By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Alienation 2020. The world seems upside down and inside out to you — and why wouldn’t it?. The laws of gravity have been cancelled. You’re either inside looking out (wistfully) or outside looking in (wistfully); no loitering on the threshhold.
The new Plain Jane show Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, running this weekend at the Varscona, speaks (or rather, sings) to that discombobulating thought. The audience (20 of them masked, distanced, clean-handed) is inside the lobby looking out the front window. The six performers are on the sidewalk outside looking in, singing, dancing, storytelling on the sidewalk. Yes, the curtain is a window.
The pandemical world has been particularly cruel for musical theatre, and specialist companies, like Plain Jane. Sharing space is fraught enough. But until just last week in Alberta, singing inside a theatre was not only verboten, it was (nearly) the worst thing a theatre artist could do. In any case, singing masked and the requisite nine feet apart wasn’t exactly a green light for musicals. “As soon as we started measuring we knew it wouldn’t work,” says Ryan, the wielder of the company tape measure.
Necessity is the mother of theatrical invention. And the Plain Janes, who bring a collective sensibility to their cabarets and revues, brainstormed. “The pandemic suddenly forced us to stop sharing the space, for safety,” says artistic director Kate Ryan. “But it took away our ability to gather and create and sing! We communicated via email, text, phone, Zoom, playing with different ideas on how best to share songs, new creations, again.” She sighs. “Zoom is horrible for singing, but we did it anyway.”
At the theatre, “we looked out the big lobby windows and talked about how they reveal, expose, inspire.… Like the windows, the pandemic became a time that exposed a lot of things in the world: inequities, mental health, how fragile everyday life can be. I’ve missed sharing the space, the creating with other artists. And watching an artist share a song is a dialogue that goes right to the heart.” It’s a thought she takes into the theatre classes in song delivery she teaches at MacEwan University.
The bright idea of a Toronto theatre company, who decided on a walking tour version of The Music Man, intrigues the Janes too. “Different locations … it was getting to be epic,” Ryan laughs. “What about closer to home base?”
The upshot, she says, is that “we’re in the space we’re not in.” Which might well be a mantra for our time.
The show “has been evolving each and every day since.… So much is happening, and we’re trying to stay alert to the world; it’s a time of learning.” Especially when you rehearse on the street. For one thing, there’s been a camp for the homeless across 83rd Ave. from the Varscona in the Gazebo Park, and “we have to acknowledge that,” says Ryan. “It’s our responsibility as artists to talk about what’s happening in the world. Some nights are quiet; some nights there are cop cars.”
Unlike a revue, more tightly shaped around a theme and linked by text or narrative, a cabaret has a looser, more personal structure. Scenes From The Sidewalk is, in every way, a group creation, Ryan says. “Everyone has brought their personal thought to the table; all (of the cast) are writers. The six performers have chosen their own songs (and in the case of Althea Cunningham, poems), many of them originals, and they introduce them too.
There’s a diverse mix of pop, musical theatre, and spoken word in the show, many different grooves and perspectives,” says Ryan. “There are songs about connection and songs about when things break down.”
What’s inspiring the ensemble members at the moment? “I didn’t even realize just how good it would be to come back together and make something!” says Matt Graham, who’s been musical director on such Ryan productions as The Drowsy Chaperone. He would have been in New York studying musical theatre composition at the Tisch School this year, had times been different.
Graham and his Janes cast-mate Sue Goberdhan (one of the two new co-artistic producers at Azimuth Theatre) have written musicals together (Marnie Day). She’s singing Whatever We Feel, by Sammy Rae, accompanying herself on the ukelele. From Graham we’ll hear In 50 Years, a song of his own device. The ensemble finale is The Tuba Song, from a 2013 musical version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost.
Janes regular Jason Hardwick is doing When Everything Falls Apart from Frozen (“don’t look now, things just got worse”). “I’ve been so inspired by the young talent this city has produced,” he says.
Daniela Fernandez is singing Adele’s Hometown Glory. “I’ve been inspired by watching others get creative with the limitations of the times,” she says. She’s found the BLM movement and anti-racism work very motivating.
Josh Travnik is singing an original pop song, Taste, by his queer electropop duo Homofonik, recently recorded and created with his song-writing partner Daniel Belland. “I’ve had the time to learn to tell stories in a different medium,” he says. “Storytelling in pop music is completely different; I’m really inspired to explore it more.”
It all started with “let’s look out the window and see what we see” in the world. “Who knows?” says Ryan. “Maybe we’ll bundle up and do Christmas scenes outside.”
Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret
Theatre: Plain Jane
Featuring: Althea Cunningham, Daniela Fernandez, Sue Goberdhan, Matt Graham, Jason Hardwick, Josh Travnik, Kate Ryan
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 AVe.
Running: Saturday and Sunday, three performances
Tickets: pay what you can afford, available by email.