By Liz Nicholls 12thnight.ca
The sun is out. For 18 springs now, Concrete Theatre has been planting the Canadian theatre repertoire with new play seedlings from unusual sources — and then watering them for future seasons.
The annual Sprouts Festival of new and original plays for kids, with its eye on expanding ethnic and cultural diversity, is at hand this weekend, Saturday and Sunday. For the first time the kid-centric festivities happen at the Varscona Theatre in Strathcona.
This year’s edition, a trio of 20-minute original Sprouts from April Banigan, David Cheoros and Morgan Yamada, is an exercise in mind expansion for their creators, too. As usual, Sprouts has tapped the playwriting potential of novelists, journalists, poets, stage managers, comic improvisers, activists…. Banigan, is best known to Edmonton audiences as an actor. And The Slug Life of Doug and Sami, “geared for kids three to eight, marks her debut as a playwright.
“So many of my dearest friends are incredible playwrights,” says Banigan, who’s run Concrete’s residency program for several seasons. “And I have so much respect for that. I’m surrounded by brilliance…. I finally thought ‘why don’t I let that inspire me and not just scare me?’”
She did. Which is why we’ll be meeting a couple of slug pals with very different outlooks and personalities in her three-character coming-of-age tale. Doug the slug “has pretty severe social anxiety/ self-esteem issues,” says the new playwright. Will he learn to believe in himself? Sami, on the other hand, is “loud, hilarious, brave, always doing crazy bold things people tell her she can’t … because she’s a slug.”
“Doug feels ordinary…. Nobody expects much from slugs.” Sami “wants to go to space, decides to join the wrestling team.”
Why slugs? I hear you ask. As any career councillor will tell you, they stand (or slide) well outside the norm for vaudevillian initiatives or odes to friendship. Their public approval rating isn’t stratospheric; they don’t seem to make friends easily “They crack me up, and I think they’ll crack kids up,” says Banigan.
She was particularly delighted to discover the ace trio of actors assembled by Concrete director Mieko Ouchi. Beth Graham herself, who plays Sami, is a playwright (Slight of Mind, Pretty Goblins). “I direct her scenes all the time at the Citadel (theatre school adult classes),” says Banigan. The witty actor/ dancer Richard Lee Hsi plays the esteem-challenged Doug. And Geri Schaer is “their not-very-nice classmate.” (It’s not all peace, love and positive reinforcement in slug-land).
“Writing for children — as well as their parents and their teachers — has its own challenges,” says Banigan. “Speaking to a kid of three and a kid of eight — very different!”
That was tricky. But Banigan’s biggest challenge was “editing down ideas and reining them in” to the 15-minute format. “Doug tells bad jokes …. And I am a master of writing bad jokes!” She is also a master of slug facts that are not widely available to the public. “Did you know that slugs, though very unassuming, have 27,000 teeth? More than a shark!”
Consorting theatrically with slugs, she says, has “made me realize I want to write more! You don’t have to be afraid to fall down; you just do your best…. It’s that kind of community….”
It’s a spring of new initiatives for Banigan. More later on this, but she’ll make her directorial debut in Blarney Productions three-hander Fringe outing You Are Happy, “an absurdist dark comedy of Canadian origin,” as she describes it. And her cast includes her son Jezec Sanders, along with Jenny McKillop and Madelaine Knight.
Meanwhile, Doug and Sami will be joined this weekend by a new play for kids by David Cheoros. The former Fringe executive director who turned to film at FAVA and Metro Cinema, is known for stage dramas that mine Alberta history. Out in the woods the protagonist of his new kids play Camping meets a man from the past, a refugee from Ukrainian internment of the last century.
In Keiko & The Kappa, Morgan Yamada whom Edmonton audiences know as an actor, a burlesque performer, and a stage fight director, has a protagonist who explores celebration, and finds a fascinating nexus of family traditions, stories … and food.
Lobby activities Saturday and Sunday begin at 1 p.m., and showtime both days is 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the door only. Further information at Concrete Theatre: 780-439-3905 or firstname.lastname@example.org.