Dressing the stars: a star designer. Leona Brausen creates stroll-by theatre in a costume installation at the Varscona

The figure of Viola Desmond in Hero Material, a Leona Brausen costume installation at the Varscona Theatre. Photo by Davina Stewart

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

So what do wealthy socialites wear to dinner parties in ‘30s Budapest anyhow? Or to auctions in ’20s upstate New York?

Breezy playboys in ‘50s Manhattan with their pleated trousers, worn high and sharp like their wits? Meat-packing magnates and their spoiled offspring in ‘80s Edmonton? Earnest graduates of the Southern Ontario Business College For Women, on mind-broadening trips abroad in the ‘30s?

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Leona Brausen has dressed them. For nearly four decades, she has been designing impeccable vintage costumes for theatre, and especially for Teatro La Quindicina, purveyors par excellence of original period comedy. Costumes that — in motion, with characters inside them — identify a time and a place with as much precision and wit as any set piece, or shard of exposition, or stage direction.

Now, when we can’t actually go into theatres, you can see Brausen’s work in a stroll-by theatrical experience. She has dipped into her vast personal hoard of vintage costumes, wigs, and accessories to create the costume installation that now occupies the Varscona Theatre front windows on 83 Ave. Hero Material, which opened on International Women’s Day (produced by fellow actor/improv partner Davina Stewart), is an homage to four inspiring and influential Canadian women, each with a distinctive story and look.

First to be conjured, till the end of the month, is black activist/entrepreneur Viola Desmond, who fought racial segregation in the ‘40s. After that, Emily Carr, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and k.d. lang in three-week runs.

The Viola Desmond accessory display, Hero Material, a Leona Brausen costume installation at the Varscona Theatre. Photo by Davina Stewart.

The Viola Desmond mannequin, whose hair is a coiffed mauve roll of a ‘do, dominates one window in a splendidly cut ‘40s suit, with covered buttons and big ‘40s shoulders. She’s clutching gloves, with a coat slung over one arm. Stewart wore that suit as the redoubtable theatre pioneer Mrs. Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, after whom Edmonton’s theatre awards are named, in Darrin Hagen’s play Witch Hunt at the Strand. Cathleen Rootsaert wore it as Mrs. Elvsted in a Teatro production of Hedda Gabler (Stewart was in the title role).

Another window showcases a collage of accessories, including a ‘40s perfume bottle, and various cosmetic accoutrements (Desmond was the proprietor of a beauty product line designed for black women).

“Leona doesn’t build, she finds,” says Teatro’s Stewart Lemoine, her admiring old friend from high school, and the playwright with whom Brausen has most often worked as an actor and designer. Their shows together date back to Teatro’s birth at the very first Fringe with a new comedy, All These Heels. Brausen played, as she has described it succinctly, “a lady spy who smoked.”

Where does she do the finding? Deep-diving into her own inventory. The astonishing Brausen collection of suits, coats, hats, frocks, shoes, wigs, purses is crammed into her north-end house (the shoe department is in the basement) and backyard shed. In the period Brausen (and Teatro) loves, the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, Teatro actors don’t wear replicas; they wear originals, acquired by Brausen pre-emptively shopping here and there, especially New York and London vintage shops.

Mother of the Year, Teatro La Quindicina (an ’80s comedy spun from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus). Costumes by Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

“She’s pretty uncompromising in terms of accuracy. The costumes are perfectly of the period,” says Lemoine. “But they suddenly become something the actors would wear… Everybody wears the clothes of the time; they look right. But everybody has a sense of themselves too. As well as the character.”

Andrea House in Skirts On Fire, set in ’50s Manhattan. Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

And there’s a kind of genius in that. “Leona is particular about the look … and here’s how to make it look good on you!” No wonder actors really enjoy costume fittings with Brausen. “They have the most laughs in the country because Leona is hilarious,” says actor/director Ron Pederson, whose long list of Teatro starring roles goes back to his 14-year-old self (he often calls Teatro his education). Lemoine’s Shocker’s Delight is his favourite play ever; he was in the 2004 revival and directed a production of it in 2017.   

“The word is VIVID,” he says on the subject of Brausen costumes. “When you put a Leona costume on you suddenly know what to do as an actor; it gives you the who, what, when and the where instantly. She’s put me in lederhosen, smoking jackets tuxedos, pyjamas, wigs, tights, hats, all Stratford quality and usually divined and found like magic…. It’s also a miracle how things fit just from her eyeballing it.”

“Leona’s work always does half the actors job; and often most of the scenery’s job too.”

For a small company with a taste for period comedy in exotic locations (like Venice in the ‘50s or Providence Rhode Island 1931, or the Eaton’s cafeteria in Winnipeg c. 1966), Brausen’s costumes are indispensable, says Lemoine. “They fill in gaps in place and time.”

How do you convey Jasper National Park in the ‘50s, the setting for Lemoine’s 2011 comedy Mrs. Lindeman Proposes, without a bunch of mountains or a chalet? “Leona did a major plaid dump,” says Lemoine. “So many plaids onstage that … supplied a rustic kind of quality, and evoked the era, kind of an elegant outdoorsy look.”

Shannon Blanchet, centre, in Mrs. Lindeman Proposes, Teatro La Quindicina. Costumes by Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

In that comedy Shannon Blanchet wore “costume I would live in if I could,” she says. “A full swishy purple skirt with a plaid shirt, fantastic wide poodle-studded belt (with matching red shoes), plaid blouse with wide brim hat. I have never felt prettier onstage that I did in that costume. Appropriate because my character Margot Mitchinson, was in pursuit of beauty and romance, to a fault.”

For the fast-talker character Dominica D’Eath Blanchet played in The Salon of the Talking Turk, set in ’20s New York, Brausen arrived  “with this insanely perfect wig” à la Louise Brooks. And she even brought perfume so Louise Lambert and I could smell our characters. Come on, how amazing is that!?”

Andrew MacDonald-Smith in yellow shoes (left), in The Scent of Compulsion, Teatro La Quindicina. Costume designer Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

Teatro star Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the company’s new co-artistic producer (with Belinda Cornish), has a favourite Brausen costume piece. For The Scent of Compulsion, a Lemoine screwball set in the early 70s, “Leona found these incredible yellow shoes for my character,” he says. “They were by far the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, but I couldn’t let them go. I wouldn’t take them off when I wasn’t on stage to relieve my poor feet for even a brief moment ….Every costume in that show was a revelation, but those shoes still appear in my dreams for eternity.”

Blanchet has one of those fixations, too. For The Infinite Shiver, “the script had me enter in a Rosie the Riveter look. Leona found these amazing jeans that, as with many pieces over the years, I offered to buy from her after the run…. Unfortunately for me, they were so unique that Leona wanted to keep them in her collection long-term.”

“Had I been thinking clearly at the time I would have murdered her for them,” she jokes. “This is the power of Leona Brausen. Her work inspires you to push yourself to new places….”

Footnote: Brausen once kitted me out for a Halloween foray as “a salad person.” It’s not easy to imagine how to transform someone into lettuce for a night out, but she did: green leafy everything, including hair. The wooden tongs around my neck were a nice touch.

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Here’s welcome news: EPCOR boosts Heart + Soul Fund with an additional $1 million`

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a devastating year for the city’s performing arts, EPCOR has again stepped up with welcome news and a boost. At a press conference Monday the Edmonton utility announced an additional $1 million infusion to its $1.25 million Heart + Soul Fund.

That community recovery fund was launched last August to support Edmonton’s hard-hit arts, cultural and charitable organizations through the bleak pandemic time. It was designed, as EPCOR CEO Stuart Lee put it at the time, to “re-energize” a city whose vibrancy and identity are so inextricably linked, heart and soul, to the very sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

And as we found out, artists and audiences alike, Heart + Soul grants have made a big difference in this theatre town. They were put to a wide variety of uses, by theatre companies of every size and shape. Some grants were used to transform in-person to virtual experiences, or to modify venues for changing pandemic restrictions and closures. Streaming equipment was acquired; production costs or artist fees were covered, along with losses in ticket revenue; programming was re-thought, new marketing initiatives launched, safety measures implemented.

A Christmas Carol, the digital version of the Citadel Theatre production, assisted by a Heart + Soul grant. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

In all, some 47 arts, culture, and charitable organization received Heart + Soul funding in 2020. One hundred and eight new works were produced by 13 Edmonton theatres; 440 artists had Heart + Soul support; six festivals were able to offer virtual and in-person experiences; seven performance programs featured Indigenous art.

The $1 million second round of one-time only Heart + Soul grants, varying in size from $5,000 to $100,000, is at hand. And resourceful arts companies can use them in a multiplicity of ways.

Theatres, this means you! And if you were successful in the last round, you can apply again, with a new idea or initiative for negotiating the challenges of the time

Again, capital projects are not eligible. Applications (available, with further details, at epcor.com/heartandsoul) are accepted starting now, until the additional $1 million is used up.

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Live theatre. It’s been a year, and Act II awaits

Glenn Nelson, Amber Borotsik in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre, March 2020. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hard to believe. But it’s been a year.

One year ago (or a lifetime) this very weekend our lives changed. In  ways that don’t feel temporary.

I went to the opening of Heisenberg at Shadow Theatre on the evening of March 12, and The Children, a Wild Side production, the next night. That was the evening the Citadel premiere production of The Garneau Block had its final dress rehearsal. And everything ended.

Or  did it?

It’s unquestionably been a year of overwhelming damage for theatre artists, indeed for the entire performing arts industry. Jobs, livelihoods vanished overnight, whole companies alongside creative projects still in the dreaming stage. The raison d’être of live theatre as a connection, exciting, surprising, and kinetic, between real people — artists and their audiences — sharing a room, seemed untenably dangerous, if not suddenly obsolete at very least on hold indefinitely. A close-to-the-bone operation at the best of times, theatre and its chief investors, its artists, have never sat on margins to cushion that fracturing fall.

If this year has been a long and devastating intermission, with irreplaceable losses, Act II promises to be very different from Act I. Not least its because our theatre practitioners, in sudden forced exile from their usual habitat, stepped up, with inspiring resourcefulness and invention, to learn and devise ways to connect with audiences when the video screen is a venue and not just a plus.

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Little did I know that breaking the fourth wall, the mantra of immersive theatre, would be simplicity itself compared to breaking all the other walls that are built into digital technology.  And since March 13 2020 our resilient theatre practitioners have gotten more and more ingenious in their experiments. They’re quick learners. And they, along with their audiences, have had a chance to appreciate the work and spirit of companies from the Great Elsewhere too.

Act II, and the return to live theatre that’s live and not just a reminder (however imaginative a simulation) of what live is like, won’t be a mere continuation. Theatre has had to re-assess its own industry power structures, moved by the socio-cultural currents of the year towards greater diversity and a wider ethnic embrace of creative talent and audiences that reflect that.

Live theatre will be, must be, back after this terrible year. However gradually after so much loss, we will be together again. That much feels certain now. Its dimensions, its connection with a broader audience, its creative impulses … those remain to be discovered. Art will happen that helps us do just that.

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Finding a path forward for the Edmonton Fringe: Adam Mitchell has thoughts about that as he leaves the festival

Adam Mitchel, Executive Director of Edmonton Fringe Theatre, Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In 25 years at the Fringe, he’s been the production manager, the technical director, the operations manager for a 33,000 square foot multi-theatre complex that started out as a bus barn. He’s been a Fringe venue technician, a show operator, a stage carpenter. He’s made theatres out of spaces that used to be greasy spoons, storage units, community halls; he’s built sets for indie theatres with big ideas and teeny budgets.

On March 26, after five years as the executive director of  Edmonton Fringe Theatre, Adam Mitchell officially steps away from the administrative job at the head of the theatre company that produces the continent’s oldest and largest fringe festival. A job poised delicately between artists, audiences, volunteers, infrastructure that is epically complicated, by any standards. And it just  got more tangled and demanding in the course of the most difficult, damaging, and trying 12 months that live theatre could possibly have.

Is that a wisp of the wistful in his voice? “It’s no doubt,” says Mitchell, who was born in Edmonton and grew up in Winnipeg, “that I’m leaving a place I love more than any other I’ve worked at….”

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He tried to leave the Fringe once before, last year about this time. “I needed to re-charge my batteries,” Mitchell says simply. But it was “on the precipice of the pandemic,” so he was persuaded to stay. “Actually,” he laughs ruefully, “the challenge and chaos of the past year was quite rejuvenating … for all the wrong reasons. And it’s better to walk out feeling amazing about what we’d accomplished.”

That “challenge and chaos of the past year” have been, at heart, what exactly to do, times being what they are, with a festival that is the grassroots quintessence of the forbidden: live shoulder-to-rib gathering in intimate spaces. In the golden Before Time, the Fringe of 2019 had 258 shows from here, across the country and around the globe, in 50 venues, sold 147,358 tickets, and attracted a crowd surpassing three-quarters of a million. In the strange and uncertain world into which we were flung last spring, when the world still thought that pandemics had closing nights, the Fringe of 2020, aka “The Fringe That Never Was,” went from building stages to building platforms.

The festival figured out on the fly how to live-stream, create a video-streaming platform, support artist shows displaced by the pandemic into the ether, and generally be there in some fashion for a town where the mighty Fringe organizes the summer calendar.

A thoughtful sort of leader who seems to have a remarkable resistance to panic, Mitchell says “the Fringe, its community engagement, its relationship with artists, volunteers, patrons, have evolved in the last five or six years … and the way we have really focussed on supporting independent artists in their creative journeys” past August and into the theatre season.

The “re-envisioning of the Arts Barn as a community cultural hub” that was in progress at the Fringe in February 2020, “taking the essence of what the festival is, and applying it to the building — are now the building blocks with which we can help the community rebuild.”

“What can we do? What should we do right now?” Those were the critical questions for the Fringe in March 2020, “because we had no choice!” And they were quickly followed, says Mitchell, by this question: “if we invest in tools, in streaming equipment, in FringeTV the platform, would they be useful (to us and to other companies) beyond the days of The Fringe That Never Was?”

I guess we know the answer. And when some reduced distanced in-person audiences were allowed for a time last fall, “we had an immediate purpose for the building, too,” says Mitchell. “It gave us time to take what we were learning into our planning for 2021,” and Fringe #40.   

Edmonton Fringe Theatre’s Executive Director Adam Mitchel. Photo supplied.

A collaborator by nature, Mitchell is much more drawn to the pronoun “we” than “I” — not least because he appreciates his lively complementary rapport with Fringe artistic director (and actor/ playwright/ director) Murray Utas. “We don’t disagree very often; we volley ideas back and forth till we find the elegant solution! Mitchell is “so excited” that playwright/ events producer Megan Dart, Fringe Theatre’s communications specialist” will be interim Executive Director. “Perfect!”

“I’m very fortunate because, in whatever role I’ve had, I’ve always managed to be a collaborator with the artist in the room, whether a designer, a director … I really believe in the value of that type of collaboration; it’s part of the magic of what we’ve created at the Fringe.”

Mitchell, a graduate of the U of A’s technical theatre program, is steeped in Fringe, the concept and the execution. His first Fringe experience was in the late ‘90s, as a techie at both the Winnipeg and Edmonton festivals. Then he became the technical director of both Fringes, the two largest in the country. In Edmonton, his first year in the job was the Fringe’s last in the old Bus Barns, before the rebuild that opened as the Arts Barn in 2003.

Fringe touring? Mitchell has done that, with the sketch comedy troupe The Spleen Jockeys, and with Rick Miller, the star and creator of the widely travelled Fringe hits MacHomer and Bigger Than Jesus. “I got to see venues across North America — and hang out with a very cool artist. It was fun,” he says.

Theatre production resumés don’t come much more blue-chip and varied than Mitchell’s. He’s been the U of A drama department’s production manager, and the technical director at the Timms Centre for the Arts. He’s been the production manager at the Arden Theatre, the St. Albert Children’s Theatre, and the Kids’ Fest.

And he has big theatre experience too. He landed a “dream job” as the mainstage technical director for Canada’s oldest regional company, the venerable Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “After the very modern program at the U of A, and years of working in the scrappy indie theatre world, it was (like) going back to school.” Mitchell’s wife Keri Mitchell, the executive director of Theatre Alberta, headed the RMTC’s education and outreach programs.

“When I came back to the Fringe in 2015 (as executive director), I was coming home,” he says. And leaving that home wasn’t an easy decision. “I’m going back over to the production side,” he says of a theatre career that began with carpentry. Meet the new manager of Rock Solid Custom Cases, a locally-owned family-run 35-year-old outfit specializing in creating road cases for entertainment touring. It was recently bought by FM Systems (the audio production company that has long supplied Fringe venues, as well as the Grey Cup and the Junos).

Meanwhile Mitchell, the maestro of contingencies, has spent the last 12 months juggling multiple possibilities for Fringe 2021. Certainties are in short supply — beyond this one, perhaps: “it is not realistic to say we’re going to on the other side of COVID by August this year.” Health and travel restrictions, safety rules governing gathering, social distancing, house capacities, the zeitgeist for that matter, are all in a state of continual flux. How can there be a fixed Plan A with a back-up B? No, try F or G, or Q, and avoid “plan” in favour of “possible scenario.”

“We’re trying to extrapolate from what we’ve learned on the digital side, and create the opportunity for artists to build and simul-cast a version of their show for consumption over the internet,” says Mitchell of this year’s edition of our summer theatre extravaganza.

He’s hopeful that alongside the digital, “artists and audiences will be connecting again live in the theatre“ to some extent, however restricted that live indoor audience might have to be. Ideally, artists can sell whatever limited number of tickets for live consumption are available, and also market their show online.

The scale of the 40th annual Fringe will be strikingly different from its decades of predecessors. Mitchell can imagine, depending on restrictions, five or so lotteried venues and a handful of BYOVs, with a preference for cabaret-style seating and a dual focus: “maximizing safety and the ability to film.” The aim, says Mitchell, is “an aesthetic and a standard that honours the live theatre experience, and doesn’t try to be film or TV, but is still better than a single-camera locked in at the back of the house.”

Worst-case scenario: “if we’re not able to have a live audience indoor audience at all but can still facilitate live streams and film for local companies, we will do that.” And he and the Fringe team have considered every possible gradation in between.

“At the end if the day we believe the live theatre experience is what theatre is about…. We don’t want to compete with Netflix but we believe people still want to support creations by local artists in their community!”

“We’ve accomplished an incredible amount with a small team,” a fraction of the usual Fringe size, says Mitchell. “We remind ourselves every day that we’re the fortunate ones; the people we’re doing it for aren’t working right now.”

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Finding your own story: Dana Wylie’s Makings of a Voice at SkirtsAfire

Makings of a Voice, by and starring Dana Wylie. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’m right here with you right now,” says Dana Wylie, looking intently right into our eyes at the outset of Makings of a Voice. Against the probabilities and across the screen (the defining demarcation of the times), damned if that isn’t how it feels.

Curious and rather wonderful, since Wylie’s solo “theatrical song cycle” comes at us (online) in the middle of a pandemic from the middle of a mysteriously vast, expansible, dark space that isn’t a stage, or maybe even a place. There Wylie is, gazing at us and holding our gaze, from a sort of arena circumscribed by lights, like a landing pad in the mind (designer: Elise CM Jason).

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There are domestic touches, a lamp and painting; there are cosmic touches — a suspended slatted wooden orb that might be the moon or a rustic rendering of the moon (lighting by T. Erin Gruber). And there is a guitar.

If the world had been a different place, this unusual piece, which gets its premiere on this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival digital mainstage, would have been in a theatre (the Westbury at the Fringe). And Wylie would have been there onstage accompanied by three live musicians. But Vanessa Sabourin’s production, filmed in the empty, echoey old Army & Navy in Strathcona, has a kind of between-worlds dislocation that isn’t misplaced in a memoir from an artist making a return to a realm, the theatre, she left a decade ago to be in another, as a singer-songwriter.

And one of Wylie’s fortes as a performer, as you’ll experience in this odd and lovely show, is her conversational, direct-in-your-ear intimacy, backed up visually by Andrea Beça’s film-making, with its artful array of angled close-ups.

“We need to know we have a story,” Wylie tells us, from personal experience. “We need to know we are a story.” The term “narratable” doesn’t exactly shimmer (it’s new to me, and I probably won’t be using it any time soon), but, hey, it’s the only show in town where it comes into its own. The enigmatic title Makings of a Voice (lifted from a Wylie lyric) actually fashions a shape and a structure — which calls out for music, and gets it, original songs woven with spoken text. “I have the makings of a voice; I need a song, a source, a well.”

Dana Wylie, creator and star of Makings of a Voice. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

The dramatic proposition of Makings of a Voice is that Wylie the artist and mother feels in need of a story, one that will weave the intergenerational strands of the maternal line (every daughter has a mother who has a mother who has a mother) together into a compelling inheritance:  “access to a cosmic source of creativity.”

As Wylie puts it, memorably, “I careened into my 30s as if I’d been flung from a faulty carnival ride….” And the impending birth of Wylie’s second child seems to make her quest  for a family story urgent. She’s sure she has one when she discovers, by chance a heroic anecdote about her great-grandmother Millie. And she, as the inheritor, will be empowered to have it all — baby, PhD, globe-trotting career.

Then there’s a crash: it’s a story about abandoning one affirming story and scrambling to find yourself another. I leave you to the pleasures of discovering the narrative route, where poetry meets drama. It doesn’t place Wylie’s songs the way musical theatre would. They do come at critical moments, yes, but they’re for second thoughts and reflections. And there’s this: music fans know know this already, I’m sure, but Wylie’s voice is luminous, clear with warm depths. Somehow she has the actor’s ability to make poetic lyrics seem possible as conversations with you.

There are lessons to be learned, including an appreciation for a heroism that’s quieter, more quotidian, more mundane than the borrowed narrative arcs of “the patriarchy culture” might invite. This will sound off-putting, and more abstract than it is, not least because the word “patriarchy” isn’t exactly lyrical. But the show is carefully, gracefully constructed; it’s built on birth — as both the most visceral and metaphorically powerful of experiences — and self-discovery. They are, after all, the exit from one world and the entrance into another.

“I will rhyme, I will chime, I will vibrate like a bell,” Wylie sings at one point. In Makings of a Voice, she does all three.

12thnight.ca interviews Dana Wylie here.

REVIEW

Makings of a Voice

SkirtsAfire Festival 2021

Written and performed by: Dana Wylie

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: streaming on Fringe TV

Running: through March 14

Tickets: skirtsafire.com

 

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Makings of a Voice: the SkirtsAfire premiere brings Dana Wylie back to the theatre

Dana Wylie in Makings of a Voice, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by April MacDonald-Killins.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I don’t know who I am and where I fit into this world….”   

It’s one of those thoughts that touches down universally, and comes with its own personal question mark. And for a creative artist like singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, a questing traveller of an artist if there ever was one, it was a provocation.

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It happened when Wylie was seven months pregnant with her second child in 2019, prompted by the companion thought that “in order to bring this child into the world I need to know….” And it’s the seed of Makings of a Voice, a solo “theatrical song cycle” that premieres Monday on the SkirtsAfire digital “mainstage.”

It marks the return of Wylie to theatre and acting, the world she left a decade ago to forge a career in music. It’s not exactly a play, as she describes, though there are characters (and an alter-ego protagonist named Dana). And it’s not exactly a musical revue or a cabaret, though it’s a memoir of sorts, and full of her original music. Part of her unusual creation is a story about storytelling: “The story I’m telling — it’s quite non-linear — is me trying to find my story and trying to tell that story.”

The setbacks and careening turns in that process are part of the story. “Just before I started writing it, I was told a story I’d never been told before…” says Wylie, who’s impressively insightful about artistic creation. “My great grandmother had marched in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, had been arrested for hitting a cop over the head with something, and had spent the night in jail.” A mystery: why was this not something the Wylies tell and re-tell, she wondered, a highlight of every Christmas dinner?

So Wylie felt empowered. “For the first time the character senses a point of connection with (her) maternal line … with a lefty, a socialist, a bad-ass rabble-rouser,” as Wylie puts it. I can feel like I come from somebody awesome…. Great Baba Millie becomes a real protagonist!”

“And because I was trying to engage with her past,” Wylie consulted Google. And there it was, in a junior edition of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1920, a picture of Great Baba Millie as a 12-year-old, part of a group of kids who’d won a Christmas writing competition.” And Wylie did the math, and knew the Strike story couldn’t be true. “It pulled the rug out from the writing process.”

“It had to go into the show,” says Wylie, of this deflating news. The story gods giveth and they taketh away. She found that revelation to be “personally as well as dramatically rich.” As the show took shape, it dislodged a narrative with a hero, “a bad-ass super-hero,” into a zone that’s “much more culturally complex than … the narratives that belong to our contemporary Western patriarchal culture.”

Dana Wylie, creator and star of Makings of a Voice. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

“Then I’m just left with myself, and ultimately I have to be OK with that, with knowing, from my family history, that people have lived complicated lives and haven’t done heroic things. I can’t continue to insist to myself I be defined  by a story based on a hero’s journey.” Identity, lineage, and more specifically motherhood, make other kinds of demands than owning a heroic backstory. “It requires so much more than individual anything!”

There’s nothing predictable about the Wylie story, with its unplanned route from theatre into the world of music (and critically acclaimed albums). Not long after she graduated from MacEwan, and was out in the world working in musical theatre, “I just started writing songs; I’d never written songs before and I don’t exactly remember why.…” And not long after that came the realization that “this is what I want to do, I’m a musician in my heart more than I’m an actor. As I met more and more musicians I knew ‘this actually is my tribe’.”

Makings of a Voice, by and starring Dana Wylie. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

At first her songs were of the musical theatre ilk, she laughs. “That was the world I was coming from; they all had a dramatic arc and went somewhere and someone learned something. I wasn’t well-versed in folk music, and certainly not pop, where you can be overcome by a feeling and just ruminate, where you can be in a place, and just be….”

Then Wylie up and moved to Taiwan, in search of a job teaching English and a cheaper way to live.

“Unbeknownst to me there was a rich scene of ex-pat artists of all kinds and music in particular that I fell into,” says Wylie. “And I ended up cutting my teeth (as a musician) there. I played in so many different kinds of bands, blues, bluegrass…. I really learned how to be a musician there, how to do gigs, how to do the equipment.”

Though big-cast musicals at the big regional theatres, the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre Calgary and others, occasionally came her way (Camelot, Evita…) a singer-songwriter had been born. “I didn’t know myself well but I had a sense that I wasn’t driven enough” to be in the high-stress world of auditioning actors, “living in a big city, being hungry and hustling for jobs…. I came into theatre working with (the late Edmonton musical theatre indie) Leave It To Jane. And I loved its smallness, the inventiveness of having four boxes instead of a set. There’s something that fires my imagination about that.”

Says Wylie, “I’m the same in the recording studio. I don’t mind having limits, budget or technical. That’s when my imagination comes alive…. Here’s what we can do!”

Maybe that’s why she hasn’t been entirely flummoxed by the serial pandemical limitations that have seen Makings of a Voice re-thought from a cancelled Fringe premiere last summer to a cancelled live premiere for a live SkirtsAfire audience, to the digital solo production shot at the old Army & Navy in Strathcona, minus the three musicians who were to have been onstage with her. “It’s a team of amazing creative people, really up for it!” she says feelingly of SkirtsAfire. “People who just take on the limitations, happily, and say ‘let’s come up with cool ideas….’.”

It was during three years in England, living in a little village north of London, that Wylie took a deep dive into the great “folk tradition,” and began to explore the sacred canon, Dylan and Mitchell and the rest. She and her English musician boyfriend constantly jammed in folk clubs and pubs. “It sounded very foreign to me at first; my ears didn’t quite get it. But once I got into it, the whole idea of a roots, of a deep cultural tradition, was very appealing to me, especially as a western Canadian.”

Just back from England in 2008, Wylie got a gig at the Mayfield, in the musical The Full Monty. And she actually lived at that hotel for a while. But musical theatre couldn’t woo her back. Wylie thinks of Makings of a Voice as “a way of integrating my background in music (which includes a U of A degree in musicology) with my background in theatre.”

After 10 years (her last theatre appearance was Kenneth Brown’s Cowboy Poetry), Wylie says “I don’t really consider myself an actor any more…. I feel more comfortable with storytelling; that’s what I love to do onstage, between songs. I’m a performer; that’s who I am. That’s what I do.”

But, under the direction of Vanessa Sabourin, a fine actor herself, Wylie has been nudged towards embodying the characters she’s written into the script. “And I’ve been looking forward to finding out what it feels like to be an actor as the person I am now, a 41-year-old instead of a 31-year-old.”

“It’s been a personal process,” says Wylie of creating Makings of a Voice. “And at points I’ve thought ‘who cares? does the world really need this story right now? is it just my story?’. And that’s all part of the narrative…. We don’t know how much we share; that’s the beautiful thing about sharing stories.”

In a world steeped in not-knowing, “I feel more seen, and I hope other people watching feel more seen too…. What I’d like to put out into the world, is whoever you are, wherever you are, however messy this all feels, you’re good!.”

PREVIEW

Makings of a Voice

SkirtsAfire Festival 2021

Created by and starring: Dana Wylie

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: streaming on Fringe TV

Running: March 8 to 14

Tickets: skirtsafire.com

 

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A concert for our time: UnCovered 2021 crosses the country on (digital) tour and arrives at Catalyst

Divine Brown, UnCovered: Notes From The Heart. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Your place. Saturday night. Drinks, snacks, songs. A cross-country meet-up between two of the country’s most distinctive theatre companies.

One is Toronto’s Musical Stage Company, a company with a musical theatre heart and a remarkable blue-chip record in developing, producing, and presenting them. The other (your genial presenter) is Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, whose original innovative musicals (Frankenstein, Nevermore, Vigilante among them) have been seen by audiences across the country and beyond.

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With UnCovered: Notes From The Heart, The Musical Stage Company has created a digital version for 2021 of their hugely popular signature yearly concerts. They’re a 15-year tradition in which musical theatre stars invade the pop music repertoire. And, times being what they are — which is to say isolating, disconnecting, devastating for live performance — The Musical Stage Company has ventured into sharing the concert digitally with like-minded companies and their audiences across the country. Companies like Catalyst, under whose banner Saturday’s performance happens (charcuterie boxes by Dalla Tavola Zenari).

“It’s kinda like touring! Digital touring!” declares the cheerful energetic voice on the phone from Toronto. It belongs to Musical Stage Company founder and artistic director Mitchell Marcus. “We’re trying to figure out how to work together outside the box in this industry, and use this weird digital time to collaborate.” This year’s edition of UnCovered, which premiered in Toronto in November, has alighted so far at the Segal Centre in Montreal, the Belfry in Victoria, the Regency in Picton (Ont.), and will arrive in Newfoundland soon — just for starters.

And now Catalyst. Marcus, not coincidentally, is an admirer — familiar with Catalyst’s unusual musical theatre aesthetic (he was a producer at Luminato when that festival brought Nevermore to Toronto’s Wintergarden a decade ago). “I’m so honoured we can share something musical with Catalyst …. their work is just so interesting!” he says.

A keen interest in “digital touring” is something Marcus shares with Catalyst’s Jonathan Christenson, not least because “Catalyst was built to tour, and share our work abroad,” as the latter says. Until the next breath, Catalyst’s contribution to the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre, a cross-country series of outdoor experiments, is up on the NAC website. A proposed national tour of The Invisible, Christenson’s latest Catalyst musical play, awaits an alternative impetus. Could it be digital?

“This is an opportunity to feel connected to other companies, to audiences, to be reminded that other Canadians are wanting to reach out,” says Christenson of UnCovered. “The need has never been more potent.”

The 65-minute show features songs by heavy hitters like Leonard Cohen, Jann Arden, Bob Marley, Carole King, Billie Holiday, Elton John…. They’re performed by top Canadian performers, including Jackie Richardson, Sara Farb, Divine Brown, Andrew Penner. We can renew Edmonton connections in the 12-singer cast, actor/singer-songwriter Eva Foote for one. Hailey Gillis appeared in the debut production of Catalyst’s The Invisible. Farb was in Citadel productions of The Humans and Next To Normal. Citadel audiences have seen the work of The Musical Stage Company (formerly called Acting Up Stage Company) when their musical revue Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata arrived on the Citadel’s downstairs cabaret stage in 2014.

The songs are delivered as music videos rather than from a concert stage, in a variety of locations in Toronto and elsewhere. It’s an extra layer, says Marcus, “being on a physical journey as well an an emotional one.” One camera person shot one performer, from a variety of camera placements, on location. Mostly, “it’s a love letter to Toronto.” But  Carole King’s So Far Away, assembles (digitally) a quartet of performers, one in Toronto, three who’d gone home, to Ottawa, Victoria, and in Foote’s case Edmonton, for COVID lockdown. Each of those four shot their own video. “Eva got some lovely footage driving from Toronto to Edmonton,” says Marcus.

As for the music, three musicians including pianist Reza, did all their rehearsing on Zoom, and passed files back and forth, adding layers. “They sound like 20,” Marcus says. The safety restrictions required intricate logistics. There were never more than two people in a room;  and recording studios with their glassed-in cubicles might have been designed with pandemics in mind.

UnCovered 2020, finale. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

What uncovered UnCovered 15 years ago, as Marcus explains, was a love of pop music he shared with his musical director/ collaborator Reza Jacobs. “In musical theatre our expertise is telling stories through words. Which is the opposite of pop music where the words are often unclear.… You’re in your car, singing along, and you think you know the words but really you’ve been singing the wrong words forever!”

“So we asked ourselves, what happens if you give pop music over to great storytellers? If you look at the song through a musical theatre lens?”

And that lens, he points out, is all about asking “who’s singing?’ who’s the character? what do they want? ‘what’s the journey through the song? It’s rare in musical theatre that you’re in the same place at the end of the song that you are at the beginning…. That, for 15 years, has been the experiment of UnCovered.” 

If you read the lyrics, a pop song like Jann Arden’s Good Mother, with its list of things to be grateful for, is full of feeling, but without “the specificity of a musical theatre song,” Marcus argues, as one example from the show. It’s open to the emotional heft and meaning that a great artist like Farb brings to her performance of it. The video has her in a tree house going through old family photo albums.

Pop songs, thinks Marcus, are a “container,” ready for meaning provided by the actors who perform them. They “give actors the space to really play.”

When COVID hit, The Musical Stage Company faced the prospect of trashing its entire season. “We thought we’d try to rebuild only things we thought were resonant. And UnCovered felt the most urgent for the moment,” says Marcus. Their usual practice has been to focus on catalogues of certain artists, often in pairs — Stevie Wonder and Prince one year, Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Dylan and Springsteen, Queen and Bowie. For this peculiar time in which we’re struggling, “we thought let’s look at songs written in moments of change or challenge, songs that contain hope or inspiration, (or speak to) loneliness. And let’s look at them again, with COVID being the storyline.”

“We asked the artists ‘what is your experience right now? what meaning do you see in the song’ — and then built their performance around that.”  

In the course of re-fitting UnCovered Marcus found himself “so enamoured” of the idea of digital touring, that his company has undertaken to reverse the idea, too. “We’re been taking our own audience on theatre-going trips,” presenting work from elsewhere, complete with pre- and post-show meet-ups. “We’ve gone to London (by licensing an Off-West End production of The Last Five Years for a night), to New York, to the Cultch in Vancouver….” More to come, and an Edmonton destination called Catalyst would be welcome.

“It’s such a cool opportunity to share,” says Marcus, “to introduce our audience to other things, but in our own time zone, on our own digital platform, and still under our own banner.… and bring our own context and experience to somebody else’s creation.”

As Christenson puts it,  “knowing you’re under a larger umbrella … makes you feel a little bit less alone.”

PREVIEW

UnCovered: Notes From The Heart

Theatre: The Musical Stage Company, presented by Catalyst Theatre

Musical direction by: Reza Jacobs

Video direction by: Victoria Barber

Where: online, from catalysttheatre.ca

Running: Saturday 8 p.m.

Tickets: catalysttheatre.ca

 

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A festival reimagined, over and over: SkirtsAfire 2021

Makings of a Voice, by and starring Dana Wylie. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Reimagine. Repeat. Reimagine. Repeat….

What does it take to open a theatre and multidisciplinary, multi-location arts festival in the ever-shifting COVID-ian landscape of March 2021? The 9th annual edition of SkirtsAfire, Edmonton’s ever-expanding wide-embrace showcase of the talents, the stories, the voices of women and non-binary artists, is something of a test case.

A rare and exquisite combination of adaptability, creativity and unstoppable persistence, the kind possessed only by the species Artist, in short, seems to be de rigueur. As the indefatigable festival director Annette Loiselle attests en route to Thursday’s “opening night” ceremonies, the exact configuration of online and live in this year’s 10-day SkirtsAfire, has been recalibrated constantly since the new year began. Not least because (a) the festivities include performance and exhibition: theatre, musical, poetry, dance, visual arts, in innovative combos, and (b) the official Alberta government Covid restrictions are bafflingly inconsistent when it comes to theatre.

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Loiselle, an actor/ director/ playwright herself of buoyant personality who was a founding parent of another of E-town’s seminal cultural institutions (the Freewill Shakespeare Festival), knows what it’s like to back up the back-up plan of the back-up plan. The mainstage premiere of Makings of a Voice, Dana Wylie’s “theatrical song cycle,” an original musical exploration of intergenerational identity,  happens Monday, International Women’s Day, online in a film version — instead of a live-streamed version from the Westbury Theatre, instead of a live run for a reduced, socially distanced live audience in that venue. Tickets: skirtsafire.com.

Annette Loiselle, artistic director of SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

As Loiselle tells it, the route to Monday’s opening has been an arc of hopes and hopes dashed,  adjustments and readjustments.The AHS restrictions of December, which forbade gatherings of a live audience in theatres, allowed for exemptions for theatrical livestreaming, for solo shows with a distanced and reduced crew (like Northern Light Theatre’s The Look). Those exemptions were pulled in January. “So we started rehearsals on Zoom,” says Loiselle of Vanessa Sabourin’s production. “We had to lose the three live musicians,” she sighs, “not knowing if we could even use the Westbury.…” By January 29, all theatre venues were off-limits, unlike say hair salons or churches or film sets — ah, or markets. Enter the old Army and Navy in Strathcona.

The Key of Me, SkirtsAfire 2021. Photo by April MacDonald Killins

In a collaboration with the Wild Heart Collective, that venue is where filming of Makings of a Voice happened. “And we’re having a live music stage there, in the display window pumping music out into Strathcona,” says Loiselle. The Key Of Me stage features pop-up performances (Thursday through Sunday, and March 11 to 14), by a whole gallery of singer-songwriters, including two of the three musicians originally slated to play alongside Wylie in Makings of A Voice (Bille Zizi and Kirsten Elliott). They’re safely behind glass; the sound is for you to savour as you stroll by (masked and distanced, natch).

There’s irony attached, of course. “It goes against all our natural instincts to tell the audience not to gather,” as Loiselle says of the 10-person maximum on the street. But if there’s a silver lining, she thinks, it’s this: “having the festival out in the street is a chance to build a new audience.”

Visible from the street, as well, mounted in the A&N display windows (with The Key of Me musical accompaniment), is SkirtAfire’s visual art exhibition, Systemic Contractions. Curated by Stephanie Florence, its focus is our urgent need for connection, heightened by the crisis in which we live., which disproportionately affects the economically and racially disenfranchised, the elderly, front-line workers. Florence’s audio tour for your device is available to accompany your visit to the exhibition at skirtsafire.com.

This year, in a collaboration with the Old Strathcona Business Association, the finalists in the festival’s signature skirt design competition are displayed in six Strathcona retail establishments: the Bamboo Ballroom, C’est Sera, Woodrack Cafe, Red Pony Consignment, the Plaid Giraffe, and the Paint Spot — all visible from the windows with lighting by star theatre designer T. Erin Gruber. And your vote (either by email or on Instagram, #myskirtvote @skirtsafire) determines the winner.

Since last June, SkirtsAfire has assigned four diverse “story collectors” — Mackenzie Brown, Lebogang Disele, Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, Sang Sang Lee — to gather personal stories from people whose voices are rarely heard in the theatres of the land. The idea, says Loiselle, is a first-hand documentation of real-life experiences in this strange time, unfiltered by the literary or theatrical. The result is Covid Collections, a 25-minute film that offers us glimpses into communities we might never encounter day to day. And, times being what they are, we find these 12 storytellers Zoomed in from their own homes.

Says Loiselle, who directed the film (original music by Binaifer Kapadia, sound by Aaron Macri, videography by Katie Hudson), we meet, among others, “a high school teacher who runs the schools GSA (gay-straight alliance), a respiratory therapist, an elder from the Maskwacis Reserve, a mother who’s a long-term care worker and her daughter, a front-line care worker, an Indigenous drummer and activist, a South Asian consultant with a Jamaican husband. Loiselle’s own sister Rachel O’Brien, who had Covid in the fall and is suffering still its lingering effects, is included, “a good story and an important one,” as Loiselle says. The ethnicities and perspectives are widely varied. Only one contributor is a theatre artist. Lebogang Disele’s story, says Loiselle, “was just too good not to be included.”

Actor/writer Disele returned to her native Botswana last winter for a wedding, and was to have returned to Canada a week after her husband and kids did. Meanwhile, on March 31, the borders closed; she’s still in Africa separated from them.

Says Loiselle, “the end of the film is quite uplifting … a spark of something good that’s come out of Covid.” Covid Collections is available Thursday through March 31 at skirtsafire.com.

Body of Words, Ballet Edmonton. Photo supplied.

The 2021 festival includes a debut SkirtsAfire collaboration with Ballet Edmonton. In Body of Words, originally designed for live performance on (or from) the Westbury stage and now available for streaming March 7 to 14, choreographer Karissa Barry fuses poetry (by Edmonton poet laureate Nisha Patel and Medgine Mathurin) with dance, and sets it to music. A seven-dancer ensemble performs as part of the Ballet Edmonton season. Loiselle sought out the collaboration; she says “it grabbed me and shook me to the core!” Pay-what-you-can tickets are available at skirtsafire.com.

Thursday, 5 p.m., is showtime for this year’s festival. The opening ceremonies, which happen around the Fringe’s fire pit, include an excerpt from SkirtsAfire’s 2022 mainstage premiere, Ayita by Teniel Whiskeyjack, and remarks from Loiselle and this year’s “Honorary Skirt” Wanda Costen, dean of McEwan University’s school of business. You can see it all live on SkirtsAfire’s Facebook account.

PREVIEW

SkirtsAFire Festival 2021

Running: March 4 to 14

Where: online (skirtsafire.com) and live on Whyte Avenue, in the Army and Navy display windows and 6 Strathcona retail outfits

Tickets and schedule: skirtsafire.com

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New faces in theatre: meet creator/performer/producer/activist Sue Goberdhan

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet  The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino, sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell and playwright/ dramaturge/ theatre scholar Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki.

Sue Goberdhan in her Elf on The Shelf mode – Sister Act II and a Girl Named Sue.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

SUE GOBERDHAN, creator/ performer/ performer/ activist

If you saw Jason Chinn’s big-cast 2019 political comedy E Day — set in a makeshift NDP constituency office on the eve of an historic provincial election (yeah, that one) — you’ll have caught sight of a charismatic newcomer.

Sue Goberdhan played Sue, Safeway union worker cum campaign volunteer assigned to the lawn sign brigade — a ‘sure-no-problem!’ can-do sort with a beacon smile, her own running gag, and a crucial role in one of the play’s sinister mysteries. And she nailed it.

It was a sighting of a young theatre artist, in her mid-20s, who’s burst onto the scene in startling fashion, with an expanding array of talents, passions, and thoughtful ideas for changing the way theatre works in these parts.

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Since then Edmonton audiences have caught the exuberant Goberdhan onstage, dancing along 83rd Ave whilst singing, in the Plain Janes’ Scenes From The Sidewalk. Azimuth Theatre has acquired a new co-artistic director (Goberdhan in tandem with Morgan Yamada). There’s a new Goberdhan podcast, A Bigger Table. Hey, maybe you already caught Fringe premieres of Almost Heroes or Marnie Day, two original musicals Goberdhan wrote with composer (and old friend) Matt Graham, Jasper Poole, and Kaleb Romano? Goberdhan and Graham, have their own musical theatre company, with a quizzical Goberhanian name, Could Be Cool Theatre.

Sue Groberdhan in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

She writes musicals and plays, she appears in them, she instigates and produces projects, both her own and others…. It’s no accident that Azimuth’s “Performance Lab #1” online Feb. 15 was “telling your own stories with Sue Goberdhan.” It’s a motif, a mission even, she cherishes. Her own story has a certain blithe unpredictability, true, but a certain inevitable momentum, too.

“I tried everything to not be an artist!” declares the effervescent voice on the phone. In this Goberdhan, who’s a funny, entertaining, unpretentious conversationalist, was following the advice Giancarlo Esposito (Gus in Breaking Bad) gave in response to a question about entering the field of acting. “‘Do everything else first; decide there’s nothing else in your life to do. If there is, do that!”

“So much less turmoil on the heart.” Goberdhan permits herself a sigh. “Ain’t that the truth?”

Goberdhan took theatre avoidance seriously. She lists her assortment of post-high school gigs: maternity store for five years, David’s Bridal, data entry clerk for a national oil outfit (“yeah I sold my soul; I needed the money”), a flower shop. “I don’t know what they were thinking hiring me. Annuals $3, perennials $5. I was like ‘how do you tell the difference?’. So I decided everything was three bucks. A lot of people got lucky that summer.”

Ever since junior high, theatre has been staking a claim, bigger and bigger, in Goberdhan World. There were, however, obstacles. Theatre was/is a white stronghold. “I knew I loved it. I was so sure. But I remember looking around me, at high school (theatre). And I was like ‘there is NOBODY onstage who looks like me doing this job’. So I didn’t think I could do it.”

Goberdhan is of Indo-Caribbean descent (her family is from Guyana in South America). “In Scarborough, where I grew up, half the kids at my school were Guyanese; some were my cousins.… I didn’t realize how multi-cultural my school was till I got here (for junior high), and didn’t meet another Guyanese person for five years!”

“What gave me permission to pursue theatre,” as Goberdhan puts it, was seeing “two brown girls” in a high school show, one in hijab. “OK, if they can do it I can do it,” she says. “It cracked the code for me. I knew I could have meaningful work.”

There’s another turning point in the Goberdhan story, too. And it has roots in a pop culture interview that stuck with her. “You’re a weird dude,” said Judd Apatow talking to Jason Segel at the Freaks and Geeks season wrap. “And you’re not going to get any meaningful work after this — if you don’t write it yourself.” Goberdhan took it to heart. “OK I’m a weird dude too. OK, write your own? Let’s do it! That’s all I needed.”

“We talk about this a lot at Azimuth,” she says of her campaign of empowering a diversity of theatre artists to create their own work.  “You have to start stacking hats on hats on hats … so you can actually get to a place where you’re happy with what you’re putting out. You’ve got to be a writer, a director, a producer….” The Fringe, where creators are of necessity producers, is, as Goberdhan points out, is the playground for that kind of exploration.

“I get asked ‘what’s a dream role for you?’. And I don’t really know how to answer that question. No one had me in mind when they were writing whatever they wrote. I was nobody’s first choice for anything…. So maybe my dream role is one I haven’t written yet. Right now it doesn’t exist.”

Sue Goberdhan

Goberdhan traces her love of writing back to a couple of high school projects. One was inspired by a 300-line Ferlinghetti (R.I.P) poem that unspools in metaphors. “We had to write our own.” The other was a stream of entries in a writing portfolio. “I didn’t really start writing (plays per se) until  Almost Heroes.” She describes her collaboration with Graham — “he was my first friend; we started writing together at 17 and never stopped” — as “a farcical musical comedy about what it really means to be extraordinary. It’s about superheroes who have really shitty powers and have to use them to protect their little town.”

“Matt has the music brain; I have the other one…. It’s a blessing to be his friend and watch his practice grow!” says Goberdhan, who’s a natural repository of exclamation points. Almost Heroes was seven years in the making before its 2017 Fringe debut. “We played the Garneau Theatre  — to never less than 100 people a night…. I was super-surprised! It just shows you a little bit of enthusiasm will take you so far!”

Their second musical, which explores grief, was “a complete 180,” she says. In Marnie Day five friends gather every year on the title day to honour a free-spirited friend who has passed away. “It’s about finding a way to move forward when you don’t think you can.”

As a musica theatre person Goberdhan gravitated to MacEwan University, didn’t quite grasp the intricacies of a musical theatre audition (finding sheet music, and a pianist, and all that), and ended up in the Arts and Cultural Management program instead. “I kicked myself down for it; for ages I couldn’t move past the fact I was already so many steps behind.… How did I not realize that if I wanted to be better at something I just have to practise the something?”

That’s why she’s so excited about the Azimuth job, Goberdhan says. “I have such an opportunity to fix things that were wrong when I was coming up…. People are at a point when they’re recognizing their own agency. And this is an opportunity to teach people the skills to explore that agency. People are just waiting for permission, for someone to tell them ‘you should do this because you’re going to succeed’.”

Goberdhan is “living proof,” she laughs, for the go-for-the-gusto model of self-discovery, of “opening your eyes” to your own talent. It applies to her big singing voice, to her ventures onstage in musicals she’s (co-) written, to forays into sketch comedy with Blackout (“I can’t write short form to save my life!”), to the kids’ theatre classes she teaches at Grindstone Theatre. “My whole practice in teaching is self-guided instruction!” she says.

“I’ve been lucky to bounce around from project to project, to do experimental things that aren’t necessarily ‘professional’,” she says.  Though “not an improv person,” she’s even tried that terrifying spontaneous form. What’s The Deal?, an improvised Seinfeld show in which she was the Kramer character, “is maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever done.” If they ever revive it, “I’m in!”

Warning: if Goberdhan gets an idea, she’s very apt to run with it. When she and Luc Tellier amused themselves in COVID-ian lockdown by creating kooky custom-made Elf on the Shelf memes for Edmonton theatre people, they ended up with a 2021 calendar that Goberdhan designed.

As an artist who’s also an appreciator and enthusiast, Goberdhan is all about empowering the reticent and the marginalized. “Accessibility” and “permission” are key words in the Goberdhan lexicon. “I get frustrated because our community is chock full of incredible talent, and a lot of it is stuck in the ‘community theatre’ lane, people that don’t have a way to get to the intersection with professional theatre, people doing it for zero compensation….”

I just think we’re really missing out…. We have so many performers who should have so many more opportunities than they do,” Goberdhan says. “And we need a way to make this whole process more equitable..”

“I think of all the times I’ve tried to open a door for myself and couldn’t. I needed someone to hold it open for me!” That door-opening someone could well be Goberdhan, paying encouragement forward.

“If we make space for people to tell their stories, our lives would be all the richer for that….”

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Préparez vous, mes amis: Lucy Darling is back — with a bilingual magic/comedy show livestreaming from L’UniThéâtre

Lucy Darling (centre, aka Carisa Hendrix), with Richard Lee Hsi and Miranda Allen. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“What I love about magic as an art form,” declares magician Carisa Hendrix at a non-magical hour of the morning earlier this week, “what magic is really about, is the feeling that anything is possible.…”

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The apparently impossible is Hendrix’s theatre and her métier — and the playground for her retro-glam magician persona Lucy Darling. “We are amazing and rationalizing creatures,” says Calgary-based/ Edmonton-quarantined Hendrix cheerfully, musing on her favourite subject. “Our brains are constantly looking for meaning in a world that’s pretty random and full of entropy.” Magic, she thinks, is validation for the liberating proposition that “I don’t need to know everything!”

“I’m a well respected, well established magician, and I get fooled all the time!”

You will, therefore, be in good company this weekend when you’re baffled by the magical mysteries in the online bilingual magic/ improv comedy live-streamed by L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre.

Mes amis, préparez vous: Lucy Darling revient, along with her two Edmonton collaborators, actor/escapologist Miranda Allen and actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi.

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix). Photo by Jon-Christian Ashby.

With Une Soirée Avec Lucy Darling/ An Evening With Lucy Darling, the quick-witted Lucy, a vintage diva with a golden age party frock and shellacked red bouffant coiffure, has acquired a third assistant for the occasion: actor/improviser Vincent Forcier, L’UniThéâtre’s artistic director. And what started with “a fun weird challenge” — “let’s do our show in French!” — has evolved into “a comedy about language, about misunderstanding and miscommunication,” says Hendrix.

Each of the four characters has “a different level of understanding…. Miranda’s character is under the impression that ‘bilingual’ means German. Richard’s character believes he speaks better French than he does. Lucy’s French (flamboyantly accented à la Piaf, and peppered with English) is OK, but she’s struggling.” So she’s hired a new  butler (Forcier) who constantly corrects her. “And you can imagine how that goes!” laughs Hendrix, whose français, which hasn’t been exercised for five or six years till now, has charted its own unique course. French Immersion in school, check. A French grandmother with whom she corresponded in French, check. Circus training in French in Montreal, check. Circus school (“mostly fire-related, and choreography”) in the Dominican Republic living in a condo “with all French speakers,” check.

“The feeling that anything is possible” seems to weave through  Hendrix’s own story — long before she set the Guinness world record for holding a lit torch in her mouth in 2014, and long before the 2016 SuperChannel documentary Girl On Fire.

As Hendrix explains, her Calgary childhood was spent juggling, doing magic tricks, walking on stilts — and volunteering with organizations that supported disabled or disadvantaged children. Her entry point into showbiz wasn’t theatre per se, or acting. “That felt fancy to me, and inaccessible. And somehow subjective. How do you know if you’re a good actor? I don’t know. How do you know if you’re a good juggler? Easy. You juggle.”

Childhood in a dysfunctional family ended abruptly. “I got kicked out of the house at 16 and needed to make money.” Hendrix worked two jobs, one at London Drugs before school, the other making smoothies at Jugo Juice after school, “eight dollars an hour, and it wasn’t enough.” When the manager of a haunted house offered her an entertainment job for 50 bucks a night, four shows a night for 30 nights,” Hendrix jumped at it. “The $1500 was more money than I’d ever seen. … I had no big ambition to be famous; it was how I survived.”

She landed a job at the Boys and Girls Club. “I loved teaching and I loved the kids, but I kept performing on the side because the money was good.” Bookings kept coming, and Hendrix found herself “juggling two lives,” a day life and a night-time life. When the ultimatum came to choose, and Hendrix picked “the noble option,” teaching, she knew it was wrong. “I burst into wet sobbing and disgusting tears, faced with the realization that somewhere along the way (showbiz) had become my calling….”

In the international world of magic, predominantly male, Hendrix is a star on the ascendancy, witness her string of awards, magic magazine cover stories, testimonial blurbs from the likes of Steve Martin and David Copperfield, and residencies in such magic strongholds as the Magic Castle in L.A. and the Chicago Magic Lounge. But Hendrix calls the tricks themselves, no matter how dazzling their execution, “ancillary…. Don’t get me wrong, I am a magician, and passionate about the art form. But as long as the audience is being entertained and is giving in to the experience, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. It’s the experience that matters.”

Generating wonder, overcoming human limitations (or maybe lighting them on fire) … that’s what it’s about. Take fire-eating, for example (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). “Fire is the destroyer,” Hendrix says. So fire-eating is wish fulfillment for the audience: “if she can be on fire and not get burnt, maybe I can, too.”

In a world of improbabilities, making an online magic show might be the trickiest trick of them all. But Hendrix argues that “magic has always valued cutting-edge technologies; magicians have always been very technically savvy…. In the Golden Age, magicians were making automatons.”

“So when there was talk early on in the pandemic about doing virtual shows, the community of magic was one of the first art forms to get on board and really embrace it.” The early shows she saw were “pretty awful,” Hendrix says. “Which the magicians who put them on would happily and graciously admit. But it was a learning curve.”

She admits to having been “trepidatious” about doing an online show with her Lucy Darling character, “mainly because I’ve had a lot of success with her, and I was a bit afraid to ruin it….” But then against the odds the Canada Council came though with a show grant. “Arts funding typically doesn’t go to magic, so I was certain they’d say no!”

Since last March, says Hendrix, “I’ve been lucky enough to be quarantined with Miranda and Richard. They’re not only overwhelmingly talented performers but also writers and designers!” The Edmonton showbiz couple, who’d met Hendrix by chance five years ago during a Nextfest gig, invited her to stay in their spare room. Lately the three artists have just moved 10 floors up in the couple’s apartment building to gain a workable studio space.

They’ve undertaken the digital challenge together. “We weren’t just trying to figure out how to do the tricks, but how to translate the feeling of what we do in traditional performances onstage,” says Hendrix of the audience interaction that seems indispensable to magic. “In a regular show I’d hand you a cup, or a rope, so you could examine it,” and verify that it was for real. “In this environment you’re relying subconsciously on the shine of something or the sound of the glass coming down on the table so your brain can go ‘OK, that’s really a glass’.”

There’s a reason most magic specials onscreen include footage of the live studio audience. “Without that, the magic can seem like a special effect “even if it’s not…. The audience IS the trick,”says Hendrix. She’s “too much of a purist to ever use a laugh track.” Instead, her sound engineer pal Chris Coombs, in a role called “audience manager,” live-mixes the audience sounds,  “so we get the live audience feel.”

That sensation is enhanced by the “meet and greet” with audience members in the Zoom gallery at the outset. “Basically, we’re building a cast of characters, and getting to know them a little… we’re helping you forget there’s a screen between you and us!”

Carisa Hendrix and her alter-egos (Lucy Darling right). Photo by Jon-Christian Ashby.

Hendrix has a half-dozen other alter-egos for her comedy/magic entertainments. But it’s Lucy Darling, vamping it up in her old-Hollywood ultra-glam way, who’s the people’s choice. Hendrix “adores” Lucy’s era with its ‘30s high-style screwball sass and charm, “Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor . I could watch them all day.”  And in our own hard-driven hard-edged time — “an era of perfectionism and side hustle and Silicon Valley and optimizing time,” as Hendrix puts it — Lucy is a sort of fizzy antidote. “She walks onstage and you realize all she wants is a bubble bath and a glass of gin and a cupcake and a hug. She gives you permission for that to be OK….”

(12thnight caught An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling online in October. Have a peek at my review here).

PREVIEW

Une soirée avec Lucy Darling/An Evening With Lucy Darling

Theatre: Ballyhoo Entertainment

Presented by: L’UniThéâtre, in French and English

Starring: Carisa Hendrix, Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi, Vincent Forcier

Where: online, live-streamed from L’UniThéâtre

Running: Friday and Saturday

Tickets: L’UniThéâtre  (tickets include a personalized L’UniThéâtre mask)

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