All about the playwright: Workshop West celebrates the big 4-oh

Prairie Report by Frank Moher, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, 1987-88 season. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

It was not one of those storied red carpet openings, where everyone knows that history is being made and dresses accordingly. But then, what little Canadian theatre starts that way?

Four decades ago, a sometime playwright/ actor who’d arrived in these parts from Ottawa (and respectable gigs in weekly journalism) to study directing at the U of A, did what any Canuck theatre artist in search of work here might do. Gerry Potter started a theatre company.

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From the start there was more hopeful can-do than Cannes about Workshop West, as Potter christened the fledgling operation. What upped the ante in enterprise and risk — and scrambling ingenuity in the race against oblivion — was that, 2,000 miles from Toronto, it was a playwrights theatre dedicated to new Canadian plays.

Here’s the thing about new plays: they’re a gamble. And in 1978 in a a country which relied so heavily at the time on second-hand culture? Well, if someone had told Potter in 1978 he’d be going to a big four-oh birthday bash for his bright idea this week, he might have laughed in disbelief. Or suggested a re-write.    

He rented Espace Tournesol, the grim ex-Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum that later became Theatre Network. That’s where a cluster of hardy souls saw Punch and Polly, by Calgary playwright Rick McNair, in which a woman talks to her puppet and goes mad. “We had no money,” says Potter affably. “And we didn’t have to pay the puppet.”

And so it all began, with a three-show “blockbuster opening season” as the new artistic director called it in his gung-ho program manifesto of December 1978. “We’ve given our athletes a chance to show their stuff. Let’s do the same for our playwrights!”

Somebody had to, as Potter points out. With occasional exceptions — like Hosanna (Michel Tremblay) or The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (George Ryga) — it’s not as if big Canadian theatres were laying out the welcome mat for Canadian plays or playwrights. 

One Night Stand, 1978-79 season. Photo supplied.

There was certainly a niche, sparsely populated and waiting to be filled. But Potter would find his romantic notions about “the little guy fighting for the little theatre” tested mightily. That  first season, while Workshop West’s production of One Night Stand, by Carol Bolt, was running in the Centennial Library Theatre downtown, “there I was, on the sidewalk outside, opposite the Citadel, wearing a sandwich board. Sleet coming down on me. Wayne Fipke (the Citadel general manager) looking out his window, laughing.” Potter conjures the visuals, sighs, and laughs.

The poignancy of the image sticks with Workshop West’s current artistic director, the award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen, who began his professional theatre career as the company’s resident dramaturg (and script reader) in the early ’90s and became its writer-in-residence in the Ron Jenkins regime. “It was always a writer’s theatre. That has never changed!”  

Balconville by David Fennario, 1981-82 season. Photo supplied

Potter supplemented the regimen of brand new plays from the West with plays from the new generation of Canadian playwrights — David Fennario, David French, Bolt, Tremblay, among them — who’d gained traction from audiences elsewhere, but hadn’t been seen here yet. By the late-‘80s, when Workshop West produced shows on the Kaasa Theatre stage in the basement of the Jube, the company was premiering homegrown (handsomely designed) sell-out hits — The Rich Man (an adaptation of Henry Kreisel’s novel), Frank Moher’s Sliding For Home and Prairie Report among them. And it was presenting others,  like Teatro La Quindicina comedies by Stewart Lemoine: When Girls Collide, Hopscotch Holiday, The Book of Tobit, The Glittering Heart.

Edmonton-born playwright Moher, who was Workshop West’s playwright-in-residence in two different time periods, was part of the debut season — as an actor. In On The Job, which ran in the  cement basement bunker of Latitude 53 (with gooseneck lamps for theatre lights) “I played the bad guy. And Paul Gross punched me,” he recalls.

As the community of Edmonton playwrights grew, Potter’s Workshop West “gravitated to the local,” surrounded with writers and scripts in every stage development, says Moher, who ran the company’s Playwrights’ Circle.

David Mann, Kent Gallie in Sliding For Home by David Mann, 1987-88 season. Photo supplied

The Kaasa’s thrust stage, which “ignited a design renaissance across the board,” as Moher puts it, invited a new kind of theatrical pizzaz. In Sliding For Home, Moher’s baseball play inspired by his sportswriter dad Stan, 10 actors played 35 characters, with audience “hecklers” in onstage bleachers. Prairie Report, a zestful satire on redneck-ism, the media, and the link between conservatism and regionalism, was inspired by his time “working at Alberta Report before it went crazy,” says Moher, who wrote at various times for Saturday Night magazine and the National Post.

Reviewing the Workshop West story, Moher, who runs a theatre company (Western Edge Theatre) these days in Nanaimo, is amazed at “the sheer amount of activity — four or five full productions a season. What universe was that?” And there was a progressive thrust to the whole operation, he notes. “Gerry was pro-active about producing women playwrights.”  

Kate Newby and Shaun Johnston, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, 1989-1990 seasonl. Photo supplied.

Says Moher, “Gerry was very good at saying Yes.” The much-awarded playwright Brad Fraser, who gave Canadian theatre one of its biggest hits ever in Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love, might well agree. He’d met Potter as a playwright in Banff, when Workshop West was still a bright idea looking for supporters. 

By the time Fraser returned from his first Toronto stint in 1984, Workshop West was up and running. And “Gerry was the only artistic director in town who showed any interest in my work,” says Fraser via email. He and Workshop West go back; “whoever was running the shop the theatre has been a great source of support for my work.”

In 1985, the theatre produced Fraser’s Chainsaw Love, “notorious for its sex and violence”  for the Fringe. “It gave me some seed money for what would become Remains.” It was Workshop West that hosted its first-ever reading, says Fraser who notes “like everyone else they demurred on producing it.” It premiered in Calgary; the Workshop West production in the 1989-90 season directed by the playwright was its third outing.

Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, 1989-90 season. Photo supplied.

Fraser credits Workshop West “help with the writing and development of The Ugly Man and Poor Super Man, which played here (after Calgary and Cincinnati). Most recently, Workshop West produced his Kill Me Now in 2013; it has since travelled the world. Commissions from Conni Massing, Marty Chan, Ray Storey … the Workshop West archive is full of stellar names.

Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli in Matara, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Conni Massing, whose play Matara (about a lone elephant and her zookeepers) opened Workshop West’s 40th season last fall, has a history with Workshop West, too. Her professional career started there, editing a collective creation It’s Your Turn To Get Up, devised by actors who were parents. Full-length Massings — Dustsluts, Homesick, The Invention of Romance — followed. And many other of her plays were developed and nurtured there before they set forth into the world. “I found a home there,” she says. “It’s so important for playwrights, solitary creature, little sad-sack satellites (she laughs) to feel at home, with a community. Vern says that the spirit of the organization is that this is a community of playwrights….” 

Sharon Bakker and Annette Loiselle, Homesick by Connie Massing, 1999-2000 season. Photo supplied.

“I wanted the playwright to feel at home with us, to be part of the company,” says Potter. “Not like companies where you never meet the playwright, and they’ve sometimes been dead for 350 years…. Actually I always imagined Shakespeare as an actor writing for his company.”

Risks? “Sometimes they pay off; sometimes they don’t,” says Potter, who left Workshop West after 15 years at the helm to pursue teaching, film, and television. “Well if you don’t fall off the bike once in a while, you won’t learn to ride….” Theatre that specializes in developing Canadian plays and playwrights is “not for the faint of heart,” he says.

When Thiessen looped back to his Workshop West roots in 2015  to run the company (he took over from Michael Clark) after seven years in New York — and as Potter puts it “took us back to our roots and the full name Workshop West Playwrights Theatre” — he got advice from predecessors in the job. “David Mann said to make it my own. Ron Jenkins said to ‘blow it up’ — in a good way. Gerry said ‘look, just keep the doors open!’”  Thiessen laughs.

“Looking back in the archives, all the artistic directors — Potter, David Mann, Ron Jenkins, Michael Clark — “really did focus on the playwright,” he says. The commitment remains steadfast. What’s changed in 40 years, as our community of star playwrights has expanded, Thiessen thinks, is that “we export more than we import.”

Daniela Vlaskalic and Shaun Johnston in Apple by Vern Thiessen, 2001-2002. Photo supplied.

Fraser’s Human Remains is one of the most produced Canadian plays ever. Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding. Mieko Ouchi’s The Red Priest,  are among notable Workshop West exports. Thiessen’s Apple has had more than 100 productions across the country and well beyond. Beth Graham, Collin Doyle … the list of notable playwrights with Workshop West credits is long and distinguished. 

“The company has always been a launch pad. Sometimes rockets go to the sky, explore new worlds. Sometimes, well….” Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is, says Thiessen, “the only producing company in Canada that has ‘playwrights’ in its name.” Something to celebrate as the company hoists an anniversary glass this week. 

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No week to stay home: festivals, musicals, plays, improv … E-town stages are full of possibilities

Paper Planet, Polyglot Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

This is no week to stay home, my theatre-loving friends. 

For one thing, the summer festival season really begins: the 38th annual Kids’ Fest Tuesday, Nextfest Thursday. The 28th Die-Nasty season, Lord of Thrones, reaches its grand finale (possibly its apotheosis) tonight. E-town’s first professional production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in three decades or more continues at Fringe Theatre headquarters, the Arts Barn. There’s Sondheim: Foote in the Door’s production of A Little Night Music opens Friday.  There’s a new production from Rising Sun Theatre. 

And, for those revellers inclined to a short summer road trip, there’s news from The Old Trout Puppet Workshop.

Consider the choices, and read on. 

•On a new planet made entirely of paper, the imagination is king.

The moment for an excursion to a forest world of giant cardboard trees and paper vines and flowers is at hand. Yes, the St. Albert Kids’ Fest has returned to the banks of the mighty Sturgeon: the 38th annual edition of the international festivities starts Tuesday and runs through Sunday.

Paper Planet, Polyglot Theatre. Photo supplied.

Paper Planet, the work of Australia’s Polyglot Theatre, invites kids and their larger-scale companions to populate the world with creations of their own — armed with paper, tape, and a sense of infinite possibility.

The immersive performance/ art installation piece, which defies any of the usual categories of entertainment, is one of the featured performances in the Kids’ Fest lineup. Li Liu is a glimpse into the gravity defying world of Chinese acrobatics. Honk!, a musical version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, a droll and poignant chronicle of a misfit (it couldn’t be more topical in these parlous times), is the contribution of the St. Albert Children’s Theatre.

Dance, puppetry, music, theatre, workshops, outdoor performances, activities both free and not… detailed information about the lineup and the schedule is at Tickets: Arden box office (780-459-1542) or Ticketmaster (1-855-985-5000,

Lord of Thrones. It was before Halloween in the year 2018 that the 28th season of Die-Nasty began in the Kingdom of Pretenderos. Old Strathconia, the king was dead. Murdered! Chaos was unleashed on the world. So was a dragon. And a whole bunch of characters.

Four great Houses, in ancient deadly conflict: an epic-sized plot  — inspired by the insane complications of Game of Thrones and improvised every Monday by deluxe Die-Nasty improvisers since Oct. 22 — was unknown in advance, to the participants as well as the audience. And now, many great battles and mighty song-and-dance production numbers later, we approach the grand finale of Lord of Thrones, this very evening at the Varscona. Will there be resolution? Will the threads be woven together to create a landscape? Will the dead return to claim their subplots? Will there be smouldering gazes into the mid-distance of the future, and flashbacks to the violent past?

OK, no one knows yet; it’s improv. Be there tonight to find out (7:30 p.m.). It’s your appointment with destiny.

Ghost Opera, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Jason Stang

•It was only a matter of time before The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the troupe that have redefined puppet theatricality in highly original ways, ventured into opera. Ghost Opera, a collaboration between the Old Trouts, composer Veronika Krausas, novelist André Alexis, and Calgary Opera, is spun from an ancient Greek ghost story. Ananke, according to Trout muse Judd Palmer (in Opera Canada), is “the ancient Greek goddess of the way nothing ever turns out the way you think it will.” Which might be a mantra for theatre generally, come to think of it.

The world is about to discover the musical range of ghosts. And the narrative seems right up the alley of the Trouts, with their appetite for the comically macabre (Famous Puppet Death Scenes, The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan).

Ghost Opera opens Thursday in Calgary, at the Grand Theatre downtown. Tickets:

Brian Chee and friend, Fantastic Creatures, Rising Sun Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Rising Sun Theatre premieres their latest, Fantastic Creatures, Saturday at the Nina Haggerty Arts Centre (9225 118 Ave.). A company of artists with developmental or cognitive disabilities, Rising Sun creates original work, under the mentorship of guest professionals — this season director Dhana Cartmell, Megan Verbeek, Kate Ryan, and movement/choreography specialist Amber Borotsik.

Tickets for the Saturday and Sunday shows, 4:30 and 2:30 p.m. respectively: pay what you can, at the door.

•The glamorous life: Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, is the work of the musical theatre company Foote in the Door. Mary- Ellen Perley’s production of this entrancing masterwork work opens Friday at La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.) and runs through June 8. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,

Cody Porter, Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook in Betrayal. Photo by Ryan Parker.

•Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s intricate but thrillingly accessible 1978 drama, gets a fine production from Broken Toys Theatre. It continues through Sunday at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330- 84 Ave.). Tickets: 780-409-1910, See the REVIEW here.

Nextfest, that innovative celebration of emerging arts and artists, opens its 24th annual edition Thursday at Theatre Network’s Roxy on Gateway: More than 500 artists, 90-plus “events” of every description, including a new mural for Strathcona.  More about these inspirational 11-day festivities, devoted to creative experiments from the next generation, soon. Meanwhile check out the lineup at




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The uneasy geometry of the love triangle: Pinter’s Betrayal. A review

Cody Porter, Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook in Betrayal. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I think I thought you knew,” says a man to his oldest friend in one of In one of the most quietly unnerving scenes you’re ever likely to see onstage.

In Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s infinitely clever and intricate 1978 masterpiece, who knows what, and when, are under constant and queasy revision by three characters caught in a web of their own making.

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The first thing you notice about Broken Toys Theatre’s riveting  production, a rare and welcome production of this great play, is just how intimate, how close to the bone, is the web of betrayals it spins.

Betrayal is the story, inevitably three-sided, of a affair between married lovers, Robert’s wife Emma and his best friend Jerry. And since, famously, it’s told in reverse chronology, from the end back to the beginning, the characters are in a perpetual state of guarded (and or cagey) watchfulness, tuned to the nuances of what’s said and what isn’t. Its language, fragmentary and dry, is the sound of people alert to concealment. Its silences and pauses between the lines are a language too: the sound of people listening, thinking, reassessing.

Fiddling with a wedding ring speaks volumes. But is “playing squash” a code, an indicator? What about “having lunch”?

It’s all about the question of how much you can say when you’re not actually saying anything. And Carew’s production and his cast — Elena Porter, Cody Porter and Chris W. Cook — are on it. Porter’s lovely, grave Emma, who’s a gallery owner, smiles and laughs only occasionally. And when she does, it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds. There’s a reserve about her; her ground-zero expression, to which she returns, is watchful. She never stops holding her breath.

Cody Porter’s superb Robert, the betrayed husband, has a kind of confident bristle and edge about him, an English defence system that is not without wit. But in crucial scenes, you see it crumble; you feel his wounds, his pain.

As Jerry, the book agent who betrays his best friend and then has enough gall to air a sense of betrayal when he learns that nobody has told him that Robert knows about the affair, Cook’s performance is angled brightly, humorously; there’s a cockiness about him. His expression at rest, and under duress, is an amused grimace of a shrug. 

Carew’s bare-bones staging is astutely, and wittily done. The set, like the past, is always under construction and re-construction. A table and chairs arrive (courtesy of Jake Tkaczyk, who gets a very funny scene as an Italian waiter) and disappear. So does the play’s major tangible symbol of betrayal, the bed. Entrances and exits overlap slightly: the characters inhabit each other’s thoughts and fears.

And, in the end, you have a sense of what lies beneath the complexities of betrayal.  It’s terror. The terror of not really knowing the people you know best. Nothing can be a casual throwaway about betrayal; everything has to be sorted through, every possible permutation and ripple analyzed. Nothing is innocuous.

“How’s everything?” Jerry asks Emma at the outset, when the affair has been over for years. “Not too bad,” she says. By the time you get to the end, which is the beginning and you see how it all began but might not have, you can’t help returning to that exchange. Over and over. 

In that exchange is a whole play, and a thrillingly tense one. In this absorbing production, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss. 



Theatre: Broken Toys Theatre

Written by: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Clinton Carew

Starring: Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook, Cody Porter, Jake Tkaczyk

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

Running:  through June 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910,





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Mighty oaks from tiny acorns…. Concrete’s Sprouts Festival returns

Beth Graham, Richard Lee Hsi, and Geri Schaer in The Slug Life of Doug and Sami, Sprouts Festival 2019. Photo by Mieko Ouchi.

By Liz Nicholls

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.

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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

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A “puzzle box”: Broken Toys Theatre plays with Pinter’s Betrayal

Cody Porter, Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook in Betrayal. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Just like old times,” says one character to another in the first scene of Betrayal. Funny how four simple words can evoke a whole world of memory and feeling. But then, this is Harold Pinter, the master of the unsaid, the pregnant pause, the space between the lines.

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Since Pinter’s chronicle of an affair, now over, between two married lovers, happens in reverse chronology, we’re at the end. And in the course of it we’ll backtrack a decade through an intricate nexus of betrayals of marriage and friendship, to the beginning. The 1978 masterwork by the playwright who famously said “I can sum up none of my plays” opens this week in Edmonton, amazingly for the first time. The production, directed by Clinton Carew, is the work of the small but mighty indie company Broken Toy Theatre. 

Silences speak in Pinter. Forget the staccato urgency of TV-like theatre. “If you’re not having people wait (meaningfully) between lines on a semi-regular basis, you’re not doing it right,” grins actor/ director/ playwright/ musician Carew of the 90-minute play widely regarded as one of Pinter’s most accessible. “In North America, now more than ever, people like to have their entertainment compressed…. We’re going to tell this story and we’re not hurrying up to do it.”

Elena Porter, the other half of Broken Toys — she plays Emma, whose lover (Chris W. Cook) is her husband Robert’s (Cody Porter) best friend — echoes the thought. “The words are so precise, so clear, so specific. And when there are no words, it’s just as precise and specific.”

For Carew and Porter, husband and wife in real life, this isn’t a first encounter with the intricacies of Betrayal. Three years ago they played the husband and wife in a U of A production, directed by Suzie Martin. Porter thinks they understand the play in a new way now.

What’s been happening, and in quantity, is … life. It’s gotten exponentially more complicated. And, therefore, so has producing theatre. “In the three years since, we’ve had a child (Penelope is a backstage veteran, at three). My mother died. We’ve looked after my father … everything, the experience, that has happened in our own lives ,” she says. “We’re not the same people we were….”

It’s been three years of improvising creatively in real life to make theatre, have a theatre company, figure out babysitting and daycare. Ah, and run a small business: Heights Residential employs a roster of actors and musicians, who wash household windows, clean windows, install Christmas lights.

“There is no rational way to do theatre as a blue-collar family,” shrugs Carew, who’s directing a Broken Toys production of a new Trina Davies play The Trophy Hunt this summer at the Fringe, one of five different premieres of that play across the country’s festival circuit. “Since theatre is such a big part of our lives, it’s important that Penelope be a part of that.”

It’s pressurized life, to understate the case. And the scheduling challenges are enhanced when one of the pair accepts a gig. Recently, Porter, a musical theatre triple-threat Edmonton audiences have seen in Plain Jane musicals, starred  (opposite Jake Tkaczyk) in Shadow Theatre’s production of Lungs. And it was on a scant week’s notice with the departure of the original cast. “You say Yes, and then figure out how,” she grins.

Inevitably, their sense of Betrayal, a play that unspools over 10 years has evolved: “people change, they have children, jobs change, relationships change,” says Carew. “It’s not just one character arc. It’s a decade of life.”

“Are (the characters) older and … wiser? or more hardened?” Porter muses. In the end, which is the beginning, “you see them on the cliff, at the instigating moment.” The play’s distinctive reverse chronology structure affords “the ability to look back and know where started and where you ended, to re-evaluate the moments when choices were made, and things could have been different.”

“For Pinter the future is a prison, and the present, in any moment, is infinite possibility,” says Carew. The “weird structure” of Betrayal means that actors have to “live the moment…. If actors are thinking about how one moment attaches to another, they’re not doing that.” 

The illusion of spontaneity that’s at the heart of the mystery of acting isn’t optional when time runs backwards. Porter finds a parallel in the out-of-sequence way film and TV gets shot.

“The smallest professional theatre company in Edmonton,” as Carew cheerfully describes Broken Toys, has a surprising attraction to the large. True, the company debut was a 2013 production of a two-hander “play with songs” (Midsummer, a musical romantic comedy of Scottish provenance in which Carew and Porter played strangers on an epic bender in Edinburgh). Their second outing, though, was Chekhov, Carew’s original translation of Three Sisters.

Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre musical by Clinton Carew and Kris Schindell. Photo by Ryan Parker.

And after that, Broken Toys premiered a new 10-performer musical comedy by Carew and Kris Schindell about the end of the world, Star Killing Machine (scientists at a research facility working to develop a machine that will destroy the world). Carew argues persuasively that it makes sense for Broken Toys to combine the masters, Chekhov and Pinter and the rest, with original pieces. “If you didn’t, it’d be like building a building and never apprenticing with an architect or a sub-contractor. For me there’s a straight line between the Chekhov and Star Killing Machine.”

Outside the Fringe, Pinter is rarely seen on Edmonton mainstages (the Citadel hasn’t done any Pinter for decades). Broken Toys is partly motivated by that. Betrayal is “a different kind of challenge than I thought it would be,” says Carew of a play that is “less oblique,” more rooted in realism, than Pinter’s earlier work, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and the rest. For one thing, it was inspired by Pinter’s own life, his clandestine seven-year affair with BBC TV presenter Joan Bakewell (as he confirmed to biographer Michael Billington). 

“It’s more of a puzzle box than I thought,” says Carew of Betrayal. “There are so many things that make sense once you discover something three or four layers deep. But if you don’t go that far …. ‘Aren’t you interested in discovering clues?’ one character says to another. I think of that as a little shout-out to the director of the play.”

“You look at the script, the actual words, pauses and beats. And you try to discover what there is to discover,” he says. “There’s an ellipsis in Act I that completely changed my view of one of the characters.”

“It’s clever as hell. Almost irritatingly clever. It’s SO on the nose.”



Theatre: Broken Toys Theatre

Written by: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Clinton Carew

Starring: Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook, Cody Porter, Jake Tkaczyk

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

Running: Thursday through June 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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Can’t fight this feeling: Rock of Ages is onstage at the Mayfield next season

By Liz Nicholls,

As the life-coach sages commonly known as Journey have taught us, don’t stop believin’. The Mayfield’s Van Wilmott didn’t.

For months, he’s been working on getting the rights for Rock of Ages, the unrepentantly good-time hair metal jukebox musical spun from danceable ‘80s nostalgia. And he’s succeeded. Next season Rock of Ages, which became Broadway’s guilty pleasure in 2009, plays the Mayfield Dinner Theatre (April 7 to June 7), to revel in the (loud) give-‘er repertoire of the tress-tossing MTV thrasher era — Twisted Sister, Nightranger, Quarterflash, Whitesnake, Poison and the rest.

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These are the hits you know you know even if the name Quarterflash doesn’t quite ring a bell. Can’t fight this feeling, as those poets of the American songbook REO Speedwagon have it.

There is a story — heck, there’s even a subplot via a story that is shamelessly silly (and wouldn’t mind anyone saying so). An air of affectionate self-mockery hangs over the whole enterprise, along with a serious arsenal of hair products. Kate Ryan, who has brought such Mayfield productions as Jesus Christ Superstar, All Shook Up, and Canada 151 to the stage, directs. The whiz-kid video designer T. Erin Gruber (you can see her work in Sister Act, currently running) evokes the dive-bars of L.A. And Leona Brausen, an expert in retro, teases  the coiffures and appoints the Spandex butts.

The upcoming season opens (Sept. 3 to Oct. 27) with another rockin’ jukebox musical with a chart-busting song list. Million Dollar Quartet, last seen here in a 2016 Citadel production, starts from the real-life inspiration of an impromptu jam session in a Memphis recording studio. The young Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis show up. And the hits roll out.

Casting is tricky, as Wilmott points out. “The characters are the band.” The hardest of all to find is the right Jerry Lee Lewis. “I’m working on it,” he says cheerfully. He’ll direct the Mayfield production.

The Yule season show (Nov. 5 to Jan. 26), often the Mayfield’s best-seller and almost always compiled and written by the mysterious Will Marks, is Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion. “The characters are in 1988, at a reunion and re-living their glory days in the ’60s,” says Wilmott of the new creation whose song list is culled from 1960-63, and the rise of girl groups.

Here’s a stand-out from a season heavily weighted to the jukebox musical: The most deluxe of all contemporary farces comes to the Mayfield stage Feb. 4 to March 29. Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, which takes the door-slammer form to a level of complication unsurpassed in modern theatre, intertwines two sex farces, one onstage and one backstage, which collide disastrously on a backwater tour. Jeremy Webb, artistic director of the Neptune Theatre, directs a cast of nine (yet to be announced) who will propel through eight doors, and possibly a window.

The summer musical of 2020 (June 16 to Aug. 2, 2020) is Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, with its canon of Holly hits (owner: Paul McCartney). It’s packed the joint twice before, in 2010 and 2012. Director and cast for the upcoming production are yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, this season continues. Sister Act gets “sanctifunkadelic”through June 9 (see the REVIEW here). After that (June 18 to Aug. 4) it’s Tony Award-winning Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s intricately plotted 1970 cat-and-mouse comic thriller, directed by Marti Maraden and starring Michael Hanrahan and Tyrone Savage.

Tickets and subscriptions: 780-483-4051,

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Peter Oldring is funnier than you: star comedian joins Grindstone’s new comedy fest

Peter Oldring. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

If you got incensed the day your ear was caught by an item on CBC Radio One that the province of Nova Scotia had cancelled Grade 4, you’re not alone. (And you already know something about the way Peter Oldring’s mind works).

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“I can’t believe it! That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” declared one irate listener on the CBC talk-back phone line. “An outrage!” said another, his verbal exclamation point quivering in the air.

The next item, about a roaming walrus discovered on the prairies who’d perambulated some 400 km on the Yellowhead Highway, seemed to put it all in perspective. You, my CBC-listening friend, had just been had by This Is That. Season after season the comedy dreamed up by Oldring (and his creative partner Pat Kelly) rather unerringly nailed the dry and earnest gravitas of interview shows on Canada’s venerable public broadcaster.

Oldring, who arrives in Edmonton tonight to be part of the Grindstone Comedy Theatre’s first-ever comedy festival — along with such comedy stars as Mike Delamont, Rebecca Kohler, Graham Clark and Edmonton’s Caution: May Contain Nuts —  remains impressed by the game willingness of the CBC to support comedy that satirizes public radio, and that “earnest deadpan tone you grew up with listening to.”

“Our idea,” he says of This And That, which ended its nine-season run last year, “was to apply that tone to absolutely outrageous, ridiculous stories and documentaries, interviews, crazy characters.. We were given a very long leash creatively, a great deal of freedom to run with it…”

A puckish and cheerful voice on the phone from his L.A. home earlier this week, the award-winning actor/ comedian chats about his comic muse. And he reflects on the route, full of “well, that sounds like fun” left turns, that’s taken him from small-town Alberta through theatre school and into a cross-border career that includes sketch and improv comedy, and roles of every description in video games, movies, and TV. There’s a fair patch of comic real estate between Corner Gas to House of Cards

“Edmonton, yes!, suspiciously close to where I was born,” says Oldring. Though he left Drayton Valley at age two — “to move to the hustling and bustling metropolis of Castor, AB, think Stettler, go east, think smaller” — he made his mark. “I got a silver spoon as the heaviest baby born in the month of September.”

It was an insightful drama teacher at Sir Winston Churchill High in Calgary who pointed the young Oldring towards Loose Moose, the Calgary improv stronghold. “And that was that,” he says of his teenage self. “Improv, characters, characters, comedy … it was everything I was interested in!” A performer was born in that comedic cauldron. By university Oldring and his buddies — including Kelly — were doing seven improv shows a week, six at comedy clubs, and Sunday night at Loose Moose.

It didn’t leave much time for, well, studying. “But I was a sociology major, and that’s all multiple choice,” he explains. Next came the National Theatre School in Montreal (“I loved it!”). His first two years after graduation were non-stop roles at the country’s regional theatres.

It was “time to get my couch out of storage and sit on it. So I moved to Toronto.” Oldring’s story, as he tells it, owes more to free-association than segués. Toronto was film, TV … ah, and The Second City. Oldring and a cluster of other alumnae from both sides of the border were flown to L.A. to open a Second City locale there, in a back alley off Melrose Avenue. And “I started to get sketch comedy work,” he says of a career chapter that included Blue Collar TV and spin-offs.

And as he explains genially, that circuitous route, primed by cues from teachers, mentors, comedy friends and connections, is how he “packed up two bags and moved in with his now-wife (American actor Sara Erikson) in L.A. “Growing up in Calgary I always knew I wanted to pursue comedy. Always. But I had no real plan about it; I followed the path that began to emerge….”

There’s a certain life improv quality to all this, as he concedes, laughing. “The same improv principles: Listen. Say Yes. And see what develops!”

In both sketch and improv comedy, the creation of scenes is a multi-limbed task, as Oldring points out. “You’re creating a story, a narrative, characters, scenes. You’re writing, acting, directing — wearing all those hats. And I quickly learned that you don’t need to wait for permission to create things.”

He and Kelly started “wouldn’t it be funny if…?” brainstorming. The fake breakfast television show Good Morning World, with its “two bronzed TV hosts in bad-fitting suits,” started on the internet and got picked up by a comedy network. Then came This Is That, the radio show that made CBC execs laugh and perplexed them, in roughly equal measure. “What exactly are we making fun of here, people who read?”

It was “an incredible playground,” he says. “The CBC covers every conceivable range of voice, from the small-town artisanal cheese maker in northern Ontario to the real-estate shark in Vancouver…. As comedians we could have fun with that. We can tell any story, the craziest characters to the long-wondered navel-gazing arts interview….”

“Pat and I aren’t particularly political or driven by headline news,” he says of their shared comic sensibility. “It’s more social and cultural satire, and how we present (those) in media.… When you present in a dry straight way, it’s leaves some responsibility with audiences to (figure out) is this something real or insane.”

Lately the nature of satire and the role of the satirist have, in so many ways, been co-opted by reality. Oldring says “It’s an interesting time for us…. In the last three or four years, the idea of ‘fake news’ has a completely different connotation, with dangerous repercussions. We’ve pulled back; we’ve been a little less hush-hush about this being a comedy show. We’re not trying to fool people.”

“What changed is the media landscape,” Oldring thinks. “There is some value in putting the onus on ourselves as listeners to do a little due diligence.”

The pair has gravitated to podcast space. Dexter Guff Is Smarter Than You stars “a self-help guru, under-qualified over-confident, who shares the tricks of the trade so you can live your very best life. Meanwhile his own life is kinda falling apart,” as Oldring describes a series crammed with entrepreneurial tips and life hacks. This Sounds Serious, about to launch a second season, as “a satirical look at true-crime podcasts.” 

Grindstone Theatre’s The 11 O’Clock Number. Photo supplied.

Oldring, an engaging sort whose conversation is peppered liberally with the word (and concept) “fun,” is taking time out from working on a third season by joining Grindstone’s award-winning The 11 O’Clock Number, a wholly improvised musical spun from audience cues, for two shows  — Thursday at 9 p.m. Friday at 11 p.m. — at the tiny, happening Strathcona club.

As you might expect from his history, Oldring seems blithely unfazed by this prospect. “I’m packing my tap shoes, bowler, cane…. Yes, I’m literally coming to Edmonton to sing for my supper. Which could go horribly horribly wrong!” he says in delight. “It’s exciting. I really don’t know what to expect!”


Grindstone Comedy Festival

Where: Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro, 19919 81 Ave.

Running: tonight through Sunday

Tickets (and full schedule):

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A kickstart for Chekhovian ennui: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Shadow. A review.

Coralie Cairns, Davina Stewart, John Sproule, Jamie Cavanagh in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Oh let’s not talk. I’ll keep my sadness to myself,” says a mopey sister to a melancholy brother near the start of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen.

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As the title suggests, the glum, bickering 50-something siblings we meet in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winner, the season finale production at Shadow Theatre, are in a Chekhov mashup. You know, middle-aged disappointment, Russian-style ennui, under-achievement, regret, missed chances, the ineffectual pursuit of lost causes.…

So … comedy, right?

Yup. As the Shadow production demonstrates, there’s spirited fun to be had hanging with dispirited characters whose world view is bleak. And oddly enough their Chekhovian ambivalence actually accommodates Durang’s exasperated, ranting kind of absurdism (though you might not predict it), in this surprisingly mellow and strangely upbeat comedy. Or maybe it’s a question of Durang reflecting on the earlier Durang of such gleefully splenetic outbursts as Sister Mary Explains It All For You, Laughing Wild, Betty’s Summer Vacation.

Anyhow, even nostalgia is depressing in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Sonia fondly remembers dear old dad in his glory days before he lost his mind, his special endearment (“he called me his little artichoke” and he even liked artichokes!), and the heartwarming fact “he never molested me.” Vanya remembers as if it were yesterday incurring dad’s wrath, at the tender age of seven, when he didn’t know who wrote The Imaginary Invalid

Anyhow, with differing degrees of resentment and resignation, Vanya and Sonia have put their lives on indefinite hold in the family home in the Pennsylvania outback, taking care of aging, then dying, now dead, parents, profs who’d had an unfortunate affinity for community theatre.

And these days they occupy themselves arguing whether 10 cherry trees constitutes an orchard. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is peppered liberally with every sort of Chekhov allusion, should you be of a mind to savour them, as scrambled among the characters.

A beautiful, comfy, bookish sort of prof house is before us, in every detail, in Daniel Van Heyst’s outstanding design. And you’ll laugh out loud when you see Leona Brausen’s costumes, starting with Vanya’s nightshirt and Sonia’s defeated-person’s bathrobe and Crocs. Coralie Cairns and John Sproule play along the whole keyboard of sighs, accompanied by Sonia’s cadenzas of tearful Chekhovian asides: “I’m in mourning for my life,” “I haven’t lived,” “I hate my life.”

Their only companion, is a housekeeper Cassandra (Michelle Todd), much given, as per her Greek namesake, in making dire prophecies at length and top volume: “Beware … everything!” 

Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

The unexpected arrival of a third sibling, Masha (Davina Stewart), a glam movie star on the wane, in the company of her latest boy-toy lover Spike (Jamie Cavanagh), is a boot to the butt of this status quo. True, Masha has been off “having a life,” as Sonia fumes. On the other hand, her lucre has been footing the bills back home, and now, a little cash-strapped, she wants to sell it.

Masha, who’s an adrenalized whack-job version of the grand dame actress Arkadina from Chekhov’s The Seagull, is famous — about to be formerly-famous — for her starring role as a nymphomaniac psycho serial murderer in the hit Sexy Killer franchise. And you can see in Stewart’s go-for-the-gusto performance — all tigerish appetite and rampaging narcissism — how she might have landed the role. Cavanagh is very funny as the preening but guileless bimbo Spike, whose solution to everything is to strip, and be admired. He is genuinely oblivious to middle-aged regret.

Rachel Bowron and Davina Stewart. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

When a beguiling neighbour, an adorable aspiring young actress named, yes, Nina (the very amusing Rachel Bowron) arrives, a further rattling of cages happens. Masha is threatened, Vanya is cajoled into a reading of his post-apocalyptic play (à la Constantin’s experimental avant-garde play in The Seagull) and it’s a corker. Oh, and did I mention the costume party next door, in which all family members and assorted hangers-on are assigned (by Masha, of course) supporting roles in Masha’s Disney version of Snow White? Sonia rises above ennui and comes into her own as the Evil Queen in Snow White as played by Maggie Smith on Oscar night, in an absurd accent.

Jamie Cavanagh, John Sproule, Davina Stewart. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

I find that all the comic scenes go on a little long, possibly because both play and this production try a little too hard to be funny, and seem pitched a bit high and cartoonish.  But in a comedy by one of English-language theatre’s great ranters, there is a climactic verbal explosion that’s intentionally extended.

Goaded past endurance by the blithe indifference of Spike to social civilities, like not texting during a play reading, Vanya gets his atrophied dander up. And he lets loose with an all-encompassing full-blooded attack of disaffection with everything about the rude modern world that devalues bona fide human connection — social media, video games, pop culture, cellphones, the 2-D screen world from which quality is so notably absent…. “all worthless, and we don’t even watch the same worthless things together.” Sproule plays it with a kind of rueful, tear-y emotional quality that is a long way from the ferocious blood-letting of the Durang canon.   

How this arrives at an ending that’s not only not savage but downright chipper, maybe even heartwarming, is something I’ll leave you to discover. But there it is, a domestic comedy by Durang that feels happiness is achievable.  “I’m back,” says the terrifying Masha. “My dark night of the soul was very brief.” 


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Christopher Durang

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: John Sproule, Coralie Cairns, Davina Stewart, Jamie Cavanagh, Michelle Todd, Rachel Bowron

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through May 19

Tickets: 780-434-5564,  

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A Man Draws A Bird “because he wants to fly”: theatre, music, and Taiko drumming in a new Booming Tree show

Greg Shimizu and Twilla MacLeod, A Man Draws A Bird. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

As in so many life-changers, there was a moment when it all could have been different. And that was the moment — on one of those lingering Edmonton summer evenings in 2012 — that Greg Shimizu got on his high-end carbon fibre bike to go for a spin.

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Shimizu, a seven-time Canadian national team triathlon athlete, in training for the world championships in his age group, was super-fit, pumped, adrenalized, chafing at the bit after a three-day break in Victoria where his dad was getting an honorary degree. 

His favourite route took him through Hawrelak Park and into the Legislature grounds. He liked it because it was , “treed, peaceful, green, calming.” The last thing he remembers about that ride, “a flicker of a memory really,” was riding down a hill. A van was coming up, and hung a sudden U-turn in front of him. 

The next thing he remembers was opening his eyes in the hospital. “What happened?” asked actor/musician Twilla MacLeod, his partner in life and in Booming Tree Taiko, their drumming duo. The answer was simple, and revealing. “I don’t know.”

Broken bones, cracked ribs and torn-up AC joints eventually mend;  smashed cheekbones reassemble themselves after a traumatic accident. To the naked eye and the mirror, you are your old self. But in the shadowy shifting world of brain injury into which you’re violently reborn, nothing is the same. You are only a reasonable facsimile of you, a doppelgänger not quite put together the same way. For you or your partner. As Shimizu puts it, “I was in the earthquake; Twilla was hit by the tsunami….”

Twilla MacLeod and Greg Shimizu, A Man Draws A Bird. Photo supplied.

That’s the world into which Shimizu and MacLeod take us in A Man Draws A Bird, a unique fusion of theatre, true story, music, and Taiko drumming premiering tonight at the Backstage Theatre. A show about identity — “part theatre/ part concert” as MacLeod puts it — it was developed with the material assistance of the Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award.

“We didn’t hear the word ‘concussion’ at all,” says MacLeod of the aftermath of Shimizu’s accident seven years ago. Five hours later, Shimizu was home.

His nightmare was about to begin. “You assume your (inner) computer processor will just re-boot,” he says. “It’s like the first time you’re drunk, and you think what the hell’s the matter with me? And you assume that you’ll bounce back, like a hangover, that everything will be all right.”

What ensued was seven years of crushing fatigue, constant headaches, sleeplessness, and the sense that a self had somehow fractured and slipped away, in shards. Shimizu has been “the reverse of a vampire; night is the worst time for me,” he says. “Concussion slowly, slowly, takes things from your life…. Your work, your relationships with people, your energy, your focus, your personality.” Ah, and your memory. Who are you without your memories?

The commonplace advice to “rest,” proved counter-productive for Shimizu. “I have to make myself do things! It’s like walking on fire; you have to keep moving to distract you from pain…”

“It takes so much more energy to do things,” says the vigorous, vivid multi-tasker, one of the world’s natural extroverts. In addition to age-group triathlons and Taiko drumming, Shimizu had owned, and worked, the Whyte Avenue bar/cafe The Pour House. It was too much: He had to sell it, a further blow to his sense of self. But Booming Tree he couldn’t give up. “It gave Greg so much joy,” says MacLeod of the duo that performs at a wide variety of Edmonton events and festivals.

“I couldn’t let (concussion) take away our Taiko,” says Shimizu, an activist for brain injury causes. “It’s the glue that holds us together, connects us to each other and who we are….” Macleod nod. “It’s our craft and our identity.”

Unlike his partner (MacLeod is a U of A theatre and music grad), Shimizu isn’t a trained actor. Now, in the expanding sense of possibility that A Man Draws A Bird has galvanized, his creative energy is directed into performing in an original theatre piece spun from his own experience. Together the pair has gathered collaborators, including Newfoundland-based playwright/director Charlie Tomlinson and jazz musician Farley Scott.

MacLeod describes the score, which includes seven original songs, as a “folky, roots, old-style country” melange. Taiko drumming is there, not as part of that score but “because it’s a big part of our life,” says MacLeod of Booming Tree. “Taiko is such a big powerful voice,” she says of the challenging, highly physical Japanese art form. “And our story is mall.”

Rehearsals haven’t been without challenges, as MacLeod and Shimizu point out. If memory is problematic in the story, it remains so in real life too. And Shimizu can’t ever quite predict when his energy is going to crash.

But “in year 7 I’m SO much better,” grins Shimizu. “And this is is cathartic!” says MacLeod. “A man draws a bird because he wants to fly…. It’s not ‘woe is me’. It’s about survival, and the music is all happy!”


A Man Draws A Bird

Theatre: Booming Tree and Fringe Theatre Adventures

Created by and starring: Twilla MacLeod and Greg Shimizu

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

Running: tonight through May 11


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Have you met our new friend? thoughts on Nassim at the Citadel

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

There are many things I can’t tell you about Nassim (tempting though it is).

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(a) It just wouldn’t be fair. The show created by the Iranian playwright artist Nassim Soleimanpour, who travels the world with it, is not only surprising, but it’s actually designed as a surprise — for you, and for the actor who’s in it. And (b) it wouldn’t even be revealing. At every performance, a different local actor walks out onstage in Nassim and sees the script, and its stage directions, for the first time. The old theatre truism that every show is a different experience is on the money!

Nassim. Photo supplied.

Sometimes the playwright’s instructions are flat and precise (“read whatever appears on the screen in a loud voice”). Sometimes they’re puckish and you have the fun of watching a top-flight actor put on the spot. Sometimes they’re open-ended and enigmatic; reflexes are tested and choices are called for. Nassim is playful that way, an impromptu theatrical encounter between a resourceful playwright and his audience via a game actor.

On Tuesday night, that actor was the alert, impressively dexterous Belinda Cornish who is (not coincidentally) a star improviser. She gave every indication of enjoying herself in the course of connecting with her new friend. And we got to meet the quick-witted Soleimanpour himself, in person this time, though silent, as a stage partner/stage manager/actor’s assistant. Jeff Haslam, Farren Timoteo, NASRA, Sarah Chan and John Ullyatt get their turn in Nassim in the course of the week.

In Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a sort of animal fable/adventure about the ripple effects of oppression which played the 2013 Canoe Festival, the actor onstage has never seen the script before he/she/they open a sealed envelope onstage. Since playwright was prevented by the regime from leaving the country, that fable had a personal and political edge: Soleimanpour had never been able to see his own play onstage in his own language, Farsi. 

Now Soleimanpour can travel (he lives in Berlin), though his plays have never been performed in his home country or language. Onstage the playwright has a certain playful charm about him. And that sweet quality fuels a play that’s all about language, and making friends across the language divide. Nassim is also about what we share — a complex wistfulness about home and what that means, the universal urge to tell stories that start with “once upon a time.”

Is Nassim a play? So much of it fractures, or winks at, the usual framing of plays you’re thinking that, no, it’s in a theatre but why not call it a theatrical experience instead? And yet it is a play: there are characters who connect, there are stories, there’s an arc. This much I can tell you: What happens will captivate you, make you smile and sometimes laugh, and in the end touch your heart. 

Nassim runs through Sunday in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre. You’ll never have seen anything quite like it. Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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