A jazzy new musical with a bank robber folk hero: Pretty Boy The Musical at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Mark Vetsch, creator and director of Pretty Boy: The Musical, a jazzy new musical with a Depression Era bank-robbing hero. 

Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering at Nextfest 2018. Rehearsal photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He was charming, sexy, generous, nattily turned out, downright likeable. Women found him irresistible. Name: Charles Floyd. Occupation: bank robber. Rank: America’s Public Enemy No. 1.

And now, he’s the hero of a jazzy new musical by Mark Vetsch and Stephanie Urquhart. How Pretty Boy Floyd became a Depression Era folk hero, ladies’ man, and media darling — not mention possessor of a nickname he hated — is what you’ll find out in Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering on the Nextfest MainStage today. 

Vetsch had immersed himself in the 1920s, and was on his way to creating “a barbershop musical” destined for a Fringe BYOV when he got diverted by an intriguing discovery. It was “the pretty crazy story” of Pretty Boy Floyd’s improbable real-life career, which came to an abrupt end when the FBI gunned him down in 1934. Vetch was hooked: “This sounds like a musical to me!” He instantly imagined the moments, like ‘stick ‘em up!’, that would become musical numbers.

Bank-robbing sprees are good for that. And they’re good as well for the Robin Hood reverb.

That was a year-and-a-half ago. “I bought one biography, then two more,” says Vetsch, who teaches theatre at Scona, a high school known for its musical theatre expertise. Intriguingly, “history was full of contradictions.”

“I guess it was the epic-ness of the journey” that spoke musical theatre to Vetsch. “The story was so compelling,” event-filled, the stuff of legends. “En route to prison, Pretty Boy Floyd jumped out of the window of a moving train — and survived…. In a shoot-out he got shot in the head — and survived.” In short, says Vetsch, “the story felt big enough to support a musical.”

Vetsch and Nextfest have a history together, starting when the former was just out of high school. He’s been part of collective creations unveiled there. He’s been a stage manager, an actor, a director. “My first-ever paycheque was for a monologue I did at one of the (Nextfest) niteclubs!”

Edmonton audiences know Vetsch best, perhaps, for hanging out with Shakespeare, via multiple collaborations with Thou Art Here, the site-sympathetic company that finds unconventional destinations for their resident playwright in bars, in backyards, in puppet theatres, in haunted houses or vintage mansions. “This is my first big show alone,” he says of Pretty Boy.

And big it is: two acts, six actors and a four-piece jazz band to deliver Urquhart’s ‘20s/‘30s-style score. Damon Pitcher plays Pretty Boy Floyd, and the five other actors take on a variety of roles, including joint narration.

Vetsch, who directs the show, also wrote the lyrics for the 13 songs. It might have been a daunting prospect, in theory, till he realized that “making up songs” is exactly what he’s been doing for the six years he’s been part of Grindstone Theatre’s The 11 O’Clock Number, a weekly show in which entire musicals improvised on the spot.

“Put up your hands and we’ll get along just fine.” The lyrics came “a lot more naturally than I’d ever thought.” 

Pretty Boy: The Musical runs today, Saturday, June 7 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Performance schedule and tickets available at nextfest.ca. 

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Moonshine at Nextfest: a journey for identity in stories and music

Larissa Pohoreski in Moonshine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles.  12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. First, meet Larissa Pohoreski, creator and star of Moonshine. 

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s a celebration of my roots,” says Larissa Pohoreski of Moonshine. “And searching for things I don’t know about them, for things I will never know.”

Like the title beverage, Moonshine, premiering Friday on the Nextfest mainstage, is an original — a fusion of true stories in two languages with folk music into an unclassifiable multidisciplinary performance theatre piece. And Pohoreski brings a remarkably expansive skill set — as an actor, a dancer, a singer, a multiple instrumentalist — to the perpetual quest for identity. “You struggle with your identity…. What if you can’t find it?”

Pohoreski’s roots grow deep into Ukrainian soil. In fact, “English is my second language,” she says of an upbringing here with second-generation Canadian parents steeped in the Ukrainian culture. “I didn’t speak English till kindergarten.”

It was Pohoreski’s mother who pointed out the curiosity that in Edmonton, a theatre town where 10 per cent, at least, of the population is of Ukrainian descent, there is no Ukrainian theatre company. Dance, yes (Vinok, Shumka, Viter Ukrainian Dancers and Folk Choir spring to mind). Theatre, no.

Actor/improviser/director Ben Gorodetsky, inspired by his own Russian Jewish heritage, encouraged Pohoreski to make something for the experimental Dirt Buffet series he curates at Mile Zero Dance. And there was Nextfest standing by: Pohoreski’s 15-minute piece for the festival grew into a workshop production (with trimmings) last year, and became Moonshine. “People came up to tell me afterwards how the piece had really touched them,” she says.

“It’s timing, right?” says Pohoreski, now in her mid-20s, whose first trip to Ukraine, at 16, was a Viter dance tour of the Old Country. “Sometimes life just happens…. My Baba passed a couple of years ago, severe dementia. And at the end she told stories none of us had heard before.”

Some of those secrets have found their way into Moonshine along with Pohoreski’s own experiences. And the storytelling is framed by shots of moonshine — trays of vodka and exuberant toasts, what she calls “the Ukrainian culture of alcohol.”

Most recently Edmonton audiences saw Pohoreski, violin in hand, as a composer in Infinity at Theatre Network. Before that, she was part of Lianna Makuch’s own Ukrainian roots exploration, Blood of Our Soil. Naturally adventurous, Pohoreski was “the inaugural fresh air artist” at Common Ground’s 2017 Found Festival. Before The River, “an immersive outdoor play using Ukrainian folk stories,” took half the audience on a journey forward through the narrative and half backward.

Larissa Pohoreski. Photo by Ryan Parker

Extreme versatility creates its own challenges, she thinks. A dancer first, who took up the violin — and also plays the piano and accordian, the guitar, the dulcimer, the bandura (a Ukrainian plucked stringed folk instrument) — Pohoreski describes herself as “one of those kids who are never quite able to decide what to focus on….”

She went to MacEwan University in theatre arts, then the U of A in theatre design. “When I came to create something, I wanted storytelling to happen in the most visual way possible.”

Growing up “I had a feeling of not really fitting in, an outsider living between worlds, Ukrainian and Canadian, without enough of one or the other,” she muses. That’s why the show happens in “a mix of languages; I slip in and out of the two worlds…. Everything I talk about in the show is true. It’s me putting the puzzle pieces together.”

Moonshine runs Friday, Sunday, June 6 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Check nextfest.ca for times and tickets.

    

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What’s next? Find out at Nextfest, the festival that celebrates the next generation of artists

Nextfest 2018. Poster by Ray Lam and Steven Teeuwsen.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Prepare to be surprised.

Starting today in Old Strathcona, two groups of five emerging artists from the whole spectrum of disciplines — playwrights, choreographers, visual artists, filmmakers, actors, musicians — will gather. Together they’ll spend the next 11 days at Nextfest creating …  something new. And 30 hours of “rehearsal” later, on the last night of Nextfest (June 10), audiences will get to see that something: a presentation perhaps? an installation, a performance, an exhibition, a production?

There’s really no foretelling what will come out of The Collaboration Project, an innovation in this year’s edition of Nextfest, the ground-breaking multi-disciplinary emerging artist festival that was dreamed up 23 Junes ago by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

Which cuts to the chase. Nextfest is the festival that happens when you lob the question “so, what’s new?” into a crowd of up-and-comers.

It was designed to support and showcase the multi-faceted creativity of the emerging generation of artists. Theatre, music, dance, poetry, visual art, film design, comedy … it’s a community of potential game-changers, 500 strong and counting. And the answer to the question “so, what’s new?” is, “well, everything. Every year.” 

Nextfest director Ellen Chorley. Photo by BB Collective.

That comes from Ellen Chorley on the eve of her second Nextfest as festival director. Hand it to an authority: Chorley grew up at Nextfest. When she says “I’ve spent half my life at Nextfest,” she’s not kidding: at 16 Chorley and her theatre school pals took a collaborative show to the festival. And an amazingly multi-angled career as a playwright/ actor/ director/ artistic director/ producer/ teacher/ mentor/ curator was born. “I would not be the artist I am without Nextfest!” Chorley says feelingly. “A lot of art partnerships have started here….” Which is why The Collaboration Project, in which the participants are mentored by Bradley Moss and Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance, is an initiative that is quintessentially Nextfest.

Another addition to the 2018 festival is a free daily workshop series, led by pros and designed, says Chorley, “to bridge the gap between post-secondary (art) schools and a career in the arts.” The thrust is practical: how write a grant application, how to pitch projects to theatres or dance companies, how to promote yourself. “There are big mountains to climb; you don’t necessarily know how to take the first step,” says Chorley. “Even if you aren’t a Nextfest artist, you become one when you show up.” And there’s a bonus: you get a festival pass to see everything at Nextfest for free.

Nextfest has its traditions, too, reinvented with each annual edition. There are the Nextfest Niteclubs for example, late-night multi-disciplinary “performance parties,” each with a curator, a theme, a distinct flavour in the way it matchmaker artists and audiences. Friday’s party, Conduit: A Means To Move, is all about movement and dance. Shadow State (June 7) focuses on visual arts and film. Welcome to Hellsmut (June 8) reimagines the festival’s annual smut party as a kind of Victorian funeral. Queers on Queerz (June 9) coincides with Edmonton’s Pride festivities.

New? Theatre Network’s Roxy, Fringe Theatre’s Backstage Theatre, and the Yardbird Suite are the principal performance spaces this year. And along with an assortment of visual arts venues — including the Strathcona Library, The Paint Spot, Roots, the Next Act — all are within walking distance this time out. Which feels, as fringe-goers know, more festive.

New? The MainStage theatre lineup is a quartet of dramatically diverse theatrical experiences, from a jazzy period musical to a darkly comic dinner party/ relationship play. You’ll meet the playwright/creators in future 12thnight.ca posts. 

PREVIEW

Nextfest 2018

Theatre: The Nextfest Arts Co.

Where: Roxy on Gateway, The Backstage Theatre, Yardbird Suite, and an assortment of “galleries,” including the Backstage and Fringe Theatre Adventure lobbies, the Next Act, Roots on Whyte, Strathcona Library, The Paint Spot

Running: Thursday through June 10, full schedule and show descriptions at nextfest.ca

Tickets: in person at the Roxy (8529 Gateway Blvd), by phone at 780-453-2440, or online at nextfest.ca

  

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The Finest of Strangers aren’t strangers at all: Teatro’s season-opening premiere

Patricia Darbasie, Jeff Haslam, Davina Stewart in The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There was a moment last fall when Stewart Lemoine found himself standing on a Winnipeg street, peering through the front window of a house he once knew, rooted to the spot.

“I knew I shouldn’t be doing this,” he remembers thinking. “What does it look like? I can’t go in. I should knock on the door, or leave….”

It’s an experience, tiny and memorable, that has found it way into the new Lemoine, premiering Thursday at the Varscona to launch the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season. In The Finest of Strangers a well-known Canadian TV personality (Jeff Haslam), an investigative reporter on the national news, visits his childhood home in High River, Alberta. And he finds he just can’t leave. 

This unusual situation naturally creates a certain mystification factor for the current occupant of the house (Patricia Darbasie) — “a high school English teacher with a wry outlook” as the playwright describes her — and the next-door neighbour (Davina Stewart). “It’s a hard thing to explain,” says Lemoine, with a mysterious smile of his own. “Something wants him there. They explore together what it might be.” Discoveries all round ensue.

Which brings us back to that night in Winnipeg. Lemoine had been having dinner with Teatro actor friends across the alley, a perfectly preserved-in-amber ‘50s steakhouse. He and Andrew MacDonald-Smith stepped across to the house where the young Lemoine had spent two years, ages six and seven, in a childhood of constant motion, place to place in northern Manitoba. His dad was a Hudson’s Bay store manager in places like Cross Lake and Nelson House, “places you had to fly to…. That’s why I learned to read when I was four,” he laughs. “Nothing to do.”

When Lemoine’s dad got promoted to regional manager, “we lived in Winnipeg during his training, in a duplex owned by the Bay. My first real city house, 20s or 30s, hardwood floor.” 

“This play,” he says of The Finest of Strangers, “is something of that feeling, something that seems important and lingers with you….”

Other places lived in and not forgotten wafted into the new play too, Lemoine thinks. “In the spring of 2015 we closed the Varscona (for extensive renos), and within two weeks it was knocked down.” The feeling was by no means regret (in fact, more like celebration, given the decrepitude of the building). Says Lemoine, “it was just one of the places I had been the most in the last 20 years. I think about the lobby sometimes, and the times I’ve had there….” 

Six weeks after that, he and his siblings sold their parents’ house where they’d lived for 47 years. “It was easy, not emotional. We just went in and got rid of everything. But suddenly, there was another place I’d never return…. I haven’t been back in three years, but one day I’ll walk by.”

The Finest of Strangers, says its creator, “is about a guy who goes back to a house where he once lived 45 years ago, and finds out some things in the process…. Initially he and the current occupant seem unconnected, strangers. His being there unleashes some past events.”

“I think there are things that happen when people live in a house. And there’s a possibility that somebody’s story might be connected to the story of somebody else who lived in that house, even though they didn’t know each other,” Lemoine muses. “There are ghostly presences connected to the house, that connect them to each other…. Think of history as fluid.That we remember things that happened in the past means that they’re still ‘alive’…. We live with them; they exist in the present.”

The cast of The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

And speaking as we are of the co-existence of past and present, the eight actors in the full-bodied premiere production of The Finest of Strangers include five veteran Teatro stars, old friends whose history with the company goes back 25 years or more. Leona Brausen was there at the very start, the birth of Teatro at the first Fringe in 1982, and even before that when Lemoine was making little movies in which his friends appeared.

The play is a reunion of sorts for Teatro cohorts Haslam and Stewart with Darbasie, who’s making her Teatro debut in The Finest of Strangers. The three were U of A theatre school classmates and graduated together in 1986. And the characters they play — the TV news star, the house occupant and the lady next door — “spend a lot of time discovering things together, as strange things happen and unexpected characters begin to arrive.”

Jeff Haslam and Cathy Derkach in The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

Stewart and Teatro have a long and distinguished history together, back to title roles, specially written for her, in The Vile Governess in 1985 and Cocktails at Pam’s the following year. Cathy Derkach made her Teatro debut in 1988, with Haslam, in Lemoine’s Neck-Breaking Car Hop. Julien Arnold’s debut came two years later with The Glittering Heart. And Teatro’s association with Calgary actor/director Mark Bellamy (last seen in Teatro’s most recent revival of Cocktails at Pam’s) goes back 30 years to Lemoine productions at Alberta Theatre Projects and Vertigo Theatre.

As usual with Teatro, the company embraces newcomers: Michelle Diaz, who arrived on the scene in Teatro’s For The Love of Cynthia and had a sensational presence in The Plain Janes’ Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown earlier this season. Never one to let great pipes go to waste, Lemoine, who calls Diaz “high-impact,” says she’ll be singing in the course of the show.

Eight actors is a lot of stage traffic for a small company. “Big casts tend to bring big audiences,” that’s Teatro logic as set forth by Lemoine. “People figure things are going to happen!”

Like the characters themselves, who gradually discover connections in the course of the play, The Finest of Strangers didn’t come as a fully formed plot in advance. With its elements of mystery and comedy and romance, it would seem to elude any known category or genre, Lemoine agrees.

“I had to find my way into something that didn’t make sense. Until it did,” Lemoine laughs. “Some of my favourite plays are like that, Eros And The Itchy Ant or The Margin of the Sky, that I could never have pitched to a granting agency…. The only way to know what this play was was to write it!”

PREVIEW

The Finest of Strangers

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Jeff Haslam, Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Julien Arnold, Leona Brausen, Cathy Derkach, Mark Bellamy, Michelle Diaz

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through June 16

Tickets: teatroq.com

 

 

 

 

  

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What have we got that other Kids’ Fests don’t? St. Albert’s unique Children’s Theatre

Junie B. Jones The Musical, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For more than 20 years, the hottest ticket at the St. Albert International Children’s Festival, the festivities that officially herald the arrival of summer, has not been a children’s entertainer with sing-along proclivities and a TV contract. Or a pop band. Or a clown (no matter how endearing). No, the biggest mainstage sales have invariably been for the musical produced by a local theatre company — with a cast of kids.

St. Albert Children’s Theatre, which turns 37 this year, is the answer to the question “what does our Kids’ Fest have that the other Kids’ Fests on the cross-country circuit do not?” There is no shortage in the world of theatre in which adult actors play kids, for kid audiences. But the theatre company founded by Maralyn Ryan is, as long-time artistic director Janice Flower points out, a “unique case: kids performing for … everybody, kids and grown-ups and families.”

Their performing year includes challenging Broadway and Off-Broadway fare in the winter, and in this summer slot, one-act musicals and plays. “In the beginning it was hard to find hour-long shows in  the (existing) repertoire,” says the enterprising, Flower. “So the kids and I wrote our own.” The first, in 1996, was Aesop’s Funky Fables. Four more S.A.C.T. originals followed. Since then Flower has been mining the Musical Theatre International catalogue, with its shorter “junior” editions of Disney musicals like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, or adaptations of hit kids’ books. 

The troupe performed outdoors, or in circus tents with, er, interesting acoustics. Sometimes they took productions to the Arden Theatre stage, and more recently to the theatre venue that the Kids’ Fest fashions in the Curling Club.

Junie B. Jones The Musical, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

That’s where you’ll find Junie B. Jones The Musical starting today. It was adapted in 2005 from four of the 55 best-selling Barbara Parks books by the expertly witty New York team of Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich who created Dear Edwina. Grown-up audiences might recognize their song Taylor The Latte Boy, a cabaret favourite.

“The music is fantastic!” says director Flower, a veteran musical arranger herself, of the dozen or so songs in Junie B. Jones The Musical. “It’s so good we’ve been asking ourselves ‘why is this number so short?’ You just want it to go on….”

As you’ll know if you have kids Junie is a plucky, starchy little girl. In this show, it’s her first day in first grade, and she’s up against it. Her best friend Lucille doesn’t want to be her best friend any more, for one thing. For another, she can’t quite make out what’s on the blackboard, and might need (gasp!) glasses. And there’s a setback which I mustn’t reveal in Junie’s plan to be a kickball star. In short her “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal” has a lot of inflammatory material to work with.

Flower, unfazable and genial, is directing a cast of 27 (only moderate in size by S.A.C.T. standards), ages nine to 17. “Everybody plays a Grace 1 kid. There are five adult roles (teachers, the cafeteria lady, etc.), so there’s double-casting — and in the case of two of those, it’s cross-gender.

Junie B. Jones The Musical, St. .Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

The production values of S.A.C.T. productions are always startlingly high. It’s Flower’s dream to take the company on a tour of the country’s Kids’ Fests. “I think, I know, that people would be blown away!” 

Of the 12 performances of Junie B. Jones The Musical this week at the Kids’ Fest, today through Sunday in St. Albert, eight are for school groups, and four are public. Don’t linger if you want a ticket ( put that in your own Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal). 

Performance schedule: childfest.com

Tickets: Arden Theatre box office (in person or 780-459-1542) or ticketmaster.ca.

The eight-production mainstage lineup at the Kids’ Fest embraces theatre, music, dance, comedy circus arts, puppetry. 12thnight.ca talk to two of the country’s most innovative puppet theatres, L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes and Puzzle Théâtre.

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In a big world, the enchantment of small: the Kids’ Fest is back

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”

— Tom Stoppard

On being a kid.

Do you remember that mysterious childhood tingle that goes through your bones when wood comes to life and goes on an adventure, clay turns into a face and becomes a character, you find yourself seeing into the heart of a glow-in-the-dark fish on a great deep sea adventure? Or when a miniature world comes to life — and is suddenly more real than anything big around you?

There’s a festival for that. And it’s just up the road on the banks of the mighty Sturgeon starting Tuesday.

You can take a kid, or be one yourself. The St. Albert International Children’s Festival of the Arts, our true summer solstice experience, returns for a 37th edition that runs through Sunday June 3 on a variety of stages, indoor and out-, surrounding the Arden Theatre. As usual at the festivities, there’s a mix of theatre, dance, storytelling, music, comedy, circus arts — sometimes in the same production. 

Of the eight MainStage ticketed shows, three of the country’s most innovative puppet theatres — two from Quebec, one from the Maritimes — are arriving to open your eyes to the possibilities that lie waiting in inanimate objects.

The Rainbow Fish, Mermaid Theatre. Photo supplied

The Rainbow Fish is from Nova Scotia’s Mermaid Theatre, which specializes in black light storytelling. It’s their unique stage version of three tales by the celebrated kids’ author Marcus Pfister. And the questing hero you’ll be rooting for is a beautiful fish with shining scales, who goes on an underworld journey of discovery.

For the first time, Montreal-based Puzzle Théâtre visits the west, to reveal the secret inner life that lurks within the most prosaic — indeed controversial, and reviled — objects of them all: discarded plastic bags. Recycling at its timeliest, you might say, and a test case for the creation of characters by breathing life into inanimate objects.

Plastic/ Plastique is the work of Bulgarian-born wife-and-husband  team of Pavla Mano and Csaba Raduly, the one trained as a puppeteer and the other as an actor.

“We’re a family theatre,” laughs Mano, on the phone from Vancouver where Plastic/Plastique played last week at the Kids’ Fest there. “And our scenographer is from Bulgaria too.”

Mano’s earliest work was in more conventional puppet theatre, puppets as tiny recognizable representations of people. But “with time this changed; it wasn’t interesting any more…. ‘Object theatre’ is very rich; it can express more,” she says.

As the company name might suggest, at first Puzzle experimented with object forms — triangles, geometric shapes. Since then, they’ve created theatre using wool (Au bout du fil, Little Yarn Stories), or kids’ drawings on paper (Ciel variable, Variable Cloudiness), pillows and blankets (Bonne nuit!, Bedtime).

With object theatre Mano is attracted, she says, to “the way you don’t know where you’re going when you start…. Every material has its own world, its own life, its own way of thinking. And you have to follow it, and not impose your own will.”

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

“Imposing doesn’t work…. You can try. But eventually you say ‘OK I give up’ and you follow.” When Mano and Radula begin a project, they don’t know in advance whether it will be for kids, for grown-ups, or (as in the case of Plastic/ Plastique) both, whether for large crowds or intimate gathering in tiny dark theatres. “This keeps life being interesting,” she says.

The Puzzle history, for example, includes a unique commission to “animate a forest” at the request of the Saguenay Festival, “in order to bring people to their hill.” Mano remembers at the outset walking through the woods brainstorming; typically, she and Raduly saw possibilities hidden in objects like branches: “we kept seeing weird creatures with strange noses.” 

The origins of Plastic/ Plastique were in a Montreal park, “with plastic bags flying all around.” Mano and Radula’s son was 3 1/2 at the time, and to keep him amused, his parents began to create story possibilities with the flying discards all around them.

Since its 2012 premiere in Montreal, Plastic/ Plastique has toured globally. Depending on where it turns up, there is some language, or none, in the show. “It was meant to be without words; we didn’t know how plastic would speak,” says Mano. “There’s some talking when it’s in English, French, or Spanish; German and Italian we speak less.”

“We have a lot of bags!” she says of the “cast.” And bags are reusable: “we’ll have to keep playing for 15 years more!”

Tommelise (Thumbelina), L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes. Photo by Michel Pinault 2017.

L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes, who brought the Kids’ Fest an exquisite puppet version of Hansel and Gretel (À La belle étoile) in 2015, is back, with another playful adventure in scale. Tommelise (Thumbelina) is a re-telling of the beautiful Hans Christian Andersen tale of the tiny heroine born into the heart of a barley flower, who emerges into a big and scary world.

It is the most recent show by the venerable much-travelled Montreal puppet company founded nearly 40 years ago by the parents of co-artistic director Sabrina Baran. “I grew up literally with puppets!” as she says.

In Thumbelina Baran shares the stage with a dancer, a musician, and a great diversity of puppets of varying sizes and styles — marionettes, stick puppets, shadow puppets, puppets manipulated with a hand.

Tommelise (Thumbelina) Photo by Michel Pinault 2017

Baran’s artistic preference, working collaboratively with a team, is perfectly suited to the multiple demands of puppet theatre. She started out, as a kid, in classical ballet — “a difficult world for a little girl” — and tried the visual arts too before “turning to puppet theatre with great pleasure!” she laughs. Movement choreography both human and puppet, design, acting, rarefied artisanship, dramatic ideas … theatre with puppet characters requires all of the above, as Baran points out happily.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale has appealed to her since childhood, Baran says. “It stayed with me, my vision of a small child in an enormous world…. In my version, it’s the strength of that little girl in overcoming so many difficult challenges in the big world.”

She thinks of the miniature world as “representing your inner soul…. There’s enchantment in small. We have magic in us. And children have it the most.”

The Kids’ Fest runs Tuesday through Sunday in St. Albert.

Featured Performances: Plastic/ Plastique, Tommelise (Thumbelina), The Rainbow Fish, Neverland, The StepCrew, Singing Africa with Jacky Essombe, The Mystery Wonder Show (with Ron Pearson), and Junie B. Jones The Musical (St. Albert Children’s Theatre).

Neverland, CircusWest. Photo supplied.

Full schedule, show descriptions, site map: childfest.com (and there’s a free app you can download there).

Site activities: an assortment of 13, from papermaking to calligraphy to design, including The Poetic Art Project, a collaborative enterprise that has kids choosing words to enhance their vision of how to make their community a better place.

Free things to do: an outdoor stage, a regiment of roving performers, tattoos and chalk art, and more.

Tickets: For mainstage shows $13, available at the Arden box office (780-459-1542, the St. Anne Promenade satellite box office, or Ticketmaster, ticketmaster.ca), and $25 for the Festival Finale. Toddler Town for kids up to four, $10 (free for the adult they take with them). Site activities $3.

The best deal: the Butterfly Pass. $20 gets you 1 featured performances, unlimited site activities, free entry to Toddler Town, caricature trading cards, a festival treat, and a child admission to Fort Edmonton Park.

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The art of Indigenous storytelling comes to life: meet Josh Languedoc

Playwright/performer Josh Languedoc. Photo supplied by Thousand Faces Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’ve always been a storyteller,” says the Saugeen First Nation playwright/ actor/ improviser/ director Josh Languedoc. “It’s just been there … in my bones.”

He can thank his Indigenous heritage, and its great oral tradition for that. And he does — as you’ll see in Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land, with its animal spirits and myths. A “test run” version of the show comes to the Thousand Faces Mythic Arts Festival this weekend before it hits six Fringe festivals, including Edmonton’s across the country this summer.

“It’s always been a part of me, Indigenous stories and culture. But sometimes it’s been in the background,” says the genial Anishinaabe artist who’s playwright-in-residence at Workshop West this season. Theatre has always been embedded in q multi-limbed career that includes improv musicals with Grindstone Theatre and improv Shakespeare with Thou Art Here. And it’s resurfaced in full force at a long overdue moment in history when, adrenalized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous voices are being heard as never before.   

“It’s told me that you can be a voice,” Languedoc has heard from his mentors. “You should have been a voice all along.” He laughs. “It’s more than time…. My passion has good timing!”

The engaging Languedoc, whose Ojibwe dad was adopted off the reserve (“another story! there’s a play in that!”) grew up in St. Albert, a theatre kid and self-styled “musical theatre junkie.” No surprise that, encouraged by his father, whom he credits for his cultural interests, he gravitated to the St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Sondheim? Yes, he says, but “Disney was my big jam. Lloyd Webber. All of it.” Vic, the performing arts high school, was a natural fit. And a playwright was born there.

His first play? Question, he recalls. “Ten pages, four scenes, little moments of what it’s like to be a teen: how to come out to your parents if you’re pregnant, friendships, girlfriends…. Typical teen shit!”

At the U of A he got a degree in sociology, with a specialty in the sociology of Canadian theatre, “its narratives, its themes,” and then a teaching degree with a double-optic focus in drama and science.

The play that Fringe audiences from Ottawa to Victoria will see is framed by two characters, a lonely young boy sick in the hospital and his grandfather who arrives with a cache of stories. “It’s all about oral storytelling,” says Languedoc of the Native tradition, “sucking people in in real time….”

In contrast to the marginalizing of the old in white culture, age is respected in Indigenous culture, as he points out. “Elders are knowledge-keepers. Everyone looks to them for guidance.”

In Rocko and Nakota, the latter is remembering his seminal boyhood encounters with his grandpa, and the transporting inspirations of his stories. “It flips back and forth to the present,” when Rocko is telling his own stories. Languedoc mines a store of traditional Indigenous myths; he creates others. “I embody everything in the stories! Animals, warriors, elders, animals. Trees! It keeps me moving!”

Languedoc credits his mentors for “pushing me along the path.” It’s a list headed by Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen — “he’s helped me in so many ways; I owe so much to that man!”  — and including playwrights Kenneth T. Williams, Colleen Murphy and Reneltta Arluk, the head of the Banff Centre’s new Indigenous arts program.

These days Languedoc has a sense of re-committing to an identity that was there all along. He’s been working as a substitute teacher, and he’s poised to plunge into the world of theatre full-time when he heads to the Ottawa Fringe mid-month.

“It’s been the last year or two that I realized ‘I can’t ignore this any more, if I’m going to go forward’…. It’s a gift, and I want to use it in a big way!”

PREVIEW

Thousand Faces Festival of Mythic Arts

Where: Alberta Avenue Community League, 9210 118 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday, full roster of shows and schedule at thousandfaces.ca

Admission: by donation

 

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Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, bigger than ever and ready to roar this summer

Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, the upcoming 2018 edition of the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He’s the monster who started small, rampaged through Old Strathcona like his own pleasure garden, and grew and grew. And he seems to have a history that goes back to the pre- of everything.

As announced Wednesday, our upcoming 37th annual Edmonton Fringe Festival, the continent’s oldest and still biggest, has its  signature theme — and a grinning mascot. At Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, coming our way Aug. 16 through 26, you’ll be having an epic-scale live theatre blow-out day and night, noon through the wee hours, with a dino.

Forget extinction; people have a long-standing love affair with dinos, the bigger the better. With Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, our summer theatre bash has burst its buttons yet again. At 229 shows (up from last year’s 220 and 215 the year before that), the 2018 edition is the biggest ever. Of this glorious profusion, some 105 shows happen in lotteried venues, “theatres” outfitted and scheduled by the Fringe. There are 11 of them clustered in and around Fringe headquarters, the ATB Financial Arts Barn — one more than last year’s 10 with a return to the festivities of the Strathcona Community League, the designated theatre-for-young-audiences destination.

The other 124 shows happen in some 29 BYOVS (bring-your-own venues), acquired, kitted out, and curated by artists themselves. Fringe director Murray Utas reports that there’s more clustering of shows in BYOVs. That roster of indie venues, including the Varscona Theatre and Theatre Network at the Roxy, is enhanced by the addition this year of Grindstone Theatre’s newly opened and charming comedy club in Strathcona.

Sugar Swing Ballroom, for example, has a whopping 16 shows in its two-storey locale. Holy Trinity Anglican Church has 18. Together the three venues at La Cité francophone in the French Quarter, curated by actor/playwright/director Jon Paterson, will house 24 shows, eight apiece. The music venue The Sewing Machine Factory (under the Mill Creek Cafe on Whyte at 95 St.) has Fringe shows. St. Basil’s Cultural Centre (71 Ave. and 109 St.) has two venues, a 400- and a 150-seater, and an assortment of Fringe productions — including The Irrelevant Show, invariably a hot ticket wherever it goes. 

Utas, whose usual condition of exuberance is already approaching stratospheric Fringe levels, is pumped about this year’s theme, a dream-come-true for props visionaries. “This one is gonna be fun! Just fun!”

The Fringe schedule will be announced Aug. 1. And tickets go on sale Aug. 7. There’s more info at fringetheatre.ca

     

   

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Planting seeds for kids theatre: the 17th annual Sprouts Festival

Morgan Yamada, Colin Dingwall, Sprouts Festival, Concrete Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For 17 springs now, Concrete Theatre has planted new plays at their annual Sprouts Festival — and watered them for future seasons. The idea from the start was to stimulate growth in the Canadian theatre repertoire by finding sources that are more ethnically and culturally diverse in the writing pool — and even tapping new wells of writing talent altogether.

And so it is with the three new and original 20-minute seedling plays getting staged readings at this year’s edition. It runs Saturday and Sunday for the 18 months to 12-year-old crowd at the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. 

Sisters, a story of siblings who were once best friends and are now on the outs, is by actor/playwright Holly Lewis. Wild Runner, which explores the coming-of-age challenges of a young boy initiated into the ways of a Dene tribe, is by actor/ improviser/ teacher/ playwright/ social activist/ playwright Josh A. Languedoc.

With Screen Time, Sprouts enlists an actor/playwright whose bold black comedies (Murderers Confess At Christmastime, Bitches, Happy Kitchen, Lavender Lady, The Ladies Who Lynch) tend to peel back bright, sometimes absurdist surfaces to find psycho nightmares lurking beneath. In other words, Jason Chinn has always written for grown-ups. Till now.

“It was a chance to flex different muscles,” says Chinn cheerfully. “My writing tends to be extreme, over the top….” This was a chance to see how the Chinn satirical proclivities and sense of humour could work for a younger audience.

The issue in Screen Time is all-ages, which you will know if you’ve seen grade three kids texting madly lately. The family is over-using the title commodity, as Chinn explains. “The brother is obsessed by animé. The sister is a gaming addict. The mom is hooked on YouTube and social media.” Every dinner time is a riot of bleeps and bings, and electronic noises. “It’s a hot-button issue,” says Chinn, “and always a struggle for me and my adult friends.” Without a cellphone, there’s separation anxiety, and sometimes (as Chinn confesses) “a phantom feeling my phone is vibrating in my pocket.”

“I wanted to be family friendly while not black-and-white. The family keep trying to manage itself, and keeps failing….”

The brevity of a 20-minute play wasn’t traumatic for him. “I love writing short plays,” says Chinn, who wrote a five-minute play for the Citadel’s One On One series last year, and a play for Theatre Yes’s Elevator Project. “I want to move, to be fast, to have saturation!”

Occasionally, language has to be adjusted, of course. “I changed ‘parameters’ to ‘rules’. Kids know about rules!” But the best advice he got from Concrete Theatre’s Caroline Howarth was “just don’t talk down to kids. They’re really smart!”

Lobby activities begin in the ATB Financial Arts Barn (10330 84 Ave.) at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, with the shows in the Westbury Theatre at 2 p.m. Tickets: all $8, available at the door only.

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Escape Room theatre adventure puzzle: The Snow Queen is Azimuth’s latest collaboration

The Snow Queen, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In The Snow Queen, a strange and haunting fairy tale by the 19th century Danish master Hans Christian Andersen, a magic troll mirror distorts everything it reflects. It shatters, scattering icy splinters across the world. Anyone who gets a bit of troll shrapnel in the eye will see only the bad and the ugly.

A young girl travels far and wide through fantasy lands and into the epicentre of the Snow Queen’s frozen kingdom to discover her own power and rescue her childhood friend held captive there. 

It’s a tale with global, and contemporary, reverb. The Snow Queen has inspired film animations, live-action movies, animé, stage and radio plays, musicals, operas, ballets, video games — and in the case of Disney corp, a movie and a Broadway musical. Now, it’s inspired a contemporary live adventure adaptation, an experiment in “immersive Escape Room puzzle-based theatre,” as Vanessa Sabourin puts it.

This is not a tired category, to say the least. The Snow Queen, which runs tonight through May 27 (202 10545 108 St.) in a workshop debut, is a new and original collaboration between the theatre pros of Azimuth Theatre and a corps of high school theatre kids.

Sabourin, and her Azimuth co-artistic director Kristi Hansen, took time from their day of Freewill Shakespeare Festival rehearsals for A Comedy of Errors to describe the initiative. It’s been a long time coming. “Fifteen years ago, Vanessa, Amber Borotsik and I were thinking about an adaptation of The Snow Queen,” says Hansen, fresh from a starring role in The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood at the Citadel. Other theatre intervened, but they remained haunted.

“There’s something about an epic journey through a fantasy world,” says Sabourin, “finding your own grounding points, and how you interact….” The protagonist Gerda “goes a great distance to find somebody who is important to her,” a journey framed by the troll mirror and its fall-out: “it infects the whole world, making it hard to enjoy the truer things in life.”

These resonances made Hansen and Sabourin think young. “It’s about the experience of growing up and finding oneself,” says Hansen of the fairy tale. They consulted with young people, but getting feedback wasn’t enough. “We’re making a lot of guesses about what teenagers are like these days. We need them in the room with us, their influences, their pop culture references, the way they use social media, the grand ‘eye’ watching everything.” If someone did go missing now, as Gerda’s friend Kai does in the Snow Queen original, there would be an veritable epidemic of Facebook shares.

A true creative collaboration was born, one that syncs with Azimuth’s idea of “ensembles that combine professional theatre artists and emerging artists,” says Hansen. She and Sabourin, along with fellow mid-career pros Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, and  Aaron Macri, plus emerging artists Andrés Morena and Michelle Diaz, teamed up with a “very game” seven-member ensemble of high school creator/performers.

The Snow Queen, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

And tonight, in a venue far from the soft seats in rows of conventional theatres, audiences — a max of 20 a night —  will puzzle out a puzzle for themselves. “They’re a vital part of the process,” says Sabourin. “We won’t know what we have till we see what happens, how the puzzles reflect the story of Gerda’s journey, video game logic…. It’s something from nothing; the world shifts and moves in a single room.”

Designer Tessa Stamp, has thrown her experience in creating Escape Rooms into the project, too. And the Azimuth creators were influenced by Everyone We Know Will Be There: the Tiny Bear Jaws production was an actual real-time teen house party in an actual suburban house.   

So, what exactly is a play-based Escape Room? How will the audience pick up clues? You’ll have to show up and be part of it to find out. “We think of this as a sketch book piece; not everything is a final destination,” says Sabourin. She and Hansen laugh. “The whole point of doing this is not knowing how to do it.”

PREVIEW 

The Snow Queen

Theatre: Azimuth

Created by: Aaron Macri, Amber Borotsik, Andrés Moreno, Belinda Cornish, Michelle Diaz, Kristi Hansen, Vanessa Sabourin, Michael Watt, Zachary Nay, Olivia Staver, Maya Parkins, Joshua Graham, Rashaun Ellis, Jacquelin Walters

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: 202 10545 108 St.

Running: tonight through May 27

Tickets: azimuththeatre.com

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