One on one theatre: Here There Be Night takes you into an underground resistance network

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Sometimes the creative ingenuity and resilience of theatre artists just about takes your breath away. In a dangerous time when big live theatre gatherings have been cancelled, thwarted, delayed, diverted, they will find a way.

I went on an adventure Friday night outside in the cold dark air in Old Strathcona, with a map, my hand-warmers, and my cellphone. And in eight of the most unexpected locations in a district I thought I knew well, I met a story.

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Here There Be Night is eight five-minute solo plays each starring a single actor: an involving one-on-one encounter with a real-live person. So, eight experiences that lead you out in the world, look you in eye (from six feet, or behind barriers), and in an amazingly inventive variety of ways acknowledge the strange, distancing, anxious and isolating, not to say be-nighted, moment in which we live. It felt like an act of defiance, a sort of underground resistance network, to be out in the world, connecting (with absolute safety) like that in the dark.

It’s the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season-opener, elaborately plotted to take you (and a COVID partner if you like) through the dark into little moments that in the writing, the performing, and the directing, shed light on our weird, spooky situation. Tickets are vanishing fast (after all, this is theatre that gathers its audience one or two at a time). So get on this ASAP.

I really don’t want to spoil the fun of the unexpected for you. So I’ll just tell you that the pieces are acted with startling commitment, to engage you, their exclusive audience. And the writing is impressive — writing an original five-minute play that feels satisfying, and custom-tailored to its odd location must be devilishly tricky. Workshop West’s new artistic producer Heather Inglis (one of the four directors) has assembled 10 playwrights of different styles and angles of attack (I list them all below).

The range is wide; Edmonton playwrights have risen to the occasion. In the course of your tour you’ll encounter smart, political black comedy (from Jason Chinn). There’s puckish interactive whimsy (Harley Morison), unnerving spookiness (Bevin Dooley), a fantasia  on our disconnected feeling of being stranded between destinations (Beth Graham), or between worlds (Amena Shehab and Aksam Alyousef). There’s a meditation on our longing for love and spiritual connection (from Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki, a playwright new to me). Perhaps the most disturbing of all the encounters comes from the playwright Josh Languedoc, powerfully acted by Sheldon Elter.

The finale (Mieko Ouchi) is soulful. And so is the seductive conversational voice of the guide in your ear (by Susie Moloney, spoken by Melissa Thingelstad). My old cellphone was a wimp, and cacked out too soon in the cold. So I wish I’d heard more of the narration (by Susie Moloney, voiced by Melissa Thingelstad), which unspools from the thought that the veil between worlds is particularly thin at the moment. Don’t you feel that in your bones?

Meet at the Strathcona Community League (masked, to download the cellphone app and get instructions). And set forth, with earbuds and layers. Prepare to be surprised.

REVIEW

Here There Be Night

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre (with participation from Theatre Network, Catalyst Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Theatre Yes)

Written by: Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab, Jason Chinn, Bevin Dooley, Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Mieko Ouchi, Susie Moloney, Harley Morison, Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki

Directed by: Patricia Cerra, Heather Inglis, Lana Michelle Hughes, Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Helen Belay, Nadien Chu, Patricia Darbasie, Sheldon Elter, David Madawo, Jameela McNeil, Christina Nguyen, Amena Shehab, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: eight locations in Old Strathcona (meet at Strathcona Community League with a cellphone, at least iPhone 6 or Android 4, plus mask and earbuds).

Running: through Nov. 1, staggered start times

Tickets, schedule, and COVID protocols: workshopwest.org

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , ,

A Brimful of Asha: a son, a mother, and a culture gap onstage at the Citadel. Meet co-creator and Canadian theatre star Ravi Jain.

Ravi Jain, co-creator of A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of an emerging theatre career must be in want of a wife. (A wife arranged by his mother).

We now take you back a decade or so, to the life and burgeoning fortunes of the then-27-year-old Ravi Jain, a rising star in Canadian theatre — and single.

We caught up with the actor, director, theatre maker, artistic director of Toronto’s evocatively named Why Not Theatre to ask him about the company, and the hit play opening tonight on the Citadel’s 680-seat Shoctor stage (to an audience of 100 as part of Horizon Series LIVE)A Brimful of Asha, his joint creation with his mother Asha, was inspired by the business, so problematic for his immigrant India-born parents and not for him, of his lingering singleness (at 27!) and their acrobatic attempts to arrange a marriage for him in the traditional way.

Born and raised in Toronto, Jain left after high school to study theatre abroad, in an assortment of the world’s theatre capitals, London first, then New York, Washington, Paris. “I didn’t grow up much on Canadian theatre,” he says of his younger self. “I was inspired more by physical theatre, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, a collision of cultures. For me it was always international….”

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“When I came back to Toronto I didn’t really see that happening anywhere,” says Jain, who’s lively, smart, and accessible in conversation. “And I wanted to find a way to make it happen, that vision, that conversation … to change the model of what a theatre company can be.”

The result, in 2007, was Why Not, a company of the experimental, innovative, risk-taker stripe that has acquired a creative team of 10 over the last dozen years, as well as an international profile for new work, and original takes on classics (witness an acclaimed production of Prince Hamlet, gender-bending and in an expressive melange of English and ASL).

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

In short, Jain was a happening up-and-coming Canadian theatre creator, and happy to wait for marriage until he had time and focus to, you know, meet the right woman and fall in love. Why not? Arranged marriages don’t get a lot of positive vibes from the contemporary western culture, right?.

Enter Asha. A Brimful of Asha, he says, was inspired by “a true story; it really happened.” And “it was important to have my mom’s perspective…. She said ‘if the audience heard my side of the story they’d agree with me!’”

“In a lot of ways she was right. And in a lot of ways she was wrong,” laughs Jain.

So mother and son wrote the play together, with its amusing and provocative counterpoint of perspectives, in a wild narrative that involves mom and dad following Ravi on a theatre work trip to India and plotting to set up meetings with a series of eligible bridal prospects. And Asha “agreed to appear on the stage as herself.” Which has got to count as a remarkably brave venture by a non-actor who wasn’t exactly thrilled, to understate the case, by the career her son had chosen.

The premiere run at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2012 sold out completely, as did a second run there. “People loved it. And the response has been the same as we toured it all over the world,” says Jain. As reports from everywhere confirm, “people come away feeling like our relationship is at the centre of the story. And we have a good one. People recognize their own mom in mine, and they’re really taken by the story…. Older people often say ‘when I was young I agreed with you; now I’m older I grew with your mom’.”

Ravi laughs. “It’s the same everywhere.” Besides, he says simply, “she’s great. And charming.” Mieko Ouchi’s Citadel production, starring Nimet Kanji and Adolyn H. Dar, is only the second ever with actors other than the Jains.

In the end, did four years of touring the world changed his mom’s mind about the desirability, or lack thereof, of a career in theatre. “I wouldn’t say that!” says Jain. “She appreciates it more…. She has more appreciation for the people, and the hard work that goes into it. She loves the interaction with an audience. But is it her dream job for her kid? Well, no.”

And come to that, it’s a moment of great uncertainty in the world of theatre. Jain, who’s not into Zoom versions of theatre for Why Not, thinks “The big change isn’t whether (live theatre) will be back, it will … but the process of how we go about making it, making space for different people, different voices…. This gives us time to think about the inequities.”

Ravi Jain and his mother Asha Jain at his wedding. Photo supplied.

I know what you’re wondering, of course. Did Jain manage to get wed, in the end, to someone he’d chosen for himself? See above. “I’ve been married for eight years,” he laughs. “I was engaged when we first opened the show.”

Check out 12thnight’s conversation HERE with director Mieko Ouchi about the “heartwarming realness” of A Brimful of Asha.

REVIEW

A Brimful of Asha

Theatre: Citadel, as part of Horizon Series LIVE

Written by: Asha and Ravi Jain

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi

Starring: Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji

Running: Saturday through Nov. 15

Tickets (and COVID precaution details): citadeltheatre.com

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Curio Shoppe is home care, Catch The Keys style. Give yourself a fright.

Morgan Yamada as Marie, in Curio Shoppe, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Home care (Catch The Keys-style). “It’s time to haunt your own house,” says a silky voice, coming at us in the dark from the internet ether.

As its name suggests, Curio Shoppe, the ingenious joint creation of the Catch the Keys sister duo Megan and Beth Dart, spins its nightmare story from a selection of dusty, vintage objects. “The odd and unwanted, bits and bobs,” as the shoppe owner slyly describes a selection of objets that unlock a grisly narrative from Edmonton’s history. As we know from the company’s annual excursions into the past with Dead Centre of Town, we may be steeped in urban banality, but we’re the largely unknowing possessors of a surprisingly lurid, violent, bizarre history.

This time the location is your place, with the lights out, which is a trickier proposition. You’ll hear no more about the story from me; this is an experience that reveals itself in your online choices (designed by the ever-creative systems analyst Bradley King), and layers of projections and video and strange sounds and voices, and … oh my gawd, why is my cellphone ringing?

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I’m just reporting back from last night to say that Curio Shoppe is an artful, immersive piece of theatre, designed especially for a time in our collective history when we’re jammed between so-called reality, the online world, and, er, other worlds from the past and beyond the grave. Isn’t Google a sort of medium after all? How often do dead people text you?

Give yourself a fright.

Curio Shoppe includes Colin Matty, Morgan Yamada, Jake Tkaczyk, Christine Lesiak, and other cameos. And it’s the work of an entire team of audio, video, lighting, internet and theatrical designers and other experts who have lavished love on it.  And also ghoulish gore. I’m pretty sure it’s not fake. Is it?

It runs through Oct. 31. And tickets (one per household) are available at catchthekeys.ca. The only requirement is a reliable internet connection and a cellphone that’s on.   

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‘Welcome Home’: Teatro is back and live at the Varscona

Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

After catapulting its entire 2020 June to October season a year into the future, Teatro La Quindicina returns to their natural home, the Varscona Theatre stage, for the next three Fridays.

They’re back “with cautious aplomb and flamboyant vigilance” as billed (which sounds like a stage direction in a Teatro screwball). What’s on deck is an experimental live variety/concert/magazine show to celebrate the occasion. Welcome Home comes with all the festive trimmings — like singing, dancing, and a real live in-person audience (all with strict COVID protocols in place). Ah, and a “new non-contact playlet by resident playwright Stewart Lemoine.

Teatro, it must be said, has never really taken to Zoom and platforms of that ilk. When other theatres did online staged readings or live streamed events during these strangest of summers, Teatro sent out scripts of Lemoine comedies for its audiences to read.

“We’re trying to not let the building go silent,” says Lemoine modestly of the venture. The only theatrical event that’s happened in person at the Varscona so far is Plain Jane Theatre’s Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside Out Cabaret, which had us, the audience of 20 distanced, masked, theatre-hungry souls, in the lobby looking outside the main street window at the performers singing and dancing outside on 83rd Avenue. “Joyful and ingenious,” as Lemoine says.

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And now there’s a new Teatro variety venture for an audience of 45 or so (depending on the exact configuration of audience groups) inside the 200-seat steeply-raked theatre at the Varscona. Tickets are free; donations are encouraged.

The glamorous co-hosts are couple Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer. And the cast of physically distanced triple-threats are Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Steven Greenfield, and newcomer Chariz Faulmino, who would have been in the Teatro musical Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s this past summer had the world been different.

As for the new Lemoine playlet, Poking The Dragon – A Lockdown Experience, its theatrical premise, as the playwright describes, is epistolary, a perfect form for this pandemical epoch. It isn’t the first time Lemoine has ventured into correspondence for his theatrical storytelling. Love Litigants (1998), for example, is a series of letters spun from a one-night stand between a student and a cashier. The Hudson’s Bay Story, revived occasionally for Teatro New Year’s Eve shows, is an exchange of letters between head office and an increasingly disgruntled Bay employee who’s taken offence at Eydie Gormé’s version of Sleigh Ride, played every morning before store opening.

Welcome Home, made possible by EPCOR’s Heart and Soul fund, is “our opportunity to experiment with what’s possible,” says Lemoine simply. “We want to catch up with people…. To perform or to witness is a privilege.”

PREVIEW

Welcome Home

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Mark Meer, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Chariz Faulmino, Steven Greenfield

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday, plus Oct. 30 and Nov. 6

Tickets and COVID protocol details: teatro.com

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Hands across the border: the Citadel and a Chicago international new play festival

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Tonight at 6 p.m., Zoom brings us, live, an unusual collaboration, cross-border in both its production and subject matter.

A Distinct Society, by the Canadian-born New York-based playwright/director Kareem Fahmy, who’s of Egyptian extraction, represents Canada at the 11th annual International Voices Project in Chicago — an international new play festival happening in partnership with the Citadel Theatre, the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago, and Chicago’s Silk Road Rising. The cast includes three Chicago actors, plus two familiar to Citadel audiences: Nicole St. Martin (last seen at the Citadel in Sweat) and Will Brisbin (Matilda).

The play is set in a library poised on the border between Quebec and Vermont, and involves an Iranian family separated by the “Muslim ban.”

For this enterprise, St. Martin says she interviewed her mother, a Montreal anglophone, about the impact of the FLQ Crisis on life for her and her husband, a francophone. The play, she says, “is a cool piece of writing that explores a contentious part of our history that isn’t much talked about, while relating it to another, current, world crisis.”

After tonight’s performance you can ask St Martin to expand on a subject that doesn’t reach the world stage very often. She’ll be part of the post-performance Q&A along with the playwright.

A Distinct Society is available for streaming through Saturday at ivpchicago.org.

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A Brimful of Asha: the generation gap in living colour onstage at the Citadel

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Nobody knows better than your mom what you should be doing that you aren’t doing, or what you’re shouldn’t be doing that you are doing, or what you’re putting off doing (like getting married before it’s too late). Right?

Everyone in the world who’s ever had parents knows this.

In the charmer of a play that marks the Citadel’s return to a LIVE (socially distanced) fall season Saturday, the gap between generations and cultures, tradition and the contemporary world, opens between two characters, a mother and a son, and the real-life story they tell, each from their own perspective, over tea. A Brimful of Asha chronicles, in a hilarious double-optic (with a stream of tart maternal interjections), a parental quest across continents — under the camouflage of an India vacation — to arrange a marriage for a 30-ish son.

The hit play, which premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2012 and toured internationally after that, was made together by a real-life mother and son, from their real-life story and conversations. And the comic dynamic of the characters onstage is enhanced by the fact that Jain is a Canadian theatre artist, and a much-awarded one (actor, director, playwright, creator and the artistic director of Toronto’s Why Not Theatre), and his 60-something mom Asha is not an actor. Not only that, she has her doubts whether theatre counts as a real job, much less a reasonable career. Four years of touring with her son apparently hasn’t altered that view materially.

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The Citadel production, coming to the Shoctor stage Saturday (it was originally slated for March 2021) is only the second in which the Jains themselves are not onstage. But the play has found a kindred spirit in director Mieko Ouchi and her cast, Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji.     

From the start Ouchi, a theatre and film artist with a distinguished archive in both fields, found A Brimful of Asha “such a nice fit” with her background and career. Her own family, with its complicated multi-ethnic multi-cultural history, has been a rich inspiration; her most recent play Burning Mom chronicles her mother’s trip to Burning Man the year after her father’s death. Says Ouchi, “Ravi and Asha have crafted conversations that really did happen: real events and a real story, told through a theatrical lens. I related!”

“I felt a real kinship to Ravi, and right away felt at home with the script, both in (its) connecting to family culture, and the verbatim route to storytelling.”

“I draw a lot on my family’s story in my work,” says Ouchi, artistic director of Concrete Theatre, a company specializing in theatre-for-young-audiences. “My first project out of theatre school (she graduated from the U of A in 1992) was a National Film Board documentary Shepherd’s Pie And Sushi about my family.” Mid-development she was cast as the lead in Anne Wheeler’s film The War Between Us, about the Japanese internment.

“My film became about going back to my own family saying ‘what happened to us during the war?’ I didn’t know the details. What had brought my parents together in an inter-racial marriage that in ‘60s Calgary wasn’t exactly a usual thing?” Ouchi’s mom is Irish/ German/ Scottish, her dad Japanese. There was a mystery waiting to be discovered. “What brought these two cultures together?”

“I have a biological brother, and an adopted brother who’s Cree, from the Sturgeon Lake band. So Indigenous culture is also part of my family,” says Ouchi. Her debut film became “a story of bringing together cultures and generations.”

Shepherd’s Pie And Sushi set off an empathetic reverb from a wide spectrum of multi-cultural Canadians. “Ukrainian-Canadian, Italian-Canadian … it’s so fascinating because it’s such a specific story and all kinds of people still felt themselves reflected,” says Ouchi. “Ravi’s play has that same appeal…. You don’t have to be South Asian to relate; we’ve all had battles with our parents, or our children, over what we think is best for them.”

This entry point to universality comes with an unexpected, even paradoxical, discovery: “one of the first lessons I learned as a writer,” Ouchi says, “was that you tell a very specific story to hit a universal truth. It’s not obvious when you start writing…. You learn by interacting with the audience and feeling them recognize and respond.”

With A Brimful of Asha, Jain, she says, “has found a really beautiful mix of hilarious moments, and the challenging dynamics between parents and kids…. There’s a heartwarming real-ness at the centre.”

A big part of the fun, says Ouchi, is “the meta-theatre of it.” The play is “a partnership between a theatre artist and a ‘real person’…. The Ravi character is working very hard, theatrically, to tell the story. He plays girls, uncles, grandparents, his friend Andrew, maybe 30 different characters, everyone they run into. And his mom gets to sit there, putting her two cents in.” Ouchi laughs. “As soon as you do documentary and verbatim work you realize that the ability to tell stories is (naturally) in so many people, part of many cultures.”

The two actors in the Citadel production are both professionals of course. “They’re so excited to be in a rehearsal, making a play about the culture they share,” says Ouchi, one of the Citadel’s three BIPOC associate artists who devised the summer’s Horizon Lab: Where Are Your Stories?. “We’re all so happy just to be part of theatre activity. In a theatre!” The first day of rehearsal it just seemed so miraculous, so emotional, to be here. And then as soon as you’re here it’s normal again. Home. Even if we take hand sanitizer breaks every hour.”

Originally the play was written with a parent and kid working things out across a kitchen table. And originally, Ouchi’s production was destined for the intimate Rice Theatre downstairs at the Citadel. COVID distancing has transplanted A Brimful of Asha upstairs to the 680-seat Shoctor, for a (masked) audience of 100. “Because we’re in such a big space, we’ve made it a dining room table,” says Ouchi of adjustments of scale, including projections, designed to “make the play feel at home in the Shoctor.” And, as she points out, “the distance, literal and figurative between the characters actually makes sense.… A Brimful of Asha is naturally socially distanced!”

And there’s this: “In COVID times, here’s a very sweet, funny, good-natured play. And that’s personally what I’m longing for right now…. warm, comforting, lots of fun.”

Check out an upcoming 12thnight.ca conversation with playwright Ravi Jain.

PREVIEW

A Brimful of Asha

Theatre: Citadel, as part of Horizon Series LIVE

Written by: Asha and Ravi Jain

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi

Starring: Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji

Running: Saturday through Nov. 15

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

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Rapid Fire Theatre is back live, across the river

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Flexibility!” declares Matt Schuurman. “It’s all about being flexible, in a space that’s flexible….”

He’s talking about improv, to be sure, a theatrically acrobatic subject on which he is an expert practitioner, mentor, producer. But the artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre might have been addressing the infrastructure of live theatre generally these days, and the ever-changing COVID-ian rules that govern performing and gathering an audience.

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Mid-pandemic Rapid Fire Theatre has up and moved, from Zeidler Hall at the Citadel downtown across the river to the Backstage Theatre at Fringe headquarters, the ATB Financial Arts Barn. So, in this three-month commitment, Edmonton’s 40-year-old improv comedy company has returned to their old stomping ground in Old Strathcona. And as of Friday they’re returning with live (and live streamed) shows that embrace their roots.

For RFT The big plus of the Backstage, the Fringe’s adaptable black box theatre, is that, unlike the Zeidler, “it’s  a big open room we can configure depending on the rules…. We can add more seats, or we can go into full internet mode,” says Schuurman. Rapid Fire has done both, as he explains. They’ve created a 30-seat socially distanced cabaret, with tables for cohorts, and table drink service. And they’ve made the space a viable live-streaming studio too, with multiple camera placements.

“Let’s not focus on what we can’t do,” says Schuurman, a notable video and projection designer in addition to his improv repertoire. “Let’s say Yes (the improv mantra) to the situation we’ve been given!” And the improvisers of the company have never seen a restriction they haven’t wanted to be playful about.

Theatresports, Rapid Fire Theatre.

RFT, long Edmonton’s most internet-savvy theatre company, has been teaching a range of improv workshops, and performing improv shows, online since March. And their live shows will be continue to be live-streamed. For the opening, says Schuurman, “we’re bringing back Theatresports,” a team competition that’s been on hold since March.

“We’ve surrounded the stage in a Plexiglass box, a glass cage, so the cast can perform without masks, very close to the audience.” In honour of these particularities, with a nod to professional wrestling matches, they’ve dubbed it Apocalypse Cage Match. As Schuurman says, “typically, Theatresports is a a big ensemble show” that includes improvisers who drop in, spontaneously, for an episode. Improvising a schedule and ad hoc teams isn’t possible, times being what they are. Instead there are teams, 16 of them, set in advance, including roommates and COVID couples. And the programming is set up tournament-style, with teams that advance and others who are bumped out.

Double Feature, Rapid Fire Theatre.

Theatresports happens every Friday and Saturday night at 10 p.m. Before that, at 8 p.m., those nights is The Double Feature Improv Show, featuring two improv troupes, each with a showcase specialty and, as Schuurman say, “presentation that’s more theatrical, more narrative” than the quicker hits of Theatresports.

Even online, improv relies on audience cues and feedback, via chat windows and the like. “This is so much more direct,” he says happily of the return to live. “We can have an international audience, and the performers, online as well as live, can hear the audience reaction!” As he points out, the trickiest feature of online performance is “thinking of ways to engage the audience.”

The future is uncertain, of course. Ditto the timelines. “We’re not sure what’s next for us. But Old Strathcona and Theatresports bring back an era, says Schuurman. “It’s where I first started going to shows. And there’s nostalgia about being back in the ‘hood.”

PREVIEW

Theatresports and The Double Feature Improv Show

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10332 84 Ave, and online

Running: Friday and Saturday nights

Tickets: rapidfiretheatre.com

   

Posted in News/Views, Previews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Curio Shoppe: taking the nightmare home … to your place

Colin Matty as Will, with Curio Shoppe co-creators Megan Dart and (right) Beth Dart, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For 12 years, the creators of Dead Centre of Town have invited us on nocturnal excursions into our own haunted past — the graveyard where our darkest local secrets lie buried. Which is why we’ve found ourselves on location at Fort Edmonton, peering through river valley mist as the undead, the unsavoury, the unrepentant come to life by flickering firelight.

2020 is the year Catch The Keys Productions brings the nightmares home. Your home, that is.

It’s an unnerving thought. With Curio Shoppe, the latest from the sisters Dart, specialists in immersive theatre and macabre storytellers par excellence, the haunted house is … your place. In this shivery season, when the veil between the present and the past is the thinnest, your link between worlds is your internet connection. Ah, and your cellphone.

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Given the restrictions of the COVID-ian era “we’d been hoping to create a distanced in-person experience,” says Beth Dart, the director half of Catch The Keys with her playwright sister Megan Dart. “But with the (ongoing) construction at Fort Edmonton, there just wasn’t the space.” They decided to come to you, and haunt your house instead with an “interactive online nightmare.”

They studied international experiments. And they enlisted the Fringe’s inventive systems analyst and online designer Bradley King (the Dart sisters call him “Bradley the Wizard King”) to “build a brand new platform.” Curio Shoppe is, says Dart, a melange of pre-recorded video and audio, with “mysterious live elements.” Hmm. There’s an intriguing phrase that sticks in the mind, especially given the show’s uniquely come-hither billing: “a brand new theatre-meets-internet-meets-‘the call is coming from inside the house’ interactive experience.”

Morgan Yamada as Marie, in Curio Shoppe, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

“Instead of laying miles of cable through Fort Edmonton” and praying for a lack of snow, Dart has found herself poring over “spreadsheets of what audiences track, in their own homes.” You get a ticket, a login and a password. Nature takes care of the outdoor dimming of the lights; you turn off the lights inside. And Catch The Keys takes charge of the options will appear on your screen. Every evening of the run, which begins Wednesday, four households at a time will see (er, feel, er, experience) Curio Shoppe, with new intakes every 15 minutes. “All you need is a stable internet connection, and a cellphone,” says Dart. Not to mention a spirit of adventure.

And you’ll find yourself immersed in a story, loosely harvested from the surprisingly weird and twisted local history that Megan Dart has mined for editions of Dead Centre of Town.

The “interactive nightmare” includes cameos from Dead Centre regulars, including Colin Matty, Christine Lesiak, and Adam Keefe, with two principal characters played by Morgan Yamada and Jake Tkaczyk.

PREVIEW

Curio Shoppe

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions and Fort Edmonton Park’s Dark 2020

Created by: Beth Dart and Megan Dart, Catch The Keys Productions

Running: Oct. 21 to 31

Tickets: eventbrite.ca

    

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A night walk through Strathcona: Workshop West launches season with ‘an adventure into the unknown’

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is back in action next week — live, on its feet, and in motion. And it’s with an original promenade adventure that takes you on a nocturnal walk through Old Strathcona.

The logistics of Here There Be Night (since there is no live theatre without intricate logistics in this new world) amount to a tour: eight locations (outdoors or in found spaces), eight original five-minute plays, for a solo actor and an exclusive audience consisting of you (or you and a partner) and a cellphone.

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The great outdoors, the built-in distancing, the (very) small cast size and audience, not to mention the short attention span required … Here There Be Night could have been specially created for these COVID-ian times. Oh wait … it was.

As Workshop West’s new artistic producer Heather Inglis explains, Here There Be Night, the highlight of By Fire (Part 1 of the company’s 2020-2021 season), was designed, from the outset, “to use the restrictions of COVID as theatrical conventions.” And the idea was a theatrical adventure that showcased playwrights, as per the Workshop West writer-nurturing mandate. “The language has been pivoting to online experience. But theatre is live!” declares Inglis, who arrived at Workshop West last year from Theatre Yes, the indie company she founded and led. “It’s a different medium than anything recorded electronically. Artists who work in theatre specialize in creating experiences for people who are in the same space together….”

Alternative theatre, immersive “guerrilla” experiences that happen in unconventional spaces, have been something of an Inglis specialty. The Theatre Yes archive contains an assortment of off-centre initiatives, installations, immersive experiments in re-working the usual dynamic between performers and their audiences. Anxiety, for example, gathered original “performance installation” responses to the title epidemic from six of the country’s leading indie companies, and then bused audiences to a secret Edmonton warehouse location to experience them. The National Elevator Project redefined “intimate theatre” by commissioning original short plays performed in a succession of downtown Edmonton elevators.

“Like everyone else in the country, we spent a lot of time thinking how to move forward, what programming could be in a changing environment, with new information every day,” says Inglis of the extreme and unforeseen circumstances of her new gig at Workshop West. “There’s such a huge risk in conventional theatre production on a number of different levels, since the house capacity has to be very small.”

“All across the country we were having conversations about how to keep some energy pulsing through the theatre,” Inglis says. The immediate inspiration for Here There Be Night she credits to a conversation last May with actor/ director/ dramaturg Brian Dooley, a veteran Workshop West artist now Montreal-based. In his time as head of new play development at the Citadel, he’d experimented with Encounters, a series original playlets performed by one actor for an audience of one, the personal touch in theatre.

Inglis extrapolated. “If we were going to do this, now was the time to go forward…”  The performers would be spread out, outside or in intrinsically safe spaces, within a three-block radius in Old Strathcona. The audience would access them, guided by their cellphones.” That was the geographical proposition. And, says Inglis, it involved an element of surprise in the ‘where’; that was part of the fun.”

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

The dramaturgical proposition for 10 playwrights, of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (and varying degrees of theatre experience from emerging to starry), started with the requirement to write for one actor performing for an audience of one or two, in a five-minute piece, strictly no longer. And “built right into the writing at the very beginning, was that each piece was created for the specific scenario of COVID and the environment they’d be performed in…. The idea was using the space between the audience and actors as an important component of the theatrical experience.”

“It felt important to engage a bunch of artists to create, to practise their craft at this time, as opposed to doing a longer work by one playwright for 15 people a night.” Two of the ten writers are a husband-and-wife team, Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab. Their fellow playwrights include Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Bevin Dooley, Mieko Ouchi, Jason Chinn, Harley Morison and Mūkonzi was Mūsyoki. The audio narrator you’ll hear on your cellphone is award-winning filmmaker and horror writer Susie Moloney.

Their “thematic prompt” to the writers, says Inglis, was “the potentiality of the un-seen: the things we can see, the things we can’t see , the potential to find something in the darkness.…” It takes its cue from these uncertain times, “when everyone has spent a lot of time wondering about next week, next month, don’t ask about Christmas, the what’s beyond our present.”

“It’s certainly not a haunted house,” Inglis laughs. “But it ties in with the spooky season … the connection with what might be on ‘the other side’.” She reports, happily, that the “responses from the playwrights have been as individual as they are…. The audience will be treated to a collection of short stories that reflect unique Edmonton visions.”

“The pieces all adhere to distancing rules we must enforce. But they also involve the audience in some way. Not with ‘audience participation’ but the storytelling happens with them.” Although most of the playwrights are themselves expert performers, only Amena Shehab appears in her own piece.

The four directors  — Inglis herself, Patricia Cerra, Lana Michelle Hughes and Trevor Schmidt — are provided by the participating theatres, Workshop West, Theatre Network, Catalyst, Northern Light, and Theatre Yes. It is likely to be the season’s only example of BYOD (bring your own director) theatre.

The logistics of preparing the production are intricate, as you might surmise. Zoom has been only marginally involved. Rehearsals have happened, masked, disinfected, and on an elaborate schedule of staggered start times in the large hall at Workshop West headquarters near NAIT.

COVID: it’s not an age that’s been kind to musicals or romances, as Inglis points out “What makes Here There Be Night viable is that, after a big first day on Zoom, we don’t all have to be together…The director, actor, and stage manager can be very spread out.”

For both the artists and the audience, “this is theatre as going on an expedition into the unknown.”

PREVIEW

Here There Be Night

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre (with participation from Theatre Network, Catalyst Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Theatre Yes)

Written by: Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab, Jason Chinn, Bevin Dooley, Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Mieko Ouchi, Susie Moloney, Harley Morison, Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki

Directed by: Patricia Cerra, Heather Inglis, Lana Michelle Hughes, Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Helen Belay, Nadien Chu, Patricia Darbasie, Sheldon Elter, David Madawo, Jameela McNeil, Christina Nguyen, Amena Shehab, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: eight locations in Old Strathcona (meet at the Theatre Network at the Roxy box office 8529 Gateway Blvd.; wear warm clothes and bring a cellphone, at least iPhone 6 or Android 4, plus mask and earbuds.

Running: October 22 to Nov. 1, staggered start times

Tickets and schedule: workshopwest.org

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An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling: get Zoomed on magic and mixology

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix) at home. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For an awful moment, says Lucy Darling brightly, “I thought this was one of those terrible juice box events!”

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No fear, my (socially distanced) friends. When you’re a guest at L.D.’s magic comedy show An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling (coming to the Citadel’s online theatre lineup Friday), the beverage of choice, not to mention the chief prop and improv cue, is the cocktail. Thanks to the ubiquitous magic of Zoom, gussied up for the occasion with the latest gallery features, you’ll find yourself at Lucy’s place, as I was, on Sunday afternoon. And along with your fellow party-goers and Lucy’s lovely assistants (Richard Lee Hsi and Miranda Allen), you’ll see cocktails of your choice magically appear from shakers, and arrive in the proper-shaped glasses. With garnish. You’ll even see them defy gravity, hang upside down, and freeze.

And the booze will be accompanied by a non-stop stream of funny, improvised chat from the retro-glam character in the golden age diva gown. Lucy Darling, the star with the ‘40s cadence, the kewpie charm, the shellacked bouffant hair, and the wicked glint, is one of the alter-egos of the Calgary-based magician Carisa Hendrix.

Henrix is also, incidentally, the Guinness record-holder for how long she can hold a lit torch in her mouth (witness the documentary Girl On Fire). Which would seem to have only a peripheral connection with her expertise in card tricks or cup-and-ball games. And none at all with Lucy’s uncanny ability, having asked an audience member for the name of their favourite book, to produce that very volume. Right then and there. 

It’s a startling array of skills, to say the least, that Hendrix brings to the table (hers, as it happens in these COVIDian times). And one of them, you’ll discover, in a live Zoom “meeting” that brings 36 of us together, along with Lucy’s assistants, is an uncanny knack for making magic “real,” which is to say convincing, online. 

As Lucy points out “there can be no magic without surprise.” And quite possibly there can be no magic without audience interaction. But being online makes the latter a very tricky achievement in spontaneity — hard work that needs to seem live, much less easeful — as we know now from a variety of theatrical experiments, on the spectrum from deadening to enlivening, that have happened on a variety of platforms in the last six months.  

“Wit,” declares Lucy, “is my favourite of the seven accessible forms of intelligence.” She combines it with charm, a flirtatious relationship with the X-rated, and a redeeming whiff of eau de self-mockery. Plus the gift of the gab . And suddenly, there are volunteers, in the Zoom “gallery view,” for the “virtual front row.”

Lucy is a great retainer of individual names, with running gags attached to each. And the show has segments. There’s Mixology with Lucy Darling (respond to the poll, and take notes). Ask Lucy has this dexterous personnage improvise answers to questions submitted by the audience in advance. What are Lucy’s quarantine activities? someone wondered. Raising potatoes, she says instantly. Since potatoes make vodka. And so it goes. 

Bonus: two impressive Edmonton theatre artists star in their own sequences:  Actor/dancer Lee Hsi and actor/escapologist Allen. There’s an impressive array of entertainment talent on display at Lucy’s party. And, yes (to anticipate your party thought), there are contests and prizes. Damn. Shoulda worn my sequinned vest.    

REVIEW

An Exceptional Evening In With Lucy Darling

Theatre: Ballyhoo Entertainment

Starring: Carissa Hendrix, Richard Lee Hsi, Miranda Allen

Where: online, live-streamed on Zoom

When: Friday and Saturday, and Oct. 16 and 17

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

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