A relationship between the lines: Something Unspoken, streamed by Northern Light Theatre

Davina Stewart and Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s just that I feel that there’s something unspoken between us that ought to be spoken….” — Something Unspoken, Tennessee Williams        

The 1950s Tennessee Williams one-act play that opens online Friday — the third production in Northern Light Theatre’s 45th anniversary season — is about that mysterious, closeted, silent “something.”

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Something Unspoken is the shorter, rarely produced (and earlier written) half of a Williams double-bill (Garden District), that includes Suddenly Last Summer. According to Donald Spoto’s Williams biography The Kindness of Strangers, the playwright grew more and more uneasy — “absolutely terrified” said his leading lady Anne Meacham — as rehearsals began for its premiere in an Off-Broadway theatre in 1958.

What was up? Cannibalism, violence, homosexual pursuit and seduction, enforced lobotomy: Suddenly Last Summer was, Williams suspected, a veritable checklist of trigger warnings in ‘50s American. Something Unspoken, though, has subtler currents; it’s a two-hander that lives in homoerotic subtext, repression, and ambiguity.

In the South of the ‘50s we meet wealthy spinster Cornelia (Davina Stewart) and Grace (Patricia Darbasie), her “secretary” of 15 years on a fraught day. Cornelia is fretfully awaiting the results of an election for the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, a bastion of antebellum nostalgia and privilege she feels entitled to head.

Cornelia and Grace’s relationship seems more complex, more uneasy and unresolved, than class hierarchy or the boss-employee dynamic alone can account for. As Schmidt himself has said in his director’s notes, a contemporary audience is instantly tuned to the homoerotic desire and tension between two women. “It feels so obvious now,” agrees Stewart. And since Grace is played by Darbasie, an actor of colour, the dynamic of race enters life in the subtext.

The complexities give Something Unspoken, picked by Schmidt 18 months ago for a season of productions devoted to women of a certain age, a prophetic spatial suitability for the pandemic restrictions of the moment.   

Davina Stewart in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

“Perfect for COVIDian times,” says Darbasie. “We rehearsed in person, six feet apart, masked most of the time … just another COVID rehearsal, you know!” she laughs. “We moved rehearsal to a bigger space downtown,” says her co-star Stewart. “Two characters who are ‘socially distanced’ in the play (itself), and trying to find ways to connect…. They get close and touch only once.” One scripted touch, as Darbasie says: “It’s not like we’re wrapped around each other. It’s all subtlety and subtext.”

Like The Look, its immediate predecessor in the NLT season, the production exists not as a movie but a filmed version of a play. “Yes, the world is the ‘50s, but it’s not frozen there,” says Stewart. “ Trevor didn’t want it to be a period piece, a museum piece. We’re not trying to re-create the ‘50s…. It happens very clearly on a stage, in a theatre.” That theatre is the Varscona, and the filming (by Ian Jackson) happened there last week.

As Darbasie describes Schmidt’s design, the characters are in a dining room, at a large (COVID-approved) table. And since Cornelia talks about her award-winning garden and Grace gets roses as an anniversary gift, flowers and gardens are part of the visuals. “Not a literal world, but the essence of the beauty, colour and joy that gardens bring,” says Stewart of the stylization that finds its natural home in the theatre, not the cinema.

Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

Casting Stewart and Darbasie was Schmidt’s idea from the start. And having an actor of colour as Grace is a departure in the history of the play. “That was the experiment,” says Darbasie, a playwright and director herself. “Trevor asked me if I’d be interested in exploring that….” In the Williams oeuvre, where Black characters are decidedly rare, and peripheral if they appear at all, it ups the ante on the unspoken. “There have always been inter-racial relationships,” she says, noting Thomas Jefferson’s ‘family’ of Black slaves. “But they were underground, really till after the Civil Rights Movement.”

“You can’t help who you’re attracted to…. Cornelia is in a position of power; she gets to make her own rules. She has the ability to hire Grace, and she gets to define the relationship. And for Grace as a person of colour there are great advantages, a lifestyle (that includes) an access to money, music … things she couldn’t otherwise obtain. It’s a trade-off. And most relationships are.”

So many of Williams’ plays “start with a secret, something unspoken, something so big and so heavy it can’t be spoken about,” says Stewart. “Who knows about it? Who doesn’t?” says Darbasie.

The pair have an easy and genial rapport in Zoom conversation. Schmidt’s production is an onstage reunion for them: they were in theatre school at the U of A together in the ‘90s and have only been onstage together a couple of times since (most recently in Teatro La Quindicina’s 2018 The Finest of Strangers). “We were sisters in (Chekhov’s) The Three Sisters,” says Stewart, of a first-year university production. Sisterhood is natural: “We laugh at the same things.”

And Tennessee Williams figures in both their resumés. Darbasie was Eunice, the upstairs neighbour, in A Streetcar Named Desire in Regina. Stewart was in the 1997 Citadel production of Suddenly Last Summer, notorious in Edmonton theatre history for the bizarre choice to have the playwright watching the action from up in a tree. “I’ve always loved Tennessee Williams,” says Darbasie. “He was my audition piece for the BFA (program at the U of A):  Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When I started teaching I’ve often used Streetcar; it’s just so well-written.

Stewart echoes the thought. “The language is so juicy, so thrilling.” She laughs. “And those three syllable back-pocket words! Where have they been hiding all these years? How can I use them every day?” In Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, it’s ‘mendacity’, she says. For Something Unspoken, it’s ‘conciliatory’. “Both characters use it. And ‘mollified’, as in
“I have never been mollified by conciliatory replies,” as Cornelia says.

Darbasie laughs. “With a Southern accent you get more mileage in your mouth.”

Along with dramaturge Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki, the actors have been immersing themselves in research, about the colonial past of Dixie and the Confederacy, the significance of names. And as Stewart and Darbasie point out, you don’t exactly have to hunt for currency, in the open resurgence of white supremacy organizations, ideology and rhetoric. Try the news. “It’s a contemporary play with contemporary reactions,” as Stewart puts it.

And speaking as we are of the unspoken, “racism,” muses Darbasie, “is a world view. It’s systemic…. We’re all on a spectrum in terms of our awareness. Some of us are in Grade 6; some of us are in Grade 1. How do you help the person learn, that’s the challenge, about what privilege buys you… Mostly we just bash.”


Something Unspoken

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Tennessee Williams

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart

Where: streamed on Vimeo, northernlighttheatre.com

Running: Friday through April 25

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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Adventures in pandemic theatre: a mystery box, a romantic comedy, a (very) short film fest, and more

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Theatre’s strange, circuitous and sometimes wonderful route through the pandemic, chapter umpteen. Let me tell you about my week.

•For three days the mystery box sat on the dining room table, wrapped in silver. Light, but not too light. Not small but not big. A distinct rattle when surreptitiously shaken.

What could possibly be inside? No way of knowing till showtime last Saturday. Speculation is irresistible.

La Boîte Sensorielle/ SensoryBox/, Ghost River Theatre at L’UniThéâtre. Photo by Jaime Vedres Photography

That’s La Boîte Sensorielle, a Ghost River Theatre “production” delivered to your door by L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s hospitable francophone theatre. A particularly engaging companion (actor/ co-playwright Christopher Duthie), looks you right in the eye, intensely across your screen, and explains why you are giving him a gift in accepting this boîte — by being present at a time, for theatre artists, of absence.

That’s when hearing and touch take over from sight. You will be  masked, yes, but it’s with a blindfold, and Duthie’s easeful, genial instructions (in French) are in your ear. And after a Zoom-laden year, maybe it isn’t so surprising to discover, as I did, that it’s fun, and honestly kind of a relief to discard for a while the visual in favour of darkness, and a connection with a performer that feels more visceral. Is it that the visual has become the preserve of screens, and screens have their own tiring and predictable homogeneity?

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Co-created by Duthie and Ghost River artistic director Eric Rose, La Boîte Sensorielle is, in its own inspired way, custom-made just for you. Or put it this way: it directly gets you to be alert, and custom-make the experience for yourself. It’s a gift box of playful cues into your own past, memorable moments, lost sensations, odd points of connection with other people, little glimpses into your younger self, fragments of your pre-COVID-ian life. It’s an adventure into your own life.

“There’s no show without you,” said Rose in an interview with 12thnight.ca that you can read here. And that’s exactly right.

I can’t tell you more without spoiling the surprises, and skewing your own spontaneous responses. No rehearsing, kids: there’s delight to be had in playing along. La Boîte Sensorielle returns tonight through Saturday. Tickets: lunitheatre.ca.

A gift-wrapped box, fun! For me, it’s been a week of unusual theatrical responses to these trying times (and a week to be impressed again by the resourcefulness of theatre artists).

First Métis Man of Odessa, is a new romantic comedy by playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bears, The Particulars, The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This), premiering as part of Factory Theatre’s You Can’t Get There From Here Audio Series of podcasts. It’s the playwright’s real-life love story, a race against time and borders in which the obstacle to happiness, romantic union and fulfilment isn’t your beloved’s mom, or red hair, a bizarre hobby, dietary proclivities, or musical taste … but a global pandemic.

I haven’t tried either, but I suspect it’s probably more enjoyable to do your own root canal than travel by air these days. Who could have known the world, reputedly getting smaller, would actually be getting so vast? Matt, a Métis man of Toronto and Edmonton, and Masha, an award-winning theatre artist of Odessa, fall in love in the latter’s home town in Ukraine. A short parting of ways gets longer and crazier, thanks to COVID. Borders close; regulations multiply. Will Matt get back to Masha? Will their wedding happen (and will they be able to book a klezmer band in time?). Will Masha get to Canada before the birth of their son? Will a happy ending happen, and true love prevail over the shitstorm of the world?

It’s a breathless real-life romantic screwball, directed by Factory artistic director Nina Lee Aquino. Claude Lauzon and Christine Horne play Matt and Masha, the COVIDian Nick and Nora. Catch it (for free) at factorytheatre.ca.

•Don’t tell me you haven’t had time to “go” to the Play The Fool International Short Film Festival, devoted to clowning and physical comedy. You can see all 12 jury selections in their entirety in 24 minutes (23 actually, since one of the two-minute films actually wraps it up in 60 seconds). I wrote about this experience on the weekend (you can read about it here), and the oblique way clowns, who have an uncanny ability to live in the moment, address the times in which we live. It continues at playthefool.ca.

Please Remain Behind The Shield, by and starring Chris Dodd, SOUND OFF Festival. Photo supplied

•I caught Please Remain Behind The Shield at this year’s (all online) SOUND OFF festival of deaf theatre, now alas over. This new solo piece by the multi-talented deaf theatre artist Chris Dodd (SOUND OFF’s artistic director and founder) thinks about the disconnections of the pandemic as a daunting obstacle to language. The world has become even more alienating to deaf people when an alienating .

Dodd himself, an engaging and eminently likeable performer who uses an animated melange of ASL and integrated subtitles, to create a hopeful deaf protagonist whose access to the world, and tentative forays into friendship are shut down cruelly, bit by bit, in the age of distancing and masks.

It’s an eloquent show from Follow The Signs Theatre, a 20-year-old collaboration between Dodd and hearing director Ashley Wright. And it deserves a longer run, in other theatres. Check out the 12thnight interview with Dodd here.

Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter, Lady Macbeth and the Not Quite Dead, Musical Theatreworks. Screen capture.

•I’m coming late to this, but I really enjoyed Lady Macbeth And The Not Quite Dead, an original song cycle that is a collaboration between Vancouver’s Musical TheatreWorks and Shakespeare companies across the country (including our own Freewill Shakespeare Festival).

The setting is Lady M’s celebrating sleep-walking scene. And she conjures a selection of Shakespeare’s other women who, it turns out, aren’t quite dead after all (you look for pals where you can find them). Great premise, set forth by Tracey Power in the first song “Out Damn Spot!”. Twenty artists from everywhere in Canada were commissioned to write, perform, and video songs based on the fortunes of Kate, Juliet, and the rest of the female brigade.

The charismatic Tara Jackson gives us Cleopatra. And Freewill stars Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter, in matching “I’m A Good Woman” T-shirts, bring us Cleo’s put-upon attendants Iras and Charmian, a ditzy BFF duo laced to cellphone texting in an amusing song: “I am her and she is me…. We are girls of the same fortune/ though we are not of the same origin….”

The plan, apparently, is for a national show that will happen on a stage, an exciting prospect. Meanwhile, catch the video version at musicaltheatreworks.ca.

p.s. Friday, the 2021 edition, all-online, of Rapid Fire Theatre‘s conflagration of great, crazy, and what-were-they-thinking ideas, starts. Check out the 12thnight preview here.


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Bonfire: the festival of new and flammable improv ideas, from Rapid Fire Theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

How crazy is this?

What if … you were quarantined in a room, and you had to improvise all by yourself — for an entire show? And you didn’t know whether anyone was watching or not? Cut to other members of the ensemble, each improvising in their homes, on a common theme?

Captivated is but one of the dozen original, possibly lunatic experiments in long-form improv coming your way in Rapid Fire Theatre’s online 2021 edition of its Bonfire Festival, opening Friday.

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Flammable improv ideas the company has never tried before are the raison d’être of Bonfire. Some will burn brightly, and show up in future Rapid Fire seasons; some will flame out in spectacular fashion, or maybe even explode. “That’s the fun and the appeal of it!” declares RFT artistic director Matt Schuurman, who’s much more inclined to the affirmative side of showbiz than the cautionary. “It’s always been an idea-generator, a laboratory for us!”

This year’s incarnation of the improv laboratory is the first in Bonfire history to happen exclusively online (it was cancelled in 2020). And the company members, who pitch ideas, have leaned into the medium, says Schuurman, an improviser himself who is one of the theatre scene’s premier video designers. “When the online platform is the venue, how do we play to its strengths? How is the idea served by being online?”

Captivated, for example, is a pandemic version of Hostage, an in-theatre improv in which a single member of an onstage ensemble is selected to leave and improvise alone in a sealed room for 45 minutes, as a video feed cuts randomly in.

Which invites a question: Is it possible to improvise alone? We the people of the pandemic are finding out. Schuurman quotes Wes Borg of the late lamented comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie: “it’s catching a ball you threw yourself.” We get that now, as never before.

Play The Game, an online Rapid Fire Theatre improv. Photo supplied.

Long before COVID Rapid Fire was more savvy and dexterous than other theatre companies with online technology. And, as Schuurman points out, the last year has improved both the quality of the updated platforms and techniques for using them. “Let’s find the fun in the online tools; let’s focus on that!”

Movie Night: A Night At The Movies, for example, is a pandemic re-set of a popular improv in which an episode of a sitcom is projected on the screen, and the ensemble of performers provide the voice-overs. For the 2021 Bonfire RFT’s Paul Blinov finds a film (in the public domain), and the improvisers create, on the spot a new story and all its characters and voices, in synch with the action.

Here’s a nerve-wracking riff on reality, especially tailored to the time: RFT Romance takes its cue from online dating. Literally. It’s an actual first date between two single members of the Rapid Fire ensemble.“It embraces the moment,” says Schuurman, whose well-honed sense of absurdity finds a lot of raw material in our current shared situation.

And speaking as we are of “reality,” if I were a real estate agent I’d be wincing right now; RFT is playing around with the techniques of that industry. In Move That House a self-appointed RFT realtor will take you, the prospective home-owner, through a real property on a virtual tour to see if you’re a good lifestyle fit, and land the sale.

Informercials, too, are a natural for RFT use. Infomercial Hour embraces flashbacks to the lives of ineptitude lived by infomercial stars. Paper Dolls is a re-work of “an old improv classic,” explains Schuurman, “in which one person is the talking head, and another person stands behind playing the arms.” In the Bonfire version “the audiences has the fun of scrolling through possible outfits….”

What will municipal politics (eternal questions of snow clearing, garbage pickup, LRT expansion) be like in the hands of RFT improvisers? Town Hall Time is your chance to find out the entertainment potential, hitherto virtually untapped.

The festival, overall, is a bit smaller, says Schuurman. And Bonfire evenings have one performance instead of a bunch. “It’s logically easier, for one thing. And attention spans are shorter these days, too.” Going online exclusively is not without its challenges, of course. “Listening is one of the biggest,” Schuurman says. And listening is at the heart of really skilful alert improv. The vagaries of internet connection, and the delay functions with certain platforms “can certainly mess with conversation!” In live theatre, the focus of the audience at any time can be determined, by lighting and sound cues and the rest of the theatrical arsenal. Online? Well, the audience is more distractible, and “not everyone’s focal point is the same.”

As usual, thought, the entertainment value of watching deluxe performance take a risk is at the heart of Bonfire. And so is the sense of play. It must be hereditary. Schuurman, who is married to Fringe Theatre’s interim Executive Director Megan Dart, reports that their little daughter Alice is madly in love with her fairground Lego set, a present for her second quarantine birthday. Next up for RFT: Lego improv?


Bonfire Festival 2021

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Where: online, rapidfiretheatre.com

Running: Friday through April 24

Tickets and full schedule: rapidfiretheatre.com

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Got a couple of minutes? catch a film at the Play The Fool International Short (very short) Film Festival

Dayna Lea Hoffman in Spaghettiman, Play The Fool International Short Film Festival. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Psst.… Wanna have fun, fast, on a blowy pandemic Sunday? I went to an international film festival this morning. And I saw all 12 jury selections, in their entirety, before my second coffee.

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Surely the world’s only 24-minute festival of any kind, the Play The Fool International Short Film Festival is devoted to the fine (and infinitely amusing) art of clowning and physical comedy — never more welcome, I must say. Each of the films you’ll see is two minutes long, max. And though telling a complete, fully-formed story in 120 seconds is a lot harder than having duration at one’s disposal, the idea is evidently much too kooky (and/or crazily challenging) to be resistible.

The debut edition in September, part of the fifth annual Play The Fool Fest as it got re-thought by artistic director Christine Lesiak for online life in these pandemical times, attracted some 40 tiny gems from here, there, and everywhere. This time out, the film festival has its own identity and its own director, Shreela Chakrabartty, a film-maker  herself. And it drew a whopping 200 submissions. The jury whittled that number down to 80 (!) finalists. And the festival you’ll see if you have 24 minutes to fool around with reveals the 12 finalists — from here, across the country and the pond, the U.K., Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran.

Clowns are wayward about strict classifications, as you’ll know if you saw the range of options in September. And that’s true in this second edition of the festival. Some clowns speak, others don’t. Some sport the classic red nose, others are dressed in formal evening wear. Some can be distracted into pleasure by tiny discoveries; others are steeped in existential Euro-gloom. For that matter, some are human and others are flowers. Or fish.

Abby McDougall in Outtshgh, Play The Fool International Short Film Festival. Photo supplied.

I’m here to report I had a blast with this dozen. And the beauty of this Play The Fool array is that in some way all the offerings address the surreality, the uncertainties, the absurdities, the assorted weirdnesses and terrors of the Now — clowns seem to be all about the immediate present. But thankfully it’s in elliptical or oblique ways. And there’s this: clowning in isolation is a quixotic undertaking in the first place; clowns are fed by audience interaction. And here we all are, stuck at home, eating out of our own fridges, stuck in our own minds.

Spaghettiman, starring Dayna Lea Hoffman (directed by the great clown mentor and guru Jan Henderson), is about life, death, and love. And it will confirm that the absurd and the tragic are first cousins, possibly siblings.

The coveted Red Nose prize, best in fest, is now the possession of a fun, very accomplished show called Show, from Rio de Janeiro. We meet a couple whose slumbers are continually invaded a flamboyant gallery of their alter-egos, upstagers all. The quarantine crazies? The Q word is never invoked.

Opéra dans mon salon, Play The Fool International Short Film Festival. Photo supplied.

It isn’t in Opéra dans mon salon, from Paris, the winner of The Fools’ Gold jury’s choice prize. It’s a very amusing film about a Parisian who goes to the opera, with all its trappings (including dozing off and intermission) in his own apartment.

The Golden Nose, awarded to the best of Edmonton, goes to Abby McDougall’s Outtshgh, in which we meet an insomniac clown, battling her own thoughts.

For those with even less concentration, there’s even a 60-second entry, from Bristol. Nick Hales’ animated Stay Home Stay Safe Stay Sane? stars a worker gradually going mad during lockdown. Eloquence in one minute.

It’s strictly BYORC (bring your own red carpet). And the dress code is, well, relaxed.

Find the line-up at playthefool.ca. Watching is free, but donations will make everyone concerned very happy.

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Unwrapping an adventure: La Boîte Sensorielle delivers a box to your place

La Boîte Sensorielle/ SensoryBox/, Ghost River Theatre at L’UniThéâtre. Photo by Jaime Vedres Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Life can be full of surprises. You, my friend, are going to get a mysterious package delivered to your door.

It’s wrapped; it has your name on it. But you mustn’t open it until  showtime a few days later. And you’ll be blindfolded as you explore the contents, guided by the performer’s  voice in your ear.

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La Boîte Sensorielle/ SensoryBox is a live/digital theatre hybrid that brings this adventure by Calgary’s zestfully experimental Ghost River Theatre to you on location at your place. Its entire premiere run last fall sold out in Calgary. Now, as presented by L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre, it’s happening for the first time in French. (Side note: you have to admit SensoryBox sounds more lyrical en français: La Boîte Sensorielle).

“Who doesn’t like getting stuff in the mail?” laughs Eric Rose, co-playwright/ director and Ghost River’s artistic director. “It’s kind of old-school that way….” And it’s designed to re-create for our repetitive, isolating, screen-dominated time, the specialness and sense of anticipation that attach themselves naturally to going to the live theatre in person. After all, the routine fallback of couch and Netflix of an evening doesn’t require much active participation except being more or less conscious.

La Boîte Sensorielle/ SensoryBox, Ghost River Theatre presented by L’UniThéâtre. Photo supplied.

Unboxing a mystery has a whiff of Christmas about it: you have to wait to be surprised. It’s ‘don’t unwrap till Dec. 25’ for this pandemic moment. And in the case of The SensoryBox, “there is no show without you!” as Rose declares.

In the last decade the Ghost River innovators have explored “sensory experiences,” touch, smell, intuition among them, in an award-winning, immersive Sixth Sense series.  SensoryBox, the latest, was inspired, says Rose, by reflections that whirl around the question — crucial to the performing arts and its audiences in this challenging Zoom-laden moment in history — of “liveness.”

“What defines a live experience?”

At a moment when theatre artists are summoning their wits to engage an audience across the flat screen (and audiences are wondering the same thing), there’s a certain creative vigour and optimism about Rose, an award-winning theatre-maker with a philosophical streak. “I think in some ways the disruption will (make) the life-affirming arts take a massive leap forward — in what we think about, how we consider liveness. It’s an opportunity to think about how the content we create is disseminated, what we’ve counted on, what we’ve assumed about our audiences and how they engage with it.”

For actors, as he points out sympathetically, there’s a different relationship with this since the work has just gone…. For me, it’s not just to make art, but also to employ.” In the end, “what kind of care do we need in order to call ourselves a community?”

“What I’ve realized,” says Rose, “ is that liveness is very much based on perception.” After all, as he points out, theatre is based on our collective agreement to be deceived, “to imagine, to suspend disbelief in order to immerse ourselves in a world….”

And part of liveness, he thinks, is “presence… What allows people to be present in a story? In this new online environment, the screen feels flat, and we don’t feel necessary as an audience; we’re passive. Is there anything we require (of the audience) beyond putting in a code?” He laughs. “These are very big challenges…. How do we take the things we love about the (live) experience and translate them into this new reality?”

What he and his SensoryBox co-playwright Christopher Duthie (who performs in the French version) were after, says Rose, is creating a theatrical experience where “the content is generated by both parties, the performer and the audience.” And The SensoryBox is neither flat nor 2-D; it’s tactile.

“There’s no show without you!” he says cheerfully. “It can’t happen. We set up cues to stimulate your imagination. But without you engaging in it, half the show would be missing.”

Unlike everything about the future and its escalating uncertainties, it’s an adventure with no anxiety or pre-planning required. “We’re just asking you to be present. Just listen to the voice, follow the instructions in a thoughtful way, and interact with the objects. One of the goals is to allow adults feel like kids again. Another is to help people to process this very weird COVID time we’ve all had to embrace….”

“What’s beautiful about it, the moment you put on a blindfold you really could be anywhere,” says Rose. The Calgary run in September had an audience that was partly online and partly, 20 at a time, live at cabaret tables in a theatre. “You could hear the responses of the audience live when you were blindfolded at home, and, magically, you were just there with everybody else!”

Ghost River has fielded requests for corporate gigs; they did a version for a Pat The Dog, a theatre creation centre in northern Ontario. And they’ve been working on a kids’ version of SensoryBox for Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. “It’s in the research-and-development phase,” says Rose, who figured it was about time he created a show his own kids, six and nine, could enjoy.

They’ve mailed boxes to people in New Zealand, Serbia the Netherlands, Russia..… “There’s a sense of our community expanding beyond the city limits. And that’s exciting!”

In the end, the online world isn’t a threat to live theatre, Rose thinks. “Theatre-makers are the best content-creators in the world….How can we open ourselves to new possibilities?” And digital and live aren’t an either/or for theatre, he argues. “It’s really about more!”


La Boîte Sensorielle/ SensoryBox

Theatre: Ghost River Theatre, presented by L’UniThéâtre (in French)

Created by: Eric Rose and Christopher Duthie

Directed by: Eric Rose

Performer: Christopher Duthie

Running: through April 10, in French

Tickets: lunitheatre.ca

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SOUND OFF gathers Deaf artists from across the country and beyond for its online 2021 edition

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In an age of probing questions about inclusivity in theatre, here’s a model of accessibility — forged in the fire of experience, years of it,  of being marginalized, and finding alternate pathways to communicating.

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SOUND OFF, Canada’s unique and influential national Deaf theatre festival, born in Edmonton five winters ago, returns Wednesday, bigger and brighter than ever, for a five-day 2021 edition (in collaboration with the Chinook Series and Fringe Theatre) that’s exclusively online.

Deaf and hearing audiences are both welcome at a multi-disciplinary multilingual (ASL and English) showcase dedicated to Deaf artists and their stories. And there’s nothing circumscribed about a 22-event lineup that includes seven mainstage performances from here and across the country, seven live workshops; two staged readings; one Q&A, two panels, two digital “lobbies,” and one big wrap party.

Chris Dodd, founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF Festival. Photo by Jade Dodd.

The “pivot” into the digital realm that has engaged the creative wits of our theatre artists in these pandemic times, isn’t really an exile into foreign territory for the Deaf performing arts, says founder and artistic director Chris Dodd, a playwright/actor/activist, who became the U of A’s first Deaf drama grad in 1998. “The Deaf community was already well positioned at the start of the pandemic to shift their work into the digital realm,” he says. “We were already making use of video logs, video platforms for communication, and creating digital performances for many years….”

“The pandemic has been especially interesting for me as a Deaf artist because it’s opened up many opportunities for participation…. Going digital means that we truly reach a national (and beyond) audience for the first time ever after previously being a local event. That in itself brings new energy to the scene.”

Chisato Minamimura in Scored In Silence, SOUND OFF Festival. Photo by Mark Pickthall.

The mainstage guest artist at this year’s festivities, which gather Deaf artists from here, across the country, and beyond, is Chisato Minamimura from the U.K. Her work Scored in Silence, which explores the perspectives of deaf people who survived the atomic bomb atrocity over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, brings another language into the SOUND OFF mix. BSL (British sign language). And the production unspools, as Dodd describes, in three formats: in BSL with English voice-over, audio-described, and English voice-over with captions. Your ticket includes access-on-demand to all three versions.

The five years since the first SOUND OFF have seen “a growing engagement between Deaf artists and mainstream theatre companies as they (the latter) turn their focus to diversity,” Dodd thinks. “Increasingly theatre companies are providing ASL interpretation and captioning…. There are often more events each week than I have time to participate in. Which is something that never happened pre-COVID. I hope that going forward we are able to strike a balance, that the theatre community retains some digital events as they transition back to live theatre.”

Having said that, though, Dodd adds that “people across the country who are Deaf, artists or not, are still marginalized and misunderstood.” Which is one reason, he says, that “I feel it’s important to (bring) my own lived experience to the stage.”

As a theatre artist, Dodd, a wry and insightful sort in conversation and in his writing, has often explored the experience of the Other, the outsider looking in. He finds the Deaf characters in the popular theatre repertoire, as written by hearing authors (Tribes or Children of a Lesser God, for example), are “pretty good” but lack authenticity. By contrast, one of his “favourite experiences onstage” was playing half a married Deaf couple (who communicate in ASL) in a 2016 Toronto production of Ultrasound, by the Saskatoon-based Deaf playwright Adam Pottle.

Please Remain Behind The Shield, by and starring Chris Dodd, SOUND OFF Festival. Photo supplied

Dodd’s own solo show Deafy, a tragicomedy (in ASL, spoken English, and captions) about belonging, will become Playwrights Canada Press’s first published script by a Deaf author in October. It’s been grounded by the pandemic. But Dodd says he’ll return to the stage in it, when theatre is back live.

Meanwhile, his new play Please Remain Behind The Shield premieres at SOUND OFF, in a production (in “English, ASL and integrated subtitles”) by Follow The Signs Theatre, the company he shares with Ashley Wright, who directs. Originally commissioned by Canadian Stage and SummerWorks, it could hardly be more topical; it explores, as billed, “Deaf identity in the age of masks.”

ComMUTE, Deaf Spirit Theatre at SOUND OFF Festival. Photo supplied.

Other MainStage offerings include ComMUTE from Kingston’s Deaf Spirit Theatre, a collection (performed in ASL)  of diverse short pieces created by Deaf artists across the country.    

Gaetrie Persaud and Natasha Bacchus in The Two Natashas: Visiting Aunt Natasha, SOUND OFF Festival. Photo supplied.

Gaitrie Persaud and Natasha Bachus, the high-contrast Deaf pair that brought last year’s SOUND OFF the original comedy The Two Natashas: Our Life in Guyana, are back with a sequel, a new comic adventure called The Two Natashas: Visiting Aunt Natasha.

And, yes, to anticipate your festival question (we are, after all, in Edmonton!) there’s improv. Toronto’s enterprising Outside The March has custom-made an ASL version of The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, especially for SOUND OFF. In the original version of their intriguing, much-travelled immersive mystery hit (200 cities, every continent), an “inspector” solves an actual  “mundane mystery” from a single participant’s own life — in a series of personalized phone calls at a pre-arranged time every day for a week. The SOUND OFF edition, starring Connor Yuzwenko-Martin and Thurga Kanagasekarampillai (Miranda in the Citadel deaf-hearing production of The Tempest)  happens on Zoom, in the course of an hour, for a general audience.

The six-member troupe Deaf Antlers Improv brings an ASL show, cued live by the audience, to the festivities.

From its debut edition SOUND OFF has partnered with Rapid Fire Theatre on an improv show that’s invariably one of the festival hits, with both Deaf and hearing audiences. It mixes Deaf performers from festival offerings and hearing improvisers from RFT. “It’s been a process in evolution but the results have always been hilarious,” says Dodd, a quick-on-the-uptake improviser himself. “Our first two years we separated into Deaf and hearing teams. After that, we mixed up the teams with equal numbers of hearing and Deaf performers on each. This year we’re using the Maestro format … which eliminates teams and pits performers against one another for points.”

“The one constant,” Dodd says, is the rule that the performers can’t use sign language or speech…. It forces them to express themselves solely through their bodies and gestures.”

“It’s the great equalizer…. Humour has become our shared language.”


SOUND OFF Festival

Where: online, fringetheatre.ca

Running: March 31 through April 4

Complete schedule of events: soundofffestival.com

Tickets: pay-what-you can, tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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Expanse 2021, the festival of bodies in motion, moves online

Expanse Festival 2021. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Creating more space.” It’s a phrase that recurs like a mantra, and an invitation, when Azimuth Theatre’s two new co-artistic producers Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada talk about this year’s Expanse Festival, opening tonight on an internet near you.

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Expanse, the ever-expanding “celebration of the body in motion,” is a mainstay, along with the SOUND OFF Festival, of the Chinook Series, the two-week cross-company curated showcase of innovative multi-disciplinary art — productions, salons, panel discussions, lobby interludes and gatherings, interactive “dance parties” — that breezes back into town this very night. The sixth annual edition, through April 4, is exclusively online, in an adventurous array of forms, a cross-hatching of live-streamed and video.

There’s a diversity of on-demand content to stream at your own pace. Or you can “go” to Expanse for a festival evening and let the Chinook blow over you as a sort of extended Chinook watch party. You put yourself in the hands of a curated “playlist,”different every day, that includes a selection of streamed performances, and hanging out “live” in the virtual lobby before and after each, to see choreographed performances by The Lobbyists, and/or chat with your fellow festival-goers. The idea, says Goberdhan, is “how to make it as interactive as we can….”

“Sharing” and “different ways of connecting” — both challenging  notions in the isolating pandemic world of 2021 — are key motifs in the Azimuth lexicon. And Goberdhan and Yamada apply them to both the movement arts festival dreamed up 16 years ago by Murray Utas and Amber Borotsik (and re-imagined beyond narrow frontiers of “dance” ever since), and to their new partnership.

After all, times being what they are — a logistical nightmare and/or a rallying cry to innovate, on any given day — the Azimuth co-producing pair making their debut with Expanse have never been able to work together in person in the theatre’s new Strathcona office. “It’s like having a really cool room-mate,” laughs Goberdhan, of the perpetual screen presence of Yamada in her apartment as they make, and re-make Azimuth plans on Zoom.   

“We inherited a lot of programming, originally designed to be live,” says Yamada of Expanse offerings planned by their Azimuth predecessors. “They gave us the machine; we set it in motion.” Vanessa Sabourin and Kristi Hansen exited last year to “make space,” as they said at the time, for a new diverse generation of theatre artists.

The artistic glue in the Expanse 2021 lineup, beyond even its elastic-sided founding idea of the body in motion, is “experience-based” creation, as Yamada puts it. Which is to say artists mining their own personal experience directly, and finding a way to share it onstage.

At its most unfiltered, there’s Moon Speakers, a free closed-space open stage for Inuit, First Nations, Métis female/ femme/ two-spirit artists to “share their experience, their art, their heart,” says Yamada. Its Expanse session Saturday (curated by Sissy Thiessen Kootenayoo) is the launch of a continuing monthly series.

There is a fully produced play in the lineup, too. Deer Woman by the Calgary-based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan, the winner of the 2020 Siminovitch Prize, is explosive in a way that will stop you in your tracks.

Cherish Violet Blood in Deer Woman, Article 11. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Once seen never forgotten, I can vouch for that; I saw the Article 11/ Downstage Theatre production last fall. It’s a visceral, heart-stopping account of an escalating personal quest for vengeance and justice in this world of murderous violence for Indigenous women. And there is nothing timid or elliptical about its attack on white hypocrisy. Cherish Violet Blood stars as the avenging warrior, and she is riveting.

“It’s an important show,” says Goberdhan, “a show that spoke to us as individuals, in bringing visibility to everything Deer Woman is about.” And Andy Moro’s vivid production, which takes the play off the page and stage at crucial moments, and into the woods, “does an amazing job of bridging the gap between theatre and film, digital theatre and physical theatre,” Yamada adds. And that, for live theatre, is one of the crucial artistic identity crises of our time.

The World Made Itself by and starring Miwa Matreyek. Image by Miwa Matreyek.

If the world had different, two offerings by the highly original L.A.-based artist Miwa Matreyek would have arrived at Expanse on tour, live. Instead, we’ll see her work — she interacts as a shadow-play presence in her intricately layered projection designs and collages — in digital captures. Infinitely Yours is an exploration of climate change grief;  The World Made Itself includes panoptic views of the earth through airplane windows.

With The Guardian: Return of the Princess, the adventurous Lady Vanessa Cardona and the Remix the Ritual collective address, in fairy tale form, personal migration survival stories inspired by real life. In this, a sequel to the first instalment seen earlier this year, a princess and a dragon struggle to find a way through the pandemic in Latin America. “This time it’s with bodies not shadow puppets,” as Goberdhan describes “a cool and interesting piece, with important subject matter.”

The Good Women Dance Collective, five collaborators with a long and distinguished history of infiltrating dance into theatre, and vice versa, have curated three offerings, under the banner rooted — here and now. 

By tradition, the winner of the Good Women Dance Collective New Work Award the previous year, premieres a new piece at the following edition of Expanse. So we get to see Dnaplay: ORB, filmed in the Good Women dance studio at a moment when that was allowed. It’s the creation of Nasra, a multi-faceted artist known to Edmonton audiences primarily as a spoken word poet, actor, and Black Arts Matter producer. As billed, intriguingly, it’s “an opening ceremony, yet a story within its own….”

“The movement part of their artistic process will be interesting to see…. We were excited about giving them the opportunity,” says Good Women’s Ainsley Hillyard who has long cleaved to the notion that “everyone is a dancer.”

“The older we get, the more thoughtful and creative we get,” she laughs. “We’re a contemporary dance company, yes, but we’re always trying to expand further out, to see what else dance can be, and celebrate cross-culturally. And Nasra has a foot in a bunch of different door(ways).”

Blood Memory, by Indigenous artists Ayla Modeste and Tarene Thomas, explores ancestry, the land, and sexuality in a piece that includes spoken word, song and drumming. And the third of the rooted — here and now offerings is The Power of the Drum by the Edmonton-based Cuban Movements Dance Academy, led by Leo Gonzalez. As Hillyard describes, it’s inspired by the African roots of Cuban dance, an amalgam of dance, drumming, and spoken narration.

Goberdhan and Yamada have brought in two collaborators to guide The Lobbyists, an ensemble featured in the original movement pieces that happen before, after, and between streamed shows. One is Duty, by Andrés Moreno, an expansive exploration of our collective and individual responsibilities, was filmed at the Legislature (which can’t possibly be a coincidence).  The other, with an equally resonant title, is Natércia Napoleāo’s Threshold, filmed in a theatre at a moment when restrictions permitted that.

As Yamada says, “the stamp Sue and I want to (put) on Expanse is in mentorship opportunities…. How can we create them, at every layer of the company?” The keynote of Azimuth has been sounded.

Where: The Chinook Series runs March 25 to April 4, online. Check out the full Expanse Festival line-up, and its schedule of salons, workshops, and parties, plus curated playlists, at Azimuth Theatre. Unless otherwise indicated, all tickets are pay-what-you-will, available at fringe theatre.ca.



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An ancient vision, a new cosmology: Makram Ayache’s The Hooves Belonged To The Deer

The Hooves Belonged to the Deer by Makram Ayache, part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project. Poster image by Makram Ayache.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A year of dizzying optics. The walls have both closed in on us — an audience of one wrapped in our own pandemic carapaces in front of our own personal screens — and they’ve blown wide open. Onto theatrical vistas on the big wide world, across not just time zones, but cultures, mythologies, the well-fortified frontiers of past, present, and future.

Here’s a wildly ambitious new play that captures something of that sense of being flung out of our time-honoured flight paths into a world that’s both acutely of the moment and ancient. The Hooves That Belonged To The Deer is by Makram Ayache, an actor/ playwright/ theatre-maker (and U of A theatre school grad) Edmonton audiences know from the 2018 Fringe premiere of his play Harun.  More recently we’ve seen his work in contributions, both on- and offstage, to Azimuth Theatre’s All That Binds Us last fall, a meditation on Canadian multiculturalism and its self-deluding complacency by a diverse gallery of “outsiders.”

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The Hooves That Belonged To The Deer exists in its debut incarnation, till the end of the month, as a two-act podcast (directed by Peter Hinton) that’s part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project.

Ambitious?  Ayache evidently has no fear of complication and scale. In Harun, the title character, a gay Arab first-generation Canadian immigrant, is caught between generational guilt, cultures, languages, ethnicities, and an intricate nexus of arguments and conflicts, an experience of both overt brutality in his home country and passive-aggressive exclusion in his new.

There is nothing pinched or cautious about the theatrical vision at play in The Hooves That Belonged To The Deer. It has a kind of cosmic expansiveness in its vistas, its theatricality, and its counterpoint of scenes. In a small conservative Christian prairie town, supremely white in palette and power structure, a young Arab Muslim boy, the quintessential outsider, enters the sin/salvation/damnation orbit of a Christian pastor who holds out the temptation of “belonging.” At the same moment, Izzy’s world acquires a fraught, risky erotic dimension; he’s gradually discovering his queerness.

In alternating scenes, “beyond space and time,” we fly into a disorienting, mapless desert, beyond the prairie horizon, into the vision of an ancient Edenic paradise in “the middle of the middle of the middle of the Middle East,” where the tree of forbidden knowledge grows under guard, but the view from the top is irresistible.

It amounts to a cosmology, a new origin mythology no less. And the play, I think, is about how competing mythologies collide, run parallel, and play out, in a love story infiltrated by tradition, and by the toxic inheritance of white colonization.

Based on this first listen, this is a challenging piece, of grand scope, where the five words “I’ll give it some thought” (words to live by in theatre, as I well know) have a kind of fateful momentum. The characters transform into resonating alternative versions of themselves. Everything about Ayache’s vision of inheritance, love, fate, salvation, the divine, the erotic and the religious, and what it means to be an outcast, is large. There’s a contemporary reverb to the play’s provocations. The title and the sound of hooves are a track that takes us back, past whiteness, onto the land, and into the realm of the Indigenous knowledge-keepers.

I’ll be thinking about this more. Meanwhile, one of the thrills of the podcast, artfully assembled by Hinton and sound editor Chris Pereira, is imagining, and not knowing, how on earth the play will be staged, when the fates (and science and the benighted fringes of our fellow citizenry) allow our return to live theatre-going. We can find out: the hope, according to the playwright, is for joint stage premieres in Edmonton and Toronto in 2022.

The Hooves The Belonged To The Deer runs in podcast form as part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project through March 31.

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Making indie theatre just got less lonely: RISER goes national and comes to Edmonton

Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava in Mouthpiece, RISER Toronto 2015. Photo by Joel Clifton.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Even at the best of times (which I think we can all agree this is not) It’s hard, high-risk work producing indie theatre.

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Bright creative innovative ideas that find their natural habitat in independent theatre arrive onstage, if they do, trailing an exhausting to-do list: raising money, finding rehearsal space and a venue for the show, marketing, publicity, gathering an audience…. Every indie project starts from ground zero, at the bottom of a very high hill.

So here’s news to gladden the heart (and there’s a certain buoyancy attached to its name): RISER Edmonton. This theatre town will be the launch for a planned national expansion of a visionary 2014 initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre. It’s “a collaborative producing model,” designed to address the daunting challenges of producing independent theatre.

Beth Dart, of Common Ground Arts Society, RISER’s host company in Edmonton, describes it as “helping to support independent artists and companies by reducing production costs and proving them with ongoing specialized mentorship throughout the process…. It collects, in a centralized place, the resources that already exist in our community.”

Which brings us to the crucial arts relationships that the program brokers. RISER is a tangible example of artists helping artists. RISER Edmonton has four very different inaugural senior theatre partners, leaders all in the Edmonton scene: Fringe Theatre, the Citadel, Catalyst, and Azimuth. So the relationships will be custom-tailored to the project.

“It’s all about bringing a community together and sharing resources the lighten the risk that’s incurred by producing independently,” says Dart.  In Toronto, the metric RISER uses is that the program reduces indie production costs by, on the average, a third. “The whole purpose is to give artists the opportunity to experiment, to take their project beyond …” beyond that first workshop or Fringe production, and into the future on a broader stage.

The world of theatre is full of indie shows that took an arduous year to produce, excited an audience once, and were never seen again. RISER is all about stepping up to that chilly truth. As Dart puts it, the gist is “seeing the work have a life, and be financially supported, outside of just the first production.”

A show like Mouthpiece, a witty and insightful two-hander from Toronto’s Quote Unquote Collective, by and starring Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, is an example. Originally a RISER Toronto project, it played the inaugural Chinook Series here in 2016, and has travelled widely ever since.

The well-named Why Not Theatre came to Edmonton in late 2019 to consult with the community, explains Dart. “They met with a whole bunch of companies, big and small, to assess whether Edmonton would be a good place to launch RISER National, and to develop relationships with some of our senior partners.” Given its presenter cred, a network of connections with both indie experimenters and established companies, Common Ground Arts (home of the Found Festival) was a natural choice for host.

1111, RISER Toronto 2019. Photo by Brett Haynes.

And as for Edmonton, where theatre is the leading arts industry,  “there’s so much incredible work that comes out of the community here, and doesn’t go on to be shared with the rest of the country… We’re hoping RISER bridges that gap!” Dart says.

“Emerging, emerged … that doesn’t really apply here. This is about indie artists at any stage of their careers,” she says. “Experimental and new work is really the focus, but nothing is off-limits either…. We’re putting together a jury of folks dedicated to the Edmonton community to assess the submissions.” The deadline for those is April 16.

There are four main criteria, Dart explains, starting with need. “Will RISER be essential to the show’s trajectory? We’re open to projects at any stage of development. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea, or a rehearsal-ready draft.”

Diversity is the second criterion, “identity and cultural, as well as form and content.” The third is “feasibility, financial and logistical.” In the current age, feasibility is a multi-faceted question for theatre. As Dart says, “we’re at an interesting moment in theatre creation when many artists are leaping into the digital hybrid…. how can that move forward even when we’re able to have (live) audiences in the seats?”  And the fourth criterion is experience, “what are you bringing to the table?”

The inaugural RISER Edmonton will support the development of four Edmonton shows this year, with productions slated for February  2022. It’s a win-win for artists and us audiences; the Backstage Theatre is already booked for all four, two running in rep for two weeks starting Feb. 4, the other two after that.

And there’s this: “it’s a huge positive for us, in national visibility,” says Dart. “We’ll be inviting artistic directors and presenters from across the country to come and see our RISER productions,” with marketing to match.

“What we wouldn’t have given for a program like this when we were starting out,” sighs Dart, who’s half (along with her sister Megan Dart) of Catch The Keys Productions, creators of Dead Centre of Town and other immersive indie ventures.

The loneliness of the long-distance indie theatre artists just got less lonely.

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Real people reporting from the real world: COVID Collections, a short film online at SkirtsAfire

Carol Powder, COVID Collections, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

As the pandemic grinds on, don’t you find it becomes harder and harder to imagine watching the inevitable outbreak of solo confessional COVID-inspired monologue shows in our collective future? You can conjure them in your mind’s eye. My Personal Lockdown Diary And How I Got Really Depressed: The Play. My Downer Relationship With Zoom: The One-Person Musical.  365 Endless Days And Nights In My Apartment: An Exploration (in detail) Of The Inner Pandemic Labyrinth.

God give us theatre audiences fortitude. I couldn’t even bring myself to read the inspirational Guardian piece on 25 artists who learned to play an instrument during the pandemic. And it was probably quite upbeat.

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INSTEAD, have a peek at the short (25-minute) film that premiered at the  SkirtsAfire Festival, and remains online there through March 31. It’s called COVID Collections, directed by Annette Loiselle. In it, a diverse quartet of “story collectors” have gathered a fascinating  ethnically and professionally diverse assortment of real-life people, all but one non-artists, who relate something of their experiences of a trying year.

Videographer Katie Hudson captures them in their homes, without their masks on, so to speak. And there’s something movingly unfiltered, and in that sense un-artful, in what they have to say about their lives. They don’t muse; they don’t annotate. They simply report.

“This is some sort of test, right?” says one. “Of humanity, right?”

What is it like to be them, day to day? We don’t usually get to meet them, much less find out. There’s a front-line health worker who comes home after every shift and throws all her clothes in the laundry. An empathetic immigrant who works in a long-term care home (“it felt like a tsunami!”), and her daughter, yearning for romance and venturing into online dating. To see them dancing in their living room will warm your heart.

There’s an Indigenous Elder who talks about being surrounded by tragedy and death on the Maskawacis reserve, where the pandemic toll is disproportionately high, related as it is to poverty and crowding. There’s an overworked respiratory therapist, and an empathetic high school teacher who leads her school’s GSA (gay-straight alliance). The kind of online sharing and bonding that supports us can be too risky for the kids who need it most, kids with a secret.

Indigenous drummer Carol Powder, COVID Collections, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by BB Collective.

There’s a queer artist whose new life bloomed when they sewed original masks for their friends;  it’s blossomed into a creative career they can’t wait to share during market season. There are thoughts about what is means to be a racialized young person in Edmonton, “an innocence lost.” There’s an Indigenous drummer by an outdoor fire wearing a T-shirt that says “The Best Things In Life Are Cree.”

One vignette is powerfully cautionary. Loiselle’s sister Rachel O’Brien “came through” COVID in the fall, only to discover she hasn’t come through it at all. Every day she feels OK is a day of hope, quickly followed by setback days when she can scarcely breathe. She’s had to quit her job. Complacent people, take note.

One, the only vignette from a theatre artist, is a story of astonishing resilience from actor/writer Lebogang Disele. On a trip home to Botswana with her husband and kids last March, she became separated from them because of sudden travel restrictions. She’s still there; they are still here. Meanwhile, visas have run out. What will she do? She doesn’t know.

The segues between vignettes are works of visual art, assembled by SkirtsAfire curator Stephanie Florence. And there’s original music by Binaifer Kapadia.

None of the people we meet have found the time easy. But all of them have found it a kind of limbo, “an in-between place” that will end. And since they are spokespersons reporting from the real world, this powerful belief feels cheering, and full of possibility.

Find Covid Collections at skirtsafire.com.

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