The tricky question of belief: We Are Not Alone at Theatre Network. A review

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“What am I doing here?” asks Damien Atkins more than once in the course of his smart, sly, funny solo show We Are Not Alone.

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Its declared subject is one that raises either your hopes or your hackles … just depending (Atkins and his play are ready for both): UFOs, extra-terrestrial visitations and abductions, the question of whether we’re the universe’s only intelligent life, or not. Like the protagonists of Hannah Moscovitch’s plays, Atkins is expecting resistance. And he gets it off the top from his friends. “Don’t make a home down the rabbit hole,” they advise him. 

Here’s a wonderland: A play about writing a play as performed by a playwright who can’t identify his attraction to writing the play in the first place may sound like a venture wrapped in so many layers of ‘meta-‘ that you’ll never be able to feel its pulse. Actually, We Are Not Alone is not like that. Not least it’s because the magnetic Atkins, one of this country’s most watchable actors, is so dexterous at populating the stage with distinct characters.

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

And as it plays with the idea of the interpenetration of worlds, outer and inner space and portals between the two, the show itself relishes the particular and improbable conjuring magic that is the natural home of live theatre. In a way, the play and its medium resonate in the same harmonic range.

In the first of its three “acts,” Atkins presents famous 20th century incidents and sightings, by single-handedly (and vividly) conjuring their spokespersons, their scientific and military witnesses, their commentators. In this atmospheric barrage of evidence  — the critical mass putting it to skeptics who argue that evidence is what they’re waiting for — he is assisted mightily by the inventive and ingenious lighting of Kimberley Purtell and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. The effects are, to say the least, strikingly persuasive. And maybe you’ll be apt to think, right then as I did, that, hey, isn’t science all about investigating (not rejecting) what’s “unidentified,” whether flying objects or strange lights?   

Anyhow, In the second part, a sort of black comedy of grotesques, Atkins goes to a UFO congress in Arizona, in the company of one of his two directors (Christian Barry, of 2b Theatre Company, in Atkins’ portrait a veritable vortex of positive energy and good cheer). And they encounter a variety of “contactees, abductees, experiencers,” and an honorary Sasquatch, who’s a hippie with a long ponytail who talks amiably about portals from other dimensions.

Actually meeting experiencers is something of a setback to his proposition. Atkins is taken aback by how freaky and “seriously weird” a lot of the participants are. The downside of  supporting belief, or at least promoting reserved judgment on it, is, in a word, believers. The high crackpot content — “is anybody else here afraid to walk on grass?” — makes him squirm. And the crop-circle filmmaker woman, a raving narcissist, drives him right out of the room.

In a tour de force scene of virtuoso comic precision, vocally and facially, Atkins, bounding from chair to chair, populates an entire “experiencer” circle, mostly women and including an “experiencer psychologist.” But there’s a tiny and heartbreaking moment when one woman’s personal story of losing two children stops him in his tracks. And a desert walk in Sedona with a woman who claims to be a human/alien hybrid and her partner, a specialist in “toning” and portals, is unexpectedly emotional and haunting.

In matters of belief and doubt We Are Not Alone seems to wonder, via its appealing protagonist, whether you can hold opposing or contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The irresistible question of whether we’re unique as sentient beings in the universe — and whether that matters — hovers over this mesmerizing play. But, then, one man onstage by himself can be many people: witness the theatrical experience we’re having. In live theatre, we are not alone.  

We Are Not Alone is fascination compendium of research and extrapolation in the human sphere, an exploration of belief and its repercussions, performed by a charismatic actor. We may each be, as the human/alien hybrid muses, “just a drop of water in the river.” But the river flows through other worlds. 

PREVIEW

We Are Not Alone

Theatre: Crow’s Theatre, Segal Centre For Performing Arts, in partnership with 2b Theatre Company

Written and performed by: Damien Atkins

Directed by: Chris Abraham and Christian Barry

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Thursday through March 3

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: a coming-of-age deaf/hearing chamber opera at Chinook

Luc Tellier, Erik Mortimer, Susan Gilmour, Kieran Martin Murphy, Elizabeth Morris in Songs My Mother Never Sung Me. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“This is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice,” says the narrator (the excellent Kieran Martin Murphy) in Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, a touching, and ingenious, new bilingual chamber opera” (sung and signed) by Dave Clarke.

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At the heart of that tribute is a startling contradiction, and an insight about language and communication. Mom, in Clarke’s musical memoir of growing up in the U.K., is deaf from birth. Boy, Clarke’s stand-in, is a hearing/speaking person. And the songs of the title are songs “with words she never heard,” songs “sung in another language, “songs she never heard.” The centrepiece the design (C.M. Zuby and Lynette Maurice, with projections by Kim Clegg) is a grand piano, a striking contradiction in itself. 

Actually, the songs that are “seen and not heard” are both seen and heard in the piece by Clarke. His own coming-of-age story, growing up with a deaf mom, is built on the fact that his theatre career — as a composer, musician and sound designer — is based on sound.

In the Concrete Theatre production directed by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth — premiering at Sound Off, the deaf theatre festival that’s part of the Chinook Series — two actors play Mom. One signs in ASL (American sign language), the appealing, stunningly expressive deaf artist Elizabeth Morris. One sings, cabaret and musical theatre star Susan Gilmour.

In his playwright’s program notes, Clarke points out that on the page “sign” and “sign” are near-twins. And the actors stick together. Except, that is, when Mom is skyping her own mother, in scenes that are so vigorously presented by Morris that even if (like me) you don’t know ASL, you get the gist. And it’s fun.

It’s perhaps telling, and may be part of the point, that the signing Mom is radiantly animated, sometimes quizzical, and often amused, while singing Mom looks vaguely anxious, wary, and worried all the time. Eloquent signing seems to invite a certain theatrical physical grace and pizzaz. And an urgent desire to communicate seems to propel Morris, in every gesture, nod, smile, raised eyebrow. 

Boy is played, from infancy to school-age, by Luc Tellier, in a delightfully agile performance. First he learns baby signing, in songs with a nursery rhyme vocabulary of basic needs words strung together: “yum yum,” “done.” “quack.” And gradually, as Boy grows, in a sequence of birthday scenes that invariably end in an unsuccessful attempt to get a cookie before dinner, his dexterity in simultaneous translation gets more sophisticated.

There are frustrations (“I’m young, and my mom’s hard to understand”). Universal difficulties in communication between parents and kids are heightened when two languages are involved. But what sneaks up on you is that the aural/ visual divide enhances Boy’s natural creativity; being bilingual, he’s forced to be quick-witted and alert in a way other kids aren’t. The sign for “I’m proud,” which involves a spread hand rising from the heart to the top of the head is memorable.

Clarke’s score, through-sung and accompanied live by the endlessly inventive pianist/ musical director Erik Mortimer, favours rhythm over melody, in a somewhat tuneless recitative effect. After all, Boy discovers that the essence of music, to a deaf mom, is receptivity to vibration. The production features vibration amplification (sound designer: Bobby Smale) in the lower piano notes.

“It’s so loud; everyone is talking!” marvels Boy, slightly appalled as he enters the great big noisy world of school and other kids. “Are we different?” he wonders. Once he has a friend, with all the secret alliances that implies, he appreciates what’s different, and what’s not, in a new way.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me is a simple story, presented in an innovative way by three hearing actors, a deaf actor, and an accomplished pianist, of how to appreciate what’s the same — across a divide that might seem insurmountable but isn’t. Now there’s a thought to launch a national tour.

REVIEW

Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival, part of Chinook Series

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete Theatre

Written by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 780-409-1910, chinookseries.ca

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Close encounters with Damien Atkins: We Are Not Alone at Theatre Network

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If you tell someone you are thinking of writing a play about UFO’s, usually there will be a little silence, and then a little laugh.”

We Are Not Alone

It comes with the territory. Some people have been puzzled, some bemused, says Damien Atkins, from first-hand experience. Sometimes they’re condescending, sometimes (especially if they’re men, he finds) downright derisive. All those reactions find their way into We Are Not Alone, the solo show that the award-winning actor/playwright, a bona fide Toronto theatre star, brings back to his home town, and the Theatre Network season, this week.

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So does Atkins’ own curiosity — about UFOs and extra-terrestrials, and the stories and strangely strong opinions people have about them.  Ah, and so does Atkins’ question to himself, about his own emotional investment. “Why do I care about this?”

For a long time that was a mystery, says the witty, engaging Atkins, a Grant MacEwan musical theatre grad who was only 19 when he moved to Toronto from St. Albert in 1996 to be Jack, of beanstalk fame, in the Canadian Stage production of Into The Woods.

In 2010, when We Are Not Alone began to germinate, “all I knew was that I’d had the idea for a long time of writing something about space. Something cosmic.”

The cosmos seemed to be assembling hints around him. Atkins laughs. “A stage manager once told me I should play Stephen Hawking — which would have been problematic, to say the least. And somebody gave me Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, which I read….”

“I had these two ideas: I wanted to write something about aliens, and I wanted to write something about getting older. I didn’t know how, or if, they were related,” says Atkins, who grew up doing big shows with Maralyn Ryan at the St. Albert Children’s Theatre. “My experience as a writer has been that this is an interesting and rich place to get started, two ideas and just follow the thread, go where it leads.” Connections appeared.

The play, he says, “is 99 per cent true.”  Of multiple characters he plays in We Are Not Alone, “everyone is real, except one.… I’ve embedded clues!” Atkins grins. 

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

As the idea took hold, Atkins, an indefatigable total-immersion researcher, dove into the world of UFO sightings — 10,000 at least in the last two decades — and scientific commentary. He flew to Roswell, New Mexico. He went to an international UFO conference in Arizona. He attended “experiencer circles” in Arizona and listened to countless stories of close encounters and alien abduction. He drove to vortex central, Sedona. He met a self-identified human-alien hybrid woman, and walked with her in the desert. “She was very dear; she had a great effect on me, so caring, so warm….”

This is the Atkins way, as he explained. For Angels in America (he starred as Prior Walter at Soulpepper), he made trips to New York, and haunted every locale mentioned in that monumental diptych. And since heaven is described as “a bit like San Francisco,” he went there too. When he was writing Lucy, with its autistic title character, he went to the Geneva Centre for the Study of Autism; he hung out with kids.

In his investigations for We Are Not Alone, he was inspired — and in the case of the trip to Arizona, accompanied — by 2b Theatre’s Christian Barry, one of two top-drawer directors (along with Chris Abraham of Crow’s Theatre) of the show and a character in it. Yes, indeed, We Are Not Alone lives up to its title in purely theatrical terms. “Three directors, seven designers, three producing companies have been on the show,” says Atkins. “You can derive your own conclusions from that… I’m difficult? Incompetent?” he jokes. “I hope the show reflects the input of all those brilliant theatre minds.”

“I’ve worked everywhere,” says Atkins, whose Dora Award-studded resumé includes starring roles at Stratford, Shaw, and nearly every Toronto theatre company. “But Crow’s has been the most consistent home for me in Toronto.” Touchingly, when the company had a fund-raising seat-dedication initiative for its new venue, “I bought a seat in honour of Tim (Tim Ryan, the late great founder of MacEwan’s theatre arts program). I wanted him to have a seat, and a good one, for this show — centre right.”

The show, which premiered at Montreal’s Segal Centre in 2015, ran at Crow’s Theatre in January. A massive tilting, levitating mirror,  a keynote of Julie Fox’s design and “the most beautiful set I’d ever seen,” says Atkins, was gone. “Too big, too expensive, it needed an operator, too heavy to ship.” Re-conceiving the show without its grandly menacing design was “an opportunity to revisit it, and to discover that without it the major design feature was … me.  It became something more personal and human-scale. And, I think, there’s value to that….”

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Andree Lanthier.

“The topic,” says Atkins, “comes freighted with so much pre-conceptions, such a weight of pop culture references…. To be able to pierce the fog that surrounds it and describe a personal journey — how I felt when I was learning these things — is a very particular challenge, but a necessary theatrical one. Otherwise, it becomes a TED Talk.”

A “major turning point,” Atkins says, “was the evening we spent at an “experiencer” session. Most of the participants were women. We heard dozens of stories, and they were all the same: women telling about the things done to their bodies by extra-terrestrials.…The sheer accumulation of them weighed on me. And I had a kind of personal crisis: how many women have to tell you about something that happened to their bodies before you’ll shut up and listen?”

“I cannot be part of a culture of not listening to women. And I don’t actually care how crazy the stories sound; I felt a personal obligation to these women to be more open-minded in my speech and my thinking.”

Since 2010 the play has gone through many transformations. “The first draft, five hours long!, was set in St. Albert. And the main character was me at nine years old.” It had something to do with feeling alien, and a lot to do with “me grappling with the kind of kid I was and what kind of a adult I have become.” How would it end? Atkins didn’t know in advance. 

Atkins’ very first play, Miss Chatelaine, which premiered at the Edmonton Fringe, won a Sterling Award, and toured, went through a similar process, of discovery, he says. A play about a gay prairie kid,  woven with references to k.d. lang, turned out to be “a play about the coming out all young people, not just gay people, do: coming out as an adult…. I didn’t know how it would end.”

“Hopefully, you surprise yourself. And because of that you surprise the audience. That’s the theory!” Atkins shrugs modestly. “I respect that way of playwriting….”

Atkins, who’s currently at work on a new play for the Shaw Festival, part of their C.S. Lewis project, says that he’d originally started writing “as a way to supplement my income. Which is a laughable decision I now realize.”

Damien Atkins in We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

You will not be hearing from Atkins a lofty writer’s divine-calling mission statement.“It gives me something to do when I’m not acting. And it’s saved my ass, emotionally speaking, a couple of times.” He still remembers the crisis of “despondency and humiliation” when he wasn’t asked back to Shaw the first time, in 1997. “So there I was back in Toronto, getting fired from Starbucks, figuring I needed to do something to not feel like a total loser.” He wrote a play, “with no destination in mind.” That play was Good Mother, and it premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2001.

Last seen onstage here in The Gay Heritage Project which came to the Citadel Club in 2016, Atkins says he’s invariably asked his opinion on UFOs. Is he a believer? A sceptic? “There aren’t just two options,” he says. “That’s part of the message of the play, to reject the question. I don’t accept the binary….”

“Do I actually have to opine on this subject, or can I just let it be what it? Usually men want to pin you down on that. And it’s women in the audience who are more able to say ‘hmm, I don’t know…’.”

“For me,” says Atkins, “this is a feminist play in that’s not only about listening to women, but it’s also about embracing a less traditional male kind of thinking, about binary choices, making decisions, having an opinion….”

“You can live in the gray area, and understand there is grace and generosity there. It doesn’t make you stupid. Or weak….”

PREVIEW

We Are Not Alone

Theatre: Crow’s Theatre, Segal Centre For Performing Arts, in partnership with 2b Theatre Company

Written and performed by: Damien Atkins

Directed by: Chris Abraham and Christian Barry

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Thursday through March 3

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Happy Valentine’s champagne and a show: where to take your date to celebrate

Take It Off Broadway, Send in the Girls Burlesque. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Of all the high holidays, the one that shares a name with a variety of massacres and martyrdoms is coming up. It’s also the ultimate date night. So in order to celebrate romance, there are a number of high-contrast ways to go with that. Here are some possibilities — with the great advantage that, if necessary (or preferable), you can defy that couples paradigm, buy yourself a chocolate, and show up by yourself.

Take It Off Broadway, Send in the Girls Burlesque. Photo by dbphotographics

Take It Off Broadway at the Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park. This innovative and adventurous troupe, which has a rambunctious E-town following, is devoted to marrying burlesque to theatre, in revues and plays that uncorset theatricality and unzip history from its usual gender moorings and restraints. They’re a sassy bunch. And they’ve exercised their cheeky sense of humour and their zest for satire on such improbable subjects as Shakespeare’s heroines, the wives of Henry VIII, the ground-breakers of Canadian history, the women of the Wild West, even the Brontes.

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With Take It Off Broadway, resident playwright Ellen Chorley dives into the historical roots of musical theatre in New York vaudeville and burlesque houses. The dance numbers take us back, via golden-age musicals. The bonus: an atmospheric vintage venue for the show — Valentine’s night at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 7:30 and 10 p.m.— is in perfect synch. 

The cast: LeTabby Lexington, Violette Coquette, Scarlett Von Bomb, Audra Dacity, Sharpey Diem, Rusty Kingfisher, Dot Do Dot. Tickets: 780-423-4069, fortedmontonpark.ca.

The Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro, one of E-town’s entertainment success stories of the year, is throwing a Valentine’s date night dinner/show bash on Wednesday. A trio of singers — Byron Martin, Danielle Larose, Cassie Muisse — serenade you with romantic jazz,  backed up by a three-piece band. And the chef has prepared a special four-course dinner to go with the musical experience. The show and dinner come as a package, or you can just catch the show at 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets: grindstonetheatre.ca.

Girl Brain, the popular sketch comedy trio — Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak — takes to the Grindstone stage for a special Valentine’s edition of their show Friday. Yes, the subject of dating comes up, along with lust, and the tricky art (and possible science) of being single. Tickets: grindstonetheatre.ca.

Crystal, Cirque du Soleil. Photo by Matt Beard.

Putting the blade in: The mighty Cirque du Soleil has brought its first-ever ice skating show Crystal to Rogers Place this week (Wednesday through Sunday). It’s a gravity-defying spectacular fusing aerial acrobatics and figure skating. Tickets: ticketmaster.ca

All For Love, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Doomed love:  Perfect subject for Valentine’s Day. For the classicists among you, All For Love, John Dryden’s epic 1677 Anthony and Cleopatra tragedy  is running through Saturday at the U of A’s Timms Centre for the Arts. Canadian star director Peter Hinton brings the Studio Theatre production to the stage. Tickets: ualberta.ca

Multiple points of view: A necessary appreciation in any relationship. Take your date to Raconteur, an Expanse Festival contribution to the Chinook Series. Three artists of very different sensibilities, aesthetics, and practices from different disciplines create a one-off cabaret Feb. 14 (10 p.m.) inspired by their responses to what they’ve experienced at Chinook so far. Singer-songwriter Kris Demeanor comes from the world of music. Yazmin Juarez is a visual artist. Sissy Thiessen is a Jingle Dress dancer and spoken word poet. No jaded theatre-goer can yammer on about déja vu. Even the organizers don’t know what to expect. Tickets: chinookseries.ca

Damien Atkins in We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

Finding a portal: Feb. 14 is the opening night of We Are Not Alone at Theatre Network. Award-winning playwright/actor Damien Atkins is back in his home town with (and in) a solo play that wonders about UFOs, aliens, conspiracies, the kind of people who embrace all of the above, and the thorny question of open-ended belief. It’s a collaboration between Crow’s Theatre, the Segal Centre, and 2b theatre. Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca or 780-453-2440.

Farren Timoteo, Made In Italy. Photo by Murray Mitchell

Fun with the famiglia: Made In Italy, Farren Timoteo’s funny, touching solo show is a coming-of-age story. It’s not easy to grow up in the only Italian family in Jasper in the 1970s. Timoteo turns in a performance of agile virtuosity, hilarity, and heart. Disco and hair gel are involved. Daryl Cloran directs. If you missed it when it played the Citadel Club last April — here’s my 12thnight.ca REVIEW — you’ve had a reprieve. It’s back for three nights, Thursday through Saturday. Highly recommended. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

Steven Greenfield, Vance Avery in Lend Me A Tenor, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Grand opera meets ’30s farce for a fizzy good time: Lend Me A Tenor at the Mayfield is a riotous six-door ’30s-style farce set during the countdown to a gala performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Cleveland Grand Opera in 1934. It’s by Ken Ludwig (who wrote the Crazy For You book). Hurtling through six doors are two twin Otellos, a panicky opera house manager, a groupie, an explosive Italian wife, a grand dame socialite, a scene-stealing bellhop. Dave Horak’s production has a great cast. Have a peek at the 12thnight.ca REVIEW. Tickets: 780-306-0926, mayfieldtheatre.ca.

How can you go wrong with a genial, funny storyteller/ songwriter/ poet: That would be Ins Choi, the creator of the bona fide stage and screen hit Kim’s Convenience. His Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words is at the Chinook Series, under the Fringe Theatre Adventures flag, Thursday through Saturday. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca. Have a peek at my 12thnight.ca INTERVIEW here. 

 

 

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Ins Choi at Chinook: the Kim’s Convenience creator goes solo

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words. Photo from a Calgary performance by Donna McTaggart.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s pretty much what I’ve always wanted to do!” says a genial, amused voice on the phone from Toronto. “Talk directly to the audience about my life. And make people laugh….” 

That double-barrelled thought has propelled Ins Choi across the country once more, back to Edmonton, back to Fringe Theatre Adventures, this time to winter festivities in an arctic place. Yes, in the Chinook Series, the playwright who brought Canadian theatre and then Canadian TV one of their biggest homegrown hits ever — Kim’s Convenience the play and Kim’s Convenience the CBC series — is back onstage himself, in person. And in a free-wheeling, elastic-sided show of his own device, Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words.

“It’s taken me back to my roots of writing as a kid,” says the good-natured Choi. “I majored in writing; I was always writing poetry, journals, little bits of things, in secret. Then I got into song-writing…. I was such a shy kid; I never shared my poetry and songs till I got into acting.” He laughs at the thought of his introverted younger self, in those days before he found himself at York University’s theatre school. “Acting and theatre got me out of my shell.”

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Choi has said he credits this entry into “showbiz” to his dad, the pastor (now retired) of a Korean immigrant church, a funny and engaging storyteller who tried to affect his audience and generally make their lives better.

A veritable poster child for the multi-hued multi-ethnic reality in this land of newcomers, Choi has found much to inspire (and amuse) him in memories of growing up in Toronto. He’s the son of Korean immigrants; their first Canadian home was with cousins above their convenience story. Home and church: Korean. School and hockey and everything else: English. He tapped that immigrant experience for his charmer of a comedy — amazingly, his first play — about a fractious Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store.

Citadel audiences saw the hit Soulpepper production of Kim’s Convenience on a cross-country tour in 2014, between sold-out Toronto runs that broke every box office record for the company. In earlier incarnations, Choi himself played the estranged son; he opted out of the tour when the conflicting demands of TV production and family life proved insurmountable. 

A year later, Choi was onstage himself, though, in his highly unusual solo play Subway Stations Of The Cross. It sees the world through the eyes of a homeless performance poet, a ragtag urban wilderness prophet and mad genius who delivers a barrage of free-associating, intricately rhymed poems, part ancient truth part social commentary. Choi brought it to the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringes in the summer of 2015. “I have great memories of Edmonton,” he laughs. He and wife and their two little kids camped, “in a little trailer we hauled with our little car.”

“We saw elk, we saw the northern lights…. I’d do my show, hang out with people at the Fringe…. A huge memory. I saw Andrew Phung do his improv show, and afterwards went up and introduced myself. I thought he’d be great as Kimchee in Kim’s Convenience. And six months later he was!”

Ins Choi: Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words. Photo by Donna McTaggart

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories and Spoken Words, pilfers some material from Subway Stations of the Cross, says Choi cheerfully. But it has other roots too. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I’d go along to open-mike nights at the Free Times Cafe at College and Spadina. And in a tiny spot in the back, I found myself among a bunch of other singer-songwriters…. We’d do two or three songs every week — for each other. That was the audience!” he laughs. “It was kind of embarrassing; you just hope there’s real people out there…. Anyhow they appreciate my songs.” Almost invariably they had comedy to them.

Occasionally he was invited to participate in cabaret evenings. So he’d have to introduce his songs and poems.” And slowly, “very organically,” the new show emerged.

Choi did his “first test-drive of this weird concert/ cabaret/ stand-up thing” in Saskatoon when he was there for the Word on the Street literary festival in September. He rented a little church hall venue for a night, and was amazed when 60 people came out, “my first audience!” At the Q and A afterwards, they asked him about writing Kim’s Convenience for TV.

“Over time some of the introductions have developed, and the stories are a bit more robust,” he thinks. “Like the origin of my name, or the fact that Bruce Lee was the first Asian man I saw on TV, and how that influenced me.” Choi’s comic song Bruce Lee’s Best Friend is a tribute.

Edmonton is “the first time I get to do the show more than once!” Choi says happily. The Chinook gig is also his chance to sneak away from TV and its insatiable appetite for more and more episodes: Kim’s Convenience is currently running season three, and a fourth season has the green light. Choi and Kevin White write some of the episodes, and they edit and shape everything about the series. “I’ve been itching to get back onstage, but the TV schedule is against it,” Choi says. “I’ve been pushing away a little bit…. Most of my year I’m surrounded by writers, and key execs. And CBC folks. And heads of props. I’m making a lot of decisions, and that’s OK. But I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”

“Initially I wanted to learn everything (about TV); I figured when was I ever going to get this opportunity again. That first season was just crazy!” He sighs. “The energy it takes to be a show runner, and trying to balance family home life. And friends: I have no friends!” He’s amused by the thought that he might be the only theatre artist in Canada who likes theatre “for its hours and its benefits!”

And he reflects on the way that, from the start, Kim’s Convenience, charmed and resonated with people of all ages and ethnicities. “It did hit a chord,” Choi allows, modestly. “It’s a good play but it timed well,” in the way it synchronized with a frustration in the lack of diversity on the country’s stages.

The immigrant experience repertoire is full of darkness and angst. By contrast there’s a kind of sunny sweetness to Kim’s Convenience. “My dad would tell me stories of the Korean War, his family in North Korea walking over hills and mountains to freedom in South Korea,” Choi recalls. “You’d think it would be filled with tears. And there were tears. But also in the telling of that story there were so many funny moments, moments of people being generous and hilarious; my father at 13 and his brother coming up with weird songs and games to entertain their siblings on the way….”

“It’s influenced me a lot , not only in my writing but in how I live my life…. Human decency goes a long way. Dignity, being courteous. A smile. A door opened. They speak volumes.”

When Choi emerged, clutching his degree, out into the so-called “real world,” he didn’t exactly find the nation’s stage doors flung open to him as an artist of colour. He tried film and TV, and found an assortment of Asian waiters and gang members to play. There were zero takers for a comedy called Kim’s Convenience. So Choi took it to the Toronto Fringe, where it won both both “best new play” and “patrons’ choice.” And things changed after that.

If he were graduating as an actor in 2019 would Canadian theatre be more welcoming to an artist of colour than it was to him a decade before? Choi thinks so. He points to the work of Asian-Canadian playwrights and actors on the country’s largest stages. He notes artistic director appointments at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Kelly Thornton), Factory Theatre (Nina Lee Aquino), Soulpepper (Weyni Mengesha).“There’s always more to do, but it has been visible at that top level.”

And here’s the thing: the people want to see it.

PREVIEW

Chinook Series

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words

Theatre: Fringe Theatre

Created by and starring: Ins Choi

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Feb 14 to 16

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

   

  

  

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Lend Me A Tenor: a classic ’30s door-slammer at the Mayfield. A review

Steven Greenfield, Jeff Haslam, Vance Avery in Lend Me A Tenor, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“These things happen, sir,” ventures Max, the rabbity assistant manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, trying to look on the bright side.

In view of the premise of Ken Ludwig’s ingeniously engineered old-school 1986 farce Lend Me A Tenor —which involves the apparent suicide of the import star tenor and does not exclude the possible mass poisoning of the gala audience — this has got to be one of the most wildly off-the-mark consolations in the history of the arts.

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The manager himself, tyrannical, doom-laden Saunders, is under no such comforting illusion. As he’s forced to contemplate his prospects, including announcing a cancellation from the stage and (even worse) returning money, he’s envisioning the grand cosmic apocalypse: a disaster “that will make Salomé look like The Merry Widow.”

He is not one to not take things personally.“Why me?” the aggrieved Saunders demands of the universe and Max. “He could have jumped out the window at breakfast tomorrow.”

In Dave Horak’s well-cast, expertly high-speed Mayfield production, this farce engine is unveiled with great comic clarity by Steven Greenfield as the mousey go-fer Max and Jeff Haslam as his operatically choleric boss, in whom the distance between crafty calculation, desperation, and explosion is perilously short. 

When Saunders badgers his beleaguered factotum, an aspirational opera singer, into taking on grand opera’s Hamlet-scale tenor role in place of the (apparently) late Tito Merelli, chaos goes from Status: Impending to Status: Red Alert. The countdown to opening night of a gala benefit performance of Verdi’s Otello in Cleveland, 1934 is an apotheosis of classic door-slamming farce ingredients: mistaken identities, hoary and misleading double-entendres, improvised concealments, escalating lies, near-misses, outsized (let’s just say operatic) intentions, lace underwear.

Lingering on any of them would be a fatal exposé of their essentially preposterous cheesiness. But as charted in Horak’s production, farce inevitability (Greek tragedy minus Greeks and tragedy, but with a spoiled Italian tenor instead) kicks in, running. Soon we will see not one but two Otellos in full regalia — minus, of course, the black-face that would make Lend Me A Tenor impossible to stage these days — hurtling through the six doors of a posh Cleveland hotel suite, followed by a careerist soprano, a would-be non-virgin groupie, a panicky opera house manager, an imperious board chair, a firecracker Italian wife. And one show-stealing bellhop (Nicholas Rose).

Grand opera doesn’t consort much with ‘30s comedy in the theatre repertoire (when’s the last time you heard a Lawrence Melchior joke emanating from any stage?). So tickle your mind with this thought: twin Otellos singing Verdi full-blast. And consider the sophisticated stagecraft and timing that go into setting a terrifyingly elaborate farce like Lend Me A Tenor in motion.

Steven Greenfield, Vance Avery in Lend Me A Tenor, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Director Horak and his cast make it happen, with well-chosen stage biz, on an elegant (and durable) period hotel room set by Megan Koshka. White-face makeup and Koshka’s amusingly goofy Italianate costumes on Tito (Vance Avery) and Max (Greenfield) are indispensable to the shelf life of the premise: the fatal intersection of two high-contrast characters who become two indistinguishable Otellos.

Rich-voiced Avery is very funny as the adored Italian divo and skirt-chaser, in whom the combination of charisma and chianti is Molotov. Greenfield, a classic milquetoast in a knitted vest, is in a state of perpetual nervous agitation, from a combination of employee terror and unrequited passion for his employer’s airhead daughter (Madelaine Knight).

Madelaine Knight and Steven Greenfield in Lend Me A Tenor. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Unexpectedly Max and Tito hit it off.  But their Verdi duet does strain credulity, in truth. The pleasant-voiced Greenfield, while capturing the sweet, amusing haplessness of a man who’s used to panicking, isn’t exactly a credible operatic impersonator, vocally. But, really, singing cedes pride of place to comic business in the production. And director Horak gives Max clever stage accompaniment, including some very funny choreography with an operatic corpse. And it’s amusing see Max rise to the occasion of adopting the flamboyant Italian-ness of the womanizing tenor. It pretty much redefines the old art saw that “it’ll be there, on the night,” not to mention all the tenor jokes you’ve ever heard.

Maralyn Ryan and Madelaine Knight in Lend Me A Tenor. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Smoke, not to mention, his spleen, may well come out of Saunder’s ears, in Haslam’s very funny performance as the exasperated but wily opera company manager.  Incredulity stops time, and gets facial topography, as he grapples with the unthinkable, the news that the star attraction isn’t just taking a pre-show nap, he’s dead. The deadpan pause built into Saunder’s initial reaction to a tentative offer from Max is a corker. “His tragedy is the fate of tortured greatness, facing the black and gaping abyss of insensible nothingness,” he says of Otello, and pauses portentously. “It isn’t you, Max.”

Stephanie Wolfe as Tito’s fiery Italian wife, is a hoot, as is Maralyn Ryan as the grande dame opera dowager and board chair. The giddy ingenue role, Saunder’s not-entirely-innocent star-besotted daughter, is amusingly occupied by Knight. And Melissa McPherson is a knock-out in the blonde bombshell role of the soprano determined to sleep her way to the Met.

There’s more than a whiff of Marxism — the Groucho Harpo Chico variety — about the whole affair, as director Horak evidently relishes. And it’s nailed in the season’s curtain call, a dizzying two-minute re-cap. Verdi Schmerdi. It’s a fast and funny evening of vintage period farce.  

REVIEW

Lend Me A Tenor

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Ken Ludwig

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Vance Avery, Steven Greenfield, Jeff Haslam, Madelaine Knight, Melissa MacPherson, Nicholas Rose, Maralyn Ryan, Stephanie Wolfe

Running: through March 31

Tickets: 780-306-0926, mayfieldtheatre.ca

 

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A new Ellen Chorley play is the centrepiece of the upcoming Northern Light season

Playwright Ellen Chorley. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The centrepiece of Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming season, announced Saturday, is a new play by one of Edmonton’s most unusual artists. Ellen Chorley, the director of Nextfest since 2016, is an award-winning playwright, actor, director, dramaturg, teacher/mentor. She’s also a producer, a curator, a former artistic associate at Northern Light — and the multi-track founder of both a kids’ theatre (Promise Productions) and an experimental burlesque theatre troupe (Send In The Girls).

No one has a range of credentials quite like Chorley’s. With Everybody Loves Robbie, premiering in Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light production next January (10 to 25), Chorley is poised to undertake a further expansion. Schmidt describes the play as “a love letter to Edmonton, to Edmonton theatre, and to everyone who was ever in musical theatre or a high school drama club.”

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Everybody Loves Robbie started life as a 10-minute three-person scene at the Loud ’N Queer festivities a few years ago. “Heartbreaking and screamingly funny,” says Schmidt, who directed it. This new full-length two-hander version, suggested by Northern Light general manager Gina Moe, is “funny, raunchy, and truthful, a great story about a young woman in musical theatre in high school.”

He summarizes. Chloe loves Robbie; everybody loves him. “They’re a theatre couple; they’re Tony and Maria (in West Side Story); they form a drama club in Grade 10. They go to prom and the one-act festival together. They go to Limelight North,” a fictional version of Alberta’s venerable Arts Trek.

“And then suddenly Robbie thinks maybe he’s gay. And then Chloe thinks ‘maybe I’m gay too’. And she just goes off the the rails…. ‘Whether I’m gay or straight, it’s all OK’, she says. ‘But I just wanna know what I am’.”

Richard Lee and Jayce McKenzie co-star in Schmidt’s production, as the young couple, plus the characters who surround them — drama teachers, coaches, roommates.

Playwright Joanna Weinberg. Photo supplied.

Northern Light’s three-production “Confessions and Obsessions” season of plays by female writers opens Oct. 18 to Nov. 2 with a cabaret, and a bloody one. Baroness Blanka’s Bloodsongs  is, says Schmidt, “a one-woman accordion musical, I’m not kidding you. It’s bizarre. It’s crazy.”

In the play, by the South African-born Australian Joanna Weinberg, the protagonist has been obsessed with blood since “a childhood incident,” as Schmidt says vaguely. We’re in a cabaret setting, “a gathering of fellow addicts.  As with every addiction, the ante keeps getting upped: first nursing, then stealing blood from the hospital, then bathing in blood. Our heroine visits a fortune teller, who predicts bloodshed in her future, with particular reference to Mme Bathóry, the infamous Transylvanian countess who’s a contender for the most prolific serial killer in history (she reputedly killed a thousand children and bathed in their blood).

“It’s super-funny, super-stylish, a confession that’s a really clever allegory about addiction,” says Schmidt. His Canadian premiere production stars starring Kristin Johnston (the 4,000-year-old woman in NLT’s Origin of the Species), who will be learning to play the accordian. Since the show runs through the Halloween festivities, Schmidt expects vampiric embellishments in the theatre marketing.

Playwright Merri Biechler. Photo supplied.

The last of the Northern Light trio (March 27 to April 11) is the world premiere of Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver by the American playwright Merri Biechler. Schmidt, who has regularly brought hitherto unknown titles and writers to Edmonton audiences, discovered the play a decade ago, he says. “Now, as I approach 50, it really speaks to me, thoughts of mortality, feelings of guilt about taking care of (aging) parents….”

The protagonist, who’s already lost her mom to cancer, puts her struggling actress life on hold and returns home to take care of a dying man with whom she’s always had a thorny relationship: her father.

“This is a painful show, eloquent and beautiful,” he says. “It’s funny. Until it’s not…. People are cruel in the way only families can be.” 

Curiously, Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver has never had a professional production. But, says Schmidt, “it’s used as a training tool for doctors … to learn sensitivity to family members in hospice situations.”

In Schmidt’s production, Davina Stewart plays the mom (and all the father’s caregiver characters). Brian Dooley returns to Edmonton to play the prickly dad, obsessed with sci-fi television and ordering from Amazon, plus all the mother’s caregiver characters. Casting awaits for the daughter role.

The “confessions and obsessions” that link the trio of plays in the 2019-2020 lineup are all about “people losing control,” says Schmidt. “Even if it’s wrong and dangerous and you look like a lunatic, you can’t stop!”

“Every play I really want to do involves the conflict between my responsibility to myself and my own happiness, and my responsibilities to others … what characters should do, and what they really want to do.” 

The current Northern Light season continues March 28 to April 13 with 19 Weeks, a co-production with Azimuth Theatre.  

  

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Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: an opera for a hearing son and a deaf mom

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, Concrete Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I learned to sign before I could speak,” says Dave Clarke, who’s highly articulate, to say the least, in his second language. 

There’s an intriguing contradiction built right into the architecture of Clarke’s multi-angled theatre career (as he concedes amiably). As an award-winning musician, composer, sound designer (not to mention playwright/ actor), one of E-town’s busiest, his work is based on sound. His parents are deaf, from birth. 

Clarke’s unusual childhood in south London — a hearing kid with a deaf mom and dad, and a startling bent for music — is the wellspring of his new memoir, a through-sung bilingual “opera” in English and ASL (American Sign Language). Songs My Mother Never Sung Me premieres Feb. 13 at Sound Off, the ground-breaking deaf theatre festival that’s part of the 2019 Chinook Series.

“People ask, first, why I can speak, since my parents were not verbal,” says Clarke, who re-located across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1987 (why? “I met a woman, of course!”) and then to Edmonton in the early ‘90s. The answer: his grandparents were hearing people. “A piano showed up one day in the house, with no announcement. My dad’s mom had it delivered to our little council house…. It took up an enormous amount of room,” he laughs. His grandparents bought him a record player, too, and there was no stopping a musical kid. 

“The house must have been very quiet, people say,” continues Clarke. Actually, no. “My parents don’t know how loud things are.” Naturally when Clarke started playing in rock bands, the practices were always at his place. Only the neighbours complained. 

“I didn’t know it was unusual,” says Clarke of his pre-school years in  both the deaf and hearing worlds. Once he started school, though, a sense of difference was bound to happen. And seminal moments, borrowed from real life, find their way into his opera. “When the boy hits five, he and his mom are outside, and the boy notices some hearing people making fun of them….” And, in a way that parallels the tension of immigrants’ children, the boy becomes “his mom’s translator on expeditions to the doctor or the grocery store, or when someone knocks at the door.”  

But it wasn’t traumatic, he says. Au contraire, “it made me feel responsible and independent and grown-up.” And the challenges have a lighter side, like the puzzle of the produce section in a grocery story: if there’s no sign in British Sign Language for zucchini, how can you finger-spell the word when you’re too young to know how to spell?

The opening line of Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, after all, is “this is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice.” The boy, says Clarke, “is the main character. I don’t speak for the deaf…. Really, no one can.”

In the cast of the Concrete Theatre production, directed jointly by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth, are three hearing actors who sing, and a deaf actor. The boy, Clarke’s proxy in his opera, is played by Luc Tellier, with Kieran Martin Murphy as the Narrator. The role of Mom is occupied jointly by one of the country’s premier deaf, signing actors, Elizabeth Morris, and musical theatre/cabaret star Susan Gilmour, who sings the signs. Erik Mortimer is at the piano, “onstage as a character.”

The show stars with an empty stage, and elements are added,” says Clarke of the piece commissioned by Concrete Theatre. Its first life was as a 15-minute “sprout” at the company’s new-plays-for-kids festival of that name a decade ago. 

The music starts simple, and grows more sophisticated, more emotionally complex, along with the libretto, Clarke explains. The song Baby Signs, for example, consists of English words for basic-need signs: eat, drink, pee, potty….”  As Clarke describes his score, it embraces a wide mix of forms and musical allusions: “comic opera spoof, tango, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, simple ballads.

The hearing actors have learned to sign as they sing. Kieran Martin Murphy compared signing to learning choreography for a musical, Clarke reports. There is an eloquence to sign language in the way it marries the conceptual to the physical. “A lot of signs are more expressive than their English equivalent.” And sign languages are local, with their own “accents, dialects, idioms …” he explains. In ASL, for example, the sign for playing a trick on someone and having it work, so you’re calling them gullible, is that they ‘swallowed a fish’. If you want to indicate ‘you missed the boat’, the sign is ‘the train is gone’.”

And since there are no pronouns or conjunctions, “no I or You,” facial expressions are crucial to communication. Distances in both space and time are “gestural, a relationship between the hand and the body,” says Clarke. A year ago is farther away than yesterday.

The show deliberately doesn’t have ASL interpreters. The idea, says Clarke, is to level the playing field, and put the hearing audience in the position familiar to deaf people. “There are good jokes that are only signed!” says Clarke. “So the majority hearing audience can experience being the minority.”

In one way, crafting songs to combine lyrics and visual language complicates composing, Clarke agrees. But in another, he’s found it it liberating, too. “The lyrics scan, but they don’t rely on rhyme very much.… The sung English is very direct and simple, and there’s a fair bit of repetition.” Additionally, the piano score is amplified acoustically in the lower registers (by sound designer Bobby Smale). “It’s a vibration experience when the piano gets below middle C,” says Clarke.

“For many born-deaf people, music isn’t part of their lives…. I’m proud of this,” says Clarke, of reactions of deaf people to earlier workshop incarnations of the piece. Some reported “it’s the first time I’ve understood what music is.…”

Clarke has a strong aversion to the sentimentality that often accompanies the hearing reaction to deafness. He’s thinking of the dated play Children of a Lesser God, or the deaf glee club on Glee. Songs My Mother Never Sung Me isn’t like that. “It isn’t heavy; it’s fun, very funny. A very accessible simple story, actually, with common parent/kid benchmark experiences.”

Kids, bring your parents. Parents, bring your kids.

PREVIEW

Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete

Written and composed by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi, Caroline Howarth

Starring: Elizabeth Morris, Luc Tellier, Kieran Martin Murphy, Susan Gilmour, Erik Mortimer

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Feb. 13 to 17

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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How to feel the breeze at Chinook

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a town that needed a chinook … an E-town story.

And yes, we’re having one. The Chinook Series, which opens tonight, is a resource-pooling experience between arts groups  with a view to expanding our experience of live performance and theatre creation. Maybe you’ll even find out what “multi-disciplinary” really means. In practice, where it counts. 

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The best way to do Chinook, I think, is to give yourself over to the breeze: wrap yourself in the  “festival” mantle, show up for the evening, and let yourself be blown here and there to whatever is going on. If you get there early enough, you might hear artists talk about their work in the lobby, and ask a question or two, even one that starts “what on earth.?” … Between shows you can (whilst clutching a glass of wine) watch a troupe of “Lobbyists” create movement pieces that are a kind of inspiration for those of us who are intimated by the idea of dance. By happenstance and just hanging out I’ve seen “plays,” dance-theatre fantasias, personal memoirs, unclassifiable fusions of music and text, wordless movement pieces, and, generally, theatrical experiences I might never have chosen for myself. Hey, I even took salsa lessons last year in a show (my skills have atrophied since then). 

So it’s against my own advice, I know, but here’s a little selection of shows that did catch my eye. I’ll be seeking them out….  

Gemini (part of Workshop West’s Canoe Festival): I saw the first incarnation of Louise Casemore’s award-winning two-hander  at the 2017 Fringe, and in a bar (the catacombs of El Cortez Bar and Restaurant, which is where the characters meet each other.  Julia (Casemore) is the server; Ben, a failed poet and underachieving consultant (Vern Thiessen), is a regular. And in a bar culture that palms itself off as intimate, their relationship ets explored in nuanced ways you’ll recognize.

The production at the Almanac bar on Whyte is new. It’s directed by Mitchell Cushman, the wunderkind of Toronto site-specific theatre — returning to the town where he got a degree in directing at the U of A. And in addition to Casemore, who’s an alert and dexterous performer, you’ll have the rare sight of Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen onstage.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival): This new show by the multi-threat Dave Clarke, one of E-town’s busiest sound designers and composers, was commissioned by Concrete Theatre. An opera of sort, through-sung, it’s spun from Clarke’s own experience of growing up with deaf parents. And Mieko Ouchi’s cast includes both hearing and deaf performers. Keep an eye out for 12thnight.ca’s interview with Clarke.

Ins Choi: Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words (Fringe Theatre). The charismatic creator of Kim’s Convenience is here onstage himself in a performance swirl that’s part concert, part storytelling, part cabaret (kind of)… 12thnight.ca had the fun of talking to him. Look for that interview soon.

Makambe K. Simamba in A Chitenge Story. Photo supplied.

A Chitenge Story (Black Arts Matter!): Calgary theatre artist Makambe K. Simamba tells her story of returning to her birthplace, Zambia, to confront the man who abused her as a child.

NIUBOI in Tip Off!. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Tip Off! (Expanse Movement Arts Festival) and Glass Washrooms (Fringe Theatre): Both are the work of one of our most adventurous theatre artists, NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson). The first, which developed under the mentorship (and new work award) of Good Women Dance, has NIUBOI joined onstage by three actors (plus the voices of sports commentators). It’s inspired by the lexicon of basketball. The second, which happens in the Westbury Theatre washroom, explores the artist’s own background growing up and into the trans-non-binary quester they are now. It was developed in NIUBOI’s term as the first recipient of the Nordic and Cloutier Family Innovation Award. Beth Dart directs.

Mni wiconi/ water is life (Expanse Movement Arts Festival): It’s by Nicole Schafenacker, whose work at Nextfest has always been off-centre and original; the Schafenacker pieces I’ve seen have involved intriguing juxtapositions of text and movement, with an activist edge. As billed, this one is inspired by her 2016 experience time as a ‘water protector” at Standing Rock, N.D.  

That’s just a quick sample. There are alluring possibilities everywhere at the festival, including in a new Chinook partnership called Sinergia. Check out the program, and the full schedule, at chinookseries.ca.      

The festival runs through Feb. 17 in various venues in the ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

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The body in motion: Expanse is back in the Chinook Series

Room 2048, Hong Kong Exile. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It starts with the body.

As its name suggests, Expanse sets the body in motion in space — and celebrates what happens next.

In the ever-expansive movement arts festival curated by Azimuth Theatre and returning to the fourth annual Chinook Series, the body is elastic, light on its feet and international in its vision. So are “physical theatre” and “dance” (language optional).

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The 14-year-old festival inherited by Azimuth’s co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin is one of the five performance streams that pool creative resources and connections for Chinook, the two-week showcase of innovative multi-disciplinary art that, er, breezes into the ATB Financial Arts Barns Thursday, and runs through Feb. 17.

As Sabourin points out, “the body as lens, work that stems from ‘body’: it’s a big basket to access.” Which suits the Azimuth personality to a T, since that experiment-minded company gravitates to unusual partnerships. For this 2019 edition Expanse teams up with Good Women Dance Collective, Mile Zero Dance, the Rubaboo Arts Festival, and Dreamspeakers.

It’s Good Women Dance, the curator of movement arts for Nextfest, who have mentored Edmonton artist Kiruthika Rathanaswami. At Expanse Thursday and Friday she performs a quartet of stories executed in variations of the intricate Indian classical dance form bharata natyam.

You can try it out on your own body: Rathanaswami leads a bharata natyam workshop for beginners Friday afternoon. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Sabourin, who’s taken one before. “I highly recommend it!”

In Local(e), which runs Feb. 12 and 13, three Edmonton artists perform original pieces of very different inspirations and styles. Tip Off!, created by NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson) with a trio of collaborators (Ryan Jackson, Jameela McNeill, and Abbie Cogger), is inspired by basketball and its lexicon of dribble, dunk, dance, slam. The cast includes Cliff Kelly and Taylor Chadwick as sports announcers. “Fast and fun,” says Hansen.

The second of the Local(e) offerings, The Music Crept By Us, inspired by the Leonard Cohen poem of that name, is the work of the dance/trained actor/choreographer Rebecca Sadowski. She’s joined onstage by sound designer Dean Musani, whom Edmonton theatre audiences know for his collaborations with playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bears).

Mni wiconi/ water is life is inspired by creator/performer Nicole Schafenacker’s 2016 experience as a “water protector” in Standing Rock, North Dakota. “It’s not dance as dance,” says Sabourin. “It’s about experience, physical performance….” Cole Humeny joins Schafenacker onstage.

Expanse’s contribution to your Valentine’s night is a surprise — to Hansen and Sabourin as well as the audience. Raconteurs invites three artists of very different aesthetic stripe, perspective, and practice to experience Chinook, then “come together for a cabaret of responses, reflections, and questions” Sissy Thiessen, a Jingle Dress dancer and spoken word poet; visual artist Yazmin Juarez, and singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor (who was Calgary’s first poet laureate, much involved in the Treaty 7 program there). Hansen calls Raconteurs “a total experiment; what will they respond to?.”

Room 2014, Honk Kong Exile. PHoto by Juan Contreras.

In Expanse’s partnership with Mile Zero Dance, the Vancouver-based dance troupe Hong Kong Exile brings Room 2048 (Feb. 15 and 16), a multi-media dance theatre work billed as “a dream machine for the Cantonese diaspora.” Says Hansen, “it’s dance with bells and whistles, crazy lights, (electronic) music, fog, projections, high-level training” brought to bear on “the Cantonese experience in Canada.”

The Lobbyists, this year a collaboration between Expanse and the Rubaboo Arts Festival, create a series of performance pieces for the Westbury Theatre lobby between Chinook shows, Thursday to Saturday each Chinook weekend. The cast, mentored by Amber Borotsik, includes Barry Bilinsky, Ayla Modeste, and Tarene Thomas. 

The Expanse line-up also includes master-classes. In a two-day intensive, New York’s Third Rail Project arrives to explore with participants immersive theatre and community-building, their specialty (Feb. 9 and 10). The Anitafrika Method, led by Dub poet D’bi Young Anitafrika is an Azimuth Performance Lab offering (Feb. 16 and 17). Stafford Perry of Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality leads a workshop “Creating a Culture of Consent: Community Bystander Interventions” Feb. 12 (a follow-up to last year’s “intimacy for the stage” workshop).

Two of Chinook’s “salon” series — panelists and public discussion — are Expanse initiatives. One (Feb. 8), curated by Good Women Dance, explores “safe spaces in dance.” The other (Feb. 12), led by Azimuth and questions from Sabourin and Hansen, is designed to generation conversation about “decolonizing process and practice.” Says Sabourin, “it’s all about finding others ways of thinking about inclusivity….”  

Chinook is no mild-mannered zephyr; it’s more gale-force than that, a series of cutting-edge performances curated by arts festivals of different sensibilities: Azimuth’s Expanse Festival, Workshop West’s Canoe Festival, Fringe Theatre Adventures, along with BAM! (Black Arts Matter), Sound Off (the deaf theatre festival), and Sinergia (a new multi-disciplinary multi-cultural Indigenous roots lineup). See the full program of offerings and a colour-coded performance schedule — and buy tickets — at chinookseries.ca.

PREVIEW

Expanse Movement Arts Festival

Chinook Series

Theatre: Azimuth

Where: Westbury Theatre and lobby, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Feb. 17

Tickets (and full schedule): chinookseries.ca or at the door

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