Gender? I Hardly Know Them: the queer sketch comedy duo zooms back with a new online show

Sydney Campbell and Elena Eli Belyea of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Photo by Mike Tan.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

How do you capture a sense of humour in words? On the eve of their new (mostly) live web series httpeepee, launching Tuesday, the queer sketch comedy duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them is brainstorming on a description.

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One of Elena Belyea’s favourite sketches is about a bank stepping up to Queer Pride … while trying to get you to buy their rainbow credit card. 

“We like stuff that is political, and engages with the complexity of what it is to be human in the world today!” says Belyea, half of the duo that made their debut last summer with a hit Fringe show. “Political and queer theory, mixed with dad jokes and stupid bum joes that make us laugh,” says Sydney Campbell, the other half of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. “A very funny mix…. We love to make each other laugh.”  

“We like ridiculously over the top,” Belyea continues. “And Syd and I have a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of The Office (the U.S. version).… ‘Michael? Michael?’” They both appreciate and reference Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.

We’re backstage with Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Which is to say I’m at my computer, Belyea is in Calgary at her partner’s family’s place, and Campbell is in their tiny Edmonton one-bedroom apartment. Suddenly, Belyea’s head turns into a hamburger, loaded. And then, voilà, she has a tiny dog on her head. 

In one way they’re a study in contrasts. Belyea is an actor/playwright, National Theatre School-trained, of experimental stripe and sharp edges. Witness such Tiny Bear Jaws productions as Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, a solo show that explores apocalyptic anxiety, and Cleave, a multi-character play that explores gender anxiety. Campbell’s background is improv, as a Rapid Fire Theatre performer, mentor, and teacher.

Elena Belyea in Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Laurence Philomene.

Belyea’s experience tilts her towards the intricacies of the text (“why this word and not that word? or, the second part of that line isn’t doing anything to advance the sketch…”). Campbell’s experience is weighted in favour of embracing the performance moment and its spontaneous inspirations: “we’ll just figure it out when we get onstage….”

Gender? I Hardly Know Them was, for both, a sketch comedy debut. “So we’ve able to develop our own process together,” says Belyea. “When I started writing comedy, my sketches were 10 pages long!” She credits Rapid Fire’s sketch/ improv star Paul Blinov with pointing out, “in his gentle way, that if the joke is in the last five lines, maybe the sketch is only five lines long.” Forget exposition: “No no! Get in, tell the joke, get out.”

The pair met in Tiny Bear Jaws’ production of Everyone We Know Will Be There, a site-specific play set at a teen house party in the suburbs. Campbell was one of the assistant stage managers. And they were assistant director of Cleave. “It turned out we have the same humour and we love laughing together,” says Campbell.       

Things were starting to happen for the pair at Fringes and comedy festivals when the pandemic struck. “We were at the Toronto Sketch Festival, and the pandemic was declared the day before we opened,” Belyea says. Twenty people came anyway, and the second (and last) night, 50. “Which felt good but….” She and Campbell had just finished shooting the pilot for a web series, under Telus’s Storyhive initiative. Gigs at upintheatre’s rEvolver fest in Vancouver and several other live dates, including the commission from the Pride Centre in Edmonton that turned into httpeepee

Elena Eli Belyea and Sydnee Campbell of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Photo by Mike Tan.

With httpeepee, Gender? I Hardly Know Them moves into the online alter-ego world of theatre, learning as they go. They ventured forth onto Zoom via TikTok, one video a day for much of April and May. “Love it or loathe it, it’s easy to edit and use,” says Campbell. “Some are great; some are duds,” says Belyea of their TikTok archive. “But even if it’s a dud, it’s (a case of) ‘I learned this new thing’…. And once we got into the rhyme of it, the audience response was very positive very quickly.”

Their sketch comedy mentor and director is award-winning Toronto-based Second City alumnus Rob Baker. “He has taught us so much, in such an extraordinarily short period of time,” says Belyea of his comedy ministrations. “We’re very excited about working with the constraints of being in a digital container instead of just working against them….”

It’s a crash course in what is possible, and Belyea and Campbell are grateful. Everyone who’s worked on the show, including assistant director Caleigh Crow and technical consultant Toni Morrison, gets a dramaturgy credit.

They’ve created scenarios that embrace the platform — friends talking over Skype or Zoom, for example, or a sketch that’s actually set on Google Docs. And “the rhythm is really fast,” says Belyea of httpeepee, with its non-skimpy offering of 18 sketches and 20 scenes in less than an hour (their Fringe show had 25 sketches). “Momentum is so important to comedy…. We struggle with the medium but try to make that struggle part of the show.”

As Campbell puts it, “we’re trying to ask how we can be excited about how this is a completely new platform.” One thing they’ve learned is that perpetual motion is the way to go. “If we’re sitting, it feels terrible,” says Belyea. “We try to find as many opportunities as we can to stand, and have full physicality…. By the end we’re always pooped!”

What comics are bound to miss is the validation of audible laughter and the more intangible kinetic charge any performers get from a live audience. But “if we can’t have a live audience, what are the things we can do in this medium that we can’t do live?” Belyea says. “For example close-ups; the audience can see the minutiae of my face,” eyeball to eyeball. Or quick changes of “venue,” room to room. 

They hope their audiences will react via the online chat boxes that accompany every performance. Says Belyea, “hearing the ping-ping on the chat box is the best way we can feel an energy exchange; you need an audience to tell you if it’s working….”   

Contingency plans are de rigueur, she says. “What if something goes wrong? We try to make it as slick as possible but be transparent and honest about knowing that in every show something will go wrong…. If one of us freezes, the other has to do something they hate, to entertain the audience in the meantime.… I might have to eat something disgusting, say.”

The form is a challenge. As for the comedy itself, the pair cite the CBC sketch show Baroness von Sketch and the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby as inspirations. The question for Gender? I Hardly Know them is “how do we make sure queerness is never the butt of the joke. Queer people are centred; they’re never the butt. They’re being bolstered.”

The spine of their Edmonton Fringe show was six short monologues, surrounded by jokes about growing up queer in Alberta, which is, as billed, “not for the faint of heart.” The narrative arc of httpeepee is built on monologues from Campbell and Belyea about their first Pride Parades.

Says Belyea, “If I did my monologue onstage it would resonate differently than if the audience is sitting at their computers while watching…. There are enough queer stories that orbit trauma. We do get into shit. But we really try to make it complex rich territory … in an optimistic way.”

In the end the mantra is “follow your joy,” she says. “I only want Syd to do things that are gonna make them happy, make them laugh. Not just what’s gonna get us more followers…. That would be an excellent way to lose your voice.” 

PREVIEW

httpeepee

Theatre: Gender? I Hardly Know Them, in partnership with Tiny Bear Jaws and Rapid Fire Theatre

Created by and starring: Elena Eli Belyea and Sydney Campbell

Where: Zoom

Running: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets (come with Zoom invitations): pay-what you can — $0, $5, $11, $23, $50, at rapidfiretheatre.com

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The spirit of mirth, brought to you live: Lodestar Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Jackson Card and friend, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I have had a most rare vision,” says Bottom, a stage-struck weaver with boundless enthusiasm for theatrical pursuits, late in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I had one of those, too. Friday night I dreamed I found myself, masked, ensconced on a folding chair, swatting a mozzie or two, in someone’s front yard. Other people were there, too, at a distance, on blankets or lawn chairs. A contagion had driven us all outdoors; we could see houses, close at hand but unapproachable, from which the characters might possibly have been expelled. And we were watching an exuberant 75-minute production of Shakespeare’s great romantic fantasy (and most produced play).

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Directed by Max Rubin, the show is the first item on Lodestar Theatre’s summer “garden theatre season” menu. And its delivery is Skip The Tickets for pandemical times. The company of travelling players will undertake to bring Dream to you. At your place, front- or backyard, they’ll do a performance for you and as many of your theatre-starved guests as can populate your outdoor “theatre” at a safe distance.    

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

Rubin’s production, an amusingly ingenious adaptation for six extremely busy human actors (and two impressively selfless puppets) launches a seasonal menu that will include two double-bills in the next couple of weeks, with more plays to follow. Lodestar is a company, transplanted from the U.K., with an archive that goes back a decade and a half and includes a Shakespeare festival in Liverpool.

Ah, summer Shakespeare: planes, cars, kids, the odd dog buying in to the casual vibe of the occasion. What we get to see courtesy of Lodestar is a raucous, high-energy high-speed scramble into the outdoors — and characters buffeted by the permutations and reversals of love.

OK, this isn’t one of those Dreams of the existential reverie persuasion. Or some Freudian excursion into the unconscious. Or a political exploration of exile or an exploration of sexual ambivalence. Nope. This is comical cavort, at farcical speed, full of pratfalls, in which the quartet of questing young lovers  are nearly as funny as the hilariously earnest rustic artisans, scene-stealers for the last 400-plus years, who decide to put on a play about thwarted love.

It is a measure of the giddy sense of humour of Rubin’s production that Hermia, the object in the text of many jokey references to her petite stature, is played by a puppet, with scarlet lips and a striking blonde Rapunzel braid. Jackson Card plays both Lysander and Demetrius, with the former sometimes played by a puppet with an inexplicable Joisey accent. “Hoymia, follow me no moah!” Why? Hard to say, really, but then “the spirit of mirth” is according to Dream “both pert and nimble.” And this is a production that scores big on both. 

Garden rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

The props are simple enough to be fun. Fairies get pointy ears. Emily Anne Corcoran dons spectacles to play Helena, who goes from being the girl who doesn’t get the guy to being the girl who gets two, and despises them both for mocking her. The four-way brawl for two actors that is the climactic outcome of a crescendo of frustration and bafflement — “quick bright things come to confusion” — is a tangible demo of how bravely puppets enter the fray. They really fling themselves into their work. 

The troupe of eager rustic thesps preparing a production of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tale of “tragical mirth,” do have a director, Peter Quince (Caitlin Kelly) the carpenter. But try as he might to exert his authority, he’s no match for his take-charge sublimely over-confident star Bottom, the bossy weaver who magnanimously offers to take on all the parts. Bottom is played, with a certain unsquelchable swagger and  histrionic zeal, by Hayley Moorhouse, like her cast-mates a recent acting grad from the U of A. And she is very funny. 

Braden Butler’s Flute, the shy bellows-mender, rises reluctantly to the demands of his role as Thisbe — and then gets bitten by the theatre bug as we watch. The death scene is, well, operatic.

The fairies aren’t the quixotic sprites of many a Dream. Amusingly they’re earthbound and phlegmatic. Hanging out with mortals has made them sullen. Far from being a “merry wanderer of the night,” as self-billed, Puck the fairy king’s personal employee, has in Sheldon Stockdale’s performance the general demeanour of a server in a dive where (as long experience has taught him) tipping is minimal.

The sound effects and music are live, and created by the cast during the fleeting moments the actors dart behind a free-standing red curtain. There’s an improvised craziness to the whole enterprise that doesn’t go amiss in a comedy-within-a-comedy. The characters  are never quite sure whether they’re awake or dreaming. The likeable cast never stops moving, and they remind you, if it ever slipped your mind, that live theatre has its own kinetic energy. After all, as the Duke says, casting about for a suitable live entertainment for his own back yard, “how shall we beguile the lazy time, if not with some delight? Good point, Duke. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now available, with more productions to come in Lodestar Theatre’s garden theatre season. Production details, and price list ($250 to $450 depending on cast size), are at lodestartheatre.org.

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Hungry for theatre? Lodestar Theatre delivers … to your own back yard

Garden rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. In this unpredictable and isolating moment, which has sent live theatre into lockdown exile on screens, Lodestar Theatre is its own creative resistance movement.

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The rep company, originally from Liverpool in the U.K. and relocated here since 2017, will deliver live theatre safely to you — on your doorstep, right in your front or back yard.

You choose the production from Lodestar’s ever-expanding “garden theatre” menu. On seven days notice you can choose the date, and a curtain time between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. (midnight shows by special arrangement) to suit. You choose the location. And you assemble the guest list (according to current safety rules governing gatherings): a gaggle of theatre-hungry pals perhaps, a block-party assortment of neighbours, or a princely private performance for one. The Lodestar price, ranging from $250 to $450, depends on the size of the cast.

First up is a six-actor 75-minute version of Shakespeare’s great al fresco romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream which takes its characters, fairy and human, on a wild cavort beyond the court and through the woods, with magical interventions. As Lodestar director Max Rubin says of this debut offering, opening in his own front garden garden Friday, the play “doesn’t just work beautifully, but could almost have been written” for garden theatre. 

“The online stuff is wonderful,” he says of the ingenuity with which live theatre here and everywhere has adjusted to online technology.  “But it just reminds me how much I miss the liveness and communion of theatre….” He thinks that  “when we come back we will come back with a roar. People will remember how important theatre is in our lives.”

In the meantime Lodestar does deliveries — of live adaptations of the classics, or offerings from the more modern repertoire, comedies or dramas, with thoughts of including new Canadian plays in future. After Dream, the next addition to the menu, available from next week, is a double-bill of 19th century comedies, Chekhov’s sparkler The Proposal and Shaw’s How He Lied To Her Husband. Then Lodestar adds another double-bill by July 25, a pairing of Chekhov’s The Bear and a 1912 suffragette comedy, Evelyn Glover’s Miss Appleyard’s Awakening. “By the end of the month we’ll have four or five shows,” says Rubin. “The idea is to provide a range.”

Range was built into Lodestar’s identity from birth, in 2006 in Liverpool. That’s where Rubin met his actor-wife Ruth Alexander, Londoners both, doing a show at the Liverpool Everyman in 1999. “We fell in love with (that city) and with each other … and stayed for 20 years,” says Rubin. “Brexit told us we had to leave…. It was our view of Canada that brought us here; we thought it was somewhere that would suit us.”

When the Tories got in, in Britain in 2010, “it became evident to us that we could carry on with our company, but we’d be spending 11 and a half months a year raising money…. It seemed, to us anyhow, that Canada was a more optimistic place, with far more generous and sensible arts policies than back home. Easier there to make things happen.” They sought out Edmonton so Rubin, “a director with an eye on teaching,” could do an MFA in directing at the U of A, a degree he required in order to teach at Canadian theatre schools. He graduated last year with a modernist production, by all reports gripping, of Shakespeare’s Richard III. 

Ruth Alexander and Julien Arnold in Two, Edmonton Fringe 2019. Photo by Mat Simpson

Edmonton audiences have seen Alexander, a principal on the TV series Coronation Street, onstage in such Lodestar shows as Two (at last summer’s Fringe) and Pinter’s The Birthday Party (in 2019), and in Wild Side Productions’ The Children just before the pandemic lockdown in March. For the current venture she’s in charge of musical arrangements and prop-building. 

“I desperately wanted to start a company here, to re-establish Lodestar in a new way for Edmonton,” says Rubin. “I know it’s an extraordinary time and hard to plan anything. But I do hope we can continue to grow it, perhaps using this new model of working…. Come the end of September perhaps we may be able to do things inside, if it’s safe.”

“Ideally, we’d have half a dozen plays on the go…. Maybe if we could find other local companies with shows ready to go, we could ‘host’ their productions….”

Garden rehearsal for A Midsummer Nights Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

His Midsummer Night’s Dream cast of six consists of recent BFA acting grads from the U of A. Of that ensemble, three will be in each of the double-bills that follow. Rubin is happy they’re undertaking theatre work. “I found it particularly heartbreaking for these kids to come out into the world and for this to be their first year…. How miserable for them.” Needless to say, they’re eager: “they’re so passionate about working; they’re ‘give me more plays and I’ll learn them’. Wonderful,” says Rubin.

They rehearse, several plays at once, in his back garden. “When it rains we go into my garage, which I’ve emptied out. It’s not glamorous!”

“We do the loud bits at half-voice. And our neighbours have been very understanding,” although (as he reports, laughing), the moment when Bottom the weaver, transformed into an ass, re-appears to his shrieking thespian buddies,  “they figured we were being attacked. We had to reassure them.” 

Director Max Rubin rehearsing A Midsummer Nights Dream, Lodestar Theatre. Photo supplied.

The actors rehearse in masks, mainly, but will perform without them. “We decided at the beginning as a company to form a (COVID) bubble,” says Rubin. “We’ve had to down tools once when one of our actors came in indirect contact with someone with COVID, and we waited for the all-clear…. We’re doing all we can to be as careful as we can.” Distancing is a great challenge in rehearsals, of course. “There are bits where we just can’t avoid proximity.” 

The size of the audience (masks not mandatory but recommended) is up to the customer, regulated by COVID guidelines and the size of the yard. “When we started, the maximum for an outdoor gathering was 15. Now things have loosened up a bit; 100 people can gather so long as distance is observed. We’d be equally happy doing the show for an audience of one…. Most of the people who’ve booked are expecting 20 or 30 people, so I imagine that’ll be the norm.”

Bookings have been coming in already. “I’m delighted to say that so far the idea seems to have gone down well!” says Rubin. “And we’ve done no marketing to speak of, except word-of-mouth.”

The cast size of six puts A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lodestar’s top-price top-ingenuity category (with correspondingly smaller prices for two- and three-hander plays). The $450 Dream tab, divvied up, means about 50 bucks apiece for cast and crew, “with a bit left over for gas.”

It’s a busy show for the actors. The only one who doesn’t have several roles is Sheldon Stockdale as Puck, the fairy king’s valet. The quartet of young lovers, played by two actors, is assisted by puppets for the big fight scene in Act III. “What started out as necessity has become one of our favourite parts of the show,” says Rubin.

PREVIEW

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre: Lodestar Theatre Company

Directed by: Max Rubin

Starring: Braden Butler, Jackson Card, Emily Anne Corcoran, Caitlin Kelly, Hayley Moorhouse, Sheldon Stockdale

Where: your front or back yard

Running: from Friday

Further information on the Lodestar lineup, and to book a performance: lodestartheatre.org

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The fun of real live theatre (socially distanced, of course): Chamber Obscura at the Found Festival

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luke in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Special occasion: tonight was the night I got to see real live people in real live theatre. It felt so … radical. So cool. So Zoom-defiant.

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The play is Chamber Obscura, a 15-minute gothic folk thriller, with Depression era musical trimmings, delicious and eerie as performed by a theatre family trio: Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and their 10-year-old son Luc.

Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020.

We drove into a Strathcona alley, up to the front of a dark tent; we watched through the windshield of our car and heard the three multi-talented performers through the car radio. “Brother can you spare a dime?” meets Gymnopédies. Ingenious and fun — and proof, if you needed it, that theatre artists may be daunted by these socially distanced, isolating times, but they will not be defeated.

Chamber Obscura runs evenings through Sunday, on the half hour, as part of Common Ground Art Society’s ninth annual Found Festival. And since there’s only one ticket to be sold for every performance — one car, one Covid pod — you need a reservation, on the Found Fest website. 

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Meet nine exciting artists at The Virtual Indigenous Artist Hub

Art by Dawn Marie Marchand. Graphic design by Amelia Scott.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This month you’ll get to meet and mingle with some of the country’s most exciting creators — nine Indigenous artists from Alberta, across Canada and beyond.

The meeting place: The Virtual Indigenous Artist Hub.

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The Hub is an intersection of video interviews, a new one every Tuesday and Thursday. They’re all hosted by Rebecca Sadowski, a charismatic Métis artist of apparently limitless talents — as an  actor, dancer, choreographer, poet, writer, weaver … a veritable poster-person for the term “multi-disciplinary.” 

Rebecca Sadowski in The Sash. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

The series is brought to you by Punctuate! Theatre and the Dreamspeakers Film Festival. And as Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, executive director of the latter, explains, if the world had been a different sort of place in 2020, you’d be experiencing The Hub live — in the lobby of the Citadel’s Rice Theatre, after every performance of After The Fire.

Set in the immediate aftermath of the terrible Fort McMurray fire, Matthew MacKenzie’s play, co-produced by Punctuate! and Dreamspeakers, was to have run in April-May as part of the Citadel’s Highwire Performance Series. And, as Frederick describes it, The Hub, “a plethora of offerings from Indigenous artists” in a cabaret setting, was designed “to maximize that experience.”

When Highwire, along with Dreamspeakers and Alberta Aboriginal Arts’ Rubaboo Festival, was cancelled, the Hub team set about refurbishing the series for a journey online. Says Frederick, “we were bolstered by the encouragement of the Edmonton Arts Council,” which readily agreed to repurpose their grant. “We wanted to get some money into artists’ hands as soon as possible to buoy them a bit through this crisis.”   

The virtual version of The Hub, curated by Frederick and MacKenzie, introduces us to an impressive array of creators, and them to a broader audience. “Music, theatre, visual arts, film, improv, dance … they’ll challenge, burst through, people’s cultural expectations,” says Frederick, herself an actor/playwright.

The series deliberately embraces both emerging and established artists. “We wanted a mix of art forms, and artists at different points in the trajectory of their careers.” And there’s a kind of mentorship momentum to the gathering: “what would excite them and propel them forward?” 

Artist Dawn Marie Marchanc. Photo supplied.

The Virtual Indigenous Artist Hub launched earlier this week with Smoky Lake-based visual artist/writer/community activist Dawn Marie Marchand, whose bold and colourful work you’ll see as a backdrop on the Hub website. And it continues July 2 with Edmonton playwright and storyteller Josh Languedoc, whose solo show Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land has toured the country.

Improviser Joleen Ballendine at Subito Festival Internationale de Théâtre d’improvisation Bretagne. Photo by Quentin LeGall.

Next week you’ll meet Edmonton dance artist Ayla Modeste (July 7) and improviser/screenwriter Joleen Ballendine (July 9), well known to Edmonton audiences as a Rapid Fire Theatre star.

The Hub also includes theatre artist Tai Amy Grauman (July 14), dance artist Skye Demas (July 16), theatre artist Theresa Cutknife (July 21), Peru-born Edmonton-based audio-visual artist Pachakuteq Espinoza Bravo (July 23), And the July 28 grand finale, which demonstrates “how precious it is to have time with Elders” as Frederick puts it, is Sadowski’s interview with Jerry and Jo-Ann Saddleback.

Check out the schedule and find out more about each artist at Punctuate! Theatre.

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Finding a new way at Found, the festival of unexpected encounters

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luke in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If ever there was a moment in history when artists and audiences have had to find each other in new, experimental, reimagined ways, this has got to be it, my stir-crazy friends. And, hey, Edmonton has a festival for that.

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The Found Festival returns Thursday for a ninth annual edition of weekend finds: 14 unexpected, surprisingly diverse encounters with art, created especially with a whole new set of rules in mind.

Found Festival 2020 is a veritable seminar in mind-bending and creative adaptability for a time in which we all feel more than a little lost. But then Found was always about finding new connections and relationships, often designed for particular  unconventional sites … grocery stores, parkades, public bathrooms, someone’s apartment.

As Found Festival’s Beth Dart (co-producer with her sister Megan Dart) points out, the strange and isolating circumstances of our lives have upped the ante. From the start Found always “cracked open the door to investigate other ways of audience engagement.” And (as you can’t have failed to notice) theatre has left the building anyhow.

This explains why sometime this weekend, you’ll find yourself driving to a location for a “private viewing experience.” Someone will black out the closed windows of your vehicle; the live soundscape comes through your radio. And through the windshield of your vehicle, you’ll find yourself watching the live performance of a 15-minute play called Chamber Obscura: 50 Cent Piece. The “whimsically dark” folk tale of gothic persuasion set in Dustbowl era Alberta is a creation of Le Fixe Theatre, performed by a multi-talented theatre family trio, Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and their 10-year-old son Luc.

Chamber Obscura is Found’s sole live physically-distanced performance. And it requires advance reservation since, as Dart says, it’s a matter of  “32 performances, one ticket per show. But it’s for an entire car load: you and your partner, your family, your ‘immediate germ pod’.”

“It came out of necessity,” Dart says of the birth of Found. “The necessity of finding affordable spaces” for emerging artists, still the backbone of the festival. “And it grew from there to site-specific performances and the unique audience-performer relationship that happens in a found space.” Or with found materials. Or found footage. Or found people. “Working from the environment in which we find ourselves right now is the heart of what the Found Festival is. And we’re in that moment:  the fun and challenge is how to provide a sense of community to our audience and to our city now….Necessity is the mother of invention!”

Physically-distanced intimacy might be the great oxymoron of our time. Found tackles it head on. And the artists of the 2020 festival have found a variety of solutions. When the pandemic shutdown happened in mid-March, this year’s festival was already fully programmed, says Dart. “We asked the artists if they’d like to adapt their project to a digital or distanced world,” difficult with site-specific performances. “Or to defer it to next year, or to create something completely new.”

All opted to defer, so the entire 2020 lineup has been delayed for a year. And the Darts put out the call for “Found Festival Reimagined” proposals. “The response was incredible, overwhelming,” she says. “Some of the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make as a curator” went into this year’s new 40-artist edition.

Some of the projects are livestreamed, some pre-recorded. Some have been assembled on Story City, a new app for mobile phone (the founder has recently moved from Australia to Edmonton, and reached out) which pinpoint locations and how-to-engage instructions. 

Dwennimmen, aka Shima Robinson, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Sounding, for example, created by and starring spoken word poet Shima Robinson aka Dwennimmen, is a collage of three videos shot at three different locations meaningful to the poem being performed.

For The Home Suite, theatre artists Ben Stevens and Paula Humby and a quartet of fellow actors (Robert Benz, Kristi Hansen, Sheldon Elter, Christina Nguyen) create a “self-guided immersive outdoor experience” in Old Strathcona. It’s a collection of 10 short audio plays tied to buildings in the ‘hood. And the question in play at each stop is “who would I be if I lived in this house?”. 

You can take them in on a physical wander through Strathcona (probably the most evocative way, as Dart says). Or you can listen to them without ever leaving your own home.

Morgan Yamada in #NewSkills, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Actor/ fight choreographer Morgan Yamada’s inspired Found idea, #NewSkills, comes to you as a video online. And it taps directly into the experience of pandemic self-education, which has all of us struggling to learn something new (down with sourdough) in the course of being stuck at home. As Dart describes, Yamada “has been recording sessions in which she asked a bunch of artists (six in all) to teach her a new skill. Which she tried to learn on the fly with them.” Drag queen Marshall Vielle, for example, taught Yamada the basics of drag makeup. 

To experience Connection, you can take in Mackenzie Brown’s rich melange of storytelling and music on location through the Indigenous Art Park (on Queen Elizabeth Park Road). Or you can engage with it from home.

Stories From Nowhere In Particular, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Stories From Nowhere In Particular is a film by multi-disciplinary performance artist/ activist Simone A. Medina Polo. “She’s done all the scoring, all the text, all the visuals” says Dart of a collection of interconnected vignettes with “a beautiful existential lens to them.”

Musician/ composer/ DJ Mustafa Rafiq, the Found Festival’s music curator for a couple of years, has assembled a collection of interviews with DJs — as Dart says, “why they choose the music they do, how they build a set, the importance of the music..…” They come to you Live From the Found Fest DJ Booth, on a schedule available at commongroundarts.ca.).

Secret Creek, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

The weekend includes a musical tour through the woods (Secret Creek). There’s a debut film by theatre designer Elise Jason (Existentialism For Babies) in which they layer conversations with the pediatrician who treated them for childhood cancer with found footage from their past. And there’s much more.

Found Festival 2020 runs Thursday through Sunday. Check out the full and varied program of Found offerings at commongroundarts.ca. Most are free, some ticketed. Donations will be received with gratitude and delight.

 

         

  

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Celebrating an Edmonton theatre season like no other: the Sterling Awards (online), led by The Color Purple and Titus Bouffonius

Tara Jackson as Celie in The Color Purple, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Robert Benz in The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Edmonton theatre took its annual awards gala onto the digital stage Monday night for the first time ever, to celebrate a theatre season like no other. And a musical that chronicles the empowering four-decade journey of a poor Black girl — dealt the worst possible hand by the world around her in the early 20th century — proved the top choice of jurors as the 33rd annual edition of the Sterling Awards were presented online.

In a season abruptly curtailed in March by a pandemic and a theatre scene re-lit by an urgent acknowledgment of chronic racial injustice in our own world, The Color Purple, a 15-year-old musical powered by the spirit of Black Lives Matter, has renewed resonance. Of its five Sterling nominations, the Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre collaboration on the musical fashioned from the epistolary 1982 Alice Walker novel took away five awards — including outstanding production of a musical.

Kimberley Rampersad, the first Black woman ever to direct a professional production of The Color Purple, was voted outstanding director, alongside musical director Floyd Ricketts. Both the the leading and supporting role honours in the drama category, went to the production — to Tara Jackson for her knock-out star performance as much-abused Celie, and to the supporting performance of her cast-mate Janelle Cooper as the spirited and defiant young woman who plays a part in Celie’s growing awareness.  Jackson’s powerhouse delivery of the title number was a highlight of Monday’s digital celebration.    

The season’s top honours in the ‘outstanding production of a play’ category went to Theatre Network’s raucous account of The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Colleen Murphy’s black comedy bouffon version of Shakespeare’s gruesome revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus.

Of its nine nominations, Bradley Moss’s ensemble production took home three Sterlings, including one for Hunter Cardinal’s virtuoso double turn — ‘outstanding performance in a supporting role, comedy’ — as the “recovering kid” who plays the bouffon who plays two brothers, one the jumped-up Emperor and one a more laid-back amateur always a cue or two behind. Tessa Stamp’s costumes, gore magnets in the course of events and designed to reflect the multi-layered intricacies of characters playing characters playing characters,  garnered a Sterling, too.

Of the four gender-neutral performance Sterlings (last year’s awards innovation), three went to The Color Purple and The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. The fourth, for ‘outstanding performance in a leading role, comedy’ went to Patricia Cerra for her high-precision comic turn as an exasperated party guest in Shadow Theatre’s premiere production of the Nick Green satire Happy Birthday Baby J.  

Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Isaac Andrew in The Blue Hour, SkirtsAfire Festival.

Shortened though it was by more than a dozen productions, postponed or cancelled, the season had an impressive measure of premieres — witness a particularly competitive field of new-play nominees. In a roster that included plays by Ellen Chorley (Everybody Loves Robbie) , Nicole Moeller (The Ballad of Peachtree Rose), David van Belle (A Christmas Carol), and Jason Chinn (E Day), top new play honours went to The Blue Hour, Michele Vance Hehir’s fulsome small-town prairie tragedy, the third of her Roseglen plays. And Annette Loiselle’s SkirtsAfire premiere was also deemed outstanding independent production.

Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play. Photo by BB Collective.

The theatre lockdown that has left the ever-ingenious performing arts industry struggling for its very survival, gave new meaning to Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, an off-centre apocalyptic assessment filtered through the gaze of pop culture by the American playwright Anne Washburn. The Blarney/You Are Here co-production directed by Andrew Ritchie, which unfolded in a series of three make-shift theatre spaces wrested from the Westbury Theatre, went home with two Sterlings. One was for Brianna Kolybaba’s tripartite set, the other for Mhairi Berg’s score.

Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor, Jessy Ardern in Queen Lear Is Dead. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

The theatre for young audiences awards both went to Gina Puntil’s production of Safe & Fair: Scene at Work, for Alberta Workers’ Health Centre.

The Fringe categories were dominated by Jessy Ardern’s cleverly site-specific Queen Lear Is Dead. It happened in a series of locations in a church at a memorial arranged by the Lear girls in honour of their mom, who didn’t get any ink in Shakespeare. Three Fringe Sterlings —  outstanding production, outstanding new work, and outstanding director (Valerie Planche) — went to that premiere. The Fringe performance Sterlings went to Candace Berlinguette (a co-creator of Reality Crack) and Jenny McKillop (You Are Happy).

Notable for its absence in the Sterling list, after seven nominations, was Catalyst Theatre’s boldly theatrical all-female new musical play The Invisible – Agents Of Ungentlemanly Warfare, inspired by real-life World War II history. And of its six nominations, Daryl Cloran’s hit musical version of As You Like It, a Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre production which tag-teamed the Bard with the Beatles, came away with a sole Sterling, for Jonathan Hawley Purvis’s fight direction, which had the actors in a wrestling ring at the outset. Six, the snazzy Tudor pop-rock concert that came to the Citadel en route to Broadway, went on its merry olde way with one Sterling, for Tim Deiling’s lighting.  

AND THE STERLING GOES TO…

Outstanding Production of a PlayThe Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding New Play (award to playwright)The Blue Hour by Michele Vance Hehir (SkirtsAfire Festival)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading role – drama: Tara Jackson, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – comedy: Patricia Cerra, Happy Birthday Baby J (Shadow Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – drama: Janelle Cooper, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – comedy: Hunter Cardinal, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Director: Kimberley Rampersad, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Independent Production: The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival)

Outstanding Set Design: Brianna Kolybaba, Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Tessa Stamp, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Tim Deiling, Six (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis, Girl in the Machine (Bustle & Beast Theatre)

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Mhairi Berg, Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre)

Outstanding Musical Director: Floydd Ricketts, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Fight Direction or Choreography: Jonathan Hawley Purvis, As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production: Brad Fischer, technician/operator

Outstanding Production for Young AudiencesSafe & Fair: Scene At Work (Alberta Workers’ Health Centre)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences: Gina Puntil, director, Safe & Fair: Scene at Work (Alberta Workers’ Health Centre)

Outstanding Fringe Production: Queen Lear is Dead (Fox Den Collective)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright)Queen Lear is Dead by Jessy Ardern (Fox Den Collective)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Valerie Planche, Queen Lear is Dead (Fox Den Collective)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – drama: Candace Berlinguette, Reality Crack (Vibrate Productions)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – comedy: Jenny McKillop, You Are Happy (Blarney Productions/ Dogheart Theatre)

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Making space for a new generation of arts leaders: Vanessa Sabourin and Kristi Hansen walk the walk at Azimuth

Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, co-artistic directors of Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a moment in the life of the performing arts when the past didn’t seem to provide an automatic template for the future, this might be it. Change is in the air (and the rhetoric). And Azimuth Theatre is doing more than breathing it.

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The adventurous little company whose reinventions are dramatic, and happen with every project, has opted to embrace that challenge in a tangible way. Co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin are leaving their joint leadership position at Azimuth — to create “opportunity for regrowth” and “to make room for more leadership from the IBPOC communities.” Their job will be posted June 30.

“Azimuth is a great company for up-and-coming arts leaders to learn how to lead,” says Hansen, who took over the company with Sabourin in 2017. “That’s what Vanessa and I did….” The pair arrived from their joint indie venture The Maggie Tree (Sabourin, as well, had been artistic director at Calgary’s Urban Curvz). “And the board took a huge chance on us,” Hansen says. “They were very supportive. And the company is so agile. It can be whatever it needs to be.”

“There’s not a lot of infrastructure to dismantle,” says Sabourin. “A two-person staff, Kristi and I. Pretty open. Really malleable…. In order for us to try and change the system, we have to understand the system we participate in And we participate in the privilege; we participate in the system that continues to oppress.”

“It felt very difficult for us to say we believed in change, and still maintain our positions of power and decision-making…. We’re moving to supporter-ship,” she says. “At a moment when there’s been such a deep disruption in all our rhythms, it’s an opportunity for someone to lead, to say ‘I bet you could do this!’….”

In the Black, Indigenous and POC (people of colour) communities, “there’s been so much leadership happening that just doesn’t get recognized … they’re still not in a position to actually make decisions.”

“We’d been talking about making the change in the next two years,” says Hansen. “Now just seems to be an apt time.” What makes the moment so auspicious “is that there are some very exciting young arts leaders, and creators, coming out right now that are so inspiring to us….”

Hansen points to a new and impressive generation of theatre-makers from marginalized communities. One example, she says, is Colin Wolf, the new artistic director at the Indigenous-centred Gwaandak Theatre in the Yukon. “Here’s a young person with a lot of great ideas and adaptability, who has what it takes to lead, inspired by Indigenous practice and principles.”

All That Binds Us, workshop. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

An Azimuth project slated for September, All That Binds Us, which had developmental workshops this past December, has assembled “an amazing group of (Indigenous) artists from all over Turtle Island,” Hansen says of other Azimuth collaborators. She mentions as well, such artists as Reneltta Arluk, head of the Banff Centre’s director of Indigenous arts; Nasra Adem, founder of Black Arts Matter; Chris Dodd, founding parent of Sound Off, the country’s only deaf arts festival, like BAM also part of the Chinook Series.

In their time at Azimuth “we tried to go back to the company’s roots, ‘to create and present performance that examines society with a critical gaze’” says Hansen. “We joined an organization with a history, feeling a lot of responsibility to shepherd and to serve.” Says Sabourin, “social activism is part of its fibre; it’s how it was built, for engagement with social issues, to be service to the community, not just as a theatre company to show you stuff that’s cool….”

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, an Azimuth/ Northern Light Theatre co-production. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The Azimuth archive under Hansen and Sabourin is full of work you could easily call plays, and experiments that resist easy categorization — dance/theatre hybrids, workshop ventures, an escape room, master classes…. “We’ve tried a lot of stuff,” says Hansen. “Some of it worked; some didn’t.” Their best ideas, they both think, came out of innovative partnerships. 19 Weeks, for example, an Azimuth collaboration with Northern Light Theatre (starring Sabourin), brought together two companies with very different ways of “engaging with work,” as Hansen puts it. “For Northern Light, it’s more about presenting a subject and having it speak for itself. Whereas we want to have discussions. And they were so good about accommodating that.”

The Snow Queen, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

Their prevailing idea, says Sabourin, was always “building relationships.” The Snow Queen — theatre in escape room form — was a 2018 Azimuth engagement with high school kids, and with technology. “After all, it’s a show about growing up,” says Sabourin of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. The Azimuth initiative paired kids with mid-career artists, “for a cross-generational experience of artists working together.”

Expanse, originally a festival oriented more exclusively to movement and dance, took on different dimensions under the Azimuth flag, with the inclusion of of Indigenous, disabled, and Black artists.

Expanse 2020. Photos by Marc J Chalifoux.

The company’s Sunday morning Performance Labs, a pay-what-you-can initiative designed to remove barriers to training, was another success. “We wanted to provided opportunities for many kinds of learning, and teaching. Who gets the opportunity to teach?” says Sabourin. “It was a chance to build community in meaningful ways, not just ‘I want something from you; come and serve my vision’.”

The pandemic lockdown cost Azimuth another collaboration, the May premiere of Tell Us What Happened by Michelle Robb, a co-production with Theatre Yes.

Sabourin says, “I’ve really enjoyed bringing people together, and putting together projects. The opportunity to create … chaos. The unknown. The unpredictable. Putting ingredients together and letting them interact. They’ll have a theatrical relationship with each other you can’t predict. I love that!”

“It’s time for new voices and new leaders to be guiding the ship,” says Hansen. Their exit into support roles is about ceding the decision-making to others, Sabourin says. “It’s not about off-loading work….There are people out there who can take this and FLY!”

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Back to live theatre: are you game? That’s the question as E-town theatres make (and re-make) plans for the fall

original plans for Northern Light Theatre’s 45th anniversary season. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Lessons from the pandemic: “Phases” may come (and go). But a great triple-sided mystery remains. You can throw open theatre doors. But will people want to return? Under what conditions? And when?

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The good news is that theatre-goers actually want to be back in the house seats having a live theatre experience — at least according to an informal 127-response audience survey conducted by Heather Inglis, the new artistic producer at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

Workshop West found that 66.9 per cent of their respondents are “very likely” to “return to theatre “after a full re-opening of the economy.” To question 2, “how long after the full re-opening of the economy would you wait until attending live theatre?”, 42.5 per cent of Workshop respondents checked “right away if it’s something I want to see,” although nearly 25 per cent said “a few months” and 9.4 per cent said “one year.” 

The vagaries of the phrase “full re-opening of the economy” are, of course, open for interpretation and postponements, as Inglis points out. But, in an industry based on human proximity and therefore devastated by complete shutdown, she’s choosing to be heartened on that count. “People do like theatre and want to go to it…. They want that intimate interaction between actors and audience.”

Phase 2, with its permission for indoor gatherings of 50, socially distanced, is by no means an open invitation for live theatres of any size to get back into action onstage. The country’s largest theatres, including the Citadel, won’t be producing on their mainstages till 2021. As Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran told 12thnight last week (read the piece HERE), it’s just not workable to rehearse and perform on any artistically or financially viable scale in the company’s two 700-seat houses. “Pretty much everything we do in Phase 3, or beyond,” he said, in announcing a complete transplantation of his mainstage season to 2021-2022. 

An audience of 50 for small theatre companies, with their smaller-scale productions, seems on the surface more do-able. But they rehearse and perform in smaller houses. Inglis has been pondering the perms and combs for Workshop West. “Six feet apart, wearing masks … it’s possible for a reduced audience…. But from our end, what about the cast and the rehearsals? The actors would have to form a ‘cohort family’ that along with their own families would be the only people they’d see for five weeks. “It’s a lot to ask.”

“And if somebody gets a cold and has to be tested, we’re shut down for two weeks…. We stand to lose all that money. And no art has happened.”

Heather Inglis, artistic producer Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Inglis, who arrived at Workshop West from the indie company Theatre Yes in 2019, isn’t waiting till 2021 till she launches her debut season at Workshop West, however. She’s readjusted her original season, and in October Workshop West will present “an experimental piece under restrictions that are completely COVID-friendly.” The audience, divided into very small groups, follows through a series of socially distanced encounters with actors, one at a time, who have rehearsed in separate rooms. It’s not what she’d planned for Workshop West, she says. “It’s more the kind of thing that Theatre Yes (Slight of Mind, Viscosity, Anxiety) is known for….”

“My priority is having art that can’t be shut down,” Inglis sighs. The Workshop West calendar has projects “with the audience in a more conventional setting” in the wings for March, May, and June.

At Theatre Network, artistic director Bradley Moss hasn’t finalized when the company will return to producing onstage at the 200-seat Roxy. He thinks that “half-houses” are workable for little theatres. But “just because the province says it’s OK” doesn’t mean there will be Equity guidelines in place for rehearsal. 

“I was not thinking before Christmas,” but that’s under reassessment, he says. “If we open before that, it’ll be a Roxy Series (Theatre Network’s alternative series) presentation, not a mainstage show.”     

“Our hope is to do something in the late fall,” says Shadow Theatre artistic director John Hudson. His 2019-2020 Shadow season was truncated when Heisenberg was cancelled after three performances in March and the finale production, Reed McColm’s The Wrong People Have Money, which would have premiered at the end of April, was indefinitely postponed. “We’d really like to get our 2019-2020 subscribers in, and complete their purchase,” he says. “If we could have 50 people in the theatre (the 176-seat Varscona) then we could do that safely in 12 to 14 performances, we think.”

“Then the 2021 season could start as planned in January,” with The Mountaintop, and the premieres of Conni Massing’s Fresh Hell in March and Darrin Hagen’s 10 Funerals at the end of April. “That is what we’re going off of right now,” he says.

Shadow’s Varscona Theatre roommate Teatro La Quindicina, which delivers large casts by small theatre standards, has moved its entire 2020 summer season, which runs May to October, to 2021.

Northern Light Theatre, which performs in the tiny Studio Theatre (in the ATB Financial Arts Barn), has opted “to move forward into the November slot” in its 45th anniversary 2020-2021 season, says artistic director Trevor Schmidt. His NLT shows, which he directs and designs in the adaptable black box theatre, are usually configured for an audience of 50 or 60. 

In the new COVID phase 2 reality, “we’d be performing for 15 people at most,” with social distancing. And that’s workable for Northern Light, he says. “It’s the advantage of the size of the company.” But regretfully “we had to let go our first show” in September, his season’s largest: The Oldest Profession, with its cast of five women over the age of 50.

A five-person cast (six including stage manager) performing for an audience of 15 max? His chief concern, though was that the actors are women of a certain age, “and it would be putting them at risk.”

NLT’s October anniversary gala is cancelled. But the four-show season will proceed as planned with The Ugly Duchess in November and The Look in January, with the Tennessee Williams two-hander Something Unspoken in April.  The fourth show is pending funding. It’s “all about isolation and being alone,” Schmidt says of a theme that can scarcely avoid resonating at the moment.

The phase two COVID logistics in phase two are certainly labour-intensive, as Schmidt points out. He predicts “no single ticket sales (only subscriber tickets) for some of our performances,” since one NLT production is part of Edmonton theatre’s annual between-company variety pack, the Theatre 6-Pack, sold to 250 theatre-goers.

In the course of 18 performances, the box office would be arranging groups, “two people here, three people there, registering for a sitting. Like a bad wedding,” says Schmidt.

NLT’s plans for audience safety include a ticketless box office, electronic programs, supplied sanitizer and masks. Call times. “Maybe you’d be seated at 7:19, and the next person at 7:21….” 

There are many uncertainties in the world of theatre. Like Cloran, Schmidt says he finally had to make a decision. “I can’t keep ripping the rug out from people…. If things change, we can offer people options, an extra ticket maybe, the chance to make a donation, another activity (instead).”

“Smaller companies are used to working on a shoestring. And I think we do have it easier than larger companies,” says Schmidt, who lost the last show of his current season (Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver) to the pandemic. “It’s a great time for artists to be ingenious with small personally-driven projects….”

“I’ve never thought for a second theatre would die…. We’ve been going since the Greeks.” 

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Dreams delayed: a cross-border 2020 theatre story starring designer Stephanie Bahniuk

theatre designer Stephanie Bahniuk. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Stephanie Bahniuk is sitting on the front porch of the 1850s house in the leafy university town of New Haven, Conn. where she’s lived for three years. She’s musing on the way life’s big-M Moments can veer off in wildly unexpected directions, and big breaks can suddenly get big cracks. 

A couple of weeks ago Bahniuk, Edmonton-born, -raised, and -educated, graduated from the Yale School of Drama with a master’s degree, an MFA in design. It happened in that special 2020 way: on Zoom. Her family applauded from Edmonton.

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Ah, Zoom. That’s where she’s  been going to classes for the last eight weeks. “My cat has been wondering why I’m home so much,” says the new Yale grad. The trickiest class to translate to Zoom world? “Life drawing,” laughs Bahniuk instantly. The live nude model? Cancelled.

The Cunning Little Vixen. Costume sketch by Stephanie Bahniuk. Photo supplied.

What wasn’t cancelled was her thesis. She presented it over Zoom, “from my bedroom,” she laughs. The “theoretical studio project” she chose was The Cunning Little Vixen, a Czech opera in which most of the characters are animals. The presentation included 30 to 80 costume renderings. And because the fabric stores in New York were all closed, the swatches were gathered online.

The Cunning Little Vixen. Costume sketch by Stephanie Bahniuk. Photo supplied.

Cancelled: that’s a word Bahniuk, like all theatre artists, has heard a lot in 2020. “It is a really strange time to be graduating,” she says with a rueful laugh. But then, it’s a really strange time to be in theatre, period; an entire industry has completely shut down, temporarily but … indefinitely. Bahniuk’s is a cross-border pandemic story full of exciting career opportunities, unexpected connections — and cancellations.

Edmonton audiences know Bahniuk, a U of A design grad, from such shows as Pyretic Productions’ Blood of Our Soil, the Mayfield’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Alberta Opera ’s Hansel and Gretel. She won a Sterling Award for the ingenious deconstruction of her gangway design, complete with birch trunks and astro-turf, for Stupid Fucking Bird, Dave Horak’s much-lauded Edmonton Actors Theatre production, a contemporary reimagining of Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Robert Benz in Stupid Fucking Bird, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Bahniuk had originally crossed the continent (with U of A design classmate Megan Koshka) to intern at Bard College’s SummerScape in upstate New York. Then for three summers in a row she was an assistant costume designer at the Williamstown Festival in the Berkshires, a notable springboard for shows heading to NYC. “And it gave me a taste of what it’d be like to work in New York,” she says of the prospect of  “bigger budget shows at regional theatres, as well as Broadway and Off-Broadway.” 

Yale, and graduate school there, might not have occurred to her had she not landed a Williamstown gig as assistant to the great costume designer Jane Greenwood, a legendary figure in New York, and head of the costume design department at the Yale Drama School.

“That was my motivation to take a chance and apply…. I wasn’t banking on coming, or even getting in. But then I was accepted!”

At the U of A, design students are encouraged to apply themselves to set, lighting, and costumes, all three, says Bahniuk. Making a living in Canadian theatre means that designers take on multiple elements, in indie productions often all three. “Here you can make a living just doing one; the industry is so much bigger.”

The Swallow and the Tomcat, Verano Summer Cabaret. Costumes by Stephanie Bahniuk. Photo by Elsa GibsonBraden.

At Yale, Bahniuk specialized in her first love, costumes. That’s been her focus since she got drawn into theatre in high school (at Archbishop Jordan), first as a dancer, and then in production. 

She’d have been back at the Williamstown Festival this very summer, as assistant costume shop manager. “It felt full circle to go back there; I was excited about the job. And they had an incredible season lined up.” It was not to be. 

Yale comes with its own prestigious set of perks, as you might expect. The faculty are nothing if not well-connected. And then there’s prime theatre location: a two-hour train ride to New York City. “They encouraged us to go to the city.” All the fabric for Yale productions, even swatches for studio assignments that would never end up onstage, comes from New York. “A great resource to be close to the city,” says Bahniuk. “And great too to be out of the city (to live and study). It kept the work more focussed…..”

The Yale College production of The Winter’s Tale, “totally designed and ready to go” for an April run, “got cancelled over spring break.” Timing did work in Bahniuk’s favour, though, for another Yale advantage, the chance to design a show for Yale Repertory, the fully professional theatre company associated with the school.

Manahatta, Yale Repertory Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bahniuk landed Manahatta, the third production in Yale Rep’s season, the East Coast premiere of an intricately woven play about the American inheritance vis-à-vis the Native population that had premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As she describes, it could scarcely have been more challenging for a costume designer. “It takes place simultaneously in the 17th century and the economic crash of the early 2000’s. The seven actors play in each time period” in 30 scenes that switch location and time period. It opened in early February, just before the shutdown.

Yale’s annual “in-person design showcase in New York,” a sort of debut to the industry for its grads, was cancelled. Bahniuk has been in the States on an F1 student visa for three years. And the grand finale, another Yale perk, OPT (optional practical training for a year after graduation), is at hand. It’s the chance, says Bahniuk, to remain in the U.S. and work legally for a year and gain experience “as long as it’s in my field.” Ah, there’s the catch. Her 12-month OPT begins July 10. And on July 31 she’ll “take the risk” and move to New York, as planned. But “it’ll be a very different year than I had imagined,” she says. “There won’t be a lot of theatre till 2021.” She plans to investigate design work in film and TV, “once they open up again.” And she’s looking at fashion-based work, too.

YELL: A “documentary” Of My Time Here, Carlotta Festival, Yale School of Drama. Costumes by Stephanie Bahniuk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

“There are so many immigrant artists in the U.S. who have worked for years to build careers here, and now are stuck.” Applying for unemployment benefits isn’t a possibility; “it could jeopardize future visa applications.”

On the plus side, “there’s a great community of international designers in the city, and people will look out for me, which is kinda nice,” she says. “There was even a Go Fund Me campaign started here to give $500 micro-grants to immigrant theatre designers. And I was very lucky to receive one…. We have to support each other, even if it’s free work. The idea is to build our resumés; that’s the point of it….”

Meanwhile “I really appreciate New Haven now more than I have for the last three years,” Bahniuk says. “It feels pretty safe in a pandemic. The weather is beautiful. And it’s never been fully locked down; you can get outside a lot…. It’s an old campus, so beautiful. And so many parks, and walks.”

It’s a moment of calm before the storm of the unknown, when Bahniuk’s story continues. “I truthfully have no idea how I’m going to live and work after the first few months of my lease. And I am not alone…. I thought grad school was hard but the next year is going to be a challenge. ”

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