THIS MATTERS: Colin Thomas has been fired from the Georgia Straight

wuxtry_black“I just got fired from The Georgia Straight,” Colin Thomas (arguably one of the most thoughtful, thorny, and experienced critics in the Vancouver theatre scene) wrote on his blog yesterday morning, “Thirty years. No warning. No compensation.” While Thomas’ higher-ups at the Straight seemed reluctant to give any particulars as to WHY his theatre review services would no longer be needed at the weekly arts and culture paper where Thomas’ writing was the keystone of their theatre section, the feedback he reports to have received hints at a couple of things:

  1. There is pressure at the paper to “find fresh ways to do things” (this is usually a euphemism for “find ways to make more money).
  2. Thomas’ critical reviews, much appreciated by the Vancouver theatre world, have been considered, well, too critical.

This news comes just as I am learning that Maclean’s Magazine (a respected Canadian news magazine to which I have a print subscription) will switch from a weekly print edition to a monthly one. (Meanwhile, Rogers Media, which owns Maclean’s, will keep its low-res, poorly composited entertainment rag Hello! Canada as a weekly publication). Whoever heard of a news magazine that only prints monthly?! Sure, new digital content will be available online each week, but it’s just not the same. The internet is opinion. The internet is this blog post and this blog and the millions  of other blogs where people with something to say and time to say it hammer it out every once in a while. The print edition of Maclean’s is, for the most part, a well-researched, thoughtful, and balanced publication. It is not a blog post. It is a goddamn Canadian institution.

News of Thomas’ ouster also comes as Nick Mount, U of Toronto professor and also (former) editor of fiction at high-brow Canadian magazine The Walrus quits his post over the magazine’s push for more “family-friendly” content in its fiction section. The f*ck? Um….are children reading The Walrus? Are people really worried that a piece of fiction published in THE WALRUS could possibly be more corrupting than the violent porn and hate-filled vitriol literally at the fingertips of every kid with a computer or a wireless device?

All this is to say that this is a sad, and scary, time in Canadian print media. That a theatre reviewer of a major Vancouver arts and culture publication (really, THE theatre reviewer of THE arts and culture publication) can be fired, just like that, for doing their job to the best of their judgement and considerable expertise is nothing short of disturbing. Thomas writes:

Janet [Smith, arts editor at the Straight] also said that “there have been complaints from some companies.” “What complaints?” I asked. “You know: that you never like anything,” she answered with a laugh. I replied that it’s very hard to do good theatre and that I figure, if one show in three is worth recommending, that’s a good average. Then she added that some unnamed complainants feel that I am sometimes too hard on younger artists. (There is nothing I enjoy more than championing younger artists.) She gave an example. It was one of the worst shows of the year.

Thomas isn’t being facetious when he says he enjoys championing young theatre makers. Though generally difficult to please (his presence in an audience makes for a nervous performance, I can tell you), Colin Thomas is notoriously supportive of emerging artists. [Full disclosure: Thomas once reviewed a show I was a performer in (an early version of Chernobyl: The Opera), and called it “most impressive”. A few years later, he reviewed a show I wrote (Olya the Child) and raked it over the coals for being “unrealistic”. Though I disagree on the finer points, overall, he was right on both counts: Chernobyl was solid in both concept and execution, whereas the script I wrote had holes. I had a good cry about it and moved on. Like an adult]. While you might not agree with Thomas’ opinion about a specific show, he isn’t malicious–even when reviewing a total train wreck, he will praise this or that aspect of the production if praise is due. Most theatre artists who have commented on Thomas’ firing on social media, many of whom have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative criticisms, have said his comments have not only helped them to grow as artists but also to learn to handle criticism constructively.

I honestly don’t know what kind of credible arts and culture paper would take complaints about a solid reviewer being “too critical” seriously, and I don’t know what kind of “younger artists” do not yet understand that thick skin is a prerequisite for survival in this very difficult game. Yes, Thomas sometimes misses the mark, and yes, ultimately, his reviews are just his opinions. But they are informed and passionately defended opinions, based on a love of good theatre, a drive to hold it to a high standard (albeit his high standard, which may not be the same as yours), and not on elitism or malice. You don’t have to agree with him, but the fact remains that for thirty years, Thomas’ sometimes provocative reviews have provided great jumping-off points for wider discussions about theatre in Vancouver. This is a good thing.

Canadian print media is the going to be the poorer for its recent attempts to make its publications more profit-driven, more friendly, more “feel-good”. And The Georgia Straight is certainly the poorer for losing Colin Thomas.

 

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Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions presents “Ithaka”

Ithaka presented by dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr.) now until May 14.

Ithaka-Final-SponsorsUpadated

When we, as a society, ask soldiers and other military personnel to deploy into a war zone, we are asking them to face the dangers and near impossibility of an extreme environment. If they survive their deployment, they are asked to do something equally, if not more, impossible: to return to their previous lives as if nothing unusual has happened.

The struggle of veterans to find “home”, even after the fighting is over, forms the core of Ithaka, written by American playwright Andrea Stolowitz and directed in its Canadian premiere by Jessica Anne Nelson (artistic director of Excavation Theatre). Stefania Indelicato (artistic director of dream of passion productions) stars as U.S. Marine Elaine “Lanie” Edwards, recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, who finds she has brought the terror, guilt, and alienation of the battlefield home with her.

Seated in an alley configuration in the Havana Theatre, audience members are physically confronted by the emotional weight of the play’s subject matter with an immediacy that is as overwhelming as it is moving. However, the symbolic/surrealist set of Rafaella Rabinovich (a small wheeled platform resting on a line of railway track) fills the tight playing space, creating an inconvenient obstacle for the actors, who are for the most part delivering realist performances. This physical difficulty can be read symbolically, I suppose, but if that is the intention I found myself wanting more out of the staging and the transitions between scenes, many of which are handled purely logistically rather than used as opportunities to explore the Odyssean metaphors present in the set and script, or to utilize the supporting cast members whose dialogue otherwise may not require their presence onstage. As for the performances themselves, the intensity dial is consistently turned right up to 10, giving us the full force of the script where the scenes call for it, but also, for me, overruling some of those quieter moments that could have played well in such an intimate venue.

But make no mistake: as a performer, Indelicato is an absolute powerhouse, fully capable of carrying this play through any challenges it may have. Her unflinching portrayal of a veteran grappling with PTSD and the inane normalcy of civilian life dares you to remain unaffected. Both the production and the performers show their strengths in the script’s dialogues, in which relationships are created, remembered, and blown up (a favourite scene of mine is a particularly heated exchange between Lanie and her civilian husband Bill, played by Adam Lolacher). One senses that the actors are truly listening to each other, even if their characters (sometimes) are not.

As the audience began to applaud the conclusion of the play, the lights came up to reveal several people wiping their eyes, and I overheard a woman in the bathroom tell another woman in line that she thought the show was “amazing”. At the end of the day, it is the stories we tell and hear that move us, and that remain with us long after we’ve left the theatre. The story of Ithaka is important, compelling, and passionately told.

 

Ithaka runs until May 14 at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Wounded Warriors Canada is listed as a community partner of the production. From their mission statement:

Wounded Warriors Canada is a non-profit organization that supports Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, and their families.

Through a wide range of national programs and services, Wounded Warriors provides a spectrum of care that is focused on mental health and, particularly, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you would like to find out more about their work or make a donation, please visit woundedwarriors.ca.

Disclosure: I attended last night’s performance of Ithaka courtesy of dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre.

April 26, ONE NIGHT ONLY – the Troika Collective presents “Voices from Chernobyl”

Voices From Chernobyl poster image

April 26, 2016 (this Tuesday) marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. To commemorate this event, and in support of the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation, the Troika Collective will be presenting a one-night-only concert performance of their bewitchingly tragic song cycle, Voices from Chernobyl (previously staged as Chernobyl: the Opera).

From their website:

Set to the haunting yet beautiful contemporary music of composer Elliot Vaughan, Voices from Chernobyl tells the stories of survivors of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor as well as of those who have chosen to resettle in the region despite the dangers to their health. Using verbatim text taken from interviews and sung by an ensemble of seven, Voices from Chernobyl uses music and projection to explore the horrifying and heartbreaking yet compelling history of a nuclear disaster.

I first encountered this project several years ago when I performed in a short, four-song, four-voice version of Chernobyl as part of a larger event.  Since then, the show has evolved into a stand-alone cycle for seven voices and remains one of the Troika Collective’s most popular productions. I reached out to Aliya Griffin, Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and co-creator and director of Voices from Chernobyl to ask her a few questions about this show and its journey.

A question we were asked in theatre school was, “Why this play, why now?” Obviously, you are mounting Voices from Chernobyl right now to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, but why is this subject important to you?

I think Chernobyl captured the imaginations of a lot of people when it happened and for years after. It was the first time since WWII and the first time in peace-time that we saw the horrifying possibility of nuclear power when it goes wrong. I of course personally have a connection to Ukraine, so that is part of my interest, but really the fascination came in reading the verbatim text of interviews taken by Svetlana Alexievich in Voices from Chernobyl, the book. I have a passion for non-fiction and verbatim text and these stories were so compelling. The stories are at the same time alienating, in that these people were dealing with a situation that was unprecedented, and also heart-breakingly relatable in their humanity and honesty. I think I also have a profound desire to understand the “other”, to know why people do the things they do and to help share stories that I think other people far away from the storytellers need to hear. I am not a politician, or a writer, but I use my theatre, and in this case the music of Elliot Vaughan, to help share these stories. The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is of course the specific reason for this remount, but this music and this show have stayed with me and these stories still beg to be told. 

This show has had a long journey since it was originally conceived several years ago. Could you talk about the process of creating the song-cycle, and about what continues to hold your artistic interest after all this time with it? What makes Voices from Chernobyl so unique?

I think initially it felt like a really big undertaking. I tend to create shows from beginning to end in short creative time periods. This project seemed like a big endeavor and we weren’t sure how it would be received. The short four-song version [we premiered] as part of Hive: The Newbees 2 was a chance to try out our aesthetic and see how it worked. It ended up being really successful and people seemed to be into what we were doing, so it gave us the confidence to move forward with more stories and a longer stand-alone show. Along with everything I mentioned above in terms of content, I’m also really interested in playing with form when it comes to verbatim text. In all my pieces, I tend to have a bit of a choreographic quality. I like playing with rhythm and accented movement (everyone who works with me will tell you about my obsession with sharp head turns). I find with verbatim text the honesty and humanity of the stories is built right in and you don’t need to over-play that with naturalistic acting. Voices from Chernobyl of course lets me really play with this choreographic aesthetic because it is entirely music. (For this concert version however, we are really letting the music speak for itself and the blocking and choreography will be minimal).

In your interview with Emelia Symington-Fedy on her Roundhouse Radio show, Trying to Be Good, you talked about visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on a recent vacation with your mother. How has visiting the actual site of this disaster affected your relationship with this piece?

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something really profound to happen when I visited the site, especially considering how intimately we got to know these personal stories. I was struck by how beautiful the region is, but also by how mundane it all is. I didn’t feel a lot of fear going into the zone. It might be in part because we entered the zone with two bus loads of mostly British soccer fans who were visiting Ukraine for a big match. Since being opened for tourism, the site has definitely lost some of its sense of isolation and mystery. Also, there are dozens of workers in the zone, not just tour guides, but also those helping build the third sarcophagus that is meant to cover reactor number 4 and contain the radiation for up to 100 years. The tour was of course fascinating and visiting the iconic, abandoned town of Pripyat and the famous amusement park that was never opened was really interesting, but overall it felt more touristy than I would have liked. 

On the website for the Troika Collective, it says that proceeds from the event will benefit the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation. Could you talk about their work and about how the Troika Collective became connected with the Foundation?

While creating the full length version of the show, I stumbled across an article in the Georgia Straight about the Veronika Foundation and its founder Svetlana Khashkin. I always knew I wanted the show to have a charitable component, but I thought we would likely go with a more internationally-known charity. To meet people in the lower mainland who do work directly related to the legacy of Chernobyl was exciting. My mom and I met with Svetlana and her husband Grigori at the Eastern European food store they own in Coquitlam and they were very excited about the project. We also discovered that Grigori had been a Chernobyl liquidator and he eventually ended up being a guest speaker for a post-show Q&A after one of our shows. The Veronika Foundation does all sorts of work in supporting children living with cancer in Eastern Europe (and I highly encourage [readers] to check out their website at veronikafoundation.org) but the most interesting to me is their work towards establishing a bone marrow registry in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Lastly, is there anything else you want to mention about Voices from Chernobyl or about the event in general?

I guess I would just like to encourage people to come out and support this event. It will be a great night of music, not just with Voices from Chernobyl, but also with a set from Eastern European and Balkan a cappella group Vostok. I really think it’s going to be an engaging and enjoyable evening. And of course it supports a great cause!

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Voices from Chernobyl will be performed ONE NIGHT ONLY Tuesday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 805 East Pender, Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets. Tickets will also be available at the door (cash only for the box office and bar).

Disclosure: In addition to being a friend of several people involved in the show, including Aliya Griffin, I sit on the board of the Troika Collective and am a member of Tuesday’s opening musical act, Vostok.

Theatre Terrific’s “BEING Animal” is a profoundly human experience

Theatre Terrific’s BEING Animal is currently running at the Vancouver Fringe. The final three performances are this Friday (6:00 p.m.), Saturday (2:00 p.m.) and Sunday (2:00 p.m.).

beinganimal_fringeimage

“Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostril–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.”

David Abrams

Inspired by the work of author David Abrams and created by Theatre Terrific’s ensemble (under the directorship of Susanna Uchatius and James Coomber), BEING Animal uses music, mask work, puppetry, and physical stage choreography to explore and help forge our connections to our natural world, and each other.

Theatre Terrific’s inclusive casting and creation practices provide professional theatre opportunities for performers with drive and talent, regardless of physical or cognitive (dis)ability; their resulting productions dissolve prejudices about ability and art, while reaffirming the inherent dignity of the human spirit. But BEING Animal is so much more than a great mandate. It’s a beautiful and immersive theatrical experience. The audience sits along the boardwalk behind Performance Works, the stage is a grove of trees, and the backdrop is a peekaboo view of the sea and the city. The matinee performance I attended was quite windy, but that only added to the other-worldliness of the show, allowing me to feel both a part of the city and outside of it at the same time, both immersed in nature and participating in the distinctly urban experience that is an afternoon at the theatre. With its sparse use of text and reliance on stage picture, physical choreography, and musical cues to move the show forward, watching Being ANIMAL is akin to watching contemporary dance–lulled by James Coomber’s ethereal score, I simply allowed the event to unfold before my eyes, startled from my reverie now and then as a new image or moment settled into recognition.

One of my favourite aspects of this show is its use of masks–I’ve always loved mask work and I find that masks both remove barriers to an audience’s relation with a character, but also accentuate what is particular or idiosyncratic about a performer’s body, turning what some may see as a performance liabilities into unique physical gifts. In masks, individuality is erased, but humanity is accentuated.

As much as BEING Animal uses ideas of “the natural world” thematically, at its core it is startlingly human. It’s not about having an open mind, but about having an open heart–recognizing our shared frailty, our longing for communion (whether with nature or with each other), and our strength.

Photo: Chantele Fry

Photo: Chantele Fry

[I don’t want to give too much of the show away but during one specific section both my companion and I were moved to tears–not because the play was sad but simply because the moment we were watching was so beautiful. That’s something I don’t get to say a lot.]

BEING Animal plays at the Vancouver Fringe, in the Sculpture Grove behind Performance Works, from Friday to Sunday (see Fringe website or top of post for performance times). Tickets are $14 (must be accompanied by $5 Fringe membership or valid pass) and can be purchased online at VancouverFringe.com.

Disclosure: I attended last Sunday’s performance of BEING Animal courtesy of Theatre Terrific.

The Troika Collective presents “Olya the Child”

Olya the Child presented by the Troika Collective as a site-specific production in the Emily Carr Parkade as part of the 2015 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, now until September 20.

Poster design: Sonja Kresowaty

Poster design and illustration: Sonja Kresowaty

Shameless plug alert: obviously my promotion of this play is a little biased as I wrote the script and my friends are in the company. But you should see it!

From the press release (which I also wrote):

The company that created and performed Chernobyl: The Opera for sold-out audiences and brought Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost to Vancouver for its North American premiere presents Olya the Child, an original play that explores the meaning of family through the eyes of a Russian orphan.

Performed as a site-specific work in the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island, Olya the Child draws parallels between tales of feral children (children raised without human contact) and the unique challenges of international adoption. Ten-year-old Russian orphan Olya Kadnikova (Jessica Hood) has been taught all her life to wish for a family, and for a home outside her state orphanage. She is surprised to be adopted by Canadian housewife Deborah Johnson (Jalen Saip), who hopes that a daughter will bring love into her failing marriage. When adjusting to their new relationship proves more difficult than expected, both child and adoptive parent must examine their illusions, motives, and emotional capacities to decide if the beauty of their old dreams can overcome the challenges of their current realities.

Featuring collaborative physical storytelling by an ensemble cast, by turns both whimsical and bleak, Olya the Child takes its audience from the concrete jungle of a state orphanage in Moscow, through the efficient metropolis of the Frankfurt Airport, to the sometimes claustrophobic comfort of suburban Vancouver as it questions the nature of love, family, and the fairy tales we tell about them.

I think I knew my life as a performer was never going to materialize the first time I saw a script I wrote onstage. Don’t get me wrong–performing was intoxicating, and every so often my heart longs for the feeling of being onstage, for the camaraderie of waiting in the wings, mouthing the words of the scenes as my fellow actors performed them, listening for the audience response. In the intensity of that kind of focus and stillness, one show could feel like a whole week of living. But when I saw this event from the other side, when I sat in the house and listened to the actors instead of the audience, speaking words I wrote, reacting to the situations I created, interpreting a story of my imagining, I knew there was no help for me. I didn’t want to be this character or that one every night for a couple of weeks–I wanted to be every character, and their circumstances, and their language, and their rhythms, and their world, always. So I pulled myself away from performing, gently but painfully, and I kept writing.

Luckily for me, when I was studying performance in my bachelors degree I managed to establish relationships with wonderful theatre artists that I am still happy to have as collaborators and friends and who, for whatever reason, are willing to stage my plays. Friends like Aliya Griffin, founder and Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and director of Olya the Child. It was Aliya who said to me one night over drinks, “I want to stage a play about feral children, but also about Eastern European orphans. Do you think you’d be interested in writing it?” and I said yeah. We discussed the issues with one another, watched the same documentary (as well as conducting our own research), and knew the piece would be staged in a parkade, but apart from that I had complete freedom to create the story as the cast of characters grew and shrank depending on the draft I was working on, and the amount of Russian I would require the cast to speak shrank considerably from the first draft to the current one (I don’t speak Russian myself, and it’s not an easy language).

Knowing that everything you write needs to be performed in a real physical space is a major restriction for a playwright, but I’m very familiar with Aliya’s work as a director and I know what she is capable of when she has the right cast, that is, a cast that is willing to play and explore and help create physically what the lines I wrote can only say verbally. I don’t usually get too involved in rehearsals for the pieces I write, but I had the opportunity to participate in the auditions this time and to catch a sneak peek at some of the orphanage and airport scenes in rehearsal and I am very excited, and very grateful.  I think it takes a certain leap of faith to write a script, and assume that other artists (directors, actors, even graphic designers) are going to be interested in putting as much of their energy and their talent into as you did, and it is the most humbling and gratifying experience to watch it happen.

Though I’m listed as the playwright on this piece, I don’t feel that I wrote it alone; Aliya was reading drafts and providing feedback every step of the way. One of the interesting things about writing plays as opposed to other kinds of creative texts is that the collaborative process (which occurs in almost all creative writing no matter who is listed as the actual author) becomes visible onstage–the words may be mine but the work of art is collective. And if I do say so myself, I think my collaborators and I have examined a complicated and sometimes thorny subject with gentleness and care, opening a conversation rather than closing a door, and I hope, of course, that you will come and see it.

Olya the Child runs at the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island September 10 – 20. Tickets are $14 (plus a $5 Fringe membership) and can be purchased online through the Vancouver Fringe website (ignore the note that says “Coarse Language”; the play is, in fact, family friendly).

P.S. Check it out! Olya the Child was recently featured in local paper The Source: Forum for Diversity [“Complicating the FairyTale: Play casts a spotlight on international adoption” by Simon Yee]

Fighting Chance presents “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.

Photography by Tegan Verheul.

Photography: Tegan Verheul.

Whenever a popular show, especially a smash hit, is resurrected, directors, producers, and critical viewers like myself must ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” When the show in question is over 40 years old, enjoys worldwide popularity as both a theatre production and a film, and is presenting one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian faith to an increasingly secular audience, this question becomes even more pertinent. Why Jesus Christ Superstar, I wondered, why now? My first exposure to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s gospel-based rock opera was during a North American revival in the 90s–my parents went off to the city to see the show and came home with the soundtrack, singing “Hosanna” in the living room and generally failing to impress seven-year-old me. Having been unable to shake my own original impression of Superstar as a fuddy old relic, and being aware that the show has, over the last four decades of popularity on stage and screen, amassed a following with deeply entrenched ideas of what it should look and sound like, I was intrigued by a relatively young company’s decision to mount such a well-known production, and one so potentially burdened with expectation.

Fortunately, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar does not feel dated at all, nor does it make any attempt to reproduce the iconic performances of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (who played Jesus and Judas in the film version of the show and in the 90s Broadway revival). Rather than set the story of Jesus and Judas in 4 B.C. Jerusalem, directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman have placed it in a world and time very much like our own, in a distinctly urban setting (represented by metal scaffolding) where social media, smartphones, and selfies not only exist, but help play into the “rise and fall” celebrity culture in which Jesus and Judas find themselves entangled.

I must confess I was skeptical at first when I saw the screens mounted on the scaffolding, and read about the directorial vision to include 21st-century technological trappings in the show, but it works. The presence of media in this production presents a direct challenge to Judas’ assertion (in the song “Superstar”) that “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in four B.C. had no mass communication,”  the assumption being that an increased ability to spread his message and have his motives understood could have saved Jesus from crucifixion. Fighting Chance’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t so sure (and neither am I)–when we look at the way celebrities of today are worshiped one day and vilified the next, stripped of their privacy, legacy and livelihood by the social media mob, do we really think a Christ-like figure would have any chance of escaping our scrutiny, caprices, and, eventually, our wrath when they fail to meet our extraordinary expectations? The result of this directorial choice gives Fighting Chance’s Superstar an authenticity that a more faithful visual reproduction would not have had and allows it to reach for what the original Jesus Christ Superstar was always meant to be–a refreshing vision of an old story, and an examination of the ways celebrity can destroy our best intentions.

And the music! It’s just SO GOOD! As a lyricist, Tim Rice’s achievement is not to be understated but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a bloody genius. In true (rock) opera form, Jesus Christ Superstar has no spoken text, but it hardly matters when the music is so electrifying  and expressive–the subtle shifts into minor harmonies in otherwise joyful pieces like “Hosanna” foreshadow the fickleness of the mob and the enormity of the burden they are placing on one man. And indeed, the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever connection he may have to his unseen god, is never more than a good man, and Judas, whatever the outcome of his decisions may have been, is never less. As our troubled world waits for the next revolution, we would do well to remind ourselves how often we destroy those who would be our saviours, and how easily they, or we, can be corrupted.

As for the performances themselves, they leave little to be desired from a vocal perspective. A colour-and-gender-blind casting process for Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar gives us Hal Wesley Rogers (an actor of colour with an incredible falsetto) in the title role, and actresses Sara Mayer and Lisa Ricketts as Peter the Apostle and the High Priest Caiaphas respectively. Lovers of the film version may take issue with Caiaphas’ low notes (heard in the film in Bob Bingham’s surreal bass) being bumped up a couple of octaves for Rickett’s menacing and sometimes shrill soprano portrayal, but for me it worked. Vocally, I thought the entire ensemble was strong (together with Rogers, Ray Boulay as Judas and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene made for a dynamic and engaging trio), but I did want to give props to three cast members with smaller roles that I thought delivered outstanding performances not only vocally but also dramatically in bringing their pieces of the story to life: Sean Anthony, required to fight his better nature in order to uphold Caesar’s law as Pontius Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as the bombastic apostle Simon, and Myles McCarthy as the deliciously sinister and slithering High Priest Annas.

As much as I enjoyed the production, I did not leave the show without regrets. The first is that the live band was not visible onstage but instead played the show from the wings. I know the scaffolding of the set took up a lot of space and that staging a singing and dancing extravaganza like Jesus Christ Superstar in a smaller theatre requires tough decisions and sacrifices, but if the show is ever remounted, I would love to see the band incorporated into the visible stage area. Live music in theatre really adds something special to a performance and I hate to see it hidden. My second complaint is an issue I have experienced in a couple of other Fighting Chance shows–audibility. Off the top of the show, the sound levels seemed a little out of whack, especially in Judas’ more instrumental numbers (with the band often drowning out Judas’ words), and there were some microphone issues in both acts. It’s frustrating as an audience member to see a performer singing the hell out of something, and be able to hear how great their voice is, but be unable to make out what they’re saying. The plot of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it would have been nice to have had a more full appreciation of Rice’s take on this ancient story. I sincerely hope that for future endeavors Fighting Chance will be able to obtain whatever resources they need to overcome these sound issues (more tech time? better mics?) because these kinds of barriers to audience enjoyment or comprehension undercut the otherwise incredible work being done on the stage.

Apart from those issues, I enjoyed myself immensely. The music has been in my head ever since the performance and it seems that despite my childhood first impressions of the musical, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar has definitely made a convert out of me.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.

Theatre Terrific presents “I Love Mondays” April 17 – 26

One of the downsides of living in an artistically-active city like Vancouver is that there is so much out there, it can often take me a while to explore theatre companies whose work I haven’t experienced before. I am therefore delighted to have finally fulfilled a theatrical goal of mine to check out Theatre Terrific, Western Canada’s oldest inclusive theatre company. From their website:

Theatre Terrific pioneers inclusive opportunities for artists of all abilities to develop performance skills and collaborate in the production of theatrical works. […]

Vision

Supporting artists of all abilities in the rigorous creation of provocative theatre.

Mandate

Theatre Terrific brings together artists who would normally never work together. Our diverse ensembles include professional and emerging artists with or without developmental, physical, or mental health issues, gender or language challenges.

Good art is often art that examines and challenges our assumptions about the world we live in and the people with whom we share our time on this planet. Issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, ability, and mental illness are often explored onstage, and yet, the theatre world remains structurally exclusionary in many ways (as a basic example, I was lucky to audition for and be accepted into one of the few theatre programs I knew of that didn’t have set intake numbers based on gender–many schools will only accept a set number of men and women each year, despite the often much higher numbers of women auditioning). Many performance spaces are not fully accessible, and ones that have an accessible front of house often don’t have that same level of accessibility in their backstage areas. Performers are expected to meet certain expectations of physical and vocal ability, and it’s rare to see disability onstage unless the disability is written into the script as a particular aspect of a character, and even then, the character is more often portrayed by an actor who doesn’t have a disability than by one who does.

All this is to say that for a company like Theatre Terrific to have been operating in Vancouver for 30 years is fantastic, and it’s important, for artists and audience members of all backgrounds and abilities, that their work continue to be supported, seen, and enjoyed.

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milany

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milaney

Theatre Terrific’s current professional production is I Love Mondays, adapted by director Susanna Uchatius from the script by Pamela Boyd and playing at Studio 1398 on Granville Island. I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend their opening night.

Both in form and in theme, I Love Mondays is a quiet play, a story of two isolated people finding in each other the friendship and support they need to pursue their “best dreams”.  While Darlene Brookes (who plays Peggy, a divorcee and visual artist) is a well-known Vancouver performer, her co-star Jonah Killoran (who plays George, the developmentally challenged man Peggy is hired to work with), is an actor with cognitive differences whose experiences and path in the theatre are likely much different from those of most actors. Staging a play with an inclusive cast is certainly a challenge, and one that does require letting go of some of the performance conventions we’re used to.

At first, it may feel that watching I Love Mondays requires a little bit of patience. The pace is a little slower than the clippy, rapid-fire exchanges we tend to associate with a “tight” show. The important thing is that the actors are fully present and the dramatic intentions are all in place in every line, even if some actors need to take a little more time in their delivery than others. I quickly settled into the rhythm of the show and allowed it to take me on its quiet, and ultimately quite rewarding, journey.

What struck me the most about the way in which Theatre Terrific has staged I Love Mondays is the incredible gentleness displayed between the characters in the play and between the actors on stage. It is rare, very rare, I think, to sit in the theatre and see that the performers care for one another, and are taking care of one another in various small ways throughout the evening. As I watched I allowed my preconceptions to fall away, and I realized that just as some of the characters onstage were being limited because of their differences, I had been limiting some of the actors in my mind, and when they emerged, butterfly-like, beyond the boundaries of the limitations I had unconsciously imposed on them, I was both delighted and a little embarrassed of myself. What I mean to say is this: what is happening between the characters onstage is also happening between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. The characters who gain our respect as people in a story are also actors who deserve our respect as performers onstage, whatever their path into the theatre has been.

Theatre Terrific has been pushing beyond its own boundaries in this first-ever production from a scripted play (previous professional productions were collaborative creations), and the result is a unique and gentle story, told in a unique and gentle way. I urge you to challenge your assumptions of what theatre can be–art, and its creation, belong to everyone.

I Love Mondays will be playing at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St., Granville Island) until April 26. Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of I Love Mondays courtesy of Theatre Terrific. I was not asked for a review.

The Troika Collective presents “Nordost” (March 4 – 7)

Nord Ost_press kit_FINAL

Opening night is finally here.

We spent our tech weekend and dress rehearsals doing what we normally do on tech weekend and dress rehearsals–doing everything we can to make a good show great. We often talk about the “magic” of theatre, as if the nitty-gritty details of putting a show together are just unfortunate necessities (boring stuff like working out blocking, memorizing lines, and fine-tuning technical cues). But preparation is vital in the theatre. We prepare and prepare and prepare so that when we step out onto the stage (or into the booth, or take our seat in the audience, critical eye and notebook at the ready), we can lose ourselves just enough to take our audience with us.

Our phenomenal cast is prepared. When the lights came up on them at last night’s dress rehearsal, magic happened. They’d moved from knowing what they needed to do as actors, to understanding their characters’ motivations, to embodying three brave women trapped in horrific circumstances. It’s in them–in their faces, their voices, their bodies, and their hearts.

Obviously, as the production dramaturg for Nordost and co-artistic director of the Troika Collective, my opinion is extremely biased, but I could not be more proud of these actors, our director, or our designer. What these women gave of themselves to bring this show to life in Vancouver (a North American premiere, no less), is beyond my ability to thank them. I have no idea what good deed I must have done to deserve to add my name to the program alongside them but I could not feel more privileged. This is a damn good show.

And an important show. In the buzzing silent moment after the dress run and before the cast had taken their bows (it’s good to practice them, even with no audience), I couldn’t help but reflect on Nordost‘s story of trauma, terrorism, and desperation, and think, “And we’re doing it all again.” The world is not so different now than it was in 2002–except maybe we’ve become used to things we shouldn’t be used to, and maybe we haven’t learned as much as we should have. This play is serious, yes, but also necessary.

And it’s a great show.

Nordost will be playing at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) March 4 – 7. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20/$17 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door (cash only at door).

David Tushingham’s English translation of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost was originally commissioned by Company of Angels, London, and first presented at the Salisbury Playhouse Studio in April 2013.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost 2

The online ticketing page is up, the press release has been sent out, and the Troika Collective continues rehearsing for our upcoming production of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost (translated by David Tushingham).

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

After my last dispatch, I received an inquiry as to what a “dramaturg” does. “Is it like an editor?” people sometimes ask. The answer is sort of, and also, it depends. When the dramaturg is a script dramaturg or a new play dramaturg, they will often work with a playwright to bring the playwright’s vision to fruition and prepare the script for production, so yes, it could involve helping a playwright craft a script the way an editor may help an author craft a novel, but not always. So that’s the “sort of” part.

But it depends what kind of dramaturgy we’re talking about. When the dramaturg is a production dramaturg on an already-written play, as I am on Nordost, the dramaturg is there primarily to assist the director with the crafting of their vision. In this role the script is a constant and will not change. In some processes, the dramaturg will supply the director and cast with research materials about the play or the time period or the historical event, etc., but I find I’m not really that kind of dramaturg either. I like to be another set of eyes, generally. I like to attend rehearsals and take notes and occasionally have good-natured fights with directors for or against specific artistic choices. Until recently in this process, we were still blocking out the show (which is very very difficult in the round), so I was making a point of sitting on a different side than the one Aliya, our director, was on, and occasionally pronouncing that I was “seeing a lot of backs of heads”. It’s good to be useful.

Last week we gathered around Aliya’s laptop to watch a video of Nord-Ost, the Russian musical that was being performed in the Dubrovka Theatre when it was taken hostage (the siege itself becoming the premise for this play). Some funny stylistic choices aside (lots of jazz hands), it was rather chilling to think about an audience of nearly 800 watching this play, enjoying the dance numbers and getting involved in the story like any other show, with no idea that a real-life nightmare would begin in the second act. The unsuspecting audience were like passengers on the Titanic, laughing and having a good time while the ship sped towards an iceberg. Like the books the cast has been reading, this slightly sentimental musical will become part of each actor’s internal background, shaping and informing the text as they lift it from the page, bringing it into their voices and bodies.

The weight of the subject matter is always a presence in rehearsals. Levity in the process and jovial interpersonal relations can only take you so far when the words being spoken are so serious and emotionally charged. As a more occasional observer (I don’t attend every rehearsal), it is my privilege to watch these incredible actresses develop this telling of the story, and return to this material again and again, finding nuance and subtlety in rather heavy-handed realities. Both the actors and their characters are finding their resilience, and I know I say the word “exciting” a lot when I talk about this process, but it really really is.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7. Tickets can be purchased online at nordost.brownpapertickets.com.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost

This spring I have the privilege of acting as production dramaturg for the play Nordost, by German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner (translated by David Tushingham). The director, Aliya Griffin, and I are good friends and co-artistic directors of Aliya’s performance society brainchild, The Troika Collective (which is to say these dispatches will be somewhat self-serving since obviously I want to spread the word about this amazing show).

This room is "the skinny", where the cast was rehearsing yesterday!

This room is “the skinny”, where the cast was rehearsing yesterday! (This photo is a few years old).

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in a rehearsal process and I must confess my theatrical muscles have gotten a bit stiff lately. This makes me somewhat wistful, remembering a time when life was pretty much one long loop of rehearsing and performing and I got to move and shout and experiment and collaborate and create with my friends a few times a week (there really was something lost when I decided not to make performing a priority anymore). But it’s kind of invigorating too–waking up old sensibilities, watching the creative process unfold, and having it feel fresh again, rather than being the same old slog (which does happen, as much as I enjoyed performing). I think production dramaturgy is a good fit for me, and a fortunate one–not every director will work with a dramaturg (and some who have dramaturgs foisted on them don’t listen to them anyways). There’s something very attractive about dipping my toes in the process but not getting fully immersed. I get to see something different from what the director and cast are seeing (because they are seeing the everyday of it, and I am seeing more like time-lapses), and that’s kind of special.

But still very daunting. In the past, The Troika Collective has created the work we perform, and you’d think mounting a show that has already been written and performed successfully elsewhere would be easier for us, but it really isn’t. When the challenge of writing a new piece is removed, the challenge of working within textual constraints (and with expectations, if the play is well-known) replaces it. Our production will also be the North American premiere of Nordost, and that is a pretty big responsibility, especially when the subject Nordost tackles is so solemn.

Which brings me to the challenge of content. All plays, no matter their subject matter, should be rehearsed and performed with rigour and intention. That being said, some demand this rigour more than others and we are currently rehearsing a pretty rigourous play. From the perspectives of three different women (a Russian mother of two, a Latvian-born paramedic working in Moscow, and a Chechen widow-turned-militant), Nordost tells the story of the 2002 hostage taking of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow by Chechen rebels/freedom fighters, and about the Russian government’s duplicitous and bungled response, which left all of the hostage takers and plus 129 Russian civilians dead by Russian actions. This is a heavy play.

So how do you tell this story in a theatrical space? How do you bring such a terrible event to life in a way that engages, rather than exhausts, your audience? How do theatre artists engage with this material for several hours several days a week without becoming nervous wrecks?

Thankfully, Buchsteiner has written a a great deal of strength and humanity into his characters. There is grief in this story, and anger, but also incredible resilience. In many ways, doing the play justice will mean getting out of the story’s way a bit and letting the audience experience it for themselves. As for the artists working on the show, I feel safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room and that goes a long way. Rehearsals can still be incredibly pleasant, even fun, in spite of the seriousness of the play being worked on.

There are also formal challenges. Nordost will be performed in the round, which I think is one of the more difficult stage configurations. Unlike a proscenium stage, in which the scenes are really moving pictures in a frame, a round stage offers no place to hide and requires each stage picture to be dynamic and interesting from all angles. It’s a configuration not to be taken on lightly, but when it informs the work (as I think it will), it can be a rewarding artistic choice.

Challenges aside, I am getting pretty excited. Everyone involved directly in the show is an excellent person with commitment and vision and it’s sort of like going on a long road trip with your friends–you know you’re going to get tired sometimes but you know it’s going to be so much fun.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7.