Transformations: what would it take to change the world? Catalyst Theatre enlisted three artists to ask the question

Kristi Hansen, Are You Inspired?, Catalyst Theatre, The National Transformations Project. Photo by Amanda Gallant.

By Liz Nicholls,

“When you sign ‘new’ it means ‘to grow’.” — Chris Dodd, The Transformers: Regrowth

Can something positive, something transforming emerge from a year of devastation? To imagine a better future for the world, who better to consult than its resourceful brigade of artists? Assessing, imagining, and re-imagining is what they do.

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Early last summer Toronto’s Volcano Theatre reached out to fellow live performance companies, large and small, across the country, with a big, provocative, open-ended question. “What would it take to transform our society for the betterment of all?”

The National Transformations Project was born in the thoughts, of more than 50 artists who created short videos from their own perspectives. Some are as low-tech as talks, some are cellphone walk-throughs, some are more elaborately filmed. The National Arts Centre gathered them up, and has hosted the results.    

“Everyone was feeling pretty grim,” as Catalyst Theatre artistic director Jonathan Christenson puts it. “Envisioning something better” was an invitation that had “a real grassroots momentum.” Catalyst signed on, and commissioned three Edmonton-based artists, who “brought their own ideas, and aesthetic…. I loved it; it was such a cool thing, it was Christmas, to see how different artists found their way into the question.”

The Catalyst trio, “The Transformers” as they called themselves, worked with one cinematographer Tamarra Lessard and lent a hand with each other’s very distinct and personal pieces.

Chris Dodd, Are You Inspired?, Catalyst Theatre, The National Transformations Project.

In her sardonic, edgy, highly theatrical Are You Inspired?, Kristi Hansen, a disabled artist, wonders about our clichéd, and limiting, “liberal” responses to disability onstage. We meet a character in a princess ballgown who straps on a prosthetic leg with a great dramatic flourish, in a burst of light to the sounds of applause. A grinning and silent vaudevillian sideman (Chris Dodd) annotates with a cane and sign language. Counterpointed behind the scenes of bright artifice are images of the artist hard at work.

“Inspiration porn,” says Hansen, a multi-faceted Edmonton theatre star (actor, dancer, playwright, producer, activist, out-going co-artistic director of Azimuth Theatre). “‘O! Look at you! You’re walking!’”

Is it the responsibility of disabled artists to be “inspiring” to the rest of us, instead of just living their lives? Hansen asks, citing the hashtag #NotYourInspiration. “Society creates inaccessibility. And it’s my right as a human to have access,” she says, of membership in life’s rich pageant — and, in particular, in the professional arts industry, where disabled people are rare.

“Representation matters,” Hansen says, noting the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra. “Stories do affect political governance…. What we do (about inclusivity) makes a difference; so many folks are under-represented.”

Hansen, an athlete as a kid with dreams of being a para-Olympian cross-country skier, had originally imagined herself in a medical career, an orthopaedic surgeon maybe. Theatre grabbed her at 13, and she arrived in Edmonton from Saskatchewan to go to MacEwan’s musical theatre program. “I loved dance as a kid; I’m not naturally talented in that (many here would beg to differ) but I worked at it.”

Edmonton audiences have seen her in everything from big Broadway musicals (On Your Toes, for one) to innovative musical-plays (Catalyst’s The Invisible), dramas, screwball comedies, physical adventure tales like Mieko Ouchi’s The Silver Arrow at the Citadel, in which Hansen as the Robin Hood protagonist flew by trapeze.

“To be a theatre artist, you need a big ol’ heart, and want to tell stories…. The hardest thing is just getting the part, convincing people I should be there,” Hansen says of an industry reality that, like society, “other-s” the disabled. “More disabled people in creative roles as writers and producers” would make a dramatic difference.

Breaking Baptist, the most mysterious of the Catalyst trio, explores religious ritual, rebirth, personal autonomy, in the quest to move forward. It’s the work of Métis actor/dancer/choreographer Rebecca Sadowski, the latest member of the Good Women Dance Collective and the curator of Nextfest’s dance program.  Edmonton audiences have seen her onstage with innovative indies like Punctuate! Theatre (Bears, Minosis Gathers Hope), Thou Art Here, Catch The Keys. Christenson had seen, and loved, her film The Sash Maker, a lyrical fusion of Métis and contemporary dance, Cree and English, commissioned by Toronto’s Native Earth Theatre and available on Mile Zero Dance Vimeo.

In an atmospheric semi-glow we meet Sadowski’s character immersed in a long copper bathtub of water, emerging over and over to light a candle that goes out and must be re-lit again and again. The burnt matches are visible in the water. “It took me quite a while to figure out what ‘transformation’ would mean,” she says.

She found her inspiration in “my own experience of baptism and religious ritual.” Somehow, it doesn’t take. “I’m left with doubts. I’m off the spiritual track,” she says of a Baptist upbringing. The film “reflects my own turmoil and spiritual unrest. There are still questions.”

At a crucial moment, “I put out the (candle flame) myself … to leave and find my own way,” says Sadowski, a fine arts grad of the Ryerson dance program.” The dance movement seems to reference emergence, the questing spirit, the struggle to break free and discover a self.

“The bridges between theatre and dance are getting smaller and smaller,” she thinks. Dance on film particularly interests her. “As theatre comes back, it’s another form we can collaborate with!”

Chris Dodd, Regrowth, The National Transformations Project. Photo by Amanda Gallant

In Regrowth, a lyrical performance poem in ASL (with subtitles), Dodd, a deaf playwright/ actor/ producer/ activist (and the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the country’s only deaf theatre festival), muses on the idea of our moment in history, fire-bombed by loss as it is, and its limitless possibilities in renewal, rebirth. “For myself as an artist I see the shifts to digital as positive, having a greater connectivity with a broad spectrum of artists across Canada and internationally,” as the 2021 SOUND OFF lineup tangibly reflects.

“Becoming digital has forced us to address the limitations of being a live theatre company that only caters to a local audience,” says Dodd. For Regrowth, he was inspired for his prevailing metaphor by his memory of an artist likening COVID to “a raging fire consuming everything, our loves, hopes, plans, leaving only ashes in its wake. And from the ashes, something new was growing.”

Dodd used that idea “to explore what we have lost along the way and what we hope to gain.” Deaf artists, it hardly need be said, can only gain by a transforming spirit of inclusivity.

“Nothing new can exist without the destruction of the old,” Dodd the Transformer says in Regrowth. “We are ready for change. Ready for new stories…. But this time better.”

You can see Regrowth, Are You Inspired?, and Breaking Baptist via Catalyst Theatre or on the National Arts Centre website.   

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