SummerWorks Round-Up: Cassandra Silver reviews 6 shows closing this weekend in Toronto

 

Review: White Man’s Indian presents a new take on the coming-of-age narrative

Darla Contois’ tour-de-force writing and performance are supported by some of the most polished design and staging that I have seen at SummerWorks this year. White Man’s Indian is about Eva, a Cree teenage girl who moves off the reserve to live with her absentee father after her mother dies. It is simplistic to call this a coming-of-age story because the issues that Eva deals with go beyond the kind of fare you would expect in a play about adolescence. That said, all of the issues about identity that Contois, through Eva, negotiates are mapped onto precisely those usual narrative suspects—navigating high school friendships, gossiping about boys, planning for graduation, and more.

Contois pirouettes through multiple roles, subtly and impressively changing her posture and voice to represent characters as diverse as Eva’s alcoholic father and the ditzy popular girl at school. Standouts are “the twins,” an uncool (and hugely funny) pair of Eva’s classmates at her new high school who scoop her up into their social circle shortly after she arrives. Even Eva, Contois’ performative home base, evolves through the duration of the play, moving from moments of childhood vulnerability to a determined clarity in the show’s final minutes. On a very spare set, Contois’ virtuosic performance is deeply praiseworthy.

Photo by Peatr Thomas.

Eva struggles acclimating to her new urban environment because, although her life’s experiences have been significantly different than those of her peers at the white high school, she urgently wants a normal life. Of course, normal here is determined by the lives she sees her peers living. Her classmates and teachers are clueless (and likely don’t care to be clued in) about Eva’s heritage, and yet Eva feels disconnected from the identity that is, in the eyes of those around her, meant to shape her. In one scene, after being assigned a school project on her family’s history and traditions, she laments that she doesn’t know the story of her people. It has been erased by the brutal colonial policies and practices of Europeans and their descendants that deliberately sought to eradicate Indigenous cultures.

She calls herself the perfect ‘white man’s Indian’ because she can’t remember her past or speak her language. She even sometimes craves assimilation with the white world she inhabits because she is exhausted by others’ expectations about her identity. And yet, she can’t. Toward the end of the play, while she readies herself for an end-of-school party, she dons a blonde wig. She is so frustrated with being marked as ‘other’ because of her skin and hair-colour that she obscures her own looks to be, in her terms, ‘beautiful.’ These feelings are compounded by the often frightening instability in her home life, with a father who is too disengaged (and sometimes malicious) to help her at all. Eva feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere.

This play poignantly presents what it means to live a cultural identity that has been rubbed out within the society that perpetrated that erasure. Eva’s sense of loss is devastating because there is no way to restore that which was taken from her. Because her personal traumas are compounded by historical and cultural wrongs, she is lost.

White Man’s Indian has one more performance, tonight (Saturday, August 11) at 7pm at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

Review: Spawn offers a return home

Cheyenne Scott’s very smart play intertwines Coast Salish stories and symbolism with the charming narrative of Theresa and Mikey who, after a casual encounter, are having a baby together. It is a story of transformations and returns. Theresa (Samantha Brown) is a young Indigenous woman who lives in Victoria and works as a dance teacher. Mikey (Dillan Meighan-Chiblow) lives on a reserve, which is where he first meets visiting Theresa. He offers to follow her back to Victoria after he learns that she is pregnant. Neither of them have particularly supportive families, so their efforts at establishing their own family unit are difficult. They know that they need each other, but Theresa is reluctant to become too reliant and Mikey doesn’t know the best way to support her.

Spawn is at its best in its quick and intelligent writing. The production is polished, with beautiful projections that play across a diaphanous sheet that the actors manipulate to create the illusion of water. The set is more robust than most at SummerWorks, featuring a central ramp that Theresa runs up (as though a salmon swimming up stream) and movable blocks that create the interior of Theresa’s apartment. The quick repartee between Theresa and Mikey is utterly delightful, and Cathy Elliot, as Theresa’s grandmother, is surprisingly complex given her limited stage time. That said, there are a few choices that seem a little too on-the-nose: Mikey occasionally appears in a salmon costume to wordlessly ‘swim’ around the stage, and the singular appearance of his tough-guy brother Travis feels redundant.

Photo by Blair Bouskill.

Even without the occasional salmon literally appearing on stage, it is clear that salmon and their journey act as a central metaphor, with several moments serving to underline the titular action: spawning, or creating something new by going back to where you came from. Theresa and her estranged father used to fish together; although he is at first unable to contend with the idea that his daughter is pregnant, they slowly stitch their relationship into form by returning to their tradition. Mikey presents Theresa with a reef net, a traditional method of fishing, as a way to bring himself into the fold with her father; all three have the means to move forward if they take up a very old practice. Theresa reconnects with her maternal grandmother who had disappeared from her life after her mother drowned; their connection is renewed through their shared memory of Saskatoon berry pie. In this way, as they all prepare to welcome the new baby, they find their way back home.

Spawn has two more performances: Saturday, August 12th at 9:30pm and Sunday, August 13th at 3:45pm, Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Review: The Chemical Valley Project and the art of storytelling

Storytelling is a venerated part of many Indigenous nations; their oral traditions are a tool for teaching histories and imparting important life lessons. In The Chemical Valley Project, written and performed by Kevin Matthew Wong, I am struck by the sensitivity and respect that Wong and co-creator Julia Howman show to their Indigenous subjects in adopting a storytelling voice. With an earnest mix of self-awareness, raw facts, and virtuosic projection and puppetry, Wong weaves his own story by touching on the past and positing better paths for the future.

The play is a kind of documentary: Wong shares with the audience how he came to care about Aamjiwnaang, an Indigenous community near Sarnia, Ontario. He anchors his larger message about the urgency and importance of Indigenous-led land and water protector movements in the stories of sisters Vanessa and Lindsay Gray. The Grays have been agitating, advocating, and educating people about the so-called Chemical Valley, an area near their home outside Sarnia where 40% of Canada’s chemical industry operates. The sisters served as dramaturges for the play as well, lending their own experiences in activism to help shape how they and their work are represented.

The facts presented in the play are shocking. I learned that Sarnia’s air is the most polluted in Canada. I learned that nearly 40% of women from the reserve report having experienced a miscarriage, and that the birth rate in Aamjinwnaang skews female; for every two girls born there is only one boy, where the expected rate is almost exactly one-to-one. Residents report breathing difficulties, skin irritations, and other symptoms that can be traced to their exposure to chemicals in their air and water. And then there is Enbridge’s troubling Line 9, a forty-year-old pipeline that carries diluted bitumen between Sarnia and Montreal and passes not far above the heads of commuters on the platform of Toronto’s Finch subway station.

Photo by Julia Howman.

Wong’s careful way of placing himself in the narrative that he is weaving is smart. He manages to sidestep the chance that his work might seem sanctimonious by reflecting on his own skepticism as he once regarded protesters, and by considering how his own family from Hong Kong are colonizers in Canada. He shares his anxiety about telling a story that he cannot claim as his own. He talks about his own attempts to educate himself, and how he finally came to understand the centrality of land in first nations communities when he learned that the Ojibwa word for Earth (aki) is literally embedded in the word for everything (akina gegoo).

Significantly, Wong isn’t only a good storyteller; he has a charming sense of theatricality and is a skillful stage performer as well. The stage is set with two projectors, the larger of which provides contextual backdrop for many scenes. The smaller projector is focused on a sheet draped over a table placed centre-stage. Wong manipulates the sheet by lifting, folding, and flourishing it like you might when hanging laundry out to dry. As the projections on the sheet change, the sheet becomes a puppet for two other characters, the backdrop for a bus trip, the Canadian flag, and more. This inventive staging is delightful, in spite of the play’s very serious subject matter.

I left The Chemical Valley Project with a sense of the value in stories, and with a model for what it takes to really listen and come to understand others’ lived experience. I really do admire Kevin’s stage-craft, but more than that I respect his approach to the material. His performance is compelling because it is earnest, accessible, and very well told.

The Chemical Valley Project has one more performance, on Sunday, August 13th at 6:30pm at the Pia Bouman Studio Theatre.

 

Review: Professionally Ethnic perpetually relevant

In a program note, Bobby Del Rio explains that Professionally Ethnic is a decade old and that he is dismayed that its themes are still relevant. I’m not entirely sure that its issues can entirely be resolved.

Del Rio plays William, a theatre actor who dreams of lead roles because he is constantly cast as an “ethnic” supporting character. When Gerrard (David Sparrow), the director of an unnamed major theatre company, taps William to be at the centre of a campaign to revitalize and diversify his organization, William is overjoyed. Tracy, played with whip-smart alacrity by Chantel McDonald, quickly points out to William that his ethnic identity is being monetized by Gerrard. She urges William to turn down the position. As Gerrard’s ambitions for William grow, he proposes that William can serve as a symbol of diversity itself. The play runs with this idea to its most extreme and absurd end, with William wearing a smorgasbord of “ethnic” costumes, none necessarily representing who William actually is, performing for an assembly of theatre board members.

Photo by Ian Brown.

This brings the central concern of the play to the fore. In a funding climate that celebrates companies with a diversity mandate, multiculturalism becomes a box to tick for money. Although most companies will have the best intentions, are they not then using actors’ ethnicities to increase their cut of granting agencies’ pies? Conversely, should a non-white actor say no to potentially lucrative and interesting roles because they are tokenized and included in a production for the funding their inclusion portends? Tracy presents a possible solution by insisting that cultural institutions need to include more diversity in their leadership and not only on the stage. In the real world, the potential for money does beget change, but the play asks whether this is the right kind?

William ultimately wonders why he can’t just be himself; why does he have to represent anything other than his own unique experience? To drive his point home, the characters end the play in an argument about hockey, their passion for the Habs and Leafs being the only cultural marker that identifies them all.

Each performance of the play concludes with a long-table discussion of the issues presented, and I imagine that every one of these conversations has been very rich. This strikes me as a particularly important play for Toronto, where the city’s diverse languages and performance cultures are so often either isolated or tokenized. There aren’t easy answers, but Professionally Ethnic asks really key questions.

Professionally Ethnic has one more performance, on Sunday August 13th from 6:00pm – 7:15pm at the Theatre Centre BMO Incubator. The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.

 

Review: What do you see? demands recognition

When Jasmyn Fyffe asks the audience “what do you see?” she puts her whole self on the line to discover our earnest answers. This piece is the result of Fyffe’s own exploration into what and how black female bodies signify. She draws on a rich catalogue of historical and contemporary tropes about blackness to weave a performance that is both devastatingly uncomfortable and immensely beautiful to watch.

The piece begins with a literal representation of the titular question. Fyffe presses herself, face first and naked from the waist up, into a wall. As spectators enter the performance space, we are invited to take labelled stickers and affix them to her body. The labelled stickers range from descriptive (ie. the names of body parts, shades of brown), to evaluative (ie. dollar amounts, words of attraction or repulsion), to declarative (ie. instructions, including some very racist ones). About half of the spectators at the performance I attended actually labelled Fyffe. When the show begins, Fyffe pulls up the fabric that has been covering her lower half, uses it to cover her breasts, and moves into the middle of the stage.

Photo by Michael Priebe.

The first movement in this three-act dance piece collapses centuries of racial stereotype into a frenetic pastiche of tropes. Fyffe first adopts the persona of a game-show host and, with a miles-wide smile and bright and brassy music playing, invites two spectators to stuff some batting into the rear end of her shorts. This creates the silhouette of Sarah Baartman, a Khoi woman who was put on display in the United Kingdom and in France in the early 19th century because of her large buttocks. Baartman was at the heart of heated debates on the abolition of slavery and she also served as a model for “scientists” who wanted to “prove” the difference between white and black bodies. After her death, her body was dissected and displayed in Parisian museums until the mid-1970s. In adopting Baartman’s silhouette, Fyffe positions her own body in the historical context of black female bodies-as-objects of the white Western gaze, and simultaneously aligns herself with other late 20th– and 21st-century thinkers and artists who have been exploring Baartman’s exploitation as an example of racism (including Jacqui du Toit’s The Hottentot Venus – Untold, reviewed in Alt.theatre by Brie McFarlane). Fyffe-as-Baartman explodes through different social dances; I spotted things as varied as the cakewalk, Charleston, and even twerking. Although social dances have historically been about creating community, they have also been parodied and commodified, making Fyffe’s performance all the more complex.

Fyffe turns into the second movement of her piece with a grin that slowly distorts her face to the point of pain. She removes the batting and enters into a wrestling match with the oversized white shirt that had previously been tied around her waist and used to cover her breasts. The symbolism of a black body being held down and distorted by white fabric was not subtle, and Fyffe’s performance was so virtuosic that it was heartbreaking to watch. Her struggle against this overwhelming and controlling force is made more urgent by the emergence of her own brown skin. It looked a bit like drowning.

The sound score then shifts to the sound of water and in this third act Fyffe begins a kind of cleaning. She tears off the stickers that had been placed on her and transforms the white shirt into a head wrap. In this final section, her dance becomes liberated; instead of struggling contortion, her movement is lyric and rhythmical. The transformation between the first moments of the piece and this closing act bring Fyffe’s initial question back to mind: what do we see? Although I’m reluctant to speculate what she wanted us to see, I see that Fyffe’s naked body is no longer objectified, classified, or the object of scrutiny. She is in her own skin, and there for / therefore herself.

what do you see? is part of a double bill with Mother Sea / Manman la Mer. The last chance to see both shows will be Sunday August 13th from 12-1:15 at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

 

Review: Mother Sea / Manman la Mer promises safe passage

Djennie Laguerre weaves Franco-Caribbean storytelling traditions with theatrical staging to tell a tale of mothers and daughters and what we pass down from generation to generation. The set is sparse with only one chair placed centre-stage; this choice facilitates Laguerre’s many jumps between locations and characters in her narrative and also draws focus to her words.

Mother Sea/Manman la Mer traces Laguerre’s journey as a child and a young woman in Canada through to a kind of re-birth with her grandmother, the eponymous Maman la Mer, in Haiti. There are two conflicting forces in the text that, to me, express some of the frustration and struggle that can characterize life after immigration. On the one hand, Laguerre was shaped by her mother’s wish to Canadian-ize, and on the other, Laguerre felt a spiritual lineage that drew her closer to her family and traditions back in Haiti. Ultimately, in the cathartic reunion with her Haitian family, Laguerre feels whole.

I had the sense, even though this was listed as a “workshop” performance, that Laguerre has spent considerable time crafting her words. Her storytelling is precise, marking her as a well-practiced teller. Although most of the story is told in English, she moves in and out of French and Haitian Kreyol to reveal the geographic diversity of her roots. She also takes on the roles of several other characters, including herself as a child, her mother, her grandmother, and her three ‘aunties’ from Cuba, Trinidad, and Canada (with all of their attendant accents). Together, Laguerre’s many voices stitch a kind of vocal rhythm that makes it feel like she is dancing between them.

Photo by Glenford Laughton.

In fact, it is the play’s rhythm that makes the performance stand out. Beyond Laguerre’s own carefully crafted language, she coaches the audience through one aspect of traditional Caribbean storytelling. Near the top of the play we learn a call-and-response technique: when Laguerre says “cric?” (Are you ready?) we say “crac!” (Yes! We are ready!). Variants of this pattern are peppered through the piece, like é-cric é-crac and misticri misticrac. Admittedly, the spectators were sometimes so engulfed in Laguerre’s story that some of us forgot to participate, but these instances nonetheless flagged most of the pivotal moments in the piece. If we can imagine that the story had a score, the moments of call-and-response changed the time signature.

Further, musician Loucas Café framed Laguerre’s storytelling with rhythmical punctuation on his beaded maraca. He rarely enters into the playing space of the stage; instead he walks its periphery and intently watches Laguerre’s performance. His interventions seem most conspicuous in moments when Laguerre is agitated, though he pulsed his maraca behind her narration as well. There are carefully chosen excerpts from recorded music too. These drift in and out to help establish time and location, but also serve to distinguish between the rhythms of life in Canada and life in Haiti.

In a sense, all these rhythms used as storytelling devices underscore the fact that Laguerre’s story is, itself, about rhythms. She explores generational rhythms, where daughter becomes mother, and how perspectives shift in these adjustments. She also explores a kind of rhythm of self; she describes a moment of personal crisis in terms of “stopping” completely, and she is then restored to movement by Haitian music and dancing. In some ways, Laguerre’s journey is one of discovering her own pulse.

Mother Sea / Manman la Mer is part of a double bill with what do you see? The last chance to see both shows will be Sunday August 13th from 12-1:15 at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

 

Author Bio

CASSANDRA SILVER is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Her SSHRC-funded dissertation explores the dramaturgy of participatory spectatorship in video games and gamified theatre. She is the founding Director of the Centre for Spectatorship and Audience Research, has taught at the Universities of Alberta, Waterloo, and Toronto, and at the secondary level as well, and has previously published in TRIC, TDR, and in Theatre and Learning.

Photo by Calvin Thomas

 

Review: these violent delights interrogates how we bear witness to history

By Rachel Offer

“Who gets to decide which events are commemorated, and why? Are monuments capable of bearing witness to history? What role does a monument play in its current history?”

These are the questions writer-director Cole Lewis and her Vancouver-based company, Guilty By Association, asked at the beginning of their creative process. Inspired by Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and the aftermath of their deaths, these violent delights, now on at the Summerworks Performance Festival, certainly goes beyond the conventional in attempting to answer them.

The piece finds its roots in the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, when a monument to the lovers is proposed by Capulet and Montague to memorialize the tragic events surrounding their suicides. these violent delights deconstructs this moment by telling the story from the perspective of the Nurse, an absent voice in this scene in the source text, now exiled after being blamed for the tragedy. The core conflict is fairly simple: should the Nurse attend the unveiling of the lovers’ monument or not? But colour and stakes are added to this ‘simple’ problem as she struggles with her place in Verona and regret over her past.

A chorus member in these violent delights. Photo by Patrick Blenkarn

The otherworldly, dream-like quality of the staging and movement brings the audience into the Nurse’s decision, allowing us to fill in gaps where needed and think critically about what the piece means in a larger context, but it also makes the story difficult to follow at times. The disembodied recorded voices contribute to the supernatural atmosphere, but they become distracting when overlapped with performers speaking onstage and some lines are lost.

Multiple actors voice and embody the Nurse, coming in and out of a chorus masked in unnerving tall, cylindrical, smiley faces, and addressing the same chorus with much of the dialogue. This creates an eerie picture of a faceless ‘other’ that could be seen as an extension of the Nurse’s inner self or perhaps the people of Verona, who presume to tell and celebrate Juliet’s story with a gold statue and a plaque.

The commentary about women and their worth in a patriarchal society is rooted entirely in the world of Romeo and Juliet but equally resonates today. In a direct address to the audience, the Nurse questions her identity as a woman and a nurse, highlighting how her value is linked to her maternal abilities. She is speaking of Verona, of course, but is that all? The biting text and fourth wall breaking in this speech hold everyone present accountable for perpetuating these constraining gender roles.

The final scene is truly a spectacle, as the Nurse witnesses the unveiling of the statue of her beloved Juliet, praised by the townspeople, senators, Capulets, and Montagues alike. In a haunting moment, the Nurse breaks down in front of the plastic covered Juliet, who is singing “who’s laughing now?”. The Nurse’s final speech returns us to the  questions of the program, specifically, ‘Are monuments capable of bearing witness to history?’. She seems to think not. But whatever the perspective of the characters on stage, it compels us as an audience to examine our own thoughts on the matter.

these violent delights succeeds in demanding an altered perspective on our view of history and who writes it–an especially relevant take-away in an era where more and more, other sides of history are finally being revealed after centuries of the narrative being controlled by a specific few in power.

these violent delights continues tonight (August 11) at 7:15pm and August 12 at 5:00pm at the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street, Toronto ON). http://summerworks.ca/artists/these-violent-delights/

Author Bio

Rachel Offer is alt.theatre‘s editorial assistant. Born and raised in a small town in Ontario, she is cultivating her passion for theatre by going into her third year of the BFA – Acting program at the University of Windsor.

 

Work in progress: cultivating inclusion and equity during the Edmonton Fringe Festival and beyond

Lisa Jeans profiles the 36th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival
August 17 – 27, 2017
Various venues—visit www.fringetheatre.ca for ticketing, time, and location details.

As I follow Edmonton International Fringe Festival Executive Director Adam Mitchell through a sun-drenched open workspace to a private office, the room positively hums with focus and urgency. It is less than one month before opening day. Edmonton is home to the oldest and largest Fringe in Canada; these year the festival is presenting 220 shows created by 1,300 artists. The festival will welcome 550, 000 guests (making 850,000 visits) for ten days in the heart of Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighbourhood.

This year’s theme—A Midsummer Night’s Fringe—aptly evokes the chaotic magic of this Edmonton festival, which impresses theatregoers with its array of indoor shows and the sheer mass of crowds gathered to watch fiery outdoor acts while sipping beer and scarfing down green onion cakes. This festival is a point of pride for the city—its arts community and the broader public—and it is thriving.

According to Mitchell, Fringe theatre thrives both during the festival and the regular season because their team facilitates creative risk-taking and cultivates a robust sense of inclusion and community for artists and audiences alike.

Accessibility is a core value that includes the physical space. The ATB Arts Barn has an on-grade front entrance (no wheelchair ramp required) and Fringe Theatre has partnered with CRIPSiE and the Sustainable, Political, Accessible Communities of Edmonton Project to provide detailed accessibility information for primary Fringe festival venues, and this year the information will include a few BYOVs as well.

Starting this fall, regular season productions will include one relaxed performance. Pay What You Will ticket pricing started at the recent Chinook Series and will continue with Fringe Theatre’s regular programming: 25% of tickets to all shows will be Pay What You Will to remove economic barriers to theatre attendance. Partnership with Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre and Azimuth Theatre on the Chinook Series, which included BAM! (Black Arts Matter) and SOUND OFF (a new Deaf theatre festival), is expected to continue, as is future collaboration with indigenous artists and organizations.

Brenley Charkow for FringeFemmeYEG

But Mitchell and Fringe Theatre Artistic Director Murray Utas aspire to further serve and connect artists with new audiences. A glance through the 2017 Program Guide suggests that Edmonton Fringe, like many mainstream theatre organizations in Canada, and despite its lottery selection process, is missing a portion of the theatre/performing arts community: indigenous people and people of colour.

While the first hundred Fringe productions are selected by lottery, there are numerous Bring Your Own Venue shows that are completely administered by the venue producers, which adds complexity to the implementation of accessibility and diversity initiatives across the whole festival. The odds of being selected in the current open lottery system may also limit participation of artists for whom there are ongoing racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers.

“Murray (Utas) and I are committed to creating space within the lottery system for equity seeking artists, and that translates to a number of different models across the world… Toronto had two separate lottery spots for equity seeking artists. Chicago Fringe has a very complex lottery system with even more categories.” Adds Mitchell: “We are trying to make sure that when we roll this out we have done it in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone and opens up as many possibilities as we can, which is why I say we are working on it, we just don’t know what it is going to look like.”

While Mitchell could not confirm a timeline for change to the structure of the lottery process, there is every reason to be optimistic that those changes are in the works.

Edmonton Fringe leadership is also enthusiastic about grassroots community-building initiatives as well: #FringeFemmeYEG is a community-driven social media movement led by theatre artist Brenley Charkow, who curates the @FringeFemmeYEG Twitter feed and Facebook page. The goal of the movement is to celebrate and amplify the work of female and female-identifying artists leading creative teams presenting at the Edmonton Fringe, and it supports the work of all artists—non-binary, femme, or otherwise.

#FringeFemmeYEG echoes similar movements that have emerged, such as #FringeFemmeTO, and will inform audience members who are keen to attend female-led productions. While the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is proving to be an ally and engaged community facilitator, it, like many other Canadian theatre organizations, has men in the key leadership roles of Artistic Director and Executive Director, something that Adam Mitchell acknowledged with wry self-awareness at the midpoint of our conversation.

As #FringeFemmeYEG curator Brenley Charkow notes, “Parity is still a huge issue on our stages, and while we are moving forward, there’s still a long way to go.”

The Festival Program Guide is now available for purchase. Tickets go on sale on August 9, 2017. www.fringetheatre.ca

Author Bio
Lisa Jeans is a theatre artist and writer. Her writing has been published in FASHION, The Globe and Mail, and in a smattering of Canadian literary journals. One of her current projects in progress is a performance text about violence against women in politics.

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The Merchant, and the Women, of Venice

In a first for alt.theatre, a dynamic duo takes on a review! Here Marie Horgan and Eric Danis share their impressions of Bard on the Beach’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

The Show: The Merchant of Venice

The Venue: Howard Family Stage, Bard on the Beach Vanier Park, Vancouver BC

Returning to Vanier Park for the fourth time in twenty-eight years, Bard on the Beach’s 2017 production of The Merchant of Venice features a modern and feminist reimagining of the 16th century play. While our conversations in between acts began as discussions of whether the “Venice 2017” setting worked, by the end of the play we noted how strongly director Nigel Shawn Williams chose to highlight gender politics almost more so than religious strife.

Intermission:

            “I love the set! I’ve never seen them lay out the Howard Family Stage this way. Usually, the stage comes down the middle of the theatre, sort of like a catwalk. But this time they’ve gone for a more ‘theatre in the round’ feel, which I think works really well. And I like how they opened with graphics of the stock market. I’m finding, though, that it can be a bit hard to see and hear, because the cast turns their backs to the audience a lot. The only thing I’m not really getting is the point of modernizing Merchant, apart from what’s obvious.”

“What’s obvious?”

“The religious tensions and the patriarchy stuff. In the program they say that those are what the focuses will be, and of course both issues are relevant today, but it seems too obvious, like it’s been done time and time again.”

“And it doesn’t quite fit, I thought. The kinds of blatant hate we see in Merchant happen in many places, and certainly could happen here, but why this show, now, like this? I feel like the director (Nigel Shawn Williams) is trying too hard to be edgy, and I feel like all of the characters are angry, all the time.”

“I’m not a huge fan of the modernization. I don’t know what the director could have done instead, but he’s obviously got a certain vision for the production, which is cool. How he wanted that vision to translate is another question, but I don’t think it’s coming across very well.”

“I think he’s trying too hard. There are certain parts of the show that feel like bad jokes. I was offended, and, don’t get me wrong here, I like being offended, but only when there’s a lesson to be learned. Maybe I’ve missed the lesson.”

“Right, and it could just be us. Others can choose for themselves. One thing that felt out of place – which for a modernization really shouldn’t – were the cellphones. Only two characters really used cellphones, and they just seem to function as throwaway props. And while we’re still on the topic of time period, it feels like the Belmont scenes are staged back in Elizabethan times while the rest of Venice is in 2017. But that’s purely based on the sets, with Belmont’s columns, chests, and drapes. Everywhere else has wire chairs, glasses, and, heck, even cocktails.”

“Alright, so we’re a bit confused…”

Post-Show:

“I want to start off by saying that Olivia Hutt stole the show as Portia. The director made it about her, plain and simple. I’m not certain from memory but I think they even changed some things around to paint her even better than she was in Shakespeare’s original. Even if they didn’t, it certainly felt different. I thought she was weak in the first act but I was deceived.  At first it was unclear what they were doing to ‘crush the patriarchy,’ and I’ll say no more except that tone changes everything. Bravo Olivia Hutt for that character arc!”

“She was very strong. In the first act her character was stiff, which, for me, didn’t translate as weakness. I felt that it worked, given how suitors were constantly being forced upon her. But her strength carried into the second act with a different, perhaps much more obvious strength. She commanded the show at that point, and that definitely seemed deliberate. Especially in the trial scene, wow that was tense!”

“I was sweating. But the abruptness of some of the characters’ anger still bothered me. Sometimes they would yell and it felt contrived.”

“I agree, but I’m also not a fan of sudden loud noises.”

“Again, the director seems to want the show to be flashy, fast, and loud. I think most if not all of the issues that we’ve had probably come from some choice made by the director. It seems as though he made a conscious effort to ensure that every character was a downright awful person except for Portia, and maybe Nerissa too (Luisa Jojic). The focus, then, turns this show into somewhat of a feminist retelling of Merchant. We didn’t get as much religious tension, apart from what’s obvious from the text.”

Olivia Hutt and Charlie Gallant in The Merchant of Venice

“I can see why Williams (the director) chose to do that. The Jew vs. Christian angle is the obvious one to take, and likely the expected one too. It’s been done and done again. So it would be difficult, from the director’s perspective, to do something so radically different with that angle that he’d get any attention for it. But hold on, if we’re following the feminism angle, what about Jessica (Carmela Sison)? She didn’t come off as strong as the other women. Nerissa, for example, isn’t supposed to be a forefront character, but even she sticks out as strong, if only in presence. What I’m trying to say is that Portia is the only character that one could make the feminism angle obvious with, given how many lines she has. And they gave her the last line! It changes the script; in the original, Gratiano has the last line.”

“Don’t forget Saleria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth), as opposed to Solario and Salarino. Their characters were feminized, and they were just as (if not more) brutal towards Shylock than many of the men. While neither was painted as a likeable character, the production’s feminist backbone came through them in a different way.”

“Definitely, but apart from its feminist undertones I still don’t understand why Merchant was modernized. It could have been set in an older time period with the same focus on and renaming of the female characters. I guess, at the end of the day, Bard needed a fresh take on Merchant, or Williams had his vision and went with it.”

“And, again, the way they’ve rearranged an old space for a new show helps with that. The actors also did a great job of performing group mentality, especially with the men and their ‘locker-room talk’.”

“In that way the modernization does work, because we continue to see that sort of dialogue victimizing women, which only furthers the play’s feminist stance. It might just be that we both know Merchant from before that makes the modern adaptation confusing. I heard quite a few people saying they liked the updated take, so we’ll leave that open ended.”

“Overall, it’s worth seeing if you have an open mind. If you’re familiar with Merchant, some of the tackier modern elements might bother you, but there are some truly stellar performances up on that stage.”

-by Marie Horgan and Eric Danis

Luisa Jojic, Nadeem Phillip, and Olivia Hutt in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, produced by Bard on the Beach

Artistic Director: Christopher Gaze

Director of Merchant: Nigel Shawn Williams

Run: June 22nd – September 16th 2017

Cast (in program order): Edward Foy, Charlie Gallant, Chirag Naik, Kamyar Pazandeh, Adele Noronha, Kate Besworth, Carmela Sison, Olivia Hutt, Luisa Jojic, Paul Moniz de Sá, Nadeem Phillip, Warren Kimmel, Andrew Cownden

Costume Designer: Drew Facey

Scenic Designer: Marshall McMahen

Lighting Designer: Adrian Muir

Sound Designer: Patrick Pennefather

Projection Designer: Conor Moore

Head Voice & Text Coach: Alison Matthews

Fight Director: Josh Reynolds

Stage Manager: Joanne P.B. Smith

Assistant Stage Manager: Ruth Bruhn

Apprentice Stage Manager: Jennifer Stewart

Directing Apprentice: Wendy Bollard

 

Author Bio(s)

Marie Horgan: When she isn’t out catching some local theatre, Marie is pursuing her MA in English Literature at Simon Fraser University with a focus in law and literary criticism. She has just moved back to Vancouver after four years in Nova Scotia and abroad. Where her studies will take her remains to be seen (and she likes it that way), but, for now, she enjoys striking up conversations about how we read and write, and allows for just enough precariousness to keep things interesting.

Eric Danis: Eric is currently studying for a Masters degree in English Literature at SFU and hopes to be finished by January of 2019. In his spare time, Eric has imaginary conversations with imaginary people, which he then writes down with imagined faithfulness to an imagined sense of truth.  He calls the result a novel.  No one has yet to agree with him.

 

Digital Issue 13.3

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Issue 13.3

What’s in this issue?
  • Editorial – The Feminist Killjoy Goes to the Theatre by Michelle MacArthur
  • Aaron Franks talks to Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin about the roots of their creative relationship and finding new visual and performance languages to witness truths and contribute beyond reconciliation.  
  • Sarah Waisvisz shares the performance text of her one-woman play, which premiered at the undercurrents festival in Ottawa, Canada in 2016.
  • DM St-Bernard concludes the three-part Principles Office series with a reflection on the constant of change, the occupation of space, and the active force of standing still.
  • Rebecca Benson and Tracey Guptill are interviewed by their alter-egos Pinkhead and Smoosh about their Pussy Riot-inspired show, featured in the Kick and Push festival in Kingston, Ontario last summer.
  • and more!

This issue of alt.theatre includes several feminist killjoys. Among them, Sarah Waisvisz, our Reviews Editor but also a talented theatre maker and performer, shares the script for her one-woman show Monstrous, which looks at the intersections of gender, race, and culture; Rebecca Benson and Tracey Guptill discuss their work bringing the feminist punk group Pussy Riot to Kingston, Ontario; and DM St. Bernard concludes her excellent Principles Office series with a reflection on what it means to purposefully claim space.

Michelle MacArthur, Editor-in-Chief

Read More

Editorial: The Feminist Killjoy Goes to the Theatre

by Michelle MacArthur

“What is the power of anger, I wondered? What can come of it?”

-Editor-in-Chief, Michelle MacArthur

After the American election, I, like many others, experienced a flare-up of feminist rage. This was not my usual level of everyday feminist rage—the twitch I feel when people use all-male pronouns, the silent (and sometimes audible) screams that escape me when I read news articles on gendered violence and witness the refutations that follow. This was off-the-charts feminist rage: rage towards voters whom I felt made the wrong choice; rage towards the apathy and/or ignorance and/or misogyny and/or racism and/or xenophobia underlying that choice; and, of course, rage towards the new administration that had capitalized on these sentiments. My anger reached a fever pitch when I noticed a distant relative share a propagandist video produced by right-wing Conservatives on Facebook; I proceeded to spend the better part of a Saturday trolling her feed and picking fights I would never win with Trump voters. By the end of the exchange I felt exhausted, defeated, and slightly ashamed. Ashamed because, as someone who professes to be open-minded and compassionate, I resorted to some low blows in order to feel superior over my interlocutors and temporarily quell my rage. (It didn’t work. I was still angry.)

I have been thinking a lot since then about the place of anger—in my life, in activism, in theatre. On the one hand, it feels empowering to express anger, as women as well as other marginalized peoples are often encouraged to suppress that emotion, or, if they choose not to, they are dismissed and stereotyped as mad, bitter, unhinged. On the other hand, anger can be stifling if left to fester, as it was for me in the winter. What is the power of anger, I wondered? What can come of it?

Sara Ahmed takes up these questions in her formative 2010 article “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” Ahmed reflects on the alienation that feminists experience when they do not find happiness in the “right things” and the ways in which their ensuing disappointment and discontent unsettle dominant power structures. She writes, “To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it. When you are unseated, you can even get in the way of those who are seated, those who want more than anything to keep their seats. To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seated.” To Ahmed, feminists kill joy by exposing how happiness is sustained by the suppression of dissention, discord, and feelings of discontent. Perceived as humourless saboteurs of happiness, people who name themselves as feminist are “already read” as “not easy to get along with” and expected to disprove this assumption through displays of good will and happiness (Ahmed). These expectations are also placed on oppressed peoples more broadly, as Ahmed points out by drawing on the work of Marilyn Frye, who writes, “It is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation” (qtd in Ahmed).

But what if instead of conforming to these expectations, we willfully defied them? Ahmed concludes her piece with a manifesto, urging her readers to reclaim the maligned figure of the feminist killjoy and find agency within her: “Don’t look it over: don’t get over it.” Moreover, she encourages killjoys to recognize the implications of being (mis)understood as the cause of unhappiness and to dialogue across difference about our experiences occupying that role. She concludes, “There can be joy in killing joy. Kill joy, we can and we do. Be willful, we will and we are.” For me, the theatre offers a space to take up Ahmed’s manifesto—to kill joy, and to find joy in killing it. That is what politically engaged and activist theatre can do for its audience: it simultaneously destabilizes our conventional ideas of happiness and fosters moments of pleasure through the experience of communing with others and watching live performers make art on stage. And so, in February, at the height of my election anger, on a trip to the US to see theatre, I reveled in the work of fellow feminist killjoys.

I traveled to Chicago, a five-hour journey from the border city where I live, to see two shows: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men and the collectively created Gender Breakdown. Lee’s play was being produced by Steppenwolf Theater, directed by the playwright herself in a revised version of the script (first produced in 2014). The premise of Straight White Men is simple and familiar: a father gathers with his three adult sons over Christmas; they rib each other and reminisce about their childhood; drama ensues. But in Lee’s hands, the kitchen-sink family drama is not what it seems, and even before the show’s official start the familiar is made unfamiliar. Audiences entering the theatre are greeted by two non-binary, Brechtian stagehands dancing to the loud, infectious Nikki Minaj music pumping through the auditorium. Once we are all seated, they introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns, swiftly explaining the social construction of gender in lay terms. They go on to acknowledge that Lee’s pre-show music choice may have made some people uncomfortable, explaining: “We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account. As for those of you who liked or didn’t mind the music, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience. We wanted to make sure you’d feel welcome in this theater” (Lee 9). This framing device, like the play itself, asks the audience to develop an awareness of identity and privilege in their own lives. Indeed, the family at the play’s centre is not blind in this regard—the (now deceased) matriarch has evidently imparted them with liberal values, reflected in everything from the doctored version of Monopoly called Privilege that she created for them as kids to the Hilary 2016 sticker conspicuously adorning their wall. But they also grapple with what to do with their privilege, and as the eldest son Matt’s existential crisis is slowly revealed, he elicits varying degrees of outrage from his brothers and father at his refusal to “do more” with the power he has been afforded by his identity as a straight white man.

As a playwright of colour, Lee takes a deliberately anthropological approach to her creative process, researching her subject through conversations with collaborators of diverse identities (“Cross Paths” 16-18). Informed by this work, she temporarily “inhabits” the identity of a straight white man in order to ask her audience to consider it as an identity like any other (rather than the unquestioned norm against which all others are measured). She does not attempt to solve the inequities that are borne of privilege, but rather, through a process of making strange, she asks audiences to “notice their own responses and think about their relationships to their own privilege” (17). Lee takes on the role of the feminist killjoy, in Ahmed’s words, “getting in the way of those who are seated” at the table of happiness: in this case, mainstream theatre audiences, whose comfortable position is unsettled from the top of the show. It is perhaps no surprise that Lee describes her audiences as often leaving the theatre feeling bothered, upset, and angry (17). But at the same time, there is an abundance of joy to be found in Straight White Men—from the music at the top of the show, to the physical comedy between the brothers, to the laugh-out-loud humour laced through the script. There is joy in killing joy.

© Steppenwolf Theatre Company (Photo by Michael Brosilow).
L-R: Elliott Jenetopulos (Elliott) and Will Wilhelm (Will) in Steppenwolf’s production of Straight White Men, a Chicago premiere written and directed by Young Jean Lee.

Like Straight White Men, Gender Breakdown also works to (joyfully) unsettle power. Inspired by researcher Kay Kron’s 2015–16 study of gender parity in the Chicago theatre community and based on interviews with 220 people, the play is a devised piece that stages the experiences of a broad spectrum of female identified theatre practitioners in the city. Gender Breakdown is also, in its creators’ words, “a public conversation on race, gender, sexuality, class, privilege, and intersectional feminism” (“A Note”). It draws particular attention to the barriers faced by women of colour and transgendered, gender nonconforming and/or non-binary individuals and highlights differences in privilege between women. In an unintentional reference to the play happening across town at Steppenwolf, show creator Dani Bryant shares that she began the project with an assumption that “Straight white men take up too much space,” but soon realized that “so do cisgendered, heterosexual white women, including myself.”

At the top of the show, Bryant’s voice welcomes the audience over the sound system: “I have a question. Do you find it embarrassing that we had to make a play titled Gender Breakdown? I’m embarrassed and it was my idea. . . . I am hopeful we will not need to make plays titled Gender Breakdown in the future. So congrats. Congrats on seeing the world premiere and universal finale of this theatrical production” (Bryant et al.). This mix of humour and exasperation is laced through the show, which comprises vignettes featuring the whole ensemble representing elements of their shared experiences in the Chicago theatre community, interspersed with monologues spotlighting individual stories. Ensemble scenes explore issues such as the impossible beauty ideals placed on performers, harassment and abuse in the rehearsal hall, and the stereotypes that pervade roles available to female-identified actors. Even when commonalities are identified, Gender Breakdown avoids purporting a universal experience. For example, in a simultaneously hilarious and depressing scene, ensemble members stand in a line as actual casting calls are read—“Left-wing bitch. Sexless,” “Past her prime. Aged 23-30,” “Topless scientist”—stepping forward if they fit the description and in so doing exposing the dearth of roles available to women whose bodies do not fit the (light-skinned, thin, big-breasted) norm.

© Ania Sodziak. The Gender Breakdown ensemble, Collaboraction Studios, Chicago, 2017.

Monologues, in turn, also tackle a range of issues, from the systemic sexism and racism in theatre schools to the underrepresentation of the experiences of migrant women and women of colour on stage. In an impactful moment near the end of the play, dramaturg Kate Hawbaker-Krohn shares their experience of exclusion as a non-binary member of the theatre community, questioning what it means to put a casting call out for a female actor. Adding another layer of meaning to the title Gender Breakdown, Kate says, “It’s important to acknowledge the stories we are not telling in our show. I dramaturged this work, and well, it’s clear that even in our own breakdown, we did not attract the gender diversity necessary to give you a full scope of the challenges, and the hope, of our Chicago theatre community.”

Both Gender Breakdown and Lee’s revised version of Straight White Men were developed and performed in the wake of November 8, 2016, a time characterized, for many of us, by anger, confusion, alienation, and sadness. Yet, these plays also sprang from a place of compassion and a drive to foster understanding across difference, as both involved collaborative creative processes and sought to create dialogue with audiences through events such as post-show talk backs. These plays demonstrate that when the feminist killjoy goes to the theatre, s/he can claim a space to talk about “injustices, violence, power, and subordination” (Ahmed) and pull the seats from under those whose privilege has secured them a place at the table of happiness. And s/he can also find joy. As Aimy says at the end of Gender Breakdown, “We’re told in times of pain, struggle . . . and now in a fucking political dystopia to make art! Find your tribe. Find a space. Make your own work. Produce it yourself. That can feel good for a time. It can feel wonderful. It can feel better, at least. It can feel right.”

This issue of alt.theatre includes several feminist killjoys. Among them, Sarah Waisvisz, our Reviews Editor but also a talented theatre maker and performer, shares the script for her one-woman show Monstrous, which looks at the intersections of gender, race, and culture; Rebecca Benson and Tracey Guptill discuss their work bringing the feminist punk group Pussy Riot to Kingston, Ontario; and DM St. Bernard concludes her excellent Principles Office series with a reflection on what it means to purposefully claim space. I want to thank DM for curating Principles Office for us, as this issue marks the end of the series. She pitched her idea to alt shortly after I came on as editor, and I was so excited by the opportunity to collaborate with an artist and activist whose work I have admired for a long time. Many of you have commented on your enjoyment of the series, and I know the myriad conversations it has sparked will continue on beyond the pages of the magazine.

This issue marks another change for alt. After thoughtful deliberation with our editorial team and the board of our publisher Teesri Duniya, we have decided to shift to three issues per volume and focus more of our energies on developing original content for our website, including features and reviews about theatre happening across the country (and beyond) with a focus on the intersections of politics, activism, and identity. We are still committed to producing a high quality print magazine, but feel this shift will help alt adapt to the current realities of the publishing industry and also allow us to harness the potential of our digital platforms to reach out to more readers. We will be sending subscribers more information in the coming months and look forward to bringing you the first issue of Volume 14 in October.

“We’re told in times of pain, struggle . . . and now in a fucking political dystopia to make art! Find your tribe. Find a space. Make your own work. Produce it yourself. That can feel good for a time. It can feel wonderful. It can feel better, at least. It can feel right.”

Aimy, Gender Breakdown

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects.” The Scholar and Feminist Online, 8.3 (2010), http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm .

Bryant et al. Gender Breakdown. Unpublished script, 2017.

Bryant, Dani, and Kay Kron. “A Note from Dani Bryant (Show Creator) and Kay Kron (Theater Data Researcher).” Program for Dane Bryant et al.’s Gender Breakdown at Collaboraction Studios, Chicago, 2017, np.

“Crossing Paths. A Conversation between Playwrights Lucas Hnath (The Christians) and Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men).” Program for Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago, 2017, pp. 16-17.

Lee, Young Jean. Straight White Men. ePub, Dramatists Play Edition, 2017.

 

This is the editorial written in Volume 13, Issue 3 of alt.theatre magazine. Check out the rest of the issue here

In a detour from our usual reviews of plays, Anna Lytvynova profiles Lemon Bucket Orkestra

Lemon Bucket Orkestra
Photo by Zahra Saleki

Active Folklore and Cultural Revolution: Lemon Bucket Orkestra drums out for peace

http://www.lemonbucket.com

Upcoming Performances:

July 28 – Camp Summerdaze – King City, ON

August 4 – Rimouski, QC

August 8 – Edinburgh, UK

November 9 – Richmond Hill, ON

http://www.lemonbucket.com/shows/

A Ukrainian ballad, a Middle Eastern darbouka, and a recording studio in Waterloo, Ontario -these multi-coloured pebbles come together in every performance experience by the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The work of this self-proclaimed “balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band” goes beyond entertainment: it unites music, theatre, art, and activism. The resulting mix is a powerful one – a far-reaching artistic effort for inter-cultural peace and understanding.

What started as a quartet of enthusiastic troubadours quickly expanded to a multicultural, 12-member “super band”. Members of the collective come from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds including Ukraine, Russia, Toronto, Montreal, and Mexico. With such an array of cultures, their work is both trans-national and culture-specific.

But what does it mean to be culturally-specific in a multicultural environment? For Lemon Bucket, it means spelling “orchestra” with the traditional Eastern-European “k”. It means borrowing cultural songs from a variety of cultures and giving them a punk twist while staying grounded in the folklore they came from. It means not shying away from difference while staying engaged with the current social climate.

At a recent outdoor concert in Montreal’s Parc Kent in Côte-des-Neiges, the audience is spellbound by a multitude of sometimes contradictory experiences. The high-pitched lyrical vocals of Eastern Europe are intertwined with the deep sounds of Middle Eastern drums. Some musicians energetically jump to the beat while others melodically swing their heads from side to side. A Russian military ballad gets unexpectedly interrupted by the fast-paced staccato rhythm of a joyous song. Instead of uncontrollable chaos, Lemon Bucket creates a celebration of difference . Their music acknowledges and respects tradition while also critiquing, questioning, testing, and twisting it. It witnesses the past, honours and celebrates it, and throws a party.

While the stripped-down outdoor version of their show did not do justice to the multi-form and immersive nature of their work, it did allow for a return to simplicity. The ensemble’s vocalist and dancer Stephania Woloshyn came down to dance in a happy circle with the children in the park and the passers-by were welcomed to join in. Without the extravagant theatricality that is usually present in Lemon Bucket’s concerts, the power of the music was allowed to exist in its purity. What the group ultimately delivers is far from performative showmanship alone– it is the very real result of building bridges between cultures.

If diversity is the critical attitude guiding a work, it must be an aesthetic as well as a practice. It must be about content as much as it is about form. It must be present in the stories and experiences that are being told, not just in the way they are represented. Diversity is an integral, intersectional, and complex goal. To be socially transformative, it must be engaging, both to the artists themselves and to the community they are woven into. As flugelhorn player and founding member Michael Louis Johnson remarks, “multiculturalism […]is not simply the acknowledgement of many cultures and races. It must be a celebration of those differences […] Everyone needs to be accepted as different and celebrated in their culture ” (Johnson, Michael Louis. Interview. 17 July 2017).

But practice requires a different approach than does theory. How should an artist acknowledge their traditional culture(s) when they are playing for diverse audiences whose members range from Serbian immigrants longing to hear the music of their roots to music fans looking for new sounds? How do artists balance specificity and relevance? With every song, the Orkestra makes the choice of re-inventing the old while never letting go from tradition. In a bursting effort to propel our society forward, it calls its audience to reconcile the past. And they do so note by note, one musical contradiction by another. The Lemon Bucket’s approach of mixing (as opposed to blending) cultures is an approach of integrity.

In the work of Lemon Bucket there is a marriage of novelty and ritual, education and entertainment, art and politics. The work goes far beyond the scope of a band, albeit a self-proclaimed super band. The sounds of diverse traditions peek through the levity of their music. Their recent and astounding, multiple-award-winning production Counting Sheep (lauded by Edinburgh, the Doras, and Amnesty International), used immersive multi-genre performance to transport its audience into the heart of the revolution and war-struck Kyiv. The more simple dynamics of a park concert calls for cross-cultural understanding and peace by focusing on the affectual impact of the music rather than on a production’s aesthetics. In either case, the artists create meaningful multicultural work with their at times grim yet colourful rainbow of contemporary folklore.

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra does much more than play old songs in a new arrangement. It exemplifies how art, dare I say popular art, can and must be socially and politically engaged. It can and must be re-imagined, re-transformed, and kept alive in order to remain powerful.

Author Bio

ANNA LYTVYNOVA is a young director, researcher, and dedicated theatre maker. She has recently completed her degree from McGill. With a background in dance, directing, and business, Anna combines physical theatre, research, and cultural efforts in her work. She has directed several plays including When Five Years Pass by García Lorca. Her current directing and research work is dedicated to the performance of (multi)culture, marrying action and performance, and bridging the gaps between research and practice.

 

 

Note from Alt.theatre’s Reviews Editor:

Former Lemon Bucket Orkestra member Chris Weatherstone plays a critical musical and dramatic role in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a new work written by Hannah Moscovitch with original music by Ben Caplan and the show’s director Christopher Moore. Produced by Halifax’s 2b theatre company, it is a Klezmer-driven, dreamy, and gut-wrenchingly relevant memory epic about family, loss, hope, and courage. Stay tuned for more about this production which captivated audiences at Canada Scene 2017. Future dates include a production in Edmonton at the Citadel Theatre’s CLUB May 9-13, 2018.

In Sundry Languages a Feast for the Ears

Toronto Laboratory Theatre’s In Sundry Languages

Photo by Henry Heng Lu
The company in a photo by Henry Heng Lu

NB: 3 chances left to catch it at Toronto Fringe!!!

Reviewed by Heather Fitzsimmons Frey

Date reviewed: July 8, 2017
Remaining Run: July 13 at 5:15 pm, July 14 at noon, July 16 at 6:45 pm, Theatre Passe Muraille, Fringe Festival Toronto

https://www.torontolab.org/isl

Company: Toronto Laboratory Theatre
Art Babayants – Director
Shelley Liebembuk – Dramaturge
Giorelle Diokno – Stage and Production Manager
Cristina Kindl – Assistant Dramaturge
Montgomery Martin – Video Dramaturge
Paul J. Stoesser – Lighting Designer
Jasmine Gui – Publicity and Front of House
Mara Teitelbaum – ESL Outreach
Tatiana von Beelen – Artwork

Cast: Arfina, Art Babayants, Ziying Goria Gao, Ahmed Moneka, Mario Lourenço, Yury Ruzhyev, Lavinia Salinas, Angela Sun

Originally devised by Clayton Gray, Yury Ruzhyev, Felicia Nelson, Mark Dallas, Lyla Belsey, Sepideh Shariati, Amy Packwood, Maria Prozorova, Danielle Son, Ziyeng Goria Gao, Mario Lourenço, Joy Lee-Ryan

Toronto Laboratory Theatre declares that its show, In Sundry Languages, “looks and feels like Toronto.” The collective creation devised by the cast, features seven performers who not only speak with English as a second, third, or fourth language, but also speak at least one other language on stage, without translation. The show is a collection of scenes featuring bittersweet encounters between people navigating daily Toronto life, as well as stories about Toronto residents trying to put “others” into neat and easy to understand boxes. People who have seen versions of In Sundry Languages before may want to know that this iteration features 60% new material.

Arfina and Ahmed Moneka in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

The piece is a collection of thematically connected scenes or units that are either narrative-driven, movement-based, or motivated by the need to explore a situation. In the first scene, an actor whose dominant language is Russian auditions for a role in a movie. The actor (Yury Ruzhyev) clearly won’t get the part of “Russian gangster” because the director does not think that the actor has a stereotypical mobster accent – although he does speak with accented English. My 12 year old son was my companion, and he commented that not only must it depend on where you learned to speak English (Ireland, England, Canada …) but also that “Russia is a huge country: there must be so many different Russian accents.” Like most of the scenes, it is laugh-out-loud funny without being didactic, and is critical of the way so-called multicultural Canada addresses difference.

Director Art Babayants chose other scenes featuring spoken languages (Arabic, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and English), but the show as a whole also acknowledges culturally-specific body language, the language of music, the language of soccer, and the way language can shift via online communication like Skype. Babayants plays the piano throughout, underscoring the emotions and rhythms of each scene. An on-stage camera and screen often directs the audience’s gaze to a performer’s hands at one point, legs at another, eyes, and even a radical close up of a performer’s tongue. For me, the effect pointed out the significance of perspective, and also highlighted the fragmented way by which I listen— as I try to find clues to help me understand and communicate with others.

Lavinia Salinas in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

The performers skillfully conveyed a wide range of emotions and often subtle narratives even when I could not understand their words. When I lost the details of a scene, I was riveted by precise body language accompanying the words. I felt like I was being told something that simply could not be explained as well in English, something that I still couldn’t quite grasp because I didn’t have those non-English language concepts to work with.

After the performance, conversations spilled out onto the sidewalk. I overheard a young woman saying that she thought the scene about trying to rent an apartment in which the receptionist used the word “blah” as a placeholder for unfamiliar English must have been how her parents felt when they first arrived in Canada. Another enthused about a scene in which people attempted to order coffee with sugar and milk. My son wanted to discuss a repeated vignette about two neighbours, one of whom asks the other “where are you from?”

My own favourite was the final piece: an encounter between the Russian actor we met in the first scene (Ruzhyev) and an audience member who fluently spoke another language before learning English. The actor selected a man who spoke Turkish, and both men sat together on the lip of the stage. Without speaking any English, they taught each other their names and then the words in Russian or Turkish for the sky, the stars, the heart, and even the moon. I realized that this was the first scene in which linguistic difference was not presented as a challenge or a problem but rather as a vehicle for joy. When the exchange shifted to English, the actor asked the audience member about flirting and love-making in another language. Gently supported and punctuated by Art Babayants’ piano, the conversation reveled in the beauty of linguistic and cultural difference. I was delighted that the audience member joined the cast for the curtain call.

Mario Lourenco in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

When I was in Cape Town this summer I discovered that theatre audiences there are used to hearing multiple languages spoken on stage, and that they expect to not understand everything. Subsequently, South African performers know that at least 1/3 of the audience may not understand them well at any given time, and so their performances require unique skills. In the case of In Sundry Languages the performance is about the multiple languages we heard, just as it is about stereotyping, racializing, identity, and the challenges of unfamiliar “newness.” This show is entertaining and thought-provoking. Even though the audience would have to work a little harder, next I would love to see a show, perhaps with some of the same actors, in which multiple languages are part of the storytelling but not the focus of story.

Production photos by Henry Heng Lu and Matthew Sarookanian

Author Bio
Heather Fitzsimmons Frey holds a PhD from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. She is a Banting Scholar, conducting post-doctoral research at York University.

Her work addresses performances of identities, including gendered and cultural identities, especially in theatre for and by for young people.

Discipline and Perform: A Preview of Wig in a Box’s Docile Bodies

Willow White previews Docile Bodies by Wig in a Box, coming soon to the Montreal Fringe

Docile Bodies premiered at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, Montréal, from May 11-13 2016;        Produced by Natalie Liconti

Directors: Natalie Liconti and Lisa Saban
Stage manager/collaborator: Michelle Soicher
Sound designer/ collaborator: Joseph Browne
Dramaturge: Noah Witte-Winnette
Performers: Lucy Fandel, Beata Groves, Emilie Slotine, Sarah Foulkes, Emily Sirota, Natalie Liconti
Set, props, costumes: Holly Hilts
Lighting designer: Darah Miah
Photographer/ Videographer: Lola Ertel

The cast of Docile Bodies; photograph by Lola Ertel

Adapted from Michel Foucault’s seminal text Discipline and Punish, the collaboratively-written and devised performance Docile Bodies—by performance company Wig in a Box—explores how institutional power shapes the lives and minds of soldiers and, in turn, ourselves. Structured around the monologues of six soldiers— ranging from the twisted diatribes of a drone pilot to the painful recollections of a soldier suffering from PTSD—Docile Bodies explores how the machine of institutional power invades the unconscious psyche and body. While each soldier speaks, the others watch from the peripheries of the stage in homage to Foucault’s panopticon and as a reminder to the audience that the machine is always monitoring and listening. The various monologues are woven together with dance, music, sound, and movement to create a sense of cohesion and purpose. Gender and queerness complicate the issues at hand as the all female-identifying cast tackles issues of toxic masculinity, misogyny, and homophobia.

Photograph by Lola Ertel

Docile Bodies was made through a process of collective creation. All six performers as well as a team of collaborators were involved in the writing process over a period of five months. Each performer drew from their own experiences and conducted their own extensive research on military life in order to create raw and intensely personal characters. In group rehearsals, the team undertook various collaborative writing exercises and creation activities in order to generate content not from a script but rather from the creative expression of the group. Michelle Soicher, stage manager of Docile Bodies, explains the complexity of managing the unscripted territory of a devised performance: “Sometimes these discussions and emotional sharing moments were really beautiful and really important and really productive, but there’s no guidebook for what percentage of rehearsal is discussion, what percentage of rehearsal is exploration, and what percentage of rehearsal is creation of stuff to be shared.” It was Soicher’s job to guide the group, not as an author but as a collaborator. “It’s wonderful and it’s a great challenge,” she explains.

Photograph by Lola Ertel

Co-director Lisa Saban and co-director Natalie Liconti, who also produced and performed in the piece, describe where inspiration for the project came from. Starting with Foucault’s text, and particularly the chapter entitled “Discipline,” the team wanted to explore how discipline shapes social life. While Foucault offers a productive jumping-off point, Liconti points out that the text’s theoretical density also posed a barrier: “We felt that we could only talk about some of the [topics] from our quite privileged position and we did a lot of research to make sure we were doing justice to what we were talking about,” she says. Saban goes on to explain that “we as performers and people who are involved in the theatre found the discipline of the theatre really interesting.” Consequently, Docile Bodies not only deals with the topic of institutionalized power and discipline in the lives of soldiers, but questions how the theatre itself might become an extension of such forces. By creating the play collaboratively, the team hoped to deconstruct the hierarchies of the theatre: there is no script, no single author, and no star performer. Thus, the process of creating the play challenged the content of the play itself. Military structures of power, obedience, and repetition are cast into doubt by the practice of collective creation.

Photograph by Lola Ertel

As a member of the audience, I found Docile Bodies to be a demanding performance to watch both in terms of subject matter and staging. Performers spoke directly to the audience, and I often felt as though they were looking straight at me. Lighting contributed to this sensation as bright streams of light often spilled over onto the audience itself, blurring the line between performer and spectator. Consequently, I felt implicated in each soldier’s story. After all, if the military is an extension of society, aren’t we all responsible for their actions?

Throughout Docile Bodies the performers pelt the audience with tough questions—is toxic masculinity attractive? is easier better? is the military a metaphor? But for those interested in performance art as activism, their most interesting question may just be what is more important, the process or the product?

Docile Bodies will be performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival (May 29 – June 18) on the following dates:

Fri June 9 @ 24:00
Sun June 11 @ 18:30
Tue June 13 @ 24:00
Wed June 14 @ 21:45
Thu June 15 @ 19:00
Sat June 17 @ 17:15

Length: 60 minutes

Venue: MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels)
Tickets: $10.00, www.montrealfringe.ca

 

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Author Bio

Willow White is a Ph.D. student at McGill University in the Department of English with a research focus on eighteenth-century English theatre. A recipient of the Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship, Willow’s dissertation explores the work of comic women playwrights of the period. Willow is currently working on a project that considers the impact of mentorship on women playwrights at the end of the eighteenth century.

 

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