Innovation in the air: Chinook is back with warming trends in performance

Nilaja Sun in Pike St., at Canoe 2017. Photo supplied by Chinook Series

Nilaja Sun in Pike St., at Canoe 2017. Photo supplied by Chinook Series

By Liz Nicholls,

Forecast: Breezy. An adventuresome wind — full of diverse sounds, sights, cultural ideas, challenges — is set to blow through the winter theatre season again this week. 

Yes, Chinook is on its way to becoming an Edmonton verb (it’s like “fringe” that way), with the return of last year’s debut bright idea. The Chinook Series, Feb. 9 to 19, combines the offerings of three snow-melting performing arts companies — Workshop West and its Canoe Festival, Azimuth Theatre and its innovative Expanse Movement Arts Festival, and Fringe Theatre Adventures whose ever-breezy summer festivities entered the common parlance as a verb decades ago.

Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman in Countries Shaped Like Stars. Photo supplied by Chinook Series.

Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman in Countries Shaped Like Stars. Photo supplied by Chinook Series.

The latter is returning to us an irresistible charmer of a show that enchanted audiences in its 2013 run at the Fringe. Countries Shaped Like Stars is a once-upon-a-time musical love story fairy tale — there’s an under-represented category of theatrical experience — by Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman of Ottawa’s Mi Casa Theatre.

It’s an imaginative gambit not to be missed, utterly unclassifiable. “Once upon a time words were understood by the spaces between them, and anticipation grew on trees….”

“What are we not seeing here?” As Workshop West’s Vern Thiessen puts it, that’s the question that inspires Canoe’s annual adventure into experimental performance theatre. This year’s edition of Canoe is devoted entirely to black artists, as he explains, introducing the trio of acclaimed visiting solo shows from the big wide world that arrive by Canoe, so to speak.

That leading “what are we missing here?” question has inspired, as well, a partnership with a new multidisciplinary festival, designed to showcase Edmonton’s black artists: BAM! (Black Arts Matter).

And it’s inspired another Chinook collaboration, a groundbreaking Canadian first. Sound Off, created and curated by Edmonton’ deaf artist Chris Dodd, is the first deaf theatre festival in the country’s history. It presents work from work from Regina, Toronto, Montreal, as well as an improv night with Rapid Fire Theatre.

First up, Tuesday, two days before the rest of Canoe paddles into view, the Senegalese artist Patricia Gomis arrives with her acclaimed and globally-travelled solo show Moi, Monsieur, Moi. The Dakar/Paris/Brussels co-production is jointly presented by Canoe and L’UniThéâtre. “A friend of mine saw the show in Mali, and was so impressed!” says Brian Dooley, the ebullient artistic director of Edmonton’s francophone theatre. “And the franco-African community here is huge, and growing. So I seized on the idea. Let’s do this!”

Moi, Monsieur, Moi, which unfolds in a variety of theatrical techniques, chronicles the trials and tribulations of a young Senegalese girl growing up, shunted from household to household, chore to chore. “It’s about the challenge of being a woman in West Africa,” says Dooley. “But it’s done with a great smile…. There’s a real openness to the artist.”

That’s the light touch which the title captures, with its eager gust of “pick me, sir! pick me!”

“It’s important to display diversity,” says Dooley of theatre’s responsibility to engage its community, in all its variety including “the wave of new immigrants.” He’s currently planning an upcoming L’UniThéätre season that includes a Congolese writer.

“Storytelling is such a big part of African culture,” he says of the show’s appeal. And as its protagonist overcomes a series of challenges, “it empowers the woman’s voice in African storytelling!” Like Thiessen, Dooley is keen to bring Edmonton audiences at large experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have, he says.

Moi, Monsieur, Moi, starring Patricia Gomis. Photo supplied

Moi, Monsieur, Moi, starring Patricia Gomis. Photo supplied

Moi, Monsieur, Moi is in French. But never fear if your tenses aren’t up to scratch; there are English subtitles for every performance in the Tuesday through Saturday run at La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.).

Not only does Pike St. bring to town Nilaji Sun, a well-known New York artist, star of stage and small screen, but the show is a reunion for Thiessen with an old friend. In his six years making theatre in New York before he got his Workshop West job, Thiessen and Sun both worked for Epic Theatre.

“She’s acted in some of my plays,” says Thiessen happily. And her director Ron Russell has directed three Thiessens, Einstein’s Gift and The Parables (in which Sun appeared) and A More Perfect Union, which had an Off-Broadway run.

“And she’s never been to Canada before! We’re her Canadian debut!”

Thiessen describes Pike St., culled from Sun’s memories of growing up in the Lower East Side, as “really funny, very moving…. It’s the story of a community, and what happens to it when a hurricane is coming. It’s the story of a struggling family, a mother, a father, the people in the ‘hood,” all played by Sun.

Sébastien Heins in Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, at Canoe 2017. Photo supplied by Chinook Series.

Sébastien Heins in Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera. Photo supplied by Chinook Series.

Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera (Feb. 17 to 19, Backstage Theatre), a solo show created by and starring Toronto’s Sébastien Heins, is “a kind of live hip hop concert, geared especially for the 16 to 30 crowd,” says Thiessen. “And Heins is such a great performer!”

As Thiessen explains, the story, which unfolds in music, movement, and rap (the show is entirely rhymed) tells of two twin brother hip hop artists, both played by Heins amongst a gallery of 11 characters. “There’s a great underlying story of family kinship and tension, backed up by the music,” says Thiessen.   

“All three soloists are “magnificent performers, world-class,” says Thiessen of his Canoe trio. “These shows are clinics on how to a one-person show!”

Chinook is testing the breeze of audience expansion with a new ticketing venture: 25 per cent of tickets for every show are pay-what-you-can (available in person two hours before at the ATB Financial Arts Barns box office). “It’s a big financial risk for us,” says Thiessen. “But we’re just trying to make Chinook more accessible, …. We’re flinging open the doors. Money should be no object for you!”  


Chinook Series, Feb. 9 to 19, various theatres at ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.) plus La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.).


Moi, Monsieur, Moi created by Patricia Gomis and Marcia de Castro, starring Patricia Gomis: Tuesday through Saturday, La Cité francophone.

Pike St. created by and starring Nilaja Sun. Feb. 14 and 15,  Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns.

Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera created by and starring Sébastien Heins, Feb. 17 to 19, The Backstage Theatre

Black Arts Matter (BAM!)Thursday through Feb. 19, ATB Financial Arts Barns locations (Backstage Theatre, Westbury Theatre, Westbury lobby)

Sound OffFeb. 13 to 19, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Fringe Theatre AdventuresCountries Shaped Like Stars, by and starring Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman. Thursday through Feb. 19, Studio C, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Azimuth TheatreExpanse Movement Festival, Thursday through Feb. 19, ATB Financial Arts Barns.

Tickets: or in person at Fringe Theatre Adventures box office, ATB Financial Arts Barns.



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