Sandy Moser: mask-maker to the stars

Sandy Moser, theatre-goer and mask-maker extraordinaire. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Live theatre gave Sandy Moser the big-M Moment that turned everything around for her. And she’s returning the favour, though she’d never put it that way in a million years.

“What would I be doing otherwise?” she says, an ‘amused shrug in her voice’ (as the stage directions would say, if Sandy were a play instead of a droll 78-year-old). “It was either make masks or wash my walls or clean my base boards.”

actor Mathew Hulshof in his paisley Moser mask.

Since the opening night of the pandemic a couple of months ago, Moser has been a one-person volunteer props department: she’s made some 850 masks, a lot of them for theatre people and all of them free. If the recipients insist on paying, she directs them to donate to a small theatre instead. Moser is on the phone from the Sherwood Park acreage where she’s lived alone since the death of her husband nine years (and 970 plays) ago; “it’s the perfect place if you have to self-isolate!” she laughs. And she’s reflecting on the life-changer that happened in a theatre. 

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 True, Moser is the matriarch of a showbiz line. Her daughter is Calgary-based star actor/ improviser Karen Johnson Diamond; her actor/producer grandson Griffin Cork graduated last spring from U of A theatre school. But her late husband wasn’t a theatre-goer. “After he died, it was ‘what do I do with my life now?’”

Three weeks into her widowhood, a friend, a fellow retired nurse, dragged Moser to Les Miz at Strathcona High School. “O, that could be crappy,” she remembers thinking. “But I’d have gone to a chicken-plucking contest…. And it was magnificent!”

“It hit me: hey, I’m not thinking about me. And that turned everything around,” she says (stage direction: ‘with gusto’). “I want a bed-time story and I want to get out of my life. And then I want to go home and go to bed…. I highly recommend it to any widow.”

“So I just kept going!” says Moser. “I sit in the front row and pretend nobody’s there but me and it’s all for me!”

Actor/ playwright/ director/ musical director Darrin Hagen with Sandy Moser. Photo supplied.

Since that fateful moment, Moser has been out in theatres three or four nights a week, and is beloved by E-town’s theatre crowd for her enthusiasm and loyalty. She’s seen and loved big-budget extravaganzas; she’s seen and loved solo shows in draft-y basements where the actor has shelled out a princely 50 bucks, and she’s shared the house seats with 10 other people. 

Her daughter Karen took her to see War Horse in New York, and Moser adored it (“OK, I can die now!”). She saw Hadestown at the Citadel and loved it. Twice. She saw Daniel MacIvor’s solo show House in a “tiny church basement in Calgary, 12 chairs, the whole room painted black, the actor had one chair and one flashlight. And I was totally blown away!”

She saw 10 shows at Calgary’s Festival of Animated Objects (“I LOVE puppetry!”). One was a “tiny puppet show in a cardboard box in the lobby, for free. One lady and she had a teeny bird puppet, and her fingers were the feet. And it lasted maybe 15 minutes, and she probably spent 10 bucks. And I’ll never forget it!”     

Big budget alone does not in itself great theatre make, a life lesson that isn’t lost on Moser. “And it doesn’t even matter if it’s good: they’ve told you a story. They’ve given you a perspective about what you enjoy and what you don’t….” It’s a view that makes Moser the ideal Fringe audience. “All of it is a learning experience.

Moser loves talking about plays. “Did you see The Zoo Story, the one with Collin Doyle, a couple of Fringes ago? Wonderful! And For Science! (Small Matters Theatre clown science experiment). “Yup, I don’t even need words!”

Big theatre, regularly, is financially prohibitive for her (her daughter-in-law takes her to the Citadel). But she has subscriptions to nearly every little theatre in town. “A seniors subscription to preview night, and you can go for eight bucks. You can’t have a better night out; you can’t get a hot dog out for that,” says Moser, an ambassador for the theatre industry if ever there was one. And she worries about the future of an art form that depends on social proximity for its vital juices.

The last plays she saw before the shutdown, mid-March, were Shadow Theatre’s Heisenberg and Wild Side’s The Children. Then, suddenly, the curtain came crashing down. No more theatre: “That’s what killing me!” she says. “I miss theatre!”

Which brings us to the masks. Not that she’s promoting her skills. By no means. It was Griffin Cork who contacted me about his grandmother’s gift to the theatre community (and others) to my attention. “I’m trying to just be under the radar here, this quiet little old lady in the bush. But you don’t get to be quiet when Griffin’s your grandson,” she sighs.

“I don’t have a lot of money. But I can do this!” Her model was the masks she remembered wearing as a surgical nurse at the U of A Hospital in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Her re-creations have two layers, three pleats, jewellery wire for the nose to get a better seal. “I’m no seamstress,” she says cheerfully. “My first six attempts ended up in the garbage.”

Shadow Theatre’s John Hudson in his new Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Photo supplied.

Since then, output (and quality) has escalated. And so has the involvement of the family. After one 75-hour week of mask-making her old sewing machine “said No, and said it really loudly.” She’s using her daughter-in-law’s. Her granddaughter Ella, now in grade 11, cuts the wire and elastic; she’d been the official sewer before “lockdown,” while Moser did the cutting. A Calgary costume designer, mailed her 100 yards of of bias tape for the sides of the masks, and big bags of left-over material. Johnson Diamond, who found a supply of skinny elastic in Calgary, has dropped off sacks of extra thread. Nursing classmates of yore have donated postage money.

“If you’re going to have to wear a mask it might as well be fun!” says Moser, of such creations as the Shrek or the Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Some of her favourite artists, Luc Tellier, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshof among them, sport Moser masks when they go out. Says Tellier “I have a paisley mask for when I want to look fashionable, and a Shrek mask for when I want to look fun!” 

And not just theatre artists, but healthcare, construction, and emergency workers, teachers, seniors… are wearing her masks. Picture this exchange from an abandoned parking lot, a scene that’s a bit Neil Simon, if he’d collaborated with Samuel Beckett: Moser social-distance giving a bag of masks to a friend for distribution. “I’m using my husband’s cane; she’s using a hose extension…. Two old gray-hairs doing a drug deal. It’s hilarious!”

“It gives me a great reason to get up,” she says modestly of her labours. “I’m my own boss; nobody can get mad at me if I’m late.” 

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Tracks: choose your route in an online theatre adventure from Amoris Projects

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It started out as an ambulatory theatre adventure. Tracks let its audiences loose to wander in an unexpected assortment of rooms and spaces — a theatre box office, dressing rooms, bathrooms, the playwright’s car — to eavesdrop on intimate moments, the kind people don’t usually share.

A home set-up, one of nine, for Tracks. Photo supplied

Then came a pandemic, and an age of enforced isolation: a time in human history when alienation isn’t just something you drift into if you’re maladjusted, but something deliberate. And Tracks has morphed. In this new world of disconnection, what would become of Mac Brock’s immersive theatre experiment, a demo of the liveness of live theatre if ever there was one? Could a piece based on dropping into different rooms rubbing elbows with the performers still connect in lively, meaningful ways with its audience when the performers can’t ever be in the same room with each other, much less with you the theatre-goer?

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We’re about to find out. Born at Nextfest and slated for a live run in Fringe Theatre’s official Off Season this month, Tracks leaves the great big global station called The Internet Tuesday, transformed. The play, which won the 2019 Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award, now travels in a form specially invented for the online world. You follow it along diverse tracks you choose, on an original, live, interactive platform that Brock, director Beth Dart, and Fringe techno whiz Bradley King have had to create specially for the occasion. And you’ll find yourself en route to nine very different home “theatres” and nine personal stories performed by the diverse ensemble of artists, including Brock himself. 

The “dream transformation” of Tracks wasn’t something Brock could have predicted, he says. “My instinct was ‘let’s press Pause and come back to this later’.

Brock, who arrived in Edmonton from his home town Regina in 2017 (his day job is media and communications at the Citadel), credits the adventurous spirit of Dart, “the first person I called as soon as I needed a director … so insightful, experienced and wise in figuring out new rules of engagement.” 

Dart, along with her sister Megan Dart and their cutting-edge indie company Catch The Keys (creators of the annual Dead Centre of Town productions), are go-to specialists in rattling and reconfiguring the conventional relationship between stage and audience. The immediate Dart impulse, Brock reports happily, was ‘this is not a hurdle; this is an opportunity. We get to figure this out and do something great with it!”

“Wild!” says Dart of the creation, design, and rehearsal process the team, some 20 people strong, have invented, like the digital platform itself, at every step. Brock, whose play Boy Trouble opened the 2019 Nextfest lineup, has a contagious kind of effervescence about him: the results, he says, are “beyond our wildest dreams!”.

A home set-up for Tracks. Photo supplied.

In its first incarnation, Tracks “directed audience members to walk to different rooms. Now we’re making buttons appear. and  different pages, different streams …” he says. What Tracks is not is an invitation to watch archival video footage of a pre-existing stage performance. “This is still very much a live performance. The performers are there with you (from their own homes), at every performance. And they want to know that you’re there!”

“Mac created the through-line, from a series of short scenes he wrote in 2017, to revisit how we place value on ourselves and our creative work, how we decide what’s worthy to be presented to the public,” as Dart explains. “When the pandemic hit, we decided there’s actually not a better piece to adapt itself to this situation….”

“There are snippets from the original piece,” she says. “But it’s specially crafted for this platform that we are ourselves just discovering as we create.” King, the Fringe’s highly creative systems analyst, developed a website for Tracks that “offers the streams that we are creating: we are SO lucky to have him….” Brock concurs, vigorously. “We struck gold with Bradley!”

Dart explains. “The audience meets Mac, and at certain moments in his journey he presents them with options, and they can choose which tracks to follow.” The performers aren’t really “characters,” not in the usual sense, she says. “Each has created a solo piece that’s very personal; they’re performing as … themselves.”

“It doesn’t feel like acting,” laughs Brock. “My portion of the show feels a lot more like telling a story to a certain number of friends who are maybe watching the internet. Very personal. Very intimate.…Everyone has created a piece in their own home that feels like an element of their life they want to share. You feel you’re a fly on the wall in their lives. And there are so many inventive ways of letting the audience into their world: comedy, music, dance, visual arts…. Such a range of creative backgrounds and experience in creating theatre.”

Actors, performance artists, sound artists, visual artists … the ensemble runs the gamut. “They’re such accomplished and polished artists whose own stories have never been seen by an audience,” says Brock of his cast-mates. “How are these people not the ones you see every single day on our biggest stages?!”

The need for re-invention has extended to every aspect of Tracks, including rehearsing on Zoom, where a four-hour session feels as long as 10 in-person hours in real space, says Dart. “Your eyes cross!”

“We gather together online for a check-in at the beginning of our rehearsal day. And I send the cast out to break-out rooms. Mac and I bounce from room to room, working on dramaturgy or scene development, or whatever. It’s been bizarre!”

performance artist NUIBOI at home, setting up for Tracks. Photo supplied

Stage manager Izzy Bergquist has had to reinvent what that job means. Since the cast performs in their homes, designers Elise Jason and Even Gilchrist have created design packages — lighting instruments, sound equipment, microphones, cameras, backdrops, props — for nine very different spaces (“nine tiny home-shaped theatres,” as Dart puts it). And production manager Frances Girard spent last week driving them around, and dropping them off, “contact-less deliveries à la Skip the Dishes,” says Brock. There have been Zoom meetings to talk the performers through “how to install the set design in their basement or their apartment….”

“We’ve all had to become our own stage managers, our own technicians, our own sound designers. And the designers can’t come and trouble-shoot.… Terrifying!” As it rolls along, Track has gathered other collaborators — movement specialists, sound consultants, composer/musician Erik Mortimer, who’s provided underscoring.

A set design kit for Tracks. Photo supplied.

Brock sighs. “Our team has never been in the same space — we never had a full cast meeting before this started. And we won’t for a long time.”

For Dart and Brock, the main challenge has been “how to create that sense of liveness with an audience that isn’t in the room with us,” says the former. “We might have an argument about calling this ‘theatre’,” Dart concedes. “But it’s definitely live.”

What does audience interaction mean in the digital world? “We approach from lots of different angles,” says Dart. “Sometimes the audience (a maximum of 30 per performance) type in responses, or play games with performers…. You’ll be able to tell that the performers are in live time, and there are moments of integrating audience feedback. Lots of options and possibilities.”

If the term “audience participation” gives you a frisson of quease, fear not. “Some pieces are very interactive, some not at all,” she says. “But we’re never expecting the audience to turn on their cameras or be part of a scene!” And you can never get lost in digital wonderland. “You’ll always be able to find yourself back to where you’re supposed to be!”

Dart says “I truly believe theatre belongs in real space. And there’s an element of the creative process lost when you don’t get to share space together. But this is a way we can offer a sense of connectedness and community in the situation in which we find ourselves.”

“It’s a giant experiment,” she says. “And everyone has embraced it…. Artists have a beautiful way to offer something other than isolation, whether live-stream concerts or phone-call poetry readings. We can all use a little connection right now!”

PREVIEW

Tracks

Fringe Theatre Off Season

Theatre: Amoris Productions

Created by: Mac Brock with the ensemble

Directed by: Beth Dart

Starring: Asia Bowman, Mac Brock, Fatmi El Fassi El Fihri, Anthony Hunchak, Moses Kouyaté, Marguerite Lawler, Hayley Moorhouse, NIUBOI, Mustafa Rafiq

Where: your own home

Running: May 19 to 24

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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New faces in theatre: six up-and-comers you’ll be watching when the doors open. Here’s actor Josh Travnik

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet actor Josh Travnik.  And look for the others in this continuing 12thnight.ca New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; then designer Alison Yanota, stage manager Isabel (Izzy) Bergquist, actors Chris Pereira and Bella King.

Cinderella (Bella King) and her step-sisters Corben Kushneryk and Josh Travnik, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

JOSH TRAVNIK, actor

If you ventured down to the river valley at Fort Edmonton this past Christmas, and caught Jocelyn Ahlf’s panto Cinderella, you’d have been tickled to see a veritable showcase of young talent at work in Kate Ryan’s cast: Bella King, Cameron Chapman, Corben Kushneryk — with Josh Travnik as one of the snarky, eminently hiss-able step-sisters, Poutine by name, always on her cell taking selfies.

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In Travnik, now 24, you were watching a theatre veteran of a dozen years or more — one whose skills and aptitude for developing and supporting new work, especially musical theatre, are very Edmonton.

The best training to do a panto,” Travnik declares, is touring with Alberta Musical Theatre, which takes its clever contemporary musical versions of fairy tales on the road. “If you can play to 400 kids, with the first two rows from kindergarten, who want to climb into the trunk onstage….” The touring AMT production of Pinocchio in which he and his friend Chapman each played 14 characters did a record 312 performances on tour a season ago.

Pinocchio, Alberta Opera. Photo by Mat Simpson.

“There was as much choreography happening backstage as on,” laughs Travnik, who describes a schedule in which the cast might leave at 5:30 a.m. for a morning gig in, say, Red Deer, and drive back to town for a 1:30 p.m. matinee here. “The hardest work I’ve ever done,” he says happily.

Travnik’s Fringe premiere — or “my first big Fringe year,” as he puts it more poetically — was in a new original musical hung on an intriguing premise: (semicolon) the musical (by Daniel Belland, Calla Wright, Conar Kennedy).

“I was immediately hooked!” declares an actor who, in punctuational terms, is actually more of an exclamation mark than a semicolon. “What a great start to my Fringe performance career — with an original musical! You’ve already done the scariest thing you could possibly do!” 

That was Travnik at 15, some nine years ago. And suddenly, there he was, in Straight Edge musicals like Ordinary Days, Bat Boy, Evil Dead The Musical. And he was in an assortment of wigs playing an assortment of characters, including raven-tressed Ronnie, in Rebecca Merkley’s River City The Musical, her clever extrapolation from the Archie comic characters.

Before and since, Travnik, who grew up in Leduc, has been adding to a resumé impressively full of musicals, both the off-centre and the brand new, often by a circle of multi-talented friends, including Daniel Belland and Calla Wright. “So creative, yes! And they’ve always had a spot for me. It’s the biggest blessing I could ever have….” says Travnik, the most supportive of ensemble players.

Rivercity the Musical. Photo by BB Photography

“I feel blessed to work with people who are so collaborative, excited by any offers I might make. I listen to a lot of pop music, and love singing it, and I like adding riffs here and there. The people I work with are very open to that.”

“I grew up with a lot of music in the house,” says Travnik of his childhood in Leduc. You’ve got to suspect that the staff of the Leduc library remember the kid who’d always head straight to the drawer where they kept the musicals. “All they had were compilation albums,” Travnik laughs. Les Miz, Phantom, Lloyd Webber everywhere…. So I’d request every original cast album, and they wouldn’t have it, and they’d buy it for me! I’d be very specific: the Gypsy album, but the one with Bernadette Peters.”

His first introduction to theatre “of any kind” was the Christmas plays at church, “scripts with pre-recorded backing tracks. I was just obsessed…. “ He was one of the Wise Men, a trio that included Elvis and Garth Brooks. Travnik played the latter.

But the real turning point wasn’t Oklahoma! or Annie; it was Shakespeare. The 12-year-old Travnik found himself at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival: “after that I didn’t miss a single year…. Camp Shakespeare was the highlight of my summer. We’d be learning (scenes), we’d be running around on the set. Just magic!”

“Being able to see the productions first, before having to read them, that was the best possible introduction! And such joyful productions.”

In response to this inspiration, Travnik and friends, including playwright/directors Belland and Wright, started a youth company of their own. Celsius Youth Theatre mounted full productions of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night among them, in community halls. “One of us would be the director; one would edit; we’d build a set and costumes.”

Josh Travnik as Feste in The Wind and the Rain. Photo supplied.

Two years ago, Travnik co-starred in Wright’s The Wind And The Rain, an original dark comedy-with-music that toured Fringes. Two Shakespeare fools, the Fool from King Lear and Feste from Twelfth Night are together in “the last theatre in the world, as it’s being demolished.”

Travnik arrived at MacEwan University’s musical theatre-driven theatre arts at 22, trailing a long and impressive resumé. He was part of the graduating class of 2018 that broke in the new Triffo Theatre with Sister Act (“a blast! so many nuns came to see the show, and they had a great time!”).

If the world hadn’t changed so dramatically, Travnik would be looking at a busy summer, first in Teatro La Quindicina’s revival of Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s in July. And then Merkley’s new Fringe show Scooby Don’t in August, now on hold along with the festival till the summer of 2021. Meanwhile, he and Belland are writing pop songs, and figuring out how to produce a quality single online. “We do the video on Zoom, the audio on a direct streaming service and chat on Google,” hs says. “It’s fun and exciting to be creating something outside our theatre practice; it’s keeping us sane and happy.” 

“What drove me crazy the first couple of weeks (of isolation) was the feeling that everything I was doing wasn’t up to par…. It’s all about finding a way to create without the pressure to make it perfect, when you don’t have the resources….” 

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New faces in theatre: six bright newcomers. The series continues with triple-threat Bella King

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet actor Bella King. And look for the others in this continuing 12thnight.ca New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; then designer Alison Yanota, stage manager Isabel (Izzy) Bergquist, and actor Chris Pereira

 

Bella King in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

BELLA KING, actor

If you saw Plain Jane’s award-winning production of the landmark musical Fun Home (and if you didn’t you really should have), you’ll smile to think of the knockout moment when Bella King delivers the showstopper Changing My Major.

In the scant four minutes of a song, the college girl played by King shared a whole story of self-discovery and wonder, about the world and about herself: “I’m changing my major to Joan….”

One of our discoveries at that moment of unexpected buoyancy was a startling new triple-threat. King, who graduated from MacEwan University’s theatre department two years ago, has a voice with dramatic expressive angles to it, and a natural and charismatic honesty and warmth in creating a character — all on display in Dave Horak’s production of Fun Home.   

Bella King as Cinderella, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied.

“It wasn’t a hard sing,” she says of the character, the middle of Fun Home’s three Alisons, who discovers she’s gay about the same time she discovers the same thing about her late father. “So much heightened emotion and coping with trauma — that was the hard part….” More than a few audience members stayed behind, in tears, after the show, “moved, think, by Alison’s relationship with her father, and her relationship with her queerness — and the discovery that parents are people who had lives before us. A  weird thing to think about; the  choice to break out of that and not live the same life as they did.”

King, now 23, was your classic musical theatre kid. “I watched all the old Disney movies, the original Annie….” When the nine-year-old King saw Phantom of the Opera, “it just blew my mind! I couldn’t believe a chandelier could fall on a stage; it was just the craziest thing I’d ever seen. My mom bought me the big fancy program; I brought it to school to show all my friends.” She still has this precious showbiz artifact, “wrinkled, completely worn in.”

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Considering the inevitability at play, King had a tough entry point into theatre.“From eight to 16 I had really really bad stage fright,” she says of the residue from a humiliating school incident. Auditioning was a nightmare prospect. King gritted her teeth: “I remember so clearly I knew I had to do it…. It’s one of the times in my life when the need overcame the fear.”

At MacEwan, King tended to get cast as “the innocent, the inexperienced teenager,” as she laughs. In Sister Act, the musical that opened MacEwan’s spanky new Triffo Theatre — “a crazy whirlwind, in a ‘down to the wire but it worked’ kind of way — she was the young nun postulant who delivers the show’s most wistful what-am-I-missing? song, The Life I Never Led.

Bella King, left, Matt Graham, Michael Vetsch, Karina Cox in [title of show]. Photo by bb collective.

Even in [title of show], the self-referential Off-Broadway musical about a musical that was King’s first production after graduating, “I played the character who hadn’t done theatre before….”  It was my first Fringe experience, and it was perfect! Doing what you love, and doing it will all of your friends…. I love the Fringe!” declares King. 

And for innocence, Cinderella might be the ultimate wide-eyed ingenue. In Jocelyn Ahlf’s sassy panto version of the fairy tale, which played the Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton this past Christmas, King was “the inexperienced teenager,” she laughs. “Very smart and confident, but not in a confrontational way. She was very stuck…”

Cinderella and her step-sisters, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied.

The panto experience of playing to an audience that doesn’t have to shut up and be well-behaved comes attached to a certain kind of terror, you’d think, especially for a stage fright survivor. “It was both enjoyable and terrifying!” King laughs, remembering her character, decked out as Cinderella in “giant white winter boots, leggings, plaid shirt, puffy white vest.” Kids would try to crawl up onstage; some annotated; some gave Cinderella helpful advice: “wake up! he’s Prince Charming!”

Musicals are a gravitational force field for King. “I just love the storytelling that happens through music; I love singing with a big band behind you, pushing you. Very powerful.” She’s been in two Fringe musicals with Straight Edge Theatre. One was new (and working on something new has its own kind of thrill she says): Imaginary Friend, an original by Daniel Belland (“very silly, very raunchy, an invisible friend who’s an outsized demon that wreaks havoc among a whole family….So much fun!”). One was a contemporary classic, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years,  which tells its story of a relationship in reverse chronology, with the two characters on separate tracks.

Bella King, Mathew Lindhollm, Kendra Humphrey, Jaimi Reese in Imaginary Friend. Photo by Kaylin Schenkl

King has plans, some on hold for the summer of course (“I’m being hopeful but realistic”), and some longer term. A dream musical? “I’d love to do Vanities,” she says without hesitation. “It’s based on a play, about the friendship between three girls and how it changes through high school, college, post-college after graduation…. Three women, pop-rock, a perfect Fringe show.”

There’s nothing like a pandemic to reinforce the notion that all plans are contingent, hypothetical, ephemeral as air.  “Anything can happen! You can have plans, and your plans can not happen,” says King, with a sadder-but-wiser shrug in her voice. But there’s this: “I can’t even imagine what the first show back (when theatre doors open) will be like.… People will be so excited, so happy to be back together!”    

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New faces in theatre, six up-and-comers to watch: meet actor Chris Pereira

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet actor Chris Pereira. And look for the others in this continuing 12thnight.ca New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; then designer Alison Yanota and stage manager Isabel (Izzy) Bergquist. 

Chris Pereira and Shannon Blanchet in The Bald Soprano, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

CHRIS PEREIRA, actor

If you had the fun of catching the Bright Young Things’ Fringe production of the absurdist groundbreaker The Bald Soprano last summer, you’ll appreciate the daffy synchronicity of Chris Pereira’s anecdote.

In the play a fire chief shows up in the scene in full regalia even though there isn’t a fire (only the vague possibility of one at some indeterminate future moment). Pereira, in full costume, is walking in the backstage hall of the Varscona Theatre, waiting to go on. The theatre management assumes the fire marshall has come to do an official inspection, and panics accordingly.

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You can only think that the playwright Eugene Ionesco would have smacked his lips. The Bald Soprano is a veritable seminar in the fine art of nonsense, language unhinged from logic. Motivation? Back story? Pereira, very droll in conversation, laughs. The trick, he says, “is to not dwell on it too much or you’ll ruin it…. You just enjoy the ride!”

Chris Pereira in Middletown, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

It took him three years to get into the U of A theatre school (he gathered a resumé that includes commercials and movies). Since he graduated last April, after a Studio Theatre season that included Will Eno’s hauntingly oddball Middletown (the role of the mechanic was a “peak experience” for him) and Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral, Pereira has caught the attention of artistic directors of companies of every size across town. 

As it happens, Pereira’s year has been a cross-section of comedy, in all its variegated colour palette, and his expertise and timing are striking. It started with Theatre Prospero’s touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he played one of the young lovers lost in the enchanted wood of romance. Then a delightful summer with Ionesco, a cuckoo clock of absurd moments, including “my long monologue about a weird family tree, five minutes about absolutely nothing!” He credits Bright Young Things’ artistic director Belinda Cornish, who’s applauded his talents to an assortment of Edmonton theatres, “with the vast majority of my work this year!”

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Belinda Cornish, Helen Belay, Chris Pereira in Vidalia, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Teatro La Quindicina’s sparkly revival of the Stewart Lemoine screwball Vidalia had Pereira as suit salesman Doug who finds himself entangled in a wild espionage plot for reasons he can’t even begin to fathom: “a regular person, descending into madness,” as Pereira puts it. “I read the script and laughed so hard….”

Lemoinian comedy, he found, is a particular style, a combination of breezy and grave, “very smart-funny, that requires a very very precise way of going at it,” says Pereira. “You can’t really play for the laughs.” His cast-mates included fellow Lemoine newcomer Helen Belay, as well as Teatro veterans Cornish and Andrew MacDonald-Smith: “two Lemoine experts to watch, so kind in always helping us out, getting us accustomed to the style.”

Chris Pereira and Mathew Hulshof in Bed and Breakfast, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

In Bed and Breakfast at Theatre Network, in which Pereira co-starred with Mathew Hulshof, you saw two actors expertly play a couple who conjure between them, with great precision, nearly two dozen characters, all ages, genders, sexual persuasions, populating the year they spend in a small town, reinventing their very urban lives. “An important message that blends in perfectly, with characters you can get behind,”  says Pereira. And the quick changes make it “a very challenging show, one of the hardest ever…. I had to keep it simple for myself, to pick one gesture, one way of (moving), one voice — three simple things per character.” 

An Edmonton kid, Pereira, now 28, was the odd-person out at his sports high school (“my one and only high school play” was the musical Back To The ‘80s). He’s already started down the path through the woods towards showbiz, age nine. At Theatre Zocalo, Pereira was “dad in Hansel and Gretel, with a cardboard and cotton ball beard…. I was taller and older than some of the kids.”

Belinda Cornish and Chris Pereira, The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The next year, in a startling long jump through the theatre repertoire (as he laughs), he’d graduated to Shakespeare, as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ah, experience that may or may not have impinged on his two summers much later with the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, in The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor in 2017 and The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet the following year.

Chris Pereira, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker

Like so many actors of every age in this theatre town, the Fringe figures prominently in Pereira’s experience. He started in 2013, and he’s added sound design to his actorly skill set. And he and Eric Smith have their own company Get Off The Stage with an appetite for edgy, challenging fare; they picked Martin McDonagh’s macabre black comedy A Behanding in Spokane and David Mamet’s provocative Oleanna. If the times had been different (a phrase that comes up a lot in when you’re talking to theatre artists), he’d be missing the Fringe for the first time since 2013 to be in Rosebud this summer, in a stage production of Chariots of Fire. He was working, both as an actor and a sound designer, on the new Collin Doyle play Signs for Concrete Theatre when the shutdown happened. 

“That’s where I find comfort,” says Pereira. “We’re all in this together….”

Meanwhile, he’s filming himself for auditions for the upcoming theatre season, and dreaming of the future. “I would be very very happy if I could build a career working in theatre in Edmonton,” he says. “But one of my goals since I was a kid, for the majority of my life, was film.” He’ll be trying to weave a career with both threads.   

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New faces in theatre: behind the scenes with stage manager Isabel Bergquist

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet stage manager Isabel Bergquist. And look for the others in this continuing 12thnight.ca New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; then designer Alison Yanota.  

Stage manager Isabel Bergquist. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

ISABEL (Izzy) BERGQUIST, stage manager

If you caught a pair of entwined political comedies at the Citadel last year, you’ve got to have wondered how on earth The Party and The Candidate could be running at the same time, with the same 10 actors playing the same characters nine months apart, in two different theatres. Behind the satirical stingers whizzing by onstage was a high-speed behind-the-scenes farce, itself an achievement in precision timing and logistics.

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

This lunatic timetable and a daunting sheaf of organizational charts were the work of a team of crack enablers (with stopwatches and high stress thresholds) — among them an apprentice who’s steadily becoming one of this theatre town’s most sought-after stage managers.

“Problem-solving, negotiation, what the costume needs are, what the prop needs are, where we are with the pre-set, lots of being on your toes and improvising….” The job backstage at The Party in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre that Isabel Bergquist happily describes is complicated in itself. Then synchronizing it to the milli-second with another production, the multi-door farce The Candidate in the Maclab, makes air traffic control look like a yawn. “We worked as a cohesive unity, and it was thrilling!” It was, she says, a tangible reminder of “the real joy and privilege of a live experience….”

Isabel Bergquist. Photo supplied

The route by which Bergquist has found herself in the stage management brigade, with its rarefied skill set, is mysterious — not least to her. “A fluke, really!” says the 2018 U of A Fine Arts grad in stage management. She was never the kid who sang along to show tunes and pined to be in the limelight centrestage. “I fell into theatre.. I just thought it was sort of magical. What attracted me as a 13-year-old was the community element; the sense of family really hooked me in.”

Bergquist’s first gig out of university was Nextfest, Theatre Network’s celebration of emerging artists, where, in a total immersion experience, stage managers do everything. At large-scale operations like the Citadel, the duties, calibrated among the stage manager, the assistants, the apprentices, are much more rigidly parsed, as defined by the Equity system. For a couple of seasons, Bergquist has been apprenticing at the Citadel on big productions like As You Like It and A Christmas Carol, as well as at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and Opera Nuova. And for the last two years Bergquist has stage managed Alberta Musical Theatre’s original musical fairy tales as they prepare for the public launch of their exceedingly long tours. “Really fun!” she says. 

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Opera director Brian Deedrick appreciates Bergquist’s calm expertise. “She was still a student when we worked together at Opera Nuova, and yet she already had the brilliant organizational and empathetic skills needed for a great stage manager: I’d happily share a rehearsal hall with her any time, anywhere….”

“I feel like I don’t really fit the mould,” says Bergquist, an exuberant and thoughtful sort.  “Stage managers are fairly to themselves, not seeking attention, quiet…. I love people; I love to make them laugh; I’m kind of loud!”

The job, she thinks, asks that “you be open and receptive to everything at play. For sure, patience is required…. You find ways to be respectful but also have boundaries.” And in a world of big personalities and outsized, fragile egos, the stage manager “also requires a certain amount of social awarenesses … grounded in kindness I think.”

As every stage manager knows, the odd outburst and tantrum isn’t exactly unheard of in theatre. “I try to hold my ground and not really engage…. Normally I’m met with sincere apology,” she says genially. The idea is not to forget that “it’s a big thing that’s being created, with a lot of moving pieces and a lot of people. It’s not about me. Or them. It’s about storytelling.”

“She laughs. “Sometimes I do have to bite my tongue.”

Bergquist has role models, Kerry Johnston, Molly Pearson, Beth Dart, and Wayne Paquette among them. Some are specialists; others have diversified into other career paths. Since the stage manager is involved with the script in all its minutiae, as well as acting and directing, exploring direction or dramaturgy isn’t a leap into the wild blue yonder. Bergquist is up for that. “Stage management feels like part of my career, not all of it….My ideal of a fulfilling life is a variety,” she says.

With theatre doors shut for an indeterminate time, Bergquist has put her plan to go abroad and explore arts communities elsewhere — Belgium, the Netherlands, Scotland for a couple of years — on Pause. She looks on the bright side (another stage manager trait): “OK, instead of six days a week, 10 hours a day, it’s an opportunity to read plays, find stories and art that matter to me.”

And Bergquist is even finding out, first-hand, what online stage management looks like, in a production of Mac Brock’s Tracks, slated originally for a May run in Fringe Theatre’s Off-Season lineup. It’s not like there’s a guidebook for pandemical transformations; she’s inventing as she goes.

   

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New faces in theatre (the series continues): meet designer Alison Yanota

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet designer Alison Yanota. And look for the others in this continuing 12thnight.ca New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; read the story HERE.

The Nine Parts of Desire, The Maggie Tree, design by Alison Yanota. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

ALISON YANOTA, designer

“Quirky. Weird. Offbeat.… I always describe my work that way,” says the cheerful voice on the phone. “Normal,” on the other hand,  is not a descriptive that designer Alison Yanota would seek out.

designer Alison Yanota

Her design portfolio, which includes productions with such experimental indie theatres as Punctuate!, Cardiac, Ghost River, Tiny Bear Jaws, Bustle and Beast, Major Matt Mason, Fu-GEN, the Maggie Tree — as well as larger subscription companies like Shadow, the Citadel, Vertigo — shimmers with startling images, surreal inspirations, mysterious reinventions of space with light. If you saw the Shadow premiere of Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, a test of comedy in a World War I setting, you’ll have seen Yanota’s beautiful work: a kind of sepia-drenched trench that slashed the stage diagonally, overhung with gauzy tatters, perhaps bandages, that fluttered like the remnants of an apocalyptic festival.

It’s possible that the cosmos has its own designs on Yanota: the play that’s followed her around since high school, she says, production after production, is  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fantasy world of improbable transformations. This is telling: “I guess I live in a more surreal sort of world most of the time,” she says, a shrug in her voice.

It’s probably why the first theatre that appealed to Yanota, growing up in Calgary and gravitating to drawing, making music, dance, wasn’t earnest TYA (theatre for young audiences): “I didn’t like how much they pandered to me as a kid.” What filled her with wonder was the Cirque du Soleil. At 13, she even joined a touring youth circus; “I did contortion, and spun hula hoops on my feet….”

John Ullyatt in Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Yanota, who appreciates “a mom who really promoted the arts for me!,” remembers the younger self who was a multi-tracker: “I wanted to sculpt, I wanted to paint, make props, do costumes.… I just didn’t have a point of view yet.” The “technical theatre” program at Mount Royal University, recommended by a high school drama teacher, and then theatre design at the U of A (she has bachelor and a master’s of fine arts degrees) — “seven years in school!” perfectly suited a multi-faceted talent. “I’m so lucky to have gone that route,” says Yanota. “It’s allowed me to achieve a lot on small budgets, in indie theatre. I like knowing how things are made….”

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“I learned so much about technique, how to be in a room and collaborate, when to stick up for yourself and stand behind your work,” Does she have a design specialty? “I like having a hand in all of it,” laughs the exuberant Yanota, now 29. “Especially when the time is short.”

Elena Belyea in Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Laurence Philomene.

She’s especially drawn to immersive theatre experiences, like Elena Belyea’s Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, a Tiny Bear Jaws production in which the audience gets to be the class in an escalating exploration of apocalyptic anxiety. Or the Citadel production of Every Brilliant Thing (directed by Dave Horak, starring John Ullyatt) that had the audience collaborate with the protagonist on a list of what makes life worth living. Yanota’s design included a floor on which the audience members stuck notes, their individual contributions to “an Edmonton list of brilliant things” that grew every night of the run. It was, she reports, a fascinating cumulation.

Mixie and the Half Breeds, Fu-Gen Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“Everyone’s so tied to screens, to 2-D things all the time…. People want to feel part of something; there’s more of a craving for that then ever.” And design that creates “a grand sculpture or a space where people feel they’re in it” delights her. “I’ve always been an escapist at heart,” she laughs. “The abstract is a world I enjoy living in; it’s always interesting to see how people interpret….”

The strangest theatrical challenge in her portfolio? Louise Casemore’s Scent Bar, part of Ghost River’s “senses” project, which plays with the audience’s sense of smell .   

Yanota’s professional debut, though, was lighting a fourth-wall classic, the thriller Wait Until Dark at Vertigo Theatre. “A box set, and the planning to make  a ground plan work … it’s not the way my mind naturally works,” she says. “The (U of A design) professor I learned the most from was Lee Livingstone. So valuable!” 

Premium Content, Major Matt Mason Collective. Photo by Tye Carson

Experimental new work figures prominently in Yanota’s portfolio. This fall, she hopes, we’ll be able to see Premium Content, a hit from Calgary indie Major Matt Mason If things had been different, Tiny Bear Jaws’ The Worst Thing I Could Be Is Happy would be running now at Toronto’s Riser Fest.

Theatre is all about inviting an imaginative response. “Humans are storytellers,” says Yanota. “They take something simple, a box onstage, and build stories from it, puzzle out meanings…. The theatre itself, for that matter: a room painted black, turn on the lights, and you’re in a different time and place.”

The gaping uncertainties of the moment haven’t flummoxed her. “Much as I hate to say it, this time has been very valuable to me…. I’ve been able to dig into sewing and art projects I’ve never had time for…. It’s less trying to look ahead and more ‘what can I mess around with now?’ If it’s seeds for the future, great. If not, great.” 

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Teatro La Quindicina postpones its 2020 summer season for a year

Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s, 2009. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The upcoming Teatro La Quindicina 2020 summer season, which would have launched at the end of May with a revival of Stewart Lemoine’s Evelyn Strange, has been postponed by a year.

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Be patient, theatre fans. The entire line-up, a quartet of Lemoine comedies planned by Teatro’s outgoing artistic director/producer Jeff Haslam, has been rebooked, intact, for almost identical dates in 2021. The uncertainties attached to live gatherings, compounded by the cancellation of this year’s Fringe Festival, prompted the 12-month adjustment, says Lemoine of a decision to adjust in a big bold way instead of “speculating, then cancelling one production after another.” Clearly a case of ‘think big AND go home’.     

 As Lemoine, Teatro’s resident muse and playwright, explains, all 2020 subscriptions will automatically be converted into subscriptions for the 2021 season — unless subscribers want to donate that money, and receive a tax receipt. In the event a refund is required, that can happen, too. The response to the decision has been overwhelmingly positive, says Lemoine. “Everyone gets it on a basic level.”

Under Haslam, Teatro introduced to Edmonton the idea of a summer season to May to September, in the theatrical off-season. Born at the first Fringe in 1982, the company has made a Fringe run part of its subscription line-up.

“It gives us time to set up our new company structure post-Jeff,” says Lemoine of Teatro’s season jump ahead to 2021. Details await. But the general idea, he says, is “sharing the responsibilities amongst the ensemble,” an organizing principle with no equivalent here in a theatre company of any size (you’d have to look to ensemble companies like Chicago’s Steppenwolf for similarities).

Audience expansion requires time, thought, planning. “We have time to think about marketing, selling subscriptions to new people, getting the brochure out months, instead of A month, in advance.”  Besides, Lemoine argues, “people will be so excited to come back to the theatre!” 

“And now we have a fully planned 2021 season, we can really figure out our 40th anniversary season in 2022.” For his part Lemoine is finally able to remove the phrase “If I only had the time…” from his lexicon. “O wait, I do!”

Radical? “Well, these are radical times, and you have to be making big decisions,” declares Lemoine. “It’s pragmatic and gutsy, and those two don’t always go together.” 

Here’s the season of Lemoine plays Teatro audiences will see in 2021:

Evelyn Strange, directed by Shannon Blanchet (May 27 to June 12)

Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s, directed by Kate Ryan (July 8 to 24)

A new Lemoine play, directed by Stewart Lemoine (Aug. 12 to 28)

Fever-Land, directed by Belinda Cornish (Sept. 23 to Oct. 9) 

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New faces in theatre: six up-and-comers whose talents will have an impact on the scene. First, Helen Belay

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

First, meet actor Helen Belay.  And look for the others in this 12thnight.ca New Faces series. 

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Belinda Cornish, Helen Belay, Chris Pereira in Vidalia, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

HELEN BELAY, actor

If you got dizzy following the zigzag of three identical briefcases through a world of espionage (and escalating chaos) in Teatro La Quindicina’s revival of Vidalia last fall, you were embroiled in a high-speed Stewart Lemoine screwball comedy set in motion by a bright, breezy, impulsive heroine with a gift of the gab.

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This quick-witted meddler, stirring things up with the estimable goal of making life more, well, entertaining, was the assignment of a charismatic newcomer with a galactic smile and expert coming timing. In Helen Belay’s professional debut she slipped into the blithe literate wit of the signature Teatro style with the ease of a veteran. “Very smart!” she says of the tickling humour and the volley of ideas she found in the vintage Lemoine comedy. “Just fun! Jubilant!”

Since Belay emerged from the U of A theatre school last May — and lead roles in such Studio Theatre production as All For Love (she was Cleopatra) and Concord Floral — her name has come up regularly in conversations with directors and artistic directors across town. Edmonton audiences were the beneficiaries.

Helen Belay and Nicole St. Martin in The Blue Hour. Photo supplied.

In 2020 SkirtsAfire Festival’s mainstage premiere The Blue Hour, Michele Vance Hehir’s unusually intricate coming-of-age drama, Belay was striking as a teenage girl stuck in a small prairie town iron-clad in fundamentalism, dreaming of love, music, and the big wide world. An articulate and genial conversationalist, she’s fulsome in her appreciation for the play: “a beautiful piece of writing that allows for time and contemplation … such a rich and thought-out world.”

By day, in “a bit of an overlap with a very different kind of play” (she laughs at the understatement), Belay was “in a world of chaos and godlessness!” She was in rehearsal for Theatre Network’s production of an  outrageous black comedy, Colleen Murphy’s The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, in which a band of misfits, played by macabre bouffon clowns, get their mitts on Shakespeare’s grisliest most gore-splattered revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus.

Helen Belay in The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Going between the two might well be the wildest cross-hatching of the season. Belay  played Aaron, a vengeful, evil-soaked plotter full of murderous malice. The audience was part of the show, acknowledged at every turn. And it was impossible to predict how an audience would react to the shocking developments onstage. “It changed from night to night,” says Belay. ” Things that would get a laugh one day got deafening silence the next.”

Belay, who’s in her early ‘20s, remembers thinking after the first run, “dear god, are we going to make it? We must! We have to! The show is going to open!” People laughed, or they were shocked, or offended, or some edgy hybrid of all of the above. Some walked out, she reports. “Was it improv? Absolutely,” says Belay, who had never done improv officially until a five-hour shift last fall in Die-Nasty’s annual Soap-A-Thon. “I loved it! Scary, yes. But the opposite side of the coin (from) fear is excitement….”

Bouffons don’t give two hoots about the audience liking them. Au contraire. “A few times I’d snap at an audience member so fiercely I wondered if I’d crossed the line, gone too far. It was like that for all of us!”

Helen Belay, Cinderella, Globe Theatre Regina. Photo by Chris Graham.

Goading an audience to the breaking point wasn’t anything the England-born Belay could have predicted when she was growing up in north Edmonton, the child of Ethiopian immigrants. She wasn’t a die-hard theatre kid but “a pretty hardcore academic” whose parents were, like many immigrants, keen from the outset for their offspring to salute “the holy trinity,” as she puts it cheerfully, “medicine, law, engineering.” And for a time she found herself, fretful and unhappy, in computer science at the U of A. “My heart wasn’t in it,” she says of her  younger self.

On a semester off, on dad’s prescient suggestion, she tried an acting class with the Citadel’s Young Company. It was an instant life-changer. “On the train ride home, I’ll never forget, I was filled with … just an electric thrill!” Happiness is at stake, as her parents have recognized. When she was starring in Cinderella, in a new adaptation of the old tale at the Globe in Regina this past Christmas, her parents drove there, to see the show “and make sure I had people to spend Christmas with…. I’m lucky!”  And lucky, too, she says, “to have so many artists I respect and admire give me a shot!” 

That thrill of knowing your calling propels her forward through a summer that’s started with the indefinite postponement, three days into rehearsal, of the Citadel/Arts Club co-production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which would have played Edmonton and then Vancouver. She was slated to play the young niece of the assistant director, cast as one of the Lost Boys, a character who has horrific stage fright and keeps getting injured. And she still will, if her increasingly busy schedule permits when the production returns to the stage. 

“OK, you choose a life in the arts, to some extent. But it very much chooses you,” says Belay.  “I feel like I was grabbed by a skeletal hand and dragged toward my future!” she laughs. Meanwhile, she’s taught herself to play the ukulele and make sourdough bread.  

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Happy birthday Shakespeare: a pandemical celebration

Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival, 2018. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” — Hamlet

No one ever said he was a repository of positive thinking, but for self-help in times of self-isolation, Hamlet was on to something. The big day, Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, is Thursday. And, alas, it arrives with you bounded in a nutshell, alone in a sea of cancellations, postponements, Zoom-laden simulations.

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Much has been made of how much Shakespeare got done in plague years when the theatres were shut down, and the world’s greatest playwright was at home and presumably wearing sweatpants not doublet-and-hose. In 1592 he wrote great big hit poems like Venus and Adonis. In 1606, there was King Lear and probably Macbeth, with Anthony and Cleopatra as a topper. True, he didn’t have to worry about feeding his sourdough starter or learning to use the subjunctive in Spanish. But still….

Edmonton’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival, incidentally, celebrates by appointing a new artistic director (Dave Horak, check out his plans here) — and promising to return next summer with this summer’s pair of alternating plays (Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth).

The Folger Library’s suggestion of DIY Shakespeare at home — “speak the speech” or “strike a pose” or “make a picture,” and then #ShareYourShakespeare, might just be too terrible to contemplate. (I shudder to remember my worst-ever idea on the theatre beat, a contest that invited readers to send in their own versions of Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech. What was I thinking?). But in honour of their resident playwright, some of the world’s great theatre companies, with a demonstrable expertise in HD, have stepped up for April 23 by culling from their catalogues of great productions with free screenings.

The National Theatre in London continues its marvellous weekly Thursday night dip into a great archive (the National Theatre at Home) with Twelfth Night, a gender-fluid 2017 production directed by Simon Godwin (available from noon, if you’re up for a matinee).

The Stratford Festival here in Canada is streaming the towering Colm Feore King Lear of 2014, directed by Antoni Cimolina Thursday on YouTube, starting at 5 p.m. The tragedy seems newly minted for the moment — not least, incidentally, because its world is infiltrated by toxins. Lear himself speaks of  “the plagues that hang in this pendulous air.”

Shakespeare’s Globe, on location in London, is offering its 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet on YouTube for a couple of weeks. Ah, there’s a tragedy whose very story depends on an outbreak of the plague; it’s why Romeo doesn’t receive the letter detailing the Friar’s plan for Juliet to fake her own death.

The Royal Shakespeare Company – 18 of their stellar productions, including David Tennant, who’s a marvellously maddening and well-spoken Richard II, are available on Marquee TV. You can subscribe for a 14-day free trial.

The Donmar Warehouse in London, has its Shakespeare Trilogy, Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female trio of Shakespeares, set in a women’s prison — Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest  on Marquee TV as well. This sounds impossibly artificial, I know, but Harriet Walter is riveting.

 

   

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