‘How do I find my place in the world?’ Meet Nextfest actor/playwright Dylan Thomas-Bouchier

Dylan Thomas-Bouchier. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“My brain is spinning with this show,” says actor/playwright Dylan Thomas-Bouchier “It’s very much my conversation with myself.… How do I, as a new artist, find my my place in the world?”

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That show is Finding Spirit — a title that in itself might be a mantra for the festival of emerging artists that launches its 25th anniversary edition online tonight. On night #2, Friday, Nextfest audiences get a peek inside the spirit of its 21-year-old creator/star. “I don’t want to be the poster child or anything,” he says. “But everyone’s voice carries a certain weight. And I want to share what I can, as an Indigenous artist…”

What we’ll see, and hear, in his Nextfest live script reading — Thomas-Bouchier calls it a “scene-sharing” — isn’t Finding Spirit in its ultimate form. For one thing, it’s “very new and still developing in my brain,” says the Fort McMurray native who’s back in the West (with his family in Okotoks to be precise) on a pandemic hiatus from Montreal and the acting program at the National Theatre School. For another, “the dream would be to take it in front of a live audience and share it that way,” he says of his multi-character solo show, coming to you Friday on video from his bedroom. “I started it with the thought of doing it in a black box … with ideas for a set and projections.”

Friday’s performance (at www.nextfest.org) is a launch, of a show and a new theatre company. Night Owl Theatre is the mutual creation of Thomas-Bouchier and fellow Indigenous actor/playwright Zach Running Coyote. “We met at NTS call-backs, we really hit it off, and knew we’d try to work together…. We have lofty goals, eventually a full season (of their original work). And a show at Nextfest is a great opportunity to get the name out there. This is the start!” muses Thomas-Bouchier, a thoughtful and intensely articulate sort.

The online 2020 incarnation of the festivities is his third Nextfest. Last year, Thomas-Bouchier was in the cast of Josh Languedoc’s Indigenous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. His Nextfest debut, the year before that, was as a creator: Room 801. “I look back now, it’s good and I enjoyed it, but I was young” says the playwright from the vantage point of 21 remembering his 18-year-old self. “At the core I was sad. And I just wanted to write something to get feelings out.”

Room 801, says its author, “was about a man who thinks he has the perfect life; he finds a girl; they have an apartment together. And eventually his world stars to crumble.…Later  you find out he’s been in the hospital for months, in a coma, and now he’s waking up.” The play was spun from Thomas-Bouchier’s own boyhood experience “being in hospital for many months recovering from leg surgery. That was my life, being there. And it was hard…”

He says appraisingly “I don’t judge that project now…. The goal was to write about that experience, and repressed memories about my early life came up and through art became clear.”

Theatre had a big presence in his early life, growing up in Fort McMurray. He’d watched his father, who taught at Keyano College and was a veteran community theatre actor, in shows. His first participation was in a local musical, the story of  Fort McMurray, “the biggest cast ever, over 100.” But Thomas-Bouchier wasn’t one of them. “I was too scared to go out for the auditions,” he says. “And I ended up on the tech side — follow spot was my introduction to theatre! And it was a great door. I got my head set on, I could hear everything, the stage manager run the show, the crew … I could hear the machine run.”

His acting debut came a year later, in a community production of Les Miz. “From the beginning I wanted to appreciate as much as I could….”

Who are the Finding Spirit people? Thomas-Bouchier pauses to reflect. “At the core, this play is a bunch of characters who are overwhelmed right now. Each of the characters needs to find something about themselves that’s missing…. The world around them doesn’t make sense, the toxicity in modern culture.”

Among the characters we’ll meet is “a ringmaster trying to run a circus … ‘I’m the MC. And before everything went crazy and things became overwhelming you didn’t need me guiding you through the world because you’d just listen; your spirit would be with you’.”

Some characters recur, among them a young boy watching TV, with its overwhelming assault of news. “He’s the audience for me; he’s my young self,” Thomas-Bouchier says. There’s an old man too, whom the playwright conceives as a sort of town crier. When the old man insists “‘listen to me; I have the answers for you’, the young boy stops him, and questions his rhetoric.”

The fabric of the play is woven from “monologues, moments, little scenes,” says Thomas-Bouchier. “As the show develops more people are going to talk to each other.”

As it is for so many of Nextfest’s 500-plus artists, the frontiers between artistic disciplines aren’t particularly meaningful to Thomas-Bouchier. He’s been trained as an actor, yes, ready for a career in professional theatre. But “the typical ‘audition and get an agent’ grind, it’s not for me…. From the start I knew I wanted to create my own work.”

“Who knows what my journey will be? Technically I’m still in school,”  he says. “I came into theatre for people…. I need a community of people to be around, to support and be supported by.” And hey, there’s a festival for that.


Finding Spirit

20th anniversary edition of Nextfest

Written and performed by: Dylan Thomas-Bouchier

Where: www.nextfest.org

Running: Friday night (see full schedule at www.nextfest.org).



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The “what’s next?” comes to you: the 2020 Nextfest goes online

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“O my gosh!” declares Nextfest director Ellen Chorley, who has a great and natural talent for celebration. “I’m absolutely blown away by how special and magical it is! I’m so thrilled!”

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The playwright/ actor/ director/ mentor/ dramaturg/ curator/ artistic director is talking, in her inimitably energetic fashion, about the influential annual festival that has, for a quarter of a century, given us an insight into the creative minds and souls of the next generation of emerging artists.

True, every edition of the festival dreamed up at Theatre Network lo these many years ago has its own personality, as it plays across the pliable spectrum of theatre, dance, music, poetry, film, design, comedy, drag, multi-media. Still, safe to say that the 2020 edition, the 25th anniversary of the 11-day festivities that starts Thursday, is like no other.

For the first time you don’t go to Nextfest; Nextfest comes to you. It  happens at your place, available entirely for free at the click of a button. Some 450-plus emerging artists — “more like 600 by opening night” says Chorley — have raised the bar (and possibly the barre, depending on the show) dramatically on creative risk-taking. 

They’ve taken the entire festival online, every live performance, production, workshop, coaching session, niteclub, lobby gabfest. And they’ve done it whilst  maintaining social distance. Which takes some figuring, in a world of rehearsals

Playwright Ellen Chorley. Photo supplied.

“It’s a daily march of new problems and problem-solving,” says Chorley, who’s been part of Nextfest, in one way or another, since she was 16 — and who has often given the festival credit for launching her artist career.  “It’s been an incredible learning journey about how to transform art for a digital platform, how to support digital art…. So enlightening!”

Even when audiences can show up again in person, “I know for a fact we’ll keep some of the things we’ve learned,” she says happily. For one thing, “it opens up our audience! Widens our circle! They can be all over Canada, and the world, and that’s exciting, eye-opening!” — especially since a prime Nextfest goals has always been enhancing artist profiles and expanding career possibilities. One of the Nextfest playwrights, Lebogang Disele, went home to Botswana when the pandemic started, and she’s been creating and interacting from there ever since. “Yes! I guess we’re an international festival now!” says Chorley.

The ease of captioning has redefined accessibility, and opened up the audience in other ways, too, to housebound or deaf audiences for example. And every Nextfest theatre artist has ended up with a useful digital version or excerpt of their work to present to theatre companies as an archival calling card.

Here’s the challenge offered to Nextfest theatre artists by Chorley on April 1 — to wit, “we’re going online … are you in?” Amazingly, they all said yes, and came up with a variety of ways to transform their work (you’ll meet three of them in future 12thnight posts). “They’ve all had to go ‘OK, I imagined this piece as a live performance; how does it change in video format?’ It’s been fascinating to see,” Chorley says. Some shows are live-streamed; some have been captured. Each gets a single performance, plus Chorley’s offer of a live Nextfest slot next year — “if you’re still working on the piece.”

“And we’ve paid everyone to do it,” Chorley says. “I’m so pleased about that… As I well know,  it’s very rare to get paid to write a play. And emerging artists are the first to lose their gig.”

How has that been possible without ticket sales? “We have a great presentation model,” says Chorley, who points out that Nextfest was “set up to not be about ticket sales.. Artists don’t have to reach a bottom line or spend any of their energy getting people in the door. Nextfest is ‘presented’ by Theatre Network; they provide us with resources, a venue, some of the tech (technical expertise and equipment), the marketing. And they take the ticket sales….” The Nextfest budget, $160,000 or so, is underwritten by sponsors, like Syncrude, the CBC, the dating app Bumble, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and government funders. When the festival went online, they all stayed in. 

Of all the art forms that go into the Nextfest mosaic, theatre arguably poses the biggest challenge for digital transformations, as Chorley points out. “It’s the live element that is so special in theatre, the interplay (of the storytelling) with the audience. How do you do that?”

Amongst the many streaming services available, Chorley et al picked Twitch, mainly because “it comes with a chat box to go along with live content … a way for audiences to engage with what they’re seeing, while it’s happening, and for artists to engage with the audience. We lose our lobby, but we have a chat room. And even if the content isn’t live, the artist can jump in and say ‘I wrote this, or choreographed it, and it you have any questions I’m here’.” This pleases Chorley mightily.

“I do miss the sound of an audience, though, the laughing, the breathing,” says Chorley, permitting herself a rare sigh. “But there’s an interesting intimacy…. I’m sitting in front of my computer right now and I feel like it’s being performed just for me!”

Nextfest’s “performance niteclubs” have required a makeover for the online world, too. The always popular Smut Niteclub has been reinvented by curator Sarah Culkin: All Gender Speed Dating For The End Of The World. Chorley describes it as “half workshop half performance…. Basically, you just get to meet people. Not romantically per se.” Thirty-six people max register, and meet this or that person” in one of Zoom’s break-out rooms. “It’s a cool, funky online meet-and-greet.” 

“Connection between people is such an important part of what we do. And that is still happening,” says Chorley of a festival that’s an invaluable networking forum for young artists in addition to its benefits as a showcase. 

The other two niteclubs have become online experiences too. The artists invited by curator Mackenzie Brown to The  Extreme Supreme Quarantine PJ Party on Friday will in their pyjamas, at home natch. Emergent Emancipations on June 13, designed to coordinated with Pride weekend, is an interdisciplinary assortment of artists invited by Simone A. Medina Polo. Chorley predicts the focus will be music, “lots of it, and DJs!”      

There are workshops (the most requested topic is on the business of art and the sustainability of arts careers, subjects not invariably covered in theatre and film school). New this year are free mentorship sessions for participants, one-on-ones with an arts pro of their choice. The most-requested list is topped by actor/ playwright/ artistic director Kristi Hansen (of Azimuth and The Maggie Tree). Chorley calls her “the mentorship queen of Edmonton.”  

“I feel like this festival is a time capsule of what emerging artists wanted to make during this pandemic. What was it like creating art while social distancing? Or creating art when you feel disconnected from people? We’ve asked these artists to be so vulnerable, so brave. They’ve had to think so quickly!”

“I just don’t think we could done this, even close, even two years ago…. The technology has developed so much.”

That’s what you’ll discover when you press the Watch Nextfest button at www.nextfest.org every evening at 6 or 7 p.m. and meet a live host. What you get after that is three or four hours of every possible permutation and fusion of the “next,” as imagined by young artists whose urge to create is pretty much unstoppable. Just pray for a good wi-fi connection.


Nextfest, 25th aniversary edition 

Theatre: Nextfest Arts Company

Directed by: Ellen Chorley

Running: Thursday through June 14

Where: online at nextfest.org.


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The strangest of seasons: a truncated year on Edmonton stages in Sterling Award nominations

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

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Two high-contrast shows, one a subterranean prairie slow-burn tragedy and the other a riotous blood-spattered revenge comedy of the Shakespearean persuasion, proved the top choices of jurors as the 33rd annual Sterling Award nominations were announced Monday — from theatrical exile online.

Michele Vance Hehir’s The Blue Hour, which premiered at the 2020 SkirtsAfire Festival, and Colleen Murphy’s The Society For The Destitute Present Titus Bouffonius, produced at Theatre Network, each received nominations in nine of the 24 categories, in Monday’s COVID edition of the annual preface to the Sterling Awards.

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The Sterlings, which get presented June 29 — also online — exist to celebrate the season just past on Edmonton stages. And it was, in the end, the strangest of theatre seasons, in an arts industry that has suffered devastating blows in the pandemic lockdown. A season truncated like no other, in which the curtain abruptly, unseasonably, came crashing down in mid-March two and a half months early — sometimes mid-rehearsal, with a dozen shows at least left to open. It invited (and got)  endless repetitions of the word “unprecedented.”

The Society For The Destitute Present Titus Bouffonius, a go-for-the-gusto bouffon version of Shakespeare’s gruesome Titus Andronicus, picked up nominations for director Bradley Moss and four of his five-member ensemble of actors playing amateur thesps playing characters in the lurid story: Helen Belay’s leading performance and Hunter Cardinal, Marguerite Lawler and Bobbi Goddard in the supporting-role (drama) category. Moss’s gleefully macabre production got nods as well for Tessa Stamp’s dumpster salvage set and her costumes (barraged by the season’s biggest hits in ketchup), and Scott Peters’ lighting.

Annette Loiselle’s production of The Blue Hour, one of five contenders in both the new play and independent production categories, has acting nominations for Ian Leung’s star performance as a morally conflicted preacher, and for two of his supporting-role cast-mates, Nicole St. Martin as a beleaguered single mother and Robert Benz as a conciliatory small-town mayor.

Named for formidable theatre pioneer Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, the Sterlings have continued the innovation of last year, gender-neutral leading and supporting actor  categories — the gender divide replaced by the designation of comedy or drama as determined by the jury. Last year, some 14 of 20 performance nominations went to women; this year 13.

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

The other big nomination draws are two “musicals” that rattle the usual expectations about that form. Of seven Sterling nominations for Catalyst Theatre’s compelling original all-female espionage musical The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, inspired by real-life World War II history, two are for the score and musical direction by playwright/composer/lyricist/director Jonathan Christenson in collaboration with Matthew Skopyk. Laura Krewski’s choreography received a nod, too. And three nominations are for the stunningly theatrical, graphic novel-esque contributions, in costume, lighting, and multi-media invention, of designer Bretta Gerecke.

As You Like It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

The Invisible is in the running for outstanding musical, a category it shares with Daryl Cloran’s playful Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a musical collaboration between the Bard and the Fab Four, with a score of some 25 Beatles hits. It’s the recipient of six of the Citadel’s 26 Sterling nominations — including a best director nod for Cloran and a fight direction nomination for Jonathan Hawley Purvis, who provided the E-town season with its only body-slamming wrestling match

Six The Musical: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The five-show outstanding musical category is occupied, as well, by the clever, snazzy pop-rock musical that arrived onstage at the Citadel from the West End and Chicago Shakespeare Theater en route to Broadway. Six, which turned an Edinburgh Fringe success into something an awful lot bigger, conceives of the wives of Henry VIII as pop stars in concert. It received five nominations. And so did Kimberley Rampersad’s fiercely moving Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Color Purple. The outstanding musical contender received Sterling nods for the director and for Tara Jackson’s deeply affecting star performance, in addition to contributions from musical director Floydd Ricketts.

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

A funny, frightening play that speaks, with maximum originality and force, to the mythologizing of pop culture and the prospect of connection in a post-apocalyptic world was produced jointly by two leading Edmonton indies: Blarney Productions and You Are Here. Andrew Ritchie’s inventively immersive production of the Anne Washburn hit Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, which led the audience through three specially created “theatres” fashioned from the Westbury Theatre, received five nominations. 

So did the Citadel/Arts Club Theatre production of the challenging Pulitzer Prize-winner Cost of Living, which conflates economic privation with our conventional notions of disability. It’s one of two Citadel productions (along with Every Brilliant Thing) nominated for outstanding production, along with two from Theatre Network (…Titus Bouffonius and Bed and Breakfast), and Northern Light Theatre’s premiere production of Everybody Loves Robbie.

Richard Lee Hsi and Jayce McKenzie in Everybody Loves Robbie. Photo supplied.

The outstanding new play category is particularly competitive, with nominations spread among big and small stages. Fellow contenders alongside Nicole Moeller’s new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose (which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre), and Michele Vance Hehir’s The Blue Hour include the Citadel’s new 1940s adaptation of A Christmas Carol by David van Belle, Jason Chinn’s E Day produced by the indie Serial Collective (which takes us backstage at the actual Alberta election the NDP won in a landslide), and Everybody Loves Robbie, Ellen Chorley’s coming-of-age comedy. 

The nomination list even includes a production specially created in and for this isolating world we inhabit: Mac Brock’s Tracks, directed by Beth Dart, an immersive live event about storytelling from nine artists, in nine different home “theatres.” Techno whiz Bradley King had to figure that out, in order to get his Sterling nomination in multi-media design. 

The special Sterling awards, for outstanding lifetime contributions to Edmonton theatre,  and for career achievement in production and administration, are on hold till 2021 and the return of in-person celebration.  

And here they are, the Sterling Award nominees for 2019-2020

Outstanding Production of a Play: Cost of Living (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre); Bed and Breakfast (Theatre Network); Everybody Loves Robbie (Northern Light Theatre); The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Every Brilliant Thing (Citadel Theatre)

Timothy Ryan Award For Outstanding Production of a Musical: As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs (Northern Light Theatre); Six (Citadel Theatre); The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding New Play (award to playwright): The Ballad of Peachtree Rose by Nicole Moeller (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); A Christmas Carol by David van Belle (Citadel Theatre); Everybody Loves Robbie by Ellen Chorley (Northern Light Theatre); The Blue Hour by Michele Vance Hehir (SkirtsAfire Festival); E Day by Jason Chinn (Serial Collective)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – drama: Tara Jackson, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Alex Dawkins, The Ballad of Peachtree Rose (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); Ashley Wright, Cost of Living (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre); Ian Leung, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival); Christopher Imbrosciano, Cost of Living (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – comedy: Patricia Cerra, Happy Birthday Baby J (Shadow Theatre); Jayce Mckenzie, Everybody Loves Robbie (Northern Light Theatre); Mathew Hulshof, Bed and Breakfast (Theatre Network); Kristin Johnston, Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs (Northern Light Theatre); Helen Belay, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – drama: Bahareh Yaraghi, Cost of Living (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre); Robert Benz, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival); Nadien Chu, The Winter’s Tale (Freewill Shakespeare Festival); Janelle Cooper, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Nicole St Martin, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – comedy: Hunter Cardinal, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Marguerite Lawler, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Oscar Derkx, As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Bobbi Goddard, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Andrea House, The Bad Seed (Teatro La Quindicina)

Outstanding Director: Kimberley Rampersad, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Bradley Moss, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Daryl Cloran, As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Trevor Schmidt, Everybody Loves Robbie (Northern Light Theatre); Ashlie Corcoran, Cost of Living (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival); Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre); Girl in the Machine (Bustle & Beast Theatre); Betrayal (Broken Toys Theatre); E Day (Serial Collective)

Outstanding Set Design: Tessa Stamp for The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Brianna Kolybaba for Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre); John Dinning for Sleuth (Mayfield Dinner Theatre); Megan Koshka for The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival); Pam Johnson for As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Cory Sincennes, A Christmas Carol (Citadel Theatre); Bretta Gerecke, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre); Gabriella Slade, Six (Citadel Theatre); Tessa Stamp, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network); Megan Koshka, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Tim Deiling, Six (Citadel Theatre);
Scott Peters, The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Buuffonius (Theatre Network); Elise Jason, Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs (Northern Light Theatre); Bretta Gerecke, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre); Leigh Ann Vardy, A Christmas Carol (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Bretta Gerecke, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre); Bradley King, Tracks (Vena Amoris Projects); Sean Nieuwenhuis, Girl in the Machine (Bustle & Beast Theatre); Matt Schuurman, The Blank Who Stole Christmas (Rapid Fire Theatre)               

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Aaron Macri, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival); Darrin Hagen, Bed and Breakfast (Theatre Network); Jonathan Christenson & Matthew Skopyk, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre); Mhairi Berg, Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre); Binaifer Kapadia, The Blue Hour (SkirtsAfire Festival)

Outstanding Musical Director: Roberta Duchak, Six (Citadel Theatre); Floydd Ricketts, The Color Purple (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Jonathan Christenson & Matthew Skopyk, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre); Mishelle Cuttler, A Christmas Carol (Citadel Theatre); Ben Elliott, As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

Outstanding Fight Direction or Choreography: Samantha Jeffery, Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre); Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, Six (Citadel Theatre); Ainsley Hillyard, Mr Burns, a Post Electric Play (Blarney Productions/You Are Here Theatre); Jonathan Hawley Purvis, As You Like It (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Laura Krewski, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production: Brad Fischer, technician/operator; Tessa Stamp, production manager; Alana Rice, technician/operator; Nicole Diebert, scenic painter; Meghan Wearne, technician/operator

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Sleeping Beauty (Alberta Musical Theatre Company): Safe & Fair: Scene At Work (Alberta Workers’ Health Centre); Cinderella (Capitol Theatre)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre For Young Audiences: Deanna Finnman, costume design, Sleeping Beauty (Alberta Musical Theatre Company); Gina Puntil, director, Safe & Fair: Scene at Work (Alberta Workers’ Health Centre); Kate Ryan, director, Cinderella (Capitol Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Production: Queen Lear is Dead (Fox Den Collective); The Green Line (In Arms Theatre Collective); Boy Trouble (Vena Amoris Projects); Hack (Get off the Stage Productions; Reality Crack (Vibrate Productions)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): Hack by Dylan Rosychuk (Get off the Stage Productions); Reality Crack by Candace Berlinguette and Laura Raboud (Vibrate Productions); 5 South by Rebecca Merkley (Dammitammy Productions);The Green Line by Makram Ayache (In Arms Theatre Collective); Queen Lear is Dead by Jessy Ardern (Fox Den Collective)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Taylor Chadwick, The Flying Detective (Accidental Humour Co.); Dave Horak, The Bald Soprano (Bright Young Things); Valerie Planche, Queen Lear is Dead (Fox Den Collective); Kenneth Brown, Look at the Town (Poeima Productions); Leah Paterson, Swipe (Synaethesis Dance Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – drama: Amena Shehab, Hagar (Alma Theatre); Michael Peng, Red (Wishbone Theatre); Max Hanic, Boy Trouble (Vena Amoris Projects); Rebecca Merkley, 5 South (Dammitammy Productions); Candace Berlinguette, Reality Crack (Vibrate Productions)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – comedy: Mark Meer, Fear and Loathing and Lovecraft (Rapid Fire Theatre); Jenny McKillop, You Are Happy (Blarney Productions/ Dogheart Theatre); Elena Eli Belyea, Gender? I Hardly Know Them (Tiny Bear Jaws/Rapid Fire Theatre); Ruth Alexander, Two (Atlas Theatre); Cody Porter, The Flying Detective (Accidental Humour Co.)

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A world of uncertainty: a playground for improv. Dungeons, Dragons, and Die-Nasty

Mark Meer as the Dungeon Master in Rapid Fire Theatre’s improvised Dungeons & Dragons. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a world of uncertainty, improv makes perfect sense. It’s no coincidence that in a crisis, award-winning artists in this improv-crazy theatre town have stepped up to the challenge, and improvised new ways to take performance online. Here are a couple of deluxe possibilities, one for Saturday, one for Monday.

A. We’re all looking for signs, a pattern, something to give shape to a formless, chaotic universe. Elite nerdery can help.

The “very last live show” Mark Meer he did before the Great Shutdown of 2020 was an improvised stage version of Dungeons & Dragons (an exportable Meer invention that’s been one of Rapid Fire Theatre’s biggest hits for a decade) at Dad’s Garage, RFT’s sibling comedy co. in Atlanta.

Colin Mochrie and Mark Meer in Rapid Fire Theatre’s improvised Dungeons & Dragons. Photo supplied.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., live, the Dungeon Master takes his improvised stage Dungeons & Dragons online, in a new socially distanced live streamed version. On Rapid Fire’s YouTube page, you’ll see Meer as the Dungeon Master, joined by a deluxe cast of improvisers led by Canadian star Colin Mochrie. “The patron saint of improv” as Meer calls him has appeared numbers times with Edmonton improvisers, who regularly attract a coterie of national and international players.

The cast includes Travis Sharp from Dad’s Garage, whose blue-chip nerdery credentials include creating a Star Wars musical called Wicket (in which the story is told from the Ewok perspective), Song of the Living Dead, and Change: Another Teenage Werewolf Musical. And the senior corps of RFT improvisers includes Joleen Ballendine, Gordie Lucius, Julia Grochowski, and Lee Boyes.

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“The return of regular characters, characters who have lived onstage and have a history with our audience, give continuity to the show,” says Meer. Cues from the online audience set them forth into the unknown.

Saturday’s live-streamed improvised adaptation on Rapid Fire’s YouTube channel comes at the invitation of Edmonton Nerd List’s Virtual Con. And it includes monster artwork by local artists Fish Griwkowsky, Stephen Notley, Nat Jones, Tim Mikula, and Trevor Sieben.

“Since we all existed in the old universe,” as Meer puts it, he’s spent a considerable time, at oddball hours of day and night, actually playing D&D online, using Zoom. His fellow players, far-flung across the globe and its time zones, include Adam Meggido (whose production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong is now on hold at both the Citadel and the Vancouver Arts Club Theatre) and Alan Cox (of School of Night fame) in Britain, and D&D devotés in New Zealand.

Connect to Saturday night’s show on YouTube here. (Donations to RFT welcome, of course).

B. It didn’t take long for Die-Nasty, E-town’s award-winning live improvised soap opera, to devise an alternative to its weekly onstage performances at the Varscona. They are improvisers, after all. A scant week after the great pandemic lockdown of March, Die-Nasty was back in action (thanks to the expertise of Peter Brown), with an online radio-play version of their 29th season, set in the golden age of vaudeville in the New York of 1919.

A cast of 14 (with guests) in their own separate homes (and a fetching assortment of wigs and hats) continued, on Zoom, the story set in motion last October 21 on the Varscona stage. Monday night’s final episode is the last grand flourish of the arc, an extravaganza of sudsy intrigue, murderous ambition, treachery, betrayal, upstaging, “backstage backstabbing” for top billing at the Ferguson Theatre (named in honour of weekly soap improv founding parent Ian Ferguson). Monday’s special guest is actor/improviser John B. Lowe, an Die-Nasty alumnus based in Kelowna.   

Expect “big news and revelations,” says Die-Nasty regular Stephanie Wolfe. She plays Juniper Jones, “a sassy brassy broad, a hula hoop/ singer/ dancer flapper and part-owner of the Ferguson Theatre who may or may not have killed someone.” Questions abound. “How did it get so weird?” wondered “burlesque queen” Daisy Darling in last week’s episode, when all she wanted was adulation by hundreds of millions.

Amongst other characters improvised for season, you’ll see Mark Meer as a character named from real-life history: silent movie star Lou Tellegen. Belinda Cornish plays a spoiled movie star named Geraldine Farrar, Tellegen’s real-life wife, who just wants regular things, you know like fame and fortune and her lover. Jesse Gervais is the Ferguson’s “cold, calculating, increasingly menacing” accountant, who arrived in last week’s episode wielding a gun. Kristi Hansen is the Ferguson’s stage manager Bobbie Smarts, who seems to have a homicidal jealous streak. Matt Alden as the jaunty Jack Potts has just invested every cent of his family’s money in the stock market. It’s 1921, and what with a 10-year growth period for stocks, what could go wrong, right?

What will happen? Who did off that obnoxious kid, anyhow? The only way to find out is to show up on Die-Nasty’s YouTube channel on Monday.  Here’s the link.     

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Girl Brain goes the (social) distance in a new series of online comedy sketches

Alyson Dicey, Caley Suliak, Ellie Heath of Girl Brain. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Proposition: there is a funny side to everything. If you approach from oblique angles. 

While Ellie Heath was spending a month in quarantine at her mom’s place, she overheard a rambunctious maternal Zoom cocktail get-together. “Mom and her friends were all laughing, making jokes about cleaning out closets, especially the liquor cupboard, and happy hour starting early.”

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A new Girl Brain sketch was born: a day-long Zoom meet-up over copious quarantinis. In this riotous first of the comedy trio’s new socially distanced series of YouTube videos (directed by Belinda Cornish) we see Heath and her Girl Brain compatriots Alyson Dicey and Caley Suliak in their separate abodes, hoisting glasses, celebrating, getting more and more corked. Which only goes to show that you’re never really alone till Bacardi leaves you in the lurch. 

There are many things about the absurdities of the world and real life in these parlous times, theatre not excepted, that tickle the three clever and resourceful actor/writer, best friends who make up Girl Brain. But they admit, they were awfully old-fashioned sad when gigs in Calgary and a big two-year anniversary show at Theatre Network got cancelled, .

Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography

“This isn’t funny!” Dicey remembers lamenting to director Cornish on a Zoom call. “My whole world was ending — for a few weeks anyhow.” The lack of each other’s constant company in person was a huge blow. Says Heath “we spend so much time together, and all of sudden to not be joined at the hip was a really disorienting feeling…. We live in the same ‘hood; we’re used to seeing each other every day! And there was the uncertainty of not knowing when we can be onstage together again.”

Life for the three lobes of Girl Brain has had its own special pattern, till the current derailment: they were constantly running into each other accidentally on purpose, going for coffee, hanging out, then “the minute we walk away from each other we’re texting…. I wouldn’t call it stalking exactly, but …” laughs Suliak.

What happens to a sketch comedy-writing team when they can’t ever be in the same room together?    

When Fred Kroetsch and David Cullen of Edmonton’s Catapult Pictures approached Girl Brain with “a creative proposition,” to create socially distanced sketch comedy videos in a world reconfigured by something as frightening and dark as COVID, they jumped at the chance. “O thank goodness, I get to work with my best friends again!” says Heath. Suliak says “it was a cool challenge to take something and make it funny while still being sensitive to people’s worries and real feelings.”

Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography.

Brainstorming by email and Zoom took some getting used to, not least because the Girl Brain sense of humour is closely allied to physical comedy. “No body language,” sighs Dicey. “And we’re just so used to playing off each other.” Says Heath, “a lot of the humour is visual, or specific to the environment. Or based on the screen freezing, and the editing.” Says Cullen, wryly, “stage directions don’t necessarily translate to how not to break the flow of a video….”

In Cullen and Kroetsch, Girl Brain found sympathetic partners. “We’re so lucky!” says Dicey of the Catapult contribution to the new videos, shot at the requisite safe social distance. “Fred sets up our location. Then we record ourselves,” with cellphones and computers. Now would be an excellent time, they feel, for a sponsorship: listen up, Apple. 

Episode 2 is a musical number. I Couldn’t Say No (not to Trudeau) is Dicey’s spirited love letter in song to her crush, inspired by the P.M.’s COVID performances. “Daily standing on your porch, you’re here for the nation/, a Canadian dude with a big daddy attitude….”

Dicey laughs. “ Every morning as Justin talks from his porch, it was an important comfort zone for me. My dad and I would watch together.” The day her father had the temerity to vacuum during the sacred broadcast, well, let’s just say he got a look that would freeze olive oil at 100 paces.

Facetime Date, episode 3, is a very funny online encounter marred by a constant stream of technical hiccups that you’ll recognize instantly from your own attempts at online socializing.

Girl Brain has always found that real-life dating is a rich vein of comic material. Have they actually tried COVID dating? Well, Heath admits to “scrolling through Bumble a bit. Then last Friday I had to get my garburator repaired. And my plumber was really attractive…. We went on a socially distant date this Monday. Yes, even in COVID love can happen. Not that it was love.” 

“Sounds like a romantic comedy,” says Dicey. “Face it,” says Heath,  “we’re starved for young male content…. It’s amplified any time a beautiful young man walks by.” Suliak objects. “He doesn’t have to be beautiful. Only slightly attractive. At the park, a dude walks by, and we’re ‘wasn’t that A Man?’”

Three are up, and more episodes are ready for release on Girl Brain’s YouTube channel and their Instagram page. The the new sketches “have been through the gauntlet,” says Suliak happily. “Workshopped, paired down, tweaked. A lot of brains have worked, and tweaked — more than for our live shows. And many minds are greater than one (or three).”

Find Girl Brain, socially distanced, on YouTube and Instagram.

Posted in Features, Previews | Tagged , , , ,

The Desperate Izmores: portrait of a marriage in crisis. Don’t you dare laugh.

Ron Pederson and Belinda Cornish at the 2014 Soap-A-Thon. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

She’s bored — with a chaser of exasperation and an adenoidal voice that makes your fillings hurt. He’s a sad-sack sulker, a dimwit who’d  be a poster boy for morosity (if that ever becomes an actual word).

And yes, they are married.

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Meet the Izmores, Janine and Les. Life chez Izmore is one marital cataclysm after another. Their marriage, perpetually on the point of implosion, will make you appreciate your own, even if you live in the House of Atreus. Janine and Les Izmore are the hilariously awful stars of a new YouTube comedy series created “for fun and laughs” in these socially distant times by deluxe actor/improviser/ directors Belinda Cornish and Ron Pederson — from opposite ends of the country.

Toronto-based Pederson, who regularly returns to his home town to appear in Teatro La Quindicina and Bright Young Things productions, says the Izmore characters were born at the 2014 Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon. “Belinda and I had played a notorious husband and wife couple called the Ceiling Fans, an alcoholic pair of hallucinogenic actors who never knew where they were in 2008 and 2010,” he says. 

In 2014, as the soap marathon was about to begin, he “just had pyjamas and a robe for a costume, and a painted moustache (ah, and a wig). And I was gonna play some kind of sad loser, a VCR repairman named Les Izmore….”

“Belinda came into the dressing room where I was unsure who to be, and we just shrugged and said ‘let’s be husband and wife again’.” Over the next 50 Soap-A-Thon hours the pair developed a couple who were constantly in crisis: “their marriage, their finances, their jobs, everything was always crashing around them. They were scared, and lost, and constantly freaking out.”

This turned out to be inspired. “Such a fun time that we always talked about making a play, maybe a Christmas play, for them,”  Pederson says. He credits the idea of taking the Izmores online to Cornish, who “recently had the notion these people would be funny on Zoom…. And since they were born of a soap opera, an overly dramatic series began to emerge.”

“We get together (online), and improvise and write.” The jaunty theme music (with whistling!) is courtesy of three-time Dora-winning composer Waylen Miki.

In episode 1 of The Desperate Izmores, available here, we find Les Izmore, looking particularly rumpled, living in the basement of the marital home, arguing with his fretful wife. Who is needier? Who is more aggressive? Discuss amongst yourselves afterwards. And now, there’s an episode 2. Stay tuned: a terrible marriage keeps ’em coming. 

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FringeLiveStream: a new Fringe season venture in bringing live performances direct to your screen

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A summer without Fringes? It’s a strange and defoliated calendar for us audiences — and a daunting one for theatre artists, already struggling to survive the shutting down of the performing arts industry.

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Fringe veteran Jon Paterson, whose theatre skill set includes actor, playwright, director, stage manager, designer, technician, (and like every Fringe artist) producer, cast his gaze online. That’s where his bright idea, FringeLiveStream, happens Thursday, and every week of the Fringe festival season in North America, till October.

FringeLiveStream is a fringe-y festival of weekly live online performances. Like the Fringes of the circuit, they’re uncurated and uncensored — save for one performance per month reserved for an AUC (Artists From Underrepresented Communities) show. It launches this week at 7 p.m. on facebook.com/fringelivestream and FringeLiveStream.com. First up is #Magic, by and starring magician/mentalist Jeff Newman. All performances are pay-what-you-can, with 100 per cent of donations returned to the artist.

Edmonton audiences know the resourceful Paterson, a Grant MacEwan grad, from his collaborations, both on- and offstage, with such troupes as RibbitRePublic and Monster Theatre. He’s toured Fringes with storyteller Martin Dockery (Inescapable). He’s starred in Daniel MacIvor’s House, most recently in the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms series. He’s assembled programming for the Edmonton Fringe’s satellite site in the French Quarter. Lately Paterson has spent winters (the official Fringe off-season) as the technical director of the Astor Theatre in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. He knows how to be busy, witness his Fringe show Best Picture, a spoof of 87 Oscar winners in 60 minutes.

And then came the pandemic.

“We were looking for a cohesive umbrella for shows,” says Paterson. “CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) offered support; their only stipulation was the AUC component.” FringeLiveStream programming happens by online lottery, he says from his Mississauga pandemic retreat. “The first was at the time of the Orlando Fringe” for the June slots. The next is June 25 for July shows.

“Shows can provide their own technical programs,” he says, “or I can host a Zoom meeting and make it pretty on Facebook.” The shows stream live on the (Thursday) night, “and the artists can stream on Facebook for the next week if they want, and try for more donations.”

Adam Schwartz, Fireside Chat. Photo supplied.

After #Magic, the June lineup includes Les Kurkendaal-Barrett (an American Fringe circuit regular) in Climbing My Family Tree on June 4, Joanne Roberts’ The Iceberg on June 11, Mohana Rajakumar’s Being Brown Is My Super Power on June 18, and Fireside Chat with autistic comedian Adam Schwartz on June 25. 

FringeLiveStream “borrows its idea from #CanadaPerforms,” says Paterson of the series, which explores online performance and generates a little income for artists in the process. He thinks of the new venture as a modest contribution at a tough time. “Will I become a truck driver? The ‘what’s next’ is looming for all of us.” 

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Cocktails at Stewart’s: Teatro La Quindicina throws an online party to celebrate a birthday and a season on hold for a year

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Shannon Blanchet, Belinda Cornish, Vincent Forcier in Whiplash Weekend! by Stewart Lemoine. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Listen, life is valuable…. If it ends, you’d miss it. Remember that, but also forget about it. I’m done. Where’s my drink?”

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The woman who delivers an impromptu Best Lady acceptance speech in Stewart Lemoine’s 2003 comedy The Margin of the Sky — and gets handed a glass of champagne for her pains — was on to something. Hold that thought.

There’s a certain wistful might-have-been attached to Thursday night. In the parallel universe where pandemics don’t exist, that’s when Teatro La Quindicina’s 38th season would have begun. With a revival of Evelyn Strange, a black comedy/ thriller of the Hitchcock persuasion set in New York and, in one crucial scene a box at the Metropolitan Opera. It would have been followed by Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s in July, a new Lemoine for the Fringe in August, and Fever-Land in September. 

Jocelyn Ahlf, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Jason Hardwick, Rachel Bowron in What Gives? Photo supplied.

OK, the play can’t open. Neither can the Teatro summer season, postponed intact for a full year. But the appetite for celebration can’t be put on hold. Which is why Teatro is throwing an online gala instead, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. On a screen (very) near you, it’s party time — in honour of the un-launchable season, and the 60th birthday of Lemoine, Teatro’s founder and resident playwright.

The organizers of the variety bash are the trio of veteran Teatro artists who would have been directing three of the four productions in the 2020 Teatro season that will be reborn in 12 months as the 2021 season: Shannon Blanchet, Belinda Cornish, and Kate Ryan.

Cocktails at Pam’s by Stewart Lemoine. Photo supplied.

Says Blanchet, “it’s a chance to rally, to come together with our audience for an occasion … to connect and try and bring some joy and frivolity” at a time when they’re in short supply. When the Queen said ‘we’ll meet again’ in her hit COVID speech, Blanchet’s weren’t the only eyes to tear up.

“For the company, it’s a chance for reflection we don’t often have because we’re so busy getting a play together,” she says. “We know our audience…. We’re at the theatre with them. We’re in the box office, we’re at the concession every night.”

And an experiment in digital presence is useful too. “At heart there’s a vintage spirit to Teatro,” says actor-turned-director Blanchet, whose revival of Evelyn Strange will now open the 2021 season next May 27. “How do we retain that spirit in a different medium? This is a chance to explore how to expand our digital footprint.” She laughs. “I’m in ‘uncertain artist’ mode.… I’m used to thinking of my generation as ‘the kids’. But we’re distinctly mid-career. How will we adapt?”

The balance between tradition and legacy, and adaptation to the new are on her mind. And on that subject Evelyn Strange gives a pleasing configuration to Blanchet’s career. It was her professional acting debut out of U of A theatre school, and it will be her debut as a director. 

Online productions, interviews, readings and the rest can’t replace the live in-person experience that’s at the heart of theatre, of course. “OK, they’re not theatre,” says Blanchet. “Accept that. You change the molecular content of the universe when people come together.” But the digital world is a frontier that has other possibilities, and Thursday’s house party is a moment for Teatro to explore them, she thinks.

Belinda Cornish and Jeff Haslam in The Exquisite Hour (2013), Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Andrew MacDonald-Smith.

Some 45 artists, from far and wide, have contributed to the evening in one way or another, reports Blanchet. We’ll see monologues and scenes from  Lemoine’s own faves — Shockers Delight!, The Margin of the Sky, Whiplash Weekend!, The Exquisite Hour, The Oculist’s Holiday, Swiss Pajamas among them. And there’s a specially curated selection of two-hand scenes performed by COVID co-habitants, including Cornish and Mark Meer, Jenny McKillop and Garett Ross, Mat Busby and Jenna Dykes-Busby, Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter.

Music, which features prominently in the Lemoine canon, is part of the extravaganza: musical numbers from Jocelyn Ahlf, Andrea House, Ryan Sigurdson, and Sheri Somerville, with additional music by Erik Mortimer.

And there will be cocktails (made by you from instructions online), as befits a repertoire filled with classic drinks. Teatro, after all, is a company that for a couple of decades revived Lemoine’s Cocktails at Pam’s every five years. Blanchet remembers the opening night of the screwball comedy Whiplash Weekend!, in which she played a long-distance swimmer who toasts “here’s to you, Lake Ontario!” She lifted her glass, as she recalls, and found herself sipping Veuve Cliquot. “What a great way to open a show!”

There’s even “a surprise piece for Stewart,” says Blanchet. It’s a Zoom production of an early piece, shhh, “and he won’t see it coming!”


Stewart Lemoine’s Diamond Jubil-AEIIIII!

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Directed by: Shannon Blanchet, Belinda Cornish, Kate Ryan

Hosted by: Rachel Bowron

Starring: 45 Teatro ensemble actors, with surprise guests 

Where: teatroq.com

When: Thursday 7:30, available for viewing through June 5.

Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , ,

“Where are you?” Tracks, an online experiment, takes us home with the cast.

Hayley Moorhouse in Tracks, Amoris Projects. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A preamble to Tracks, the online theatre that’s happening this week on your own screen….

Ever since going out to theatre, my way of life for forever, abruptly ended a thousand years ago (or 10 weeks, depending on your calendar), I’ve been at home.

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In distractible fragments of late, I’ve watched filmed versions of productions, excerpts, play readings, archival footage and online scrapbooks, internet interviews with actors, director, assorted sages. I’ve watched discussions about whither theatre?, the history and future of theatre, how theatre is different from film and, oh I don’t know, gardening or making focaccia. I’ve seen Shakespeare at the Globe and the National Theatre in London, and the Stratford Festival in Ontario (including the marvellous Robert Lepage Coriolanus, available till Thursday). I’ve watched Brecht’s wife, the legendary actor Helene Weigel, in the Berliner Ensemble’s Mother Courage from 1950, and heard the audience coughing.

I’ve watched Helen Mirren and Judi Dench explain what acting means in an acting “class” on YouTube. Thanks to the clever pandemic reinvention of Die-Nasty I’ve watched improv as a radio play, with the cast members in their own homes responding to directorial cues as they go along. 

There’s no shortage of theatre “content” online, but mostly it can’t capture the live theatre crackle of being with other people, both on the stage and off. (Not to discount the efforts: it serves as a reminder of what we’re missing, what we’ll love more than ever when it’s back). Until Tuesday night, though, I hadn’t seen an online play actually produced live and on the spot — especially for a small audience with tickets for a certain night. An audience (of 30) who are invited to adopt nickname aliases, make choices, and interact with the performers from time to time.

That show is Mac Brock’s Tracks, an ambitious venture by the experimental indie troupe Amoris Projects, supported by the Fringe (and especially by the creative expertise of the Fringe technical smartie Bradley King) and by director Beth Dart.

There were things about going out to the theatre last night I recognized from my vantage point in front my MacBook on my “office” table overlooking the back yard. For one thing, there’s an actual curtain time. So you could actually screw up and be late — a viable reason to get that familiar five minutes-to-curtain stress that’s usually related to misplacing your ticket, or parking. In honour of the occasion, and verisimilitude, I wore actual clothes (it seemed only right). And there’s pre-show music, an airy score by Matthew Cardinal that gives off hints of discernible voices. And, hey, there was a glass of wine (solely, you understand, in honour of opening night). 

Tracks is a play about making a play — from storytelling. It’s a loose-limbed collection of personal “stories” from nine different artists (including playwright Mac Brock) about what kinds of stories they could, or maybe should, be telling as artists. It is self-referential, by very definition: it tracks artists back to their own homes. That’s where we find them gazing out at us, wondering about what they should reveal: Tracks is set, if that’s the right word, on the shifting frontier between art as confession and art as reinvention.

“We’d like to know you’re here,” says the screen, being typed by someone on the spot, then vanishing letter by letter in a visual metaphor you’re bound to appreciate. “Where are you?” wonders the production. “What is your story in three words?”  The second question is, as you might imagine, a lot harder than the first.

I don’t want to spoil your sense of discovery that Tracks sets its collective mind to creating. But I can tell you that Brock’s own introduction and periodic returns — as an endearingly self-doubting quester figure — gives us a glimpse into the tentative, conditional nature of making your own story into art. It takes guts to unearth the meaning in a real-life event or self-destructive thought or reflection. And, as he reveals, it takes guts to share it, without knowing in advance whether the thought will find a receptive resonance with others. “I’m kind of freaking out,” he confesses, alluding to “a mountain of trying….” 

Brock gives us a choice after each of his interventions. At every juncture we can choose to meet this artist or that one, via our typing fingers. I’m being vague on purpose about names. Choose away, for yourselves. But judging by the four high-contrast performers I saw in their homes, they seem to have a wide range of relationships or engagements with the unseen audience, me and 29 others.

performance artist NUIBOI at home, setting up for Tracks. Photo supplied

Here’s a curious thought: If the Tracks performers each live in a theatre, so do you when you’re watching it. In the post-show Zoomed discussion, Mustafa Rafiq amusingly mentioned that since his performance takes place on his bed, he’s taken to sleeping on his own couch. NUIBOI echoed the thought. Part of their place is The Theatre; they live at the moment as a refugee in the remainder.

The most playful and oblique of the performers I saw casts himself, microphone in hand, in classic stand-up comedy configuration for a story of cross-cultural confusion. He even  brings his own laugh track in case we flip off his wave-length.

One is a kind of witty, poetic confession about loneliness and multiple identities, and the way that screws up potential relationships. There’s one performer you never see, physically, except as shapes and sounds, and the play of light and shadow. One is more direct about seeking audience connection: a question-and-answer relationship in which the artist finally emerges from the shadow.

A home set-up for Tracks. Photo supplied.

Seeing the performers at home (Regina-born Brock talks from a room dominated by a prairie landscape) is not just de rigueur at the moment. Dart makes it integral to her fascinating production, which is at pains to emphasize that this is a live experience. And I think you do feel that (with occasional moments, for me, that seem a little obviously an interaction “technique”).

We know the performers are with us, thanks to the smarts of an intriguing venture that had to invent its own way of rehearsing. It’s harder to create the feeling that the rest of the audience is live, too. Is there a real-life “us” when we can’t applaud and hear each other laughing and sighing? It’s our responsibility, as audience members, to make that connection spark and fire, in our written messages. That communication, unspoken, is easy, inevitable almost, in a shared room; it takes more ingenuity in the digital world.

Today I find myself wishing I could rewrite my messages so they’d be better, livelier for my fellow audience members and the performers. This new kind of resourcefulness is a premium when you’re making tracks through a new pandemic world.

12thnight talks to playwright Mac Brock and director Beth Dart HERE.


Fringe Theatre Off Season

Theatre: Amoris Productions

Created by: Mac Brock with the ensemble

Directed by: Beth Dart

Starring: Asia Bowman, Mac Brock, Fatmi El Fassi El Fihri, Anthony Hunchak, Moses Kouyaté, Marguerite Lawler, Hayley Moorhouse, NIUBOI, Mustafa Rafiq

Where: your own home

Running: through May 24

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

Posted in Features, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sandy Moser: mask-maker to the stars

Sandy Moser, theatre-goer and mask-maker extraordinaire. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Live theatre gave Sandy Moser the big-M Moment that turned everything around for her. And she’s returning the favour, though she’d never put it that way in a million years.

“What would I be doing otherwise?” she says, an ‘amused shrug in her voice’ (as the stage directions would say, if Sandy were a play instead of a droll 78-year-old). “It was either make masks or wash my walls or clean my base boards.”

actor Mathew Hulshof in his paisley Moser mask.

Since the opening night of the pandemic a couple of months ago, Moser has been a one-person volunteer props department: she’s made some 850 masks, a lot of them for theatre people and all of them free. If the recipients insist on paying, she directs them to donate to a small theatre instead. Moser is on the phone from the Sherwood Park acreage where she’s lived alone since the death of her husband nine years (and 970 plays) ago; “it’s the perfect place if you have to self-isolate!” she laughs. And she’s reflecting on the life-changer that happened in a theatre. 

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 True, Moser is the matriarch of a showbiz line. Her daughter is Calgary-based star actor/ improviser Karen Johnson Diamond; her actor/producer grandson Griffin Cork graduated last spring from U of A theatre school. But her late husband wasn’t a theatre-goer. “After he died, it was ‘what do I do with my life now?’”

Three weeks into her widowhood, a friend, a fellow retired nurse, dragged Moser to Les Miz at Strathcona High School. “O, that could be crappy,” she remembers thinking. “But I’d have gone to a chicken-plucking contest…. And it was magnificent!”

“It hit me: hey, I’m not thinking about me. And that turned everything around,” she says (stage direction: ‘with gusto’). “I want a bed-time story and I want to get out of my life. And then I want to go home and go to bed…. I highly recommend it to any widow.”

“So I just kept going!” says Moser. “I sit in the front row and pretend nobody’s there but me and it’s all for me!”

Actor/ playwright/ director/ musical director Darrin Hagen with Sandy Moser. Photo supplied.

Since that fateful moment, Moser has been out in theatres three or four nights a week, and is beloved by E-town’s theatre crowd for her enthusiasm and loyalty. She’s seen and loved big-budget extravaganzas; she’s seen and loved solo shows in draft-y basements where the actor has shelled out a princely 50 bucks, and she’s shared the house seats with 10 other people. 

Her daughter Karen took her to see War Horse in New York, and Moser adored it (“OK, I can die now!”). She saw Hadestown at the Citadel and loved it. Twice. She saw Daniel MacIvor’s solo show House in a “tiny church basement in Calgary, 12 chairs, the whole room painted black, the actor had one chair and one flashlight. And I was totally blown away!”

She saw 10 shows at Calgary’s Festival of Animated Objects (“I LOVE puppetry!”). One was a “tiny puppet show in a cardboard box in the lobby, for free. One lady and she had a teeny bird puppet, and her fingers were the feet. And it lasted maybe 15 minutes, and she probably spent 10 bucks. And I’ll never forget it!”     

Big budget alone does not in itself great theatre make, a life lesson that isn’t lost on Moser. “And it doesn’t even matter if it’s good: they’ve told you a story. They’ve given you a perspective about what you enjoy and what you don’t….” It’s a view that makes Moser the ideal Fringe audience. “All of it is a learning experience.

Moser loves talking about plays. “Did you see The Zoo Story, the one with Collin Doyle, a couple of Fringes ago? Wonderful! And For Science! (Small Matters Theatre clown science experiment). “Yup, I don’t even need words!”

Big theatre, regularly, is financially prohibitive for her (her daughter-in-law takes her to the Citadel). But she has subscriptions to nearly every little theatre in town. “A seniors subscription to preview night, and you can go for eight bucks. You can’t have a better night out; you can’t get a hot dog out for that,” says Moser, an ambassador for the theatre industry if ever there was one. And she worries about the future of an art form that depends on social proximity for its vital juices.

The last plays she saw before the shutdown, mid-March, were Shadow Theatre’s Heisenberg and Wild Side’s The Children. Then, suddenly, the curtain came crashing down. No more theatre: “That’s what killing me!” she says. “I miss theatre!”

Which brings us to the masks. Not that she’s promoting her skills. By no means. It was Griffin Cork who contacted me about his grandmother’s gift to the theatre community (and others) to my attention. “I’m trying to just be under the radar here, this quiet little old lady in the bush. But you don’t get to be quiet when Griffin’s your grandson,” she sighs.

“I don’t have a lot of money. But I can do this!” Her model was the masks she remembered wearing as a surgical nurse at the U of A Hospital in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Her re-creations have two layers, three pleats, jewellery wire for the nose to get a better seal. “I’m no seamstress,” she says cheerfully. “My first six attempts ended up in the garbage.”

Shadow Theatre’s John Hudson in his new Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Photo supplied.

Since then, output (and quality) has escalated. And so has the involvement of the family. After one 75-hour week of mask-making her old sewing machine “said No, and said it really loudly.” She’s using her daughter-in-law’s. Her granddaughter Ella, now in grade 11, cuts the wire and elastic; she’d been the official sewer before “lockdown,” while Moser did the cutting. A Calgary costume designer, mailed her 100 yards of of bias tape for the sides of the masks, and big bags of left-over material. Johnson Diamond, who found a supply of skinny elastic in Calgary, has dropped off sacks of extra thread. Nursing classmates of yore have donated postage money.

“If you’re going to have to wear a mask it might as well be fun!” says Moser, of such creations as the Shrek or the Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Some of her favourite artists, Luc Tellier, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshof among them, sport Moser masks when they go out. Says Tellier “I have a paisley mask for when I want to look fashionable, and a Shrek mask for when I want to look fun!” 

And not just theatre artists, but healthcare, construction, and emergency workers, teachers, seniors… are wearing her masks. Picture this exchange from an abandoned parking lot, a scene that’s a bit Neil Simon, if he’d collaborated with Samuel Beckett: Moser social-distance giving a bag of masks to a friend for distribution. “I’m using my husband’s cane; she’s using a hose extension…. Two old gray-hairs doing a drug deal. It’s hilarious!”

“It gives me a great reason to get up,” she says modestly of her labours. “I’m my own boss; nobody can get mad at me if I’m late.” 

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