that this new phase opens endless possibilities and further opportunities. But I’m certain he’s already aware of them. When I taught high school English and Dramatic Arts in the late 80s and 90s, I remember bringing my students to YPT especially if a play we were studying was to be performed live. I always believed it was important for students and young people to see the world of literature come alive dramatically. That was then. Today, Ontario schools have shifted tremendously in their development of meeting overall and specific curricula expectations. This year, in consideration of reconciliation to our Indigenous people, the YPT slate of productions was to have focused on the Seven Ancestral Teachings of the Anishinaabe. No one could have ever predicted how two major events this season – unrest in the provincially funded education system and the pandemic of COVID – 19 – would turn all live theatre seasons upside down. Despite these tumultuous months provincially, MacInnis’ artistic vision in joining YPT in 2002 has remained steady. YPT took these Ontario Ministry of Education expectations and fully brought them to fruition and focused on the emotional, social and intellectual development of young people which influenced all artistic choices as well as the company’s core values of purpose and audience. Additionally Mr. MacInnis, together with Executive Director Nancy Webster, established the company’s ‘Innovative Education & Participation Department, connecting every element of YPT’s educational work with the company’s professional productions. This job and calling taught Allen it’s “all about maintaining an authentic relationship with young people and the people who care about them.” Ah, there’s the key word right there – authenticity. As a retired schoolteacher, I also saw firsthand that young people truly do know when something or someone is authentic and genuine and when they’re not. You can’t pull a fast one on youth because they will automatically sense and know if it’s done. They just somehow do. I reviewed five YPT productions this year, four of them during the current upheaval of teacher unrest and threat of COVID-19: ‘Antigone’ (from the 2018-2019 season), ‘The Mush Hole’, ‘A Million Billion Pieces’, ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ and ‘The Jungle Book’. The last four believably, genuinely, authentically and realistically appealed to the diverse audiences of children and adults specifically in the following four out of seven teachings of the Anishinaabe – Love, Honesty, Truth and Respect. If anything, on a personal note of reflection, these four teachings became ironic reminders of how important it is to maintain them especially in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic in which we now find ourselves worldwide. I will most definitely track down Allen MacInnis to speak to him more about where he believes our Canadian theatre industry is headed. He is quoted as saying in the company press release that “it’s time for someone like me to get out of the way for a new generation, especially those who face barriers to accessing leadership roles.” You have me intrigued, Allen, about this statement. I can’t wait to pick your brain and to talk theatre with you. Young People’s Theatre can be found at 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.org for further information or their Facebook page: Young People’s Theatre Previous Next

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