Clowning around … online: the 5th annual Play The Fool Fest goes digital

Meredith Gordon, Squeeze The Clown. Photo by Mike Borchert

By Liz Nicholls,

“Clowns work as well as aspirin, but twice as fast.” –Groucho Marx

And for the major migraine that is COVID, it’s high time we had some. Clowns, that is.

The only thing is, clowns thrive on real live close-up encounters with real live people, responding to their vibe — and their laughter. The fourth wall, barricading the theatrical illusion, means absolutely sweet tweet to a clown. “So it’s a tricky pivot,” says Christine Lesiak of re-tooling the fifth annual Play The Fool Festival for the digital (and socially distanced) world. “The live interactive element, the ‘what’s going to happen next?’,” as she puts it, make a festival devoted to the celebration of clown and physical theatre for adult audiences an oddball fit in the new onscreen pandemical world order.

Philip and Lucinda. Photo by John Marian.

But, as she says, “clowns make do.” And screen clowning isn’t an outlandish prospect. After all, Lesiak she points out, “there’s a rich history of film clowns” — from Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy to media stars like Stephen Colbert, or the clown characters of Jim Carrey and Melissa McPherson. Lesiak, the creator and star of the widely travelled Fringe hit For Science!, has curated a digital Play The Fool lineup that includes film and video component, live streamed delights, a live act (for socially distanced gatherings), and a panel discussion.

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In fact, there’s a first-ever Play The Fool two-minute film competition, especially tailored for fierce concentrators and/or short attention spans. You’re never going to say ‘so cut to the chase already’ at a 120-second film festival. “There is no fat in a two-minute film,” Lesiak laughs.

In August the festival invited clown and physical comedy-themed submissions, the only stipulation. And much to Lesiak’s delight — and surprise, since “making things for the screen is hard, and incredibly time-consuming” — she got 40. There’s a startling variety, and they’re from everywhere: an international array of “little gems,” of which 20 or so, selected by a jury of film-makers, will be up on for screening starting Thursday. 

Candace Berlinguette at Play The Fool. Photo by John Marian.

There are those who will doggedly argue that the red nose is the only true clown ID.  Lesiak disagrees: “One of our missions is to challenge the parameters of clowning!” she says of Play The Fool programming. From the start it has regularly expanded that horizon with clowns of every shape, style, aesthetic, and personality from the wide-eyed innocent to the macabre Euro-existentialist, bouffon to burlesque, blabber-mouth to mime to drag artist. Lesiak’s own gallery of clown alter-egos is a hint — among them red-nosed Sheshells, the worldly lifestyle advice guru Aggie (Ask Aggie), the white-coated Professor with the brisk beaming good cheer in For Science!.

A highlight of this year’s Play The Fool is the Saturday 3 p.m. screening of The Wise Fool, Geraldine Carr’s documentary honouring the life and career of the legendary clown (and clown guru, mentor, coach, philosopher, writer, director) Jan Henderson. If you haven’t already, you’ll meet Henderson’s charming clown Fender. And you may well be inspired by this engaging artist to unleash your own inner clown. 

The Wise Fool happens (once!)  at right after a 2 p.m. live screening of the quirky spoof Telethon-a-thon; The Calgary Clown Society fields an international cast. The afternoon finale, at 4 p.m. is the annual Play The Fool panel discussion, this year “Culture, Identity and Clowning: a BIPOC Artist Conversation.” What’s it like to clown in a white-dominated culture? The diverse all-star panel of theatre and circus artists and clowns includes “medical clown” Meredith Gordon, June Fukumura, Barry Bilinsky, Kiana Woo, Pratik Motwani, sheds light (moderator Lisa Dawn Daniels).  

Trevor Schmidt and Darrin Hagen, Dragula. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Signal Boost is Lesiak’s curated online assortment of high-contrast clown film and video offerings, from Edmonton, across Canada, and beyond. It’s a lineup of recommendations that reflects an elastic view of clown identity. Guys in Disguise’s audio-play revival of Dragula is one. Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky’s Folk Lordz, which mines and cross-hatches the former’s Cree and the latter’s Russian Jewish heritage, is another. In this incarnation it’s a selection of two-to-four-minute sketches, “very funny, very political,” as Lesiak says.”Beautifully written, great production values, so well-crafted. This is very smart comedy.”

Toronto-based clown duo Morro and Jasp and Vancouver’s New(to)Town Collective are in the line-up, along with the film ABC (Anything But COVID) by Ugly Bucket Theatre from the U.K., who have, says Lesiak, a distinctively contemporary theatre/clown sensibility. She describes The Uncle Junior Project as “a community-driven online exhibit that celebrates the history of black circuses in the U.S…. Eye-opening, especially in Canada.”

COVID has shut down live performance, and cruelly. But to look on the bright side (which clowns are apt to do) “we can reach a global audience,” says Lesiak. “It’s exciting. And even after, we’ll keep an online presence I think…. The biggest challenge is time zones.”

And live, did someone say LIVE? Via Play The Fool The Great Balanzo (Aytan Ross) and his Circus To Go can be booked to come to you, “like a pizza,”  in your own backyard.


Play The Fool Festival

Produced by: Hit The Jive Productions

Running: Sept. 24 to 27


Tickets: most programming is free (donations gratefully accepted), with some Signal Boost acts requiring payment directly to the artists.

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Off the cuff and on the spot: Gordon’s Big Bald Head makes (up) a movie

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson in Gordon’s Big Bald Head: Good Head

By Liz Nicholls,

Hey, tonight I was in the virtual audience at the Grindstone, i.e. the invisible sweatpants brigade online at home. And I was watching an amazingly dexterous improv duo onstage do, off the cuff, something that is clearly, by every reasonable definition, impossible. Q: Was I hallucinating?

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson, two-thirds of the improv troupe Gordon’s Big Bald Head, did a movie. Really. They improvised an entire movie, in an hour.

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Armed only with a title from cinematic history and the description and review provided by Leonard Maltin (of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide fame) — picked randomly by a random member of the live audience at the Grindstone — Meer and Pederson improvised their own version of Gothika. This 2003 pyscho-thriller flop is described by Maltin in his fat reference volume in a number of unflattering ways (as read out by Meer), including the memorable phrase “a snakepit hodgepodge,” not a compliment I reckon. Evidently the set-up involves a shrink in a mental hospital who wakes up to find herself accused of assorted murders. Sounds abysmal. One-and-a-half stars.

Anyhow, Meer and Pederson “did” their own Gothika on a bare stage (save for two boxes ) — with a cross-hatched gallery of lurid characters, a looping narrative, wildly escalating supernatural interventions by assorted monsters, subplots, flashbacks, running gags, action, extravagant physical comedy, pop culture annotations, witty asides (“I’m not just some mixed genre; I’m a human being!” chides one of the principals). And they did it, all this making up of stuff, with a great onward rush, and nary a fumble, a stumble, an awkward hesitation. 

If you hadn’t seen the elaborate demonstration of random choice by the audience at the outset, you might suspect it was scripted. In short, for sheer entertainment value, you’d lay down money this improvised Gothika kicks the “real” Gothika‘s butt. 

This is beyond quick-witted; you shake your head in amazement. These two are masterful, the best anywhere. And since there are three more performances of Gordon’s Big Bald Head Presents: Good Head — so, three more movies purloined from cinematic history — you shouldn’t miss the chance to treat yourself to something riotous, either live at the theatre (in  distanced, masked, sanitized safety) or live streamed at home (with smart camera work). The show runs through Saturday. Tickets: 


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Scenes From The Sidewalk: from the Plain Janes, a cabaret that turns theatre inside out

Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Alienation 2020. The world seems upside down and inside out to you — and why wouldn’t it?. The laws of gravity have been cancelled. You’re either inside looking out (wistfully) or outside looking in (wistfully); no loitering on the threshhold.

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The new Plain Jane show Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, running this weekend at the Varscona, speaks (or rather, sings) to that discombobulating thought. The audience (20 of them masked, distanced, clean-handed) is inside the lobby looking out the front window. The six performers are on the sidewalk outside looking in, singing, dancing, storytelling on the sidewalk. Yes, the curtain is a window. 

The pandemical world has been particularly cruel for musical theatre, and specialist companies, like Plain Jane. Sharing space is fraught enough. But until just last week in Alberta, singing inside a theatre was not only verboten, it was (nearly) the worst thing a theatre artist could do. In any case, singing masked and the requisite nine feet apart wasn’t exactly a green light for musicals. “As soon as we started measuring we knew it wouldn’t work,” says Ryan, the wielder of the company tape measure.

Necessity is the mother of theatrical invention. And the Plain Janes, who bring a collective sensibility to their cabarets and revues, brainstormed. “The pandemic suddenly forced us to stop sharing the space, for safety,” says artistic director Kate Ryan. “But it took away our ability to gather and create and sing! We communicated via email, text, phone, Zoom, playing with different ideas on how best to share songs, new creations, again.” She sighs. “Zoom is horrible for singing, but we did it anyway.”

At the theatre, “we looked out the big lobby windows and talked about how they reveal, expose, inspire.… Like the windows, the pandemic became a time that exposed a lot of things in the world: inequities, mental health, how fragile everyday life can be. I’ve missed sharing the space, the creating with other artists. And watching an artist share a song is a dialogue that goes right to the heart.” It’s a thought she takes into the theatre classes in song delivery she teaches at MacEwan University.

The bright idea of a Toronto theatre company, who decided on a walking tour version of The Music Man, intrigues the Janes too. “Different locations … it was getting to be epic,” Ryan laughs. “What about closer to home base?”

The upshot, she says, is that “we’re in the space we’re not in.” Which might well be a mantra for our time.

The show “has been evolving each and every day since.… So much is happening, and we’re trying to stay alert to the world; it’s a time of learning.” Especially when you rehearse on the street. For one thing, there’s been a camp for the homeless across 83rd Ave. from the Varscona in the Gazebo Park, and “we have to acknowledge that,” says Ryan. “It’s our responsibility as artists to talk about what’s happening in the world. Some nights are quiet; some nights there are cop cars.” 

Unlike a revue, more tightly shaped around a theme and linked by text or narrative, a cabaret has a looser, more personal structure. Scenes From The Sidewalk is, in every way, a group creation, Ryan says. “Everyone has brought their personal thought to the table; all (of the cast) are writers. The six performers have chosen their own songs (and in the case of Althea Cunningham, poems), many of them originals, and they introduce them too.

There’s a diverse mix of pop, musical theatre, and spoken word in the show, many different grooves and perspectives,” says Ryan. “There are songs about connection and songs about when things break down.”

What’s inspiring the ensemble members at the moment? “I didn’t even realize just how good it would be to come back together and make something!” says Matt Graham, who’s been musical director on such Ryan productions as The Drowsy Chaperone. He would have been in New York studying musical theatre composition at the Tisch School this year, had times been different.

Graham and his Janes cast-mate Sue Goberdhan (one of the two new co-artistic producers at Azimuth Theatre) have written musical together (Marnie Day). She’s singing Whatever We Feel, by Sammy Rae, accompanying herself on the ukelele. From Graham we’ll hear In 50 Years, a song of his own device, and The Tuba Song, from a 2013 musical version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost.

Janes regular Jason Hardwick is doing When Everything Falls Apart from Frozen (“don’t look now, things just got worse”). “I’ve been so inspired by the young talent this city has produced,” he says.

Daniela Fernandez is singing Adele’s Hometown Glory. “I’ve been inspired by watching others get creative with the limitations of the times,” she says. She’s found the BLM movement and anti-racism work very motivating.

Josh Travnik is singing an original pop song, Taste, by his queer electropop duo Homofonik, recently recorded and created with his song-writing partner Daniel Belland. “I’ve had the time to learn to tell stories in a different medium,” he says. “Storytelling in pop music is completely different; I’m really inspired to explore it more.”

It all started with “let’s look out the window and see what we see” in the world. Who knows? says Ryan. “Maybe we’ll bundle up and do Christmas scenes outside.”


Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret

Theatre: Plain Jane

Featuring: Althea Cunningham, Daniela Fernandez, Sue Goberdhan, Matt Graham, Jason Hardwick, Josh Travnik, Kate Ryan

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 AVe.

Running: Saturday and Sunday, three performances

Tickets: pay what you can afford, available by email.



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Gordon’s Big Bald Head infiltrates movie history in Good Head, at the Grindstone

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson in Gordon’s Big Bald Head: Good Head

By Liz Nicholls,

They are smart. And they are funny. But there is nothing cautious, or predictable, or even sane about the entertainment proposition that the deluxe improv troupe Gordon’s Big Bald Head offers the world.

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They own a summer Fringe tradition that is pretty much unequalled in audacity; they are their own legend. Witness an entire GBBH archive  of Fringe hits in which, armed only with the Fringe program, they perform any show in the festival. An audience member picks a show randomly. And then and there, in a daring heist of that show title and description, they do their own version — inventing intricate narratives, creating characters, overlapping subplots, doing back flips off genres, on the spot.

This is top-of-the-line improv, so unfaltering and clever you might have trouble believing it isn’t scripted and rehearsed. 

Starting Wednesday at the Grindstone, in a live and live streamed show, you can see for yourself. The troupe is back in action, two of them anyhow: the deluxe duo of Mark Meer and Ron Pederson in Gordon’s Big Bald Head: Good Head. (Times being what they are their third member Jacob Banigan remains at home in Graz, Austria where he lives). And they’re taking on movies.

Meer and Pederson will undertake to DO “any movie in movie history.” As Pederson explains, they’ll use Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. “The audience chooses a random entry. And we’ll DO that movie.”

Crazy, isn’t it?

Gordon’s Big Bald Head: Good Head runs through Saturday live at the Grindstone, reconfigured with strict COVID precautions for a small, distanced and masked audience — or in your living room if you can’t venture forth. Tickets for both the live and live streamed shows:

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All That Binds Us: a new Azimuth Theatre creation ponders connection in a fragmented world

All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

Here’s a thought with special reverb in a world of fragmentation, enforced distance, separation, isolation: “People don’t want perfection; they want connection,” declares Reneltta Arluk, director of All That Binds Us, premiering Friday in a live and live-streamed production.

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Everything about Azimuth Theatre’s newly devised theatrical creation, starting with the title, speaks to that hunger. It’s what stories are for — to explore the urge to belong, the sense of what’s shared across time and space, cultural/ ethnic/ racial divisions. You’ll see five characters (along with a mysterious sixth, who might well be the poster people for diversity, repair to an Edmonton bar, The Muskrat’s Paw, on Canada Day.   

Post-rehearsal last week at Fringe Theatre headquarters, Arluk, the Inuvialuit Cree Dene artistic director of Akpik Theatre and head of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre, is on the phone along with dramaturg and assistant director Jenna Rodgers. They’re explaining how a racially/ ethnically/ artistically diverse team of 10 theatre artists — playwrights, actors, creators, movers, theatre animators in the largest sense — came together to think about “how we connect and how we disconnect,” as Arluk puts it.

Vanessa Sabourin and Kristi Hansen, Azimuth’s joint outgoing artistic directors, reached out to Arluk and Rodgers in the summer of 2018. Their idea, says the latter, a versatile mixed-race artist based in Calgary and Banff, was to “bring dynamic people together…. When you’re racialized you work (within) your own race a lot of the time.”

No such frontiers exist in All That Binds Us, a collaboration with a wide embrace. It came to pass in the course of meetings and workshops that started long before COVID changed the optics on physical connection. Gradually, stories coalesced, a diverse creation team gathered, and a six-performer BIPOC ensemble assembled. “Azimuth gave us a lot of agency; we never heard ‘this is what we envision’ from them,” says Arluk, whose groundbreaking Akpik production of Pawâkan Macbeth, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy in the wartime world of the Plains Cree in the 1870s, was part of the Chinook Series this past winter.   

“We’re building the world together,” she says of the team and the new creation. That process, says Rodgers, “has (inevitably) been informed by the tragedies of the last year,” not least “in the sense that it’s changed who we are.… But most of the text was written before COVID and before George Floyd’s murder.”

Since the characters have their own stories, and their own identity issues, would All That Binds Us be five solo pieces, monologues joined together? “We talked about it…. But no, we made a conscious decision to have an ensemble piece,” says Arluk, who has a distinguished cluster of firsts attached to her resumé. The first Aboriginal woman (and the first Inuk) to graduate from the U of A theatre program in 2005, she became the first Indigenous director to stage a production at the Stratford Festival 12 years later, with the premiere of Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole.

Collaboration seems to be an Arluk signature. Her Pawâkan Macbeth was inspired by input from the kids of the Frog Lake First Nation. With the new Azimuth show, she says, it was the job of dramaturg/ assistant director Rodgers and actor/playwright Makram Ayache (who also performs in the piece) “to make sure it flowed, to deepen (the story momentum), to make it more cohesive.”

The six BIPOC characters, of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and “grappling with identity,” aren’t replicas of the creators. They’re fictionalized, built from “our conversations, lived experience, our own narratives,” as Rodgers put it. “It’s a complex process…. It’s easy to dimensionalize, but we’re representing only ourselves.”

“We wanted to acknowledge distinct perspectives…. What is  it to write across race?” 

How does it feel to rehearse live in the age of COVID? “Dangerous!” laughs Rodgers, who will direct Mary’s Wedding: A Métis Love Story at the Citadel in November. “But both Azimuth and Fringe Theatre have devoted a lot of consideration to safety precautions for this; we’re among the first groups back in the building (the ATB Financial Arts Barn). We were all COVID-tested before we entered the Fringe building, and the space.” And regular testing has happened ever since.

Under such circumstances, even the blocking (where the actors are located and move onstage) is weighted with meaning. “Distance vs. closeness,” says Arluk. Not least because Lebogang Disele, the production’s only black actor, has been in her native Botswana since COVID. And since the production includes a live streaming option in addition to  in-person performance (for a greatly reduced audience in the 300-seat Westbury), Arluk and her team have worked to make the show “more than just theatre being filmed. Direct eye contact with the audience is part of it. We’ve thought about how to fold in the audience….” 

All That Binds Us is all about what it means to belong. “As racialized people,” Rodgers adds, “we’re hyper-aware of the missing pieces in our recognizable world. Who’s not in the room? What voices need to be heard?” 

What COVID has given theatre, thinks Arluk, is “the opportunity to re-think, to move forward. A lot of organizations wanted to change and didn’t know how…. There needs to be more voices in the room so we can represent Canada. Who are we as a nation?”

All in all, “there’s an extra amount of pressure to make the production excellent,” thinks Rodgers, founding artistic director of Calgary’s Chromatic Theatre. “It’s hyper-charged with anxiety and political tension. A lot of hope that the broader community will (embrace) it….”

Says Arluk, “there a wonderful monologue from Kit (the character played by Sheldon Elter) at the start, a long invitation, a welcome to everyone.”


All That Binds Us

Theatre: Azimuth

Created by: Reneltta Arluk, Makram Ayache, Lebogang Disele, Jenna Rodgers, Amena Shehab

Directed by: Reneltta Arluk

Starring: Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Lebogang Disele, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grumman

Where: in person at Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave. or livestreamed

Running: Friday through Oct. 3

Tickets, COVID safety into, and streaming:

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Look up! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s an opera singer on the roof: drive-in opera and other experiments from Edmonton Opera

Cara McLeod Robert Clark, and accompanist Leanne Regehr at an Edmonton Opera Al Fresco Backyard Patio Series concert. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

The thrill of live: it’s undeniable, yes, both for artists and their audiences who thrive on connection, the charge of closeness, of being part of a gathering. If we hadn’t fully realized it before, by default we’ve sure had time, lots of time, to learn what we’ve been missing.

It’s been no picnic for any part of the performing arts industry. But the tragedy of a sudden ice age for crowds, where proximity is to be avoided at all costs, seems particularly acute for opera:  the epic scale, cast size, and expense of productions, long lead times for artist booking, international travel proscriptions, few performances. And hey, singing is involved, and that has until very recently, a Molotov cocktail for these pandemical times.

Extreme ingenuity, flexibility, and an experimental spirit (not to mention persistance) is called for, as  Edmonton Opera’s general director Tim Yakimec says. On Saturday you’ll see those qualities in action. The company, in exile from its usual performance venue the Jubilee Auditorium, presents two live 45-minute drive-in concerts ( 2 and 4:30 p.m.) — from the Jube roof. For free, in honour of Alberta Culture Days.

There’s a certain cheeky esprit de corps in performing from the roof over the backstage, which has been shut since two hours after the dress rehearsal of Candide on March 12. The audience will be safely in their cars, maximum of 60 vehicles (with 120 free tickets available that have been raffled by lottery). And the 45-minute live performances by Oilers anthem singer Robert Clark and soprano Cara McLeod, with accompanist Leanne Regehr, will be transmitted to car radios tuned to FM. Expect to hear opera, pop, and Broadway show tunes.

“Well, at least there’ll be good sightlines,” says Yakimec drily.

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Like many theatre companies Edmonton Opera has experimented with live-streaming, from assorted venues. In this the Summer of Virtual, their “al fresco backyard patio series” had singers performing in the great outdoors. Their weekly Edmonton Opera At Home online series includes Kitchen Concerts featuring members of the chorus (and their favourite recipes), Happy Hour with stars from the upcoming season (singing and offering tips on the perfect Negroni), and D.I.Y. Opera activities for kids. 

And check out two new episodes of Opera Tots!, Edmonton Opera’s online education program, one available now and one Sept. 24, free . They’re free on Facebook, YouTube, and at

“It’s so difficult to look long-term,” says Yakimec, echoing the sentiments of artistic directors across town. “So much depends on, well, everything. Including the confidence of the audience.” And “the sheer scale of it” makes opera a particularly hard-hit art discipline. The average Edmonton Opera production, he says, might run to 200 people, when you add up “eight to 15 principals, up to 40 in the chorus, 56 musicians, a crew of 25, volunteers….” It’s just not economically viable to have even an audience of 500 (currently, the indoor limit is 100) in a 2500-seat house.

With hope in his heart (and uncertainty in his mind), Yakimec has delayed the 2020-2021 season’s offerings for a late January launch: Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte Jan. 30, Puccini’s La Bohème in April, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in June.

Meanwhile, off-centre small-scale experiments continue. Among them “we’ve commissioned a song cycle (from composer Jen McMillan and the poet Lisa Martin) to feature our chorus,” says Yakimec. It’s in progress, and will be rehearsed remotely with the ultimate goal of performing it live.” 




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The Horizon Series LIVE! At the Citadel, the return to live continues

By Liz Nicholls,

Lights up. Gather ‘round (in a socially distanced way, of course). The Citadel continues its return to live in-person performance with the three-show series announced Thursday.

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Horizon Series LIVE! is a trio of small-cast productions programmed by the Citadel’s three associate artists, Helen Belay, Tai Amy Grauman and Mieko Ouchi. The venture follows on the success of Horizon Lab at the end of August. It was an experimental two-night live run, for a live audience of 100 in the 681-seat Shoctor Theatre, of a workshop presentation: five original 10-minute pieces commissioned to tell the stories of Alberta BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled artists (now available online).

Look for more detail, in another 12thnight post soon. But here are the basics. First to come, Oct. 24 to Nov. 15, in the new live series is a play originally slated for the Citadel’s 2020-2021 Highwire Series. A Brimful of Asha by Ravi Jain and his mother Asha Jain, is the story of a mother’s ill-fated attempts to arrange a marriage for her son. Mieko Ouchi directs the two-hander, starring Hamed Dar and Nimet Kanji.

Mary’s Wedding: A Métis Love Story (Nov. 28 to Dec. 20) is Grauman’s re-imagining of the award-winning 2002 Stephen Massicotte play, a romantic fantasy set during the First World War. The characters, two young lovers from rural Alberta, are Métis people in this version that Jenna Rodgers directs, starring Grauman as Mary.

The third, curated by Belay and slated for a January run, has yet to be finalized. All three productions happen in the Shoctor Theatre, for a distanced, masked, hand-sanitized audience of 100. Tickets and series packages (starting at $90) are available now.

Meanwhile, there are more online projects. One is An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling, a magic show starring Carisa Hendrix, with Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi (Oct. 9 and 10, 16 and 17. And in a collaboration with the International Voices Festival, the Citadel, partnering with Chicago’s Silk Road Rising, presents an online reading of Kareem Fahey’s A Distinct Society (Oct. 21).

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Good Women Dance Collective launches a new season

Good Women Dance Collective. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

They leap effortlessly across the frontier between dance and theatre as if it didn’t exist.  They’re into sharing; unusual musical and theatrical partnerships are their signature.

At the centre of the new Good Women Dance Collective season, their 12th, as announced Tuesday night at an online launch party, is a new and highly unusual multi-disciplinary collaboration with FEMME, an all-female vocal quartet. Set to the world premiere of The Beginning of Happiness by Edmonton composer Jane Berry, four singers and fourdancer/choreographers explore gender-based domestic abuse. The score is “very intense and very beautiful, very haunting ” says Ainsley Hillyard, one of the founders of Good Women and an artist of startling versatility.

Originally scheduled to debut last March, The Beginning of Happiness finally arrives on the L’UniThéâtre stage April 1 to 3 2021. Three of the four Good Women — Hillyard, Alison Kause, Kate Stashko — are joined onstage for the occasion by Rebecca Sadowski. The launch party introduced the latter, a multi-faceted dancer/ actor/ creator/ curator, as the collective’s fifth member.

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Of the four original founders of GWDC, Hillyard and Kause remain in this collective with its notable appetite for brave new work.  The company, for example, which until the 2020 edition was the dance curator at Nextfest, collaborated in 2019 with Northern Light  Theatre on The Cardiac Shadow, in which the dancers created a movement script to accompany voice-over presentation of the text by actors. Hillyard, who has choreographed movement for such productions as Punctuate! Theatre’s Bears and The Other, has appeared as an actor in theatres across town (among them Theatre Yes’s Anxiety and Thou Art Here’s production of Shakespeare’s Will, Northern Light’s Wish, a cross-species love story in which she played a gorilla). In her own play, Jezebel – At the Still Point, which premiered in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series in 2018, Hillyard co-starred with her French bulldog.

So we’re talking about an adventurous and spirited troupe. As Hillyard explains, the new GWDC season launches with hopes for live performance — but with online live streaming contingency plans in the wings. If live shows are possible, the house capacity of about 175 at L’UniThéâtre, the Good Women performance headquarters, will be reduced exponentially. “Our company is so small, and risks are so impactful,” as Hillyard says. 

Convergence, Good Women Dance. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

The season begins Dec. 3 to 5 at L’UniThéâtre with Convergence. The 2021 edition of Good Women’s annual showcase of works by an assortment of diverse invited artists, features a new creation for Hillyard, Kause, Stashko and Alida Kendell by Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, co-founder of the contemporary dance company Wants&Needs Danse. “She works a lot with improv,” says Hillyard. “It’s a chance for us to hone our improv chops….It sounds fun and joyful,.”

Kleinplatz’s piece invites personal input from the dancers on why they love dance. “We haven’t started rehearsing yet (at GWDC’s studio/ office space at the Shumka Dance Centre). But so far we know we each need to buy colourful coveralls. Ah, and inflatable pool toys…. Yup, I’m happy to (dance) swim onstage!”

Other artists include Dustin Stamp, a star fancy dancer from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, with guests. And Convergence includes a collaboration between GWDC and the poet/spoken word artist Brandon Wint.

A creation-based company, GWDC hosts six two-week “residencies” for artists, both veteran and emerging, to devise new work during the season. The idea, says Hillyard, is that “they’ll create, generate, rehearse their own work. Carte blanche. Our space is accessible to them to rehearse. And if they want an outside eye, we’re here for them.” And, as a capper, “there’s a public showing via Zoom.”

Two the six artists were awarded residencies for last season; the COVID shutdown propelled them forward in time. Four of the six are local. Forms, genres, styles, aesthetics, vary widely. The first of the residencies begins Sept. 28 with flamenco specialist Anastassiia La Musa. Toronto choreographer Nina Milanovski is coming with two dancers to work on a new duet, Uncoupling. During her residency next July Erin Pettifor will devise a clown/dance fusion solo, an intriguing prospect.

For Expanse, Azimuth Theatre’s annual contribution to the Chinook Series in February, GWDC provides a New Work Award (“financial support, an artistic outsider eye, access to our space”) to an artist who performs it the following year. Hillyard herself received one in early days at Good Women; “it was a game-changer for me.” So theatre audiences can expect to see a performance by Nasra Adem, best known to Edmonton audiences perhaps as a star spoken word poet, at this year’s edition.

The season also includes dance training (currently online, with Kate Stashko), and workshops from a variety of guest artists. Some are appearing in the Brian Webb Dance Company season (an assortment that includes Kidd Pivot (of Betroffenheit fame). Some are in GWDC residencies. In this year of built-in uncertainty, dates and details await. 

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Hockey night in Edmonton: Playing With Fire re-opens the Mayfield. A review.

Shaun Smyth as Theo Fleury in Playing With Fire, Persephone Theatre 2016. Photo by Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

By Liz Nicholls,

With the production that reopened the Mayfield Dinner theatre for real-live audiences this week (for a six-week run), hockey doesn’t just pirouette around theatre. No, there’s a bone-rattling full bodycheck into the boards.

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And there are boards. Ron Jenkins’ vivid production of Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story may be a solo show. But up on (real) skates on (real, fake) ice at the rink, armed with powerful storytelling, Shaun Smyth delivers the kind of compelling performance that conjures a world and knocks you back in your seat.

Ah, and speaking of seats…. They’re two-thirds out of commission. The fans, who must be masked when they aren’t seated, are much reduced in number, as per COVID safety restrictions. In a 450-seat house, an audience of 150 or so sits away from the stage at distanced tables and every second banquette, the tiers in the raked house separated by plexiglass shields taller than me (and I’m 5’9). Hockey meets COVID in a show where the plexiglass barriers make narrative sense; ditto the rule about “a hockey stick length” between people. The signature buffet has been replaced by table service.

And here’s a first for dinner theatre: we rise for the national anthem, with that retro crackle that every hockey fan will instantly recognize. Matthew Skopyk’s soundscape, which includes that tinny arena reverb, a percussion of pucks against the boards, and sirens and all that, is just right.

Shaun Smyth as Theo Fleury in Playing With Fire, Persephone Theatre 2016. Photo by Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

Playing With Fire is widely travelled since its 2012 premiere at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects (I saw it at the Citadel in 2015). But, as its name will suggest, it’s an adventurous choice for dinner theatre, where the musical revue is monarch of the box office. But then the Mayfield under Van Wilmott is nothing if not theatrically adventurous. Witness full-bodied musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Cabaret among them) in the Mayfield archive, or full-bodied straight plays, among them intricate farces like Lend Me A Tenor or Noises Off.

Still, even for Edmonton’s horizon-expanding dinner theatre Playing With Fire is an unusual season-opener. It skates full-speed towards tragedy in its story of the mouthy prairie kid from Russell, Man. with big talent and big dreams — and the big nightmare that corrodes both. 

As recorded in the memoir he co-wrote with playwright Kirstie McLellan Day, Theo Fleury’s story chronicles the tumultuous life of a small kid from a chaotic family who discovers his own exceptional gifts — and joy — at the rink, age six. “I belonged somewhere for the first time. I was home.” And he escapes from his “shitty childhood” of neglect only to skate headlong into another kind of darkness, his boyhood victimization by Western Hockey League coach Graham James. The fallout of that horror story of sexual abuse was the secret that haunted him for years, threatened him, and nearly destroyed his career, his identity, his life.

Shaun Smyth in Playing with Fire: the Theo Fleury Story, at Persephone in Saskatoon, 2016. Photo by Electric Umbrella/ Liam Richards.

As Smyth conveys from the first second, the hockey player we meet at centre ice at the outset is a knowing guy, with a kind of captivating good humour about him. “I know why you’re here,” he grins, nailing our morbid curiously about “a sports superstar behaving very very badly.” He knows that we know the celebrity status of a flame-out that was nothing short of spectacular. “How the fuck can you spend $50 million?” he asks us, cutting to the chase, in a chatty blue line-crossing lexicon Smyth captures with ease. “Let me you; it’s pretty fuckin’ easy…. Here’s what happened.”

It’s a dramatic story: the scrappy 5’6” kid from the boondocks catapulted on a jet stream of talent, ambition, an inflammable personality, a natural capacity for celebration — to improbable NHL stardom. And beyond: when his toxic secret begins to poison his life and his career, Fleury steps up unflinchingly, sometimes ruefully, always without a whine, to the craziness and fury that ensue. “I’m a pretty determined guy,” he says mildly. Blame is not his deal.

That story isn’t told with any narrative passivity in Jenkins’ production. Actually it doesn’t feel “told” at all; it feels lived. Smyth, a remarkably physical and charismatic performer, is on his feet, skating top-speed, shooting, scoring, taking head-long spills, the whole time — while changing team sweaters, and annotating non-stop, goal by goal, whole seminal series, Flames vs. Oilers, the Calgary-Vancouver series that led to the confrontation at the Forum.…

Single-handedly he conjures whole bench-clearing fights, and exults in pinnacle moments at the Olympics or sleeping with the Stanley Cup. Gloves get thrown, and rain down from the ceiling. Jenkins’ production is unfailingly inventive about populating Fleury’s world of careening energy. 

In David Fraser’s design, the stage, coated with EZGlide, is a rink, with boards and Tim Horton’s and K-97 ads, the Zamboni between periods. There’s lurid hockey and nightclub lighting. Rock music blasts (designer: Skopyk),  Corwin Ferguson’s projection and video design evokes the prairie vistas, the glittering skylines, the urban hellholes where Fleury’s career played itself extravagantly up up and away … and out. 

Truthfully, I wouldn’t count as the best-informed member of the audience for Playing With Fire. Unlike some of you, I just don’t have the goal by goal count in the seventh and final game of the Flames vs…. who was it? on the tip of my tongue. I pretty much flunked the multiple-choice pre-game quiz. Somehow I can’t quite recall how many career goals Nieuwendyk scored for the Flames or the first NHL team Brett Hall played for. I didn’t even get the question right about which actor broke character in a Stratford production of King Lear to cheer a Canadian goal against Russia (William Hutt not Christopher Plummer, sigh). 

But the way Smyth’s captivating performance creates a character you feel for, and fear for, and keep hoping for, and the way you want to cheer when he rescues himself in the nick of time … well, those are precious in theatre, stick or no stick. 


Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Kirstie McLellan Day, based on the book by McLellan Day and Theo Fleury

Directed by: Ron Jenkins

Starring: Shaun Smyth

Running: through Oct 25

Tickets: 780-483-4051,

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Dance inspired by stage design: Mile Zero Dance’s season-opener is an experimental cabaret

Iterate, Mile Zero Dance. Photo by Mike Borchert.

By Liz Nicholls,

There’s a sassy what-if? streak in the Mile Zero Dance DNA. And you’ll see it in action Saturday night in a new way when the new MZD digital season, De-Program, comes to life on Zoom.

What if … design came first? 

Trent Crosby, step away from the console! Iterate, the season opener, is an “experimental cabaret,” part live part filmed, dreamed up and curated by MZD’s multi-talented (and well-connected) technical director/ production manager, who’s also the technical/production whiz kid at Punctuate! Theatre and L’UniThéâtre. As Crosby explains, Iterate is an adventure in match-making — designers with dancers. Inspired by his experiences at the Prague Quadrennial in 2019, an international showcase of cutting-edge stage design, his what-if? flips much of traditional theatre creation on its head: “let’s get designers to design something first, and then let’s bring that to the dancers and see what they can create….” 

Trent Crosby, Mile Zero Dance. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

“I was both excited and a little terrified,” says match-maker Crosby, a lighting designer himself who’s part of Iterate, in tandem with choreographer Leah Paterson.“But the response was so much better than I expected….”

Originally a MacEwan and Banff Centre theatre production grad — with a lighting specialty and “a particular passion for dance” — Crosby explains that his time in Prague was an eye-opener in different ways of making art. European companies, for example tend to be “not so reliant on the impetus (for performance) coming from the text or from choreography.” Iterate was born in that thought. Enter the designers. Crosby approached them first.

Erin Gruber, whose stunning scenographic creations for theatre companies here reveal a particular flair for sophisticated technology in video and projection, proposed a design in which silhouettes and projection imagery figure prominently. As Crosby puts it, she’s intrigued by “re-interpreting something controlled in a small space but with large images.”

He paired her with Shrina Patel, the dancer/choreographer/founder of the company ShaktiFlow, with a stylistic bent for “big contemporary Bollywood” movement, as Crosby puts it. She’ll perform live from MZD’s front gallery space on 95th Street.

For his own design contribution to the evening, Crosby proposed “three tubes … isolation chambers that are also projection surfaces, constrained spaces overlaid with images with daily life.” And inspired by this space, an allusion to the frictions of the current moment in time, Paterson choreographed for a trio of dancers (Brett Bowser, Camille Ensminger, and Michelle Alannah).

Veteran designer Marissa Kochanski, whose bold, colourful work has graced stages large and small in Edmonton, “came in with something quite personal,” says Crosby, “from going through her deceased father’s stuff and using materials she’s collected.” He paired her with performance artist Migueltizina Solis.

Dancer/actor Zoe Gassman created a dance film from short pieces she filmed every day, based on an emotional state. The result is paired with musician/musicologist Daniel-Akira Stadnicki, who improvises live.

The only piece ‘from away’ is a filmed contribution from Toronto-based designer Rachel Forbes with dancer/choreographers Katherine Semchuk and Mateo Galindo Torres.

Musical interludes are by Aladean Kheroufi, a musical artist of the neo-soul/R&B persuasian. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to present our work digitally, in interesting, dramatic ways,” says Crosby. “How to bring the scrappiness of MZD into a digital space…. And how to keep it moving.” It’s “a learning curve” he says of a variety of inspirations including Club Quarantine, the underground queer nightclubs on Zoom.

In the new pandemic world , MZD presented the last two productions of its 2019-2020 season in the digital world. Going into the new season and battling Zoom fatigue, says Crosby, “every show is a chance to think ‘how do we step this up?’”



Company: Mile Zero Dance

Curated by: Trent Crosby

Where: Zoom

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Tickets: free or “pay what you want.” Guests must register in advance to receive login info.

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