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Monica Prendergast

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  1. Good political theatre can unsettle audiences towards making a better world. WHEN I BEGAN WRITING THIS FOCUS COLUMN in January 2014, I quoted American playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America definition of theatre as a blend of “poetry, politics and popcorn.” I believe that all theatre is political, as it either works to reinforce or undermine the societal status quo. Plays and productions that support the status quo are comforting to audiences, requiring little or no critical thinking. These are popcorn experiences, perhaps with a dash of poetry if you are lucky. Performances that aim to undermine the status quo are another thing altogether. These more political plays can unsettle an audience, creating a sense of tension or even disruption. These are theatrical experiences that can be difficult to walk away from, that linger in the conscience asking, “What are you doing to make a better world?” Victoria audiences do not get to see the latter kind of play often enough, in my view. I have to travel off the Island to see more political theatre productions in New York, Vancouver, Toronto or London. However, this spring we have the chance to see two plays (and to not see one more) that take political positions at Langham Court and the Belfry Theatre. I’ll return to those later on. For now, I want to turn my attention to politics itself, and some recent events that highlight the theatrical nature of political actions by both politicians fighting for survival and protesters advocating for change. As I write this, the memory of US Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of President Trump’s State of the Union address is fresh in my mind. This was a brilliant piece of political theatre, carried out literally behind the President’s back, and enacting a kind of ritualized rejection of Trump and his corrupt regime. Performance has played a major role in the protests against Trump since his inauguration; think of the pink pussy-hats worn in the women’s marches, or of the use of costumes, giant puppets, and masks in gay rights marches or marches for action on climate change. The so-called “rabble” has always well understood the power of performance. One example of this power sticks in my mind. During the Walk for Our Lives in March of 2018, led by the young students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, one of the student leaders carried out a highly performative political action. Emma González, at the age of 18, stood before a massive crowd in the Washington Mall and remained silent with her eyes closed for the exact amount of time it took for the student gunman in her school to erase 17 lives. Six long minutes. Silence can speak volumes, as it did in this terribly moving moment, in the face of the ongoing horrors of gun violence in America. And what about political theatre closer to home? Can we talk about Justin Trudeau’s past penchant for blackface and brownface makeup and costume for a moment? When this story broke at the beginning of our last election, I thought he was done for, kaput. But you can never underestimate the white majority’s tolerance of performed racism. Trudeau’s weak apologetics and the surfacing of even more photos documenting his noxious partying practice did not sway the voters much at all. What this says about the Canadian public requires more reflection than I can do here. But it has left a shameful mark on all who made excuses then held their noses and voted Liberal. Now let’s return to the two plays scheduled for this March and April that promise some attention to political matters. First up is American playwright Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play Silent Sky at Langham Court Theatre (April 15 to May 2), directed by Zelda Dean. Gunderson is touted on her Wikipedia page as the most-produced living playwright in America. At the age of 38 she has written two dozen plays, so is clearly very prolific as well as popular. Silent Sky reflects some of Gunderson’s interests in women and women’s issues. The play tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th century who was denied the right to use the telescope in the laboratory. However, she persisted in the “women’s work” of examining photos taken by the telescope. This work led to her important discovery around measuring distance in space called period-luminosity relation, or “Leavitt’s law.” Silent Sky is not the most political of Gunderson’s many plays, two of which have tackled gun violence (most recently, Natural Shocks) and the contemporary political landscape in the Age of Trump (The Taming). But she is interested in the larger feminist reclamation project that is attempting to honour women’s historical contributions to science and society. In an online interview, Gunderson comments, “What is true about theatre is true about politics: it’s all personal.” At the Belfry Theatre, we will see Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s political comedy about the quick rise and fall of Prime Minister Joe Clark in 1979. Healey’s previous political play Proud was seen at the Belfry in 2014, and was a satirical comedy about PM Stephen Harper. This time Healey chooses to look back further, to the evening before Clark’s minority government was voted down. In the play, Clark is visited by political figures such as John Crosbie, Flora MacDonald, Pierre Trudeau, his wife Maureen McTeer, and even a young Stephen Harper. All of these figures, on both sides of the political divide, try to influence Clark, who is trying to stick to his principles in the face of almost certain defeat. Director Glynis Leyshon (who also directed Proud) is sure to pull out the full comic potential of this play, especially as two of the three actors in the cast play multiple roles. The show runs from April 21 to May 17. I’m going to end this column with a few thoughts on an event that happened at Langham Court Theatre over two years ago that has had a political fallout leading to the cancellation of one of Langham’s productions this spring. Before rehearsals began for a production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs in the fall of 2017, an African-Canadian woman actor was discouraged from auditioning for the show by the play’s director who envisioned the play as an all-white one. There is currently a BC Human Rights Tribunal case on this matter that has been covered in the press and has been very traumatic for Langham Court Theatre and its board of directors, who have been named in the case along with the director of the play. I was an actor in this production, and the fallout from this event, which was shared with the cast only on the night before the show opened, was and is very challenging. In the wake of these events, which are still to be heard in full by the Human Rights Tribunal, a decision was made to cancel the scheduled production of The Blue Light by Canadian playwright Mieko Ouchi. This play is about the life of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who is best known for her collaboration with the Nazis, particularly in the 1935 documentary/propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Both Hitler and Goebbels are characters in the play. Riefenstahl was blacklisted for the remainder of her life, a long one, as she lived to be 101 and died in Germany in 2003. The difficult decision to cancel this production was carried out in consultation with members of the Victoria theatre and Jewish communities, and is a decision I personally support, given the human rights case the theatre is facing. Langham Court has made admirable efforts in the wake of the 2017 event to reach out to minority communities in Victoria, and to invite minority actors to audition for its shows. These are laudable changes for a long-lived company that has perhaps been historically guilty of an unquestioning acceptance of endless all-white casts. But the challenging fact remains, a political fact, that a play by a woman of colour was withdrawn from the season. Like I have said, it’s all political in theatre, any way you look at it. Monica looks forward to another busy year with plenty of theatregoing along the way.
  2. The Belfry’s Ministry of Grace brings a survivor and grandmother’s story to the stage. INDIGENOUS PLAYWRIGHT, ACTOR AND DIRECTOR Tara Beagan, from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, would like to tell you a story. It’s a story that happened to her maternal grandmother in the 1950s. Let’s call her Mary. Although Beagan’s grandmother was reluctant to talk about it, this story remained one of the playwright’s favourites. In 1950, Mary went down to California to work as a cotton picker. She felt the need to get away from her home community, as her children had been forced into a residential school and she was grieving their loss. She had attended the same residential school herself, and knew too well what her daughters were going through. Playwright Tara Beagan The play opens with Mary having been terminated as a harvest hand on the cotton plantation for defending herself from the plantation owner’s sexual advances. Detained in a chain-locked barn, Mary and her practice of reading aloud to illiterate labourers comes to the attention of a travelling evangelist. Here was a Native Indian (in the American terminology) who could read! The evangelist, an outcast from the Catholic church, hires Mary to read scripture in his travelling tent revival and renames her Grace. She spends some time on the road in this way—as an “attraction” called “Tamed Heathen”—before moving back to Canada and her children. Fast forward many decades later, and grand-daughter Tara Beagan has chosen to turn her grandmother’s story into a play, titled Ministry of Grace, that is premiering in an all-Indigenous production at the Belfry Theatre from February 4 to March 1 (Focus is a proud sponsor). I had the chance to speak with Beagan on the phone from her home in Calgary about the play and the production she will be directing here. After telling me her grandmother’s story, I asked if there are other levels of inspiration for this play, beyond the remarkable family history. She replied, “I love the writing of John Steinbeck and that era of the mid-1900s, with the Wild West being so-called ‘tamed’ and with this beautiful and vast landscape for storytelling. This play is an ode to my inner Steinbeck.” I was curious about the role of the evangelist, named Brother Cain, in the play. How is he portrayed, I wondered? Beagan said, “He is a sympathetic antagonist, I think, because his human torment is very present. He is representative of my own journey being raised in the Catholic faith. My Irish father rejected the church when I was in grade four. In the play, Brother Cain (played by Stafford Perry) has been excommunicated by the church, and is haunted by this loss. He resents Mary Grace’s easy relationship with God, and tries to become his own God.” Another key figure in the play is Clem, described by Beagan as a “Cree colossus,” who works for Brother Cain as a roadie and develops a love interest in Mary Grace. This role features Sheldon Elter who impressed audiences in last year’s Belfry production of Bears. Ministry of Grace is just the most recent of over a dozen plays Beagan has written and most often directed as well. Of Ministry’s development, she said, “I workshopped the play in Toronto with my theatre company Article 11. We worked at Historical Fort York outdoors with [Indigenous playwright] Daniel David Moses as our dramaturg. I wanted the sense of the travelling revival show with the audience under a tent, so working outside at the Fort was ideal.” I asked Beagan if this kind of design will be part of the Belfry production and she said, “When I visited the Belfry, which is such a beautiful space and of course a former church, I really saw that the audience at the Belfry feels like the space is theirs. We want to create the sense of the tent by draping canvas, possibly illuminating the lovely ceiling, bringing in old truck parts, that kind of thing. I want the audience to feel transported to a different time.” Beagan often collaborates on her productions with her life partner, set designer Andy Moro. When I asked about their working process together, she answered, “There is a culture of ‘no’ in theatre, where requests are too often denied. My experience with Andy is that he will say ‘yes.’ Directing became possible with Andy as an ally. I am able to direct in a way that releases the design to him, so I can focus on the actors’ journey.” Beagan and I also chatted together about our backgrounds, finding out that we had both lived in Toronto for many years, before moving back out west, she to Calgary and me to Victoria. I told her about my own Catholic upbringing and how I call myself a “recovering Catholic,” which earned a knowing chuckle from Beagan. I also felt moved to tell her about my experience of growing up in Regina under a kind of apartheid, with the city to this day divided between the mostly white settlers in the south and the Indigenous community in the north, divided by the CN Railway tracks. She listened to me empathetically, as I tried to articulate a bit of my own journey of reconciliation, a coming to terms with a past in which Indigenous people were erased, made absent from my life. So what does Beagan hope the largely white settler audience will take away from seeing Ministry of Grace? Her response was thoughtful: “There is still a real lack of empathy toward Indigenous people in Canada. There is no hope for reconciliation if we can’t feel for one another. We [Indigenous theatre artists] are just starting to get to see our own stories on stage, supported by settler people. We need to expand our empathy, and theatre can do that. Indigenous theatre includes all of us.” Amen to that. Monica looks forward to another busy year with plenty of theatregoing along the way.
  3. Theatre by, for, and about immigrants, based in Victoria and touring the world. PUENTE (Spanish for “bridge”) Theatre is Victoria’s only theatre company with a mandate to perform plays by immigrants, with immigrants, and about the immigrant experience. The company is marking its remarkable 30 years of history in Victoria this fall. Founded by Chilean immigrant Lina de Guevara in 1989, the company began with de Guevara’s search toward finding her place in the Victoria theatre community. She had moved here from Toronto with her family when her husband was hired at Camosun College in the late 1970s. De Guevara was a theatre professional in Chile who had taught and performed in both Santiago and the southern city of Valdivia. The military coup that violently overthrew the government of Salvador Allende led to her move to Canada, where she hoped to pursue her theatre career. Canadian theatre in the late 1970s and early 1980s was still a very monochromatic affair; de Guevara struggled to get cast in Victoria, beyond playing a German character in a Langham Court production of Dracula. So she set out to create a theatre company that would provide a space for immigrants like her to share their stories. Puente founder Lina de Guevara With the help of the Belfry Theatre’s then- Artistic Director Glynis Leyshon and General Manager Mary Desprez, de Guevara succeeded in getting a grant and she co-created her first show, I Wasn’t Born Here, with a group of Spanish-speaking women immigrants. It was very well-received and led to a series of community-based productions, led by de Guevara, on themes surrounding the immigrant experience. A number of these toured to acclaim in theatre festivals in Canada and elsewhere. In the first decade of de Guevara’s leadership, these shows tended to be larger collective creations. While very rewarding, they’re also quite tiring to navigate for a director/facilitator who is working with large groups of largely non-professional performers. So, in her second decade running Puente, de Guevara moved toward co-creating a series of one-woman shows with female performers from various cultural backgrounds: Latina-Canadian, Asian-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, and Indigenous. Once again, these plays found appreciative audiences, in Victoria and beyond. In 2011, de Guevara felt the time was right to step down from her artistic directorship, and Mercedes Bátiz-Benét was hired as her replacement. Bátiz-Benét had emigrated to Victoria from Mexico in the late 1990s to pursue a degree in creative writing at UVic. There, she met students and faculty members in the theatre department and began to shift her interests toward performing in and writing for the stage. Puente Artistic Director Mercedes Bátiz-Benét I wanted to know what Bátiz-Benét had planned for the upcoming season, so we met in a Fernwood café, along with her husband and frequent collaborator Judd Palmer (also a core member of the Old Trout Puppet Theatre troupe), for what turned out to be a very engaging conversation. I began with asking Bátiz-Benét why the next Puente show, Fado: The Saddest Music in the World (a remount of a 2018 hit Fringe production), has a much longer run in Vancouver than here (November 14-16). Was this a sign that the company was considering a move over the water? She assured me that after 30 years here, Puente Theatre was not losing its roots in Victoria. That said, her efforts have been focused on moving what was originally a community-based theatre to becoming a fully professional company. “This involves much greater expenses, as all artists need to be paid Equity rates.” She explains, “Victoria has a shortage of performing spaces, and the ones that are available have expensive rental rates. Theatres like Inconnu and Langham Court have their own spaces, but there is a disconnect for a company like Puente that has to rely on rentals.” Also, in seeking continuing funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the company must operate professionally. She has received project funding from the Canada Council, has also succeeded in getting continuing funding from the BC Council for the Arts, and has tripled the grant coming from the CRD Arts Commission. As Bátiz-Benét comments, “We tour our shows nationally and internationally, but we are not as visible as we would like to be in Victoria.” In dealing with this problem of not having a home to perform in, Bátiz-Benét has had to be creative. She has made use of the annual Fringe Festival to mount Fado in 2018 and Lieutenant Nun (a co-production with SNAFU Dance Theatre) in 2015. The Fringe offers artists performing spaces for free, so it is a great option for a company like Puente. A number of other Puente productions that also may have had only short runs in Victoria have proved very successful on tour. These shows include: El Jinete: A Mariachi Opera that won an award for Bátiz-Benét as Best Director in Toronto’s Summerworks Festival; The Umbrella, a children’s play that toured throughout Alberta and into Saskatchewan and was seen by over 15,000 young people; and another play for young audiences, Gruff, that toured to Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre. Clearly the company has enjoyed some significant success under Bátiz-Benét’s leadership. I ask her to tell me more about Fado and she replies, “The play is by Elaine Ávila, who also wrote Lieutenant Nun. It is a woman’s story about immigration and the longing for home. This character is stuck in a boat, metaphorically, between two countries, Portugal and Canada. She and her mother go back to Portugal and, although the daughter has not understood fado music before, this inherently sad musical form helps her to find herself again.” The production features local singer Sara Marreiros playing famous fado singer Amália Rodrigues, who haunts the play as a ghost from Portugal’s past. Puente has always had a strong interest in responding to the question, “What does it mean to be an immigrant?” Bátiz-Benét’s next project, a major one, draws on Mexican-Canadian artists from across Canada. The project is tentatively titled 43, after the 43 university students who disappeared on their way to a political rally in 2014. It is believed that corrupt police officers handed the students over to a drug gang and they were all executed. Bátiz-Benét says, “As a Mexican immigrant to Canada, I have had to see my country disintegrate over time. With over 170,000 dead in the endless drug wars, I am in a privileged place here to say something for catharsis in myself and with other Mexican-Canadian artists.” The project is multidisciplinary, involving actors, dancers, musicians, choreographers and film/video artists. The ensemble worked together for two weeks earlier this year, with Bátiz-Benét as director and facilitator of this collective creation. She tells me, “We are taking a physical and visual approach to elicit feelings and emotions, so the less text we have is for the best. Our home nation is becoming a common grave.” The project also involves partnering with Mexican artists, so the next phase will take place in Mexico City in May of next year, where it will premiere. I ask Bátiz-Benét if 43 will be performed here in Victoria, and she replies, fervently, “I will always do a run here. I want to honour Lina’s vision, and what she began 30 years ago.” It is a proud legacy that Puente Theatre has in Victoria. I am more than happy to celebrate the company’s thirtieth anniversary alongside de Guevara, Bátiz-Benét and everyone who has participated in or seen a Puente show over its long history here. Monica celebrates Puente’s history in a recently published chapter in the book Theatre and (Im)migration (Playwrights Canada Press), an oral history interview with Lina de Guevara that captures her contribution to immigrant theatre in Canada.
  4. How well do Victoria theatre companies incorporate gender equity and diversity? HERE IT IS, SEPTEMBER AGAIN, and therefore a good time to look ahead at what the new theatre season is offering Victoria theatre-goers. It is always equal parts illuminating and frustrating to see where theatre companies are succeeding or failing in their attempts to program more plays by women and minorities, more women and minority directors, and more visible diversity on stage. This last one is a challenge in a city that is still pretty white in its cultural complexion, but as time goes by, the city is diversifying. So the question becomes, is this diversity being seen in our local theatres? Let’s begin this survey with the only full-time professional theatre in the city, the Belfry. Artistic Director Michael Shamata has been very mindful in the past few years, particularly so in the wake of the federal report on Truth and Reconciliation. Each season, Shamata programs an Indigenous play, and this season it is The Ministry of Grace by playwright/ director Tara Beagan. Opening in February (with Focus as media sponsor), this is an all-Indigenous production and a world premiere. The play looks back at a pioneer time of travelling tent revivals, and how a young native woman is presented to a white audience as somehow miraculous because she knows how to read the Bible. The Belfry Theatre's Artistic Director Michael Shamata Shamata also scores very well this year in plays by women: the season features three works by women and two by men. And he has hired no fewer than four women directors this season. I am delighted to see that The Belfry has actually surpassed the 50/50 gender equity barrier; perhaps a first for this company? Now let’s turn our attention to our community theatre, Langham Court. Of the six plays and musicals scheduled for the 2019-2020 season, there are two women directors (Heather Jarvie-Laidlaw and Wendy Merk) and two plays by women (Canadian Mieko Ouchi and American Lauren Gunderson). Statistically, this equity balance is in line with the situation across Canadian professional theatre, with around 30 percent of the country’s artistic directors, directors and playwrights being women. This maintains a status quo two-thirds majority of what we see on stage as written and directed by men. Langham Court can and should do better to move the needle closer to the 50/50 mark. As to diversifying who is onstage in Langham’s shows, I know that the company has become more mindful of reaching out to diverse communities and inviting minority actors to audition for shows. This is a very positive change for those of us (including me) who have been performing in and watching all-white-all-the-time productions at Langham. And what about the season at my employer, the University of Victoria? The Phoenix Theatre this year has four productions, all four of which are directed by men. There is one play by a woman, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. This means that out of eight possible spots for plays and directors, only one is held by a woman, for a gender balance of one-eighth. Not good enough. I would like to see my close colleagues in the Department of Theatre making a more conscious attempt to move toward gender equity in their programming. I know it is challenging, given that they tend to produce plays from the (dead white male) canon, but I contend that it is possible to bring more historical and contemporary plays by women into their students’ theatre education. Plus, there are two women faculty members who direct: Jan Wood and Fran Gebhard. These two both directed last season, that is true, but perhaps could be staggered at one a year to increase students’ exposure to working with women directors? Or the department could make an effort to invite women professional directors in? The new Applied Theatre professor is Dr Yasmine Kandil, who also holds an MFA in directing, and would add greater diversity to the department as an Egyptian-Canadian woman director. These would be positive changes to see, along with the year-to-year increase in student cultural diversity I’m seeing on stage there. Theatre Inconnu’s artistic director Clayton Jevne programs on an annual calendar, so we are halfway through the 2019 season. He has announced his 2020 season, so let’s take a look ahead at that. Jevne has let me know in conversation that he does not consider who wrote a given play, that he is more interested in the play itself. I have always admired Jevne’s eclectic approach to his programming, and he often does choose plays by women and often invites women directors in as well. That said, in his yet-to-be-finalized selection for next year (the fourth show is still seeking performance rights), only one of the four is by a woman, Canadian (and personal favourite) Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin. And Jevne has so far got two of the four directors in place, himself for the fourth show and Kate Rubin for the first show of 2020, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. So in total, Jevne has chosen one play by a woman and one woman director (2/8 or 1/4), although this may shift as he finalizes his season. Moving on, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has announced its play selection for 2019-2020. Although artistic director Brian Richmond has not yet announced his choice of directors (this season featured one show directed by Fran Gebhard, Barefoot in the Park), his upcoming season features four plays, all of them by men. The plays are all good ones—including Tartuffe by Molière, Salt-Water Moon by David French and Betrayal by Harold Pinter—but I do hope that some women directors will be brought on board to even out the gender imbalance a bit more. Finally, I will end this column in the same way I have done in the past, by reminding readers where they can find the most diverse theatre on Vancouver Island. Go out to William Head on Stage (WHoS) prison theatre in Metchosin this fall to catch their show that runs on weekends for five weeks from the beginning of October. Director Kathleen Greenfield is working hard with a large number of inmates and a team of all-women collaborators to create a new play rooted in The Wizard of Oz as inspiration. I have always felt that the metaphors found in this story would resonate with inmates, as Dorothy and her three friends search for brains, courage, a heart and (most importantly) a way back home. When I have worked on plays out at WHoS, it has been by far the most diverse group of fellow actors of my career, including men of Caucasian, Asian, Indian, African-Canadian and African-American backgrounds, as well as a large number of Indigenous men. What this says about who ends up in prison I will leave my readers to ponder. But the good news is that this program, the longest-running prison theatre program in Canada, each year gives upwards of 2,000 members of the public a chance to connect with these men, and to speak with them after each performance about what creating a play and performing it on stage means to them. So there you have it— another full year of theatre in and around Victoria to subscribe to and enjoy. Monica has seen a number of terrific shows in Toronto, Stratford, Ontario and New York City this year. But she is always happy to come home to see the excellent theatre we produce on our local stages.
  5. Hapax Theatre has ambitions for a long life in Victoria. SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, in the spring of 2002, one of my Belfry 101 audience education program students asked me where he could go and do more theatre after he graduated from Vic High. I sent him to Langham Court Theatre, where he has since volunteered on stage and off in over 40 productions. This former student of mine is now the youngest recipient of the Langham Honorary Lifetime Membership Award, and his youthful portrait can be seen hanging alongside elders in the theatre’s lounge. Chad Laidlaw is the student’s name, and he and his now wife, Heather Jarvie, met while working together at Langham. Heather’s story also involves a commitment to the performing arts, but starting at an even younger age. She was performing professionally onstage as a dancer while still a child, and as a competitive highland dancer she won both national and international medals. Jarvie is also a pianist and trained with Robert Holliston at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. After training in theatre at Capilano College in Vancouver and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Jarvie realized her interests lay in that direction. Back in Victoria, she became one of the youngest directors ever to lead a show at Langham Court. She went on to be an artist-in-residence at Pacific Opera Victoria and at the Icelandic Opera in Reykjavík (while Laidlaw finished his M.A. in linguistics there). Chad Laidlaw and Heather Jarvie Following another contract as development officer at the POV, and as guest producer of the Fringe, she and her husband decided that what they really wanted to do was to start a theatre company. Hapax Theatre launched last year, with Jarvie as artistic director and Laidlaw taking on technical challenges such as lighting and sound design. The word “hapax” (hah-pax) is a linguistic term meaning that a word only appears once within a given body of text. The company presented two shows in its first year: Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View and a hit one-man play at the Fringe Festival, The Boy in the Chrysalis. This year the company is producing three plays: MacIvor’s In On It (in April); Constellations by Nick Payne (July 5-12); and, in November, local playwright Janet Munsil’s Be Still, a fictional play inspired by the multiple-exposure work of Victorian photographer Hannah Maynard. A fourth Fringe production, a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” is called Nevermore. I met the couple for coffee to hear more about their plans for Hapax. They agreed that starting a theatre company is a foolhardy venture, but expressed their commitment to establishing the company, and to keeping it in Victoria. “This is the city that provided us with so many opportunities when we were starting out,” said Jarvie. Laidlaw agreed, adding, “We want to be a part of building the theatre community here, with good projects and with good people, and to operate our company ethically and professionally.” “Staying and working in Victoria should feel like an option for young and emerging theatre artists,” Jarvie told me, “rather than having to move to Vancouver or Toronto.” And while the company has just gained its non-profit status, it will be another year before Hapax is eligible for grant funding. So up until now their shows have been self-funded, with the goal to break-even or to make a small profit to share with the actors. As with many Victoria artists, it is the day job that makes the theatre work possible, and Laidlaw’s job with Canada Pensions fits the bill. Fortunately, it is a job he enjoys, and it allows for the small budget productions to happen. I asked them about the type of plays they are drawn to, and Laidlaw said, “We are careful not to reach beyond our grasp in choosing small cast plays that will work with minimal design requirements in a black- box space.” Jarvie added that she is always looking for plays that offer “interesting stories told in interesting ways.” They are also looking for good roles for emerging artists and for a majority of Canadian plays. Daniel MacIvor is a favourite, for example. When asked why, Jarvie replied, “You never get to the bottom of his plays. It was so rewarding doing table work with the cast of In On It. The more we looked at it, the more we didn’t know.” Jarvie’s directorial approach involves a lot of time spent at the table doing line by line, or even word by word, script analysis. “Words alone can make up the magical beauty of what we do,” she said, “so I put a lot of emphasis on table work and on attention to detail.” I wondered out loud if her focus on interpreting the script with actors, before getting up and blocking it, was connected to her background as a piano student. She responded that although she had never made that connection herself, it made sense. When working with her piano teacher Robert Holliston, for example, they might spend an entire lesson on a couple of bars of music. I can attest to the effectiveness of this painstaking approach. I saw the second night performance of In On It, a two-hander by MacIvor that traces the meta-theatrical development of a play that is also the metaphor for the tragic end of the playwright’s relationship with his lover. The actors’ precision with the text was visible to me, as was Jarvie’s focused direction and the effective use of light and sound provided by Laidlaw. Hapax has been working in rental spaces for their productions, making use of the Theatre Inconnu space in Fernwood, for example, or Fringe spaces during the festival. We discussed the ongoing issue of a lack rehearsal and performance spaces in town. One of their long-term goals is to operate a small or medium sized performance space. Jarvie described their vision as “an arts hub available for companies to rehearse and perform. It would be ideal if we could create a space like this and open its doors for other companies.” Laidlaw agreed, but also worried out loud that, “The biggest threat to creating new spaces is the loss of spaces that could, with vision, become workable theatres.” They expressed their dismay at hearing that the former Victoria Truth Centre on upper Fort Street, which would have made a very viable performance space, was going to be torn down for yet another condo development. Near the end of our engaging conversation, I pointed out that a number of plays the company has chosen were plays that Laidlaw saw at the Belfry during his time spent working with me as a Belfry 101 student. These plays include two of this season’s picks (In On It and Be Still) and a play the couple mounted in a restaurant space a few years back, The Weir by Conor McPherson. Laidlaw told me that the memory of these professional productions had stayed with him and led to his recommending them to Jarvie for Hapax to produce. For a theatre educator like me, hearing this from a former student, well, I have to tell you that it does not get much better than that. You can read more about Hapax Theatre at www.hapaxtheatre.com. Monica is delighted that the Belfry 101 program has continued long after her departure in 2006 and is now marking its 20th anniversary this year.
  6. Generosity and kindness on stage in selfish times. I have been thinking quite a lot recently about how making theatre and theatregoing can perhaps be a hopeful thing to do in a challenging age. We all seem to be swirling around the toilet bowl these days in terms of selfishness and lack of decency toward one another. Viral videos show acts of simple human kindness as remarkable, rather than what should be expected, in a society that is ever more fractured and distempered. Politically speaking, we are more polarized than ever, even in supposedly polite and civil-minded Canada. But it is the current situation in the United States that is foremost in my mind. There, the President openly insults his perceived enemies via Twitter or in Fox News interviews. The fallout of this bullying and belittling approach to leadership is becoming commonplace: more acts of racism and sexism; more stridency and rigidity; less democracy. So how can theatre, this quaint art form that cannot be instantly downloaded to your phone, do something positive in this negative climate? Well, to begin with, theatre has had a very long history of talking back to power. Aristophanes in Ancient Greece poked fun at the leaders and philosophers of his day, bringing them down to Earth for his audiences. Comedy has evolved over many centuries since, but often has the capacity to reverse social status on stage. Servants are wiser than their masters in plays by Shakespeare, Goldoni and Molière. Tragedy can feature this power reversal as well. Think of King Lear and Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In Lear, the Fool tries desperately to get through to his beloved king that his foolishness—in dividing his kingdom and disinheriting his most loving daughter—will be the end of him. The two of them huddled together on the heath in a raging storm during Lear’s growing madness is one of the most memorable images in western drama. The Fool tries and fails to save his master. Hamlet has a similar trope in the relationship between Hamlet and his best friend Horatio. I saw a remarkable production titled Prince Hamlet in Vancouver in January as part of the PuSH Festival. This Toronto production, directed by Ravi Jain, features a female Hamlet and Horatio. And the role of Horatio is played by a deaf actress, Dawn Jani Birley. She signs in ASL throughout the play, even for scenes where she is not present, and Hamlet signs back his dialogue with her as well. It was a very moving version of the play, in that seeing the play through Horatio’s eyes we become closer witnesses to Hamlet’s downfall. And the added layer of Horatio’s inability to save her friend becomes unbearably moving in her inability to speak, to yell, to howl her fears. Her fierce signing is not enough, and Hamlet waves her concerns away. In the end, Birley signs her final speech (“Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”) over Hamlet’s body, weeping in heavy grief. Dawn Jani Birley The generosity of this performance was palpable to me. Birley’s tireless signing work on stage, exhausting to witness, allows members of the deaf community access to the play. At the performance I attended, almost half the audience cheered at curtain call in silence, their hands waving over their heads in sign language for applause. Another example of generosity seen onstage is improvisational performance. Anyone who has taught or practiced improv knows that doing it well requires ample amounts of generosity. The principle of say “Yes” to any offer is a foundation in British-Canadian Keith Johnstone’s approaches to improvisation. Making your improv partner look good is another key value. His books, classes and legacy have had an effect on improvisational comedy across Canada. Improvisational theatre artist Rebecca Northan (who was trained at Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre by Johnstone) has created a number of very successful shows that are rooted in these principles. Her most successful show is called Blind Date. Since 2007, this show has had successful runs across Canada (but not Victoria, alas!), and in London and New York. It is set to open in Norway. The setup for Blind Date is simplicity itself; on stage at a Parisian café table sits French-accented clown Mimi, with a red nose indicating her clown status. She has been stood up by a blind date, but nothing stops Mimi’s optimism. She goes into the audience and invites a man (pre-selected before the show in the lobby) to join her as her new blind date. The rest of the show is based on the dialogue between Mimi and her date. There is also a gay version of the show, where Mimi is played by a man or by a woman who select a same-sex date. In the wrong hands, this formula could lead to a lot of belittling of this volunteer performer, making him or her look bad on stage. But Johnstone’s principles are in full view in Blind Date. We see Mimi coach her date in detail before they begin role-playing their date. She tells him (in this case) that if he feels uncomfortable or unsure at any time, he can signal a timeout. They will then go over to the side of the stage and talk about what is happening until the volunteer performer feels okay about carrying on. She also coaches him to not try to be funny; his job is to simply enjoy the date. It is her job to ensure both he and the audience are having a good time. In the Arts Club Theatre performance I saw in December, Mimi also spoke with her date’s partner in the audience. Mimi told her that she also had the right to stop the play at any point. Later on, in what was one of the funniest moments in the show, Mimi and her date were back in her apartment, sitting on the couch, and Mimi was moving in for a kiss. The date’s girlfriend called “Stop!” from the audience and then was invited on stage to take Mimi’s place at the moment of the kiss, much to the audience’s delight. At no time was anyone made fun of in a negative way. Instead, the careful rules set up by Northan and her team of Mimis who perform Blind Date ensure that their volunteer stage partner always looks good and is enjoying the experience as much as the audience. A remarkable case study of generosity in performance. There are many more examples I could offer here of performances I have either witnessed or been part of as an actor that gave me a lived experience of kindness and generosity in action. A generous performance by an actor is one in which we see a giving- over of attention and care to fellow actors and to the audience. Kindness between actors is when we can see actors caring for each other on stage. This is particularly clear for me when I see adult actors working with children. In a production like Hannah Moscovitch’s The Children’s Republic (at the Belfry in the fall of 2017), the two adult professional actors showed such strong care and generous focus toward the less experienced children in the cast. That element of the production has stayed with me in a much clearer way than the content of the play, as valuable as it was. In these ways, and many more, theatre can model kindness and caring for each other that possibly can help to heal a fractured and fractious world. Monica appreciates this column giving her the opportunity to rehearse her thinking as she writes a scholarly version of this article for conference presentations this spring.
  7. Bears at the Belfry is a great example of the resurgence of Indigenous theatre in Canada. THE BELFRY THEATRE opens its fourth show of the 2018-2019 season with a production from Edmonton, Bears by Matthew Mackenzie (Focus is the media sponsor). The play promises to be a blend of both Indigenous and environmental issues in its portrayal of an Indigenous man who works for an Alberta oil company. This man, Floyd, is on the run after being accused in a workplace accident. His journey takes him along the path of an oil pipeline, pursued by both Kinder Morgan and the RCMP. As Floyd tries to reach British Columbia, he is joined by a chorus of animals and, through their intervention and his own memories, he begins to feel his own transformation underway. The production, by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre, has had successful runs in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver earlier this year. And playwright Mackenzie recently was awarded the Carol Bolt New Play Award by the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Critics and audiences have enjoyed the writing by Mackenzie that blends the mythic with the everyday, visual and musical elements provided by the chorus, the design of the show by Erin Gruber, and choreography by Monica Dottor. BEARS by Matthew MacKenzie featuring Sheldon Elter. Chorus l-r Lara Ebata, Gianna Vacirca, Skye Demas, Alida Kendell, Zoe Glassman, Kendra Shorter, Rebecca Sadowski. Photo by Alexis McKeown. But there were some questions raised, specifically by Vancouver theatre reviewer Colin Thomas, about the problem of preaching to the converted. He called the play “a decorative illustration of a preconceived position.” It is true that it’s very likely the well-educated Belfry audience will be sympathetic to the anti-pipeline/pro-environmental stance taken in the play. However, yet another critic in Toronto, Amanda Ghazale Aziz in Now Magazine, described the production as “a witty, riveting and evocative production that never loses its pace,” so it may be that audiences will be somewhat divided in their reception. This is a good thing, I believe, as political theatre should prompt meaningful community conversations. Belfry Theatre Artistic Director Michael Shamata has been very mindful in programming Indigenous plays throughout his decade at the helm. We have seen Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes, Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, and Salt Baby by Falen Johnson. There is no doubt that Victoria audiences have been enriched through these productions, and others, as Canada itself has wrestled with coming to better terms with First Nations. Earlier this year, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa appointed Kevin Loring to be the first ever Artistic Director of Indigenous Theatre. In his speech, made at the appointment ceremony in March of this year, Loring said, “In the 150 years of confederation, and the 525 years of colonization that Indigenous people have endured, our languages have been brought to the edge of extinction, our dances forbidden, and our ceremonies outlawed. Our traditional songs and stories that remain have survived by going underground.” His job as he sees it, is to follow the prophetic words of Louis Riel: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” There has been a remarkable resurgence of Indigenous arts in Canada in the past couple of decades or so. These artists have found renewed support from a Canada Council for the Arts that has doubled its budget commitment under the Trudeau Liberals. Indigenous arts groups and individual artists have been the recipients of increased funding, along with a special project called {Re}conciliation that has brought Indigenous and settler artists together to co-create. It is inspiring to read through the various projects funded by this initiative. I am heartened by this work, as I am by a lengthy list of plays by Indigenous writers on the website of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. In addition to the playwrights mentioned above, we have many other Indigenous writers whose work has enhanced our cultural landscape: Marie Clements, Tara Beagan, Cliff Cardinal, Floyd Favel, Jani Lauzon and Drew Hayden Taylor among them. Yet there is a tension in all of this welcome Indigenous theatre, in that for the most part, these plays are being performed to white and middle class settler audiences. Loring addresses this in his talk at the NAC, saying, “Our traditions are rooted in oration, song, dance and the celebration of creation. Our stories are rooted in the land. Though we may have appropriated (and I do use that word intentionally) the methodologies of our settler contemporaries, at the core of our stories is the Indigenous perspective—the Indigenous experience which is inherently different than the settler world view of this land.” Loring acknowledges here that Indigenous artists are often working in forms and spaces established by the settlers on their lands. Perhaps there is a productive tension at play here, particularly (in my view) when audiences become “unsettled” by their encounter with Indigenous art. My own encounter with Cliff Cardinal’s one-man play Huff was certainly an example of this, in the play’s terrible yet blackly comedic whirlwind story of physical, sexual and drug and alcohol abuses suffered by northern First Nations children and young people. It feels much harder to get up and walk away from such an intimate encounter with the reality of too many lives in Canadian First Nations communities. I had to sit in the theatre for many minutes after the show was over to compose myself, and to try to come to terms in my mind with one of the richest nations on Earth allowing such poverty and deprivation to exist. The play made me angry, in a good way. That said, Indigenous theatre has begun to move beyond stories of colonial and postcolonial abuse and neglect, important as they are to tell and to witness. This spring, The Belfry brought in a lovely one-woman play called Café Daughter by Cree writer Kenneth T. Williams. Performed by Tiffany Ayalik, it tells the story of a girl who is half-Chinese-Canadian and half-Indigenous, growing up in small-town Saskatchewan in the 1950s and ’60s. The touching play is inspired by the life of Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, who became a member of the Senate. And earlier this year, I saw Drew Hayden Taylor’s play for young people, Spirit Horse, performed at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto to a full house of students from many cultural backgrounds. This play is an interesting example of cross-cultural blending, as it is based on an Irish play exploring the lives of Roma Gypsies, who are considered outsiders in that country. Taylor rewrote the play with an Indigenous single-parent family, keeping its core narrative of two children grieving their mother’s death and a magical horse that gives them hope and a reason to go on. There is much to celebrate in the resurgence of Indigenous arts in Canada. The work of reparation and reconciliation continues, and will likely take many generations to achieve. But in the visible resurgence of Indigenous art and artists on stages across this country, with plays like Bears, we can all play our part. In coming together as a community, to listen, to watch and to stand with First Nations in their struggles, we can work together for a better environment, for Indigenous self-governance, social health and wellness, and ultimately for a better country of which we can all be proud. Monica works at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Education. Her newest publication, Web of Performance is available as a free ebook through the University of Victoria Library.
  8. Echos of past performances reverberate through the years in our theatre spaces. THIS FALL TOOK ME TO GREECE for the first time. There, at the Acropolis in Athens, I found myself standing in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus. This amphitheatre—perched downhill from the Parthenon and other temples that sit on a plateau overlooking Athens—is where Western theatre began. It was there that the great plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes competed in the theatre festivals of the 4th and 5th century BC. The plaque mounted at the entrance to the open ruin told me that at one time statues to the great playwrights stood here as testaments to their great works. I found myself moved to tears walking through and photographing this space. To say it felt sacred to me may seem an overstatement, yet I suspect that anyone who has devoted their life to the theatre would feel the same way. There is a remarkable quality of haunting that happens in the theatre. I felt haunted by the presence of those playwrights and actors who first stood onstage at Dionysus. It was there that an actor stepped out of the chorus for the first time to embody a character. It was there that playwrights began to write dialogue rather than a choral narrative, pitting character against character and creating what we call dramatic tension and dramatic action. Theatre of Dionysus, Greece, where Western theatre began I first learned about this theatre space 40 years ago in Theatre 100 at the University of Regina at the age of 17. To finally stand in this space was a timeless feeling of moving full circle through my life, from that starting point as a theatre student until today, as a professor of drama and theatre education, a theatre reviewer, columnist and occasional actor. This fall also marks 20 years since my family and I moved from Toronto to Victoria. I have been going to the theatre, and making theatre, in this city over these 20 years. To mark this anniversary, I want to consider in what ways I’ve been haunted by theatre in this city. The Belfry Theatre is a converted church, and a beautiful theatre space. During the years that I facilitated the Belfry 101 audience education program, many actors would tell my students how much they enjoyed performing in this intimate space. I recall some fine work seen on this stage, and some that was less than perfect. My memory takes me back to some of the productions that moved me most: watching the great Nicola Cavendish in Michel Tremblay’s homage to his mother, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again; or Jenny Young performing Joan MacLeod’s solo play The Shape of a Girl that was provoked by the murder of Victoria’s Reena Virk (and how the audience held the space for her so movingly that night); seeing Celine Stubel taking on leading roles many times and enjoying being able to witness her growth from ingénue to leading lady; appreciating a moment in former artistic director Roy Surette’s direction of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Coronation Voyage when a character drops a book from one level up into another character’s arms below that was laden with metaphor and meaning put into action; grasping how well artistic director Michael Shamata sees the stage in three dimensions and moves actors within that space with such ease; grumping occasionally when the programming was not to my taste, but always respecting the high level of professionalism in evidence. Another theatre that offers haunting memories to me is Langham Court Theatre. This historic space is said to have its own ghost! I have performed at Langham twice and seen many shows over the years. It was at Langham that I first saw Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons and was quietly devastated when the protagonist speaks the title late in the play. His words, “They were all my sons,” reflects his guilt in sending out faulty airplane parts during World War II that led to the deaths of a number of pilots, including the likely shame-induced suicide of his own son. It was also at Langham that I have seen musical productions of an impressively high quality—The Drowsy Chaperone, Urinetown, and Cabaret, among others. Langham has also given me the chance to see plays such as Elizabeth Rex and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that I have read but never seen performed. And for me, personally speaking, it has allowed me to perform in two plays in which the central characters are sisters: Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel and Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay. I am the oldest of four sisters, so plays about sisters have always held great appeal. They are a good way for me to exorcise any ghosts that may linger in my subconscious around growing up in a household of girls. The theatre spaces at the University of Victoria’s Theatre Department also offer me memories, as both a student and a theatregoer. I appeared in two Phoenix productions during my graduate studies, both performed in the Roger Bishop proscenium theatre (Glace Bay Miners’ Museum by Wendy Lill and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht). Each production offered me the chance to work on stage with talented acting students, many of whom have gone on to have successful professional careers. I knew, for example, that Meg Roe was destined for success when I appeared as her mother in Wendy Lill’s play. Roe, then 19, was a force to be reckoned with even at that young age; she was seen here last season when the Belfry brought in the touring production of Onegin. Another cast mate, Jay Hindle, has also worked consistently in the profession, most often in Vancouver at the Arts Club or Bard on the Beach. It is not surprising that every time I walk into the Bishop, I am haunted by these lived experiences. I have yet to work in the University’s Chief Dan George “thrust” theatre space, but once I do, my memories will linger there as well. Other theatre spaces that offer me the layered sense of history whenever I enter them include the Metro Theatre and Theatre Inconnu. I still recall the Metro in its early days of being run by Intrepid Theatre, when the basketball marks on the floor of this former gymnasium were still visible. It was exciting to see a new theatre space developing in Victoria, especially in the wake of the sad loss of Kaleidoscope’s Herald Street Theatre not long after I moved here. I was impressed with Janet Munsil and Ian Case’s determination to create a viable Downtown performance space. So many local and touring productions have made use of this space. My memory is marked by seeing Tim Crouch’s remarkable An Oak Tree, or Marcus Youssef and James Long’s fascinating and challenging duel of masculinity Winners and Losers, or the amazing puppet master Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre. Finally, a shout out to Clayton Jevne’s Theatre Inconnu. I have followed this small theatre company during its move from Market Square to Fernwood and then through the years at Little Fernwood Hall when columns created staging challenges in the black box space. Finally, the hall is column-free and Jevne still programs eclectic seasons of plays from here and around the world that always invite me to recall what else I’ve seen in that space, and how these hauntings resonate with what is on offer tonight. So the gift of theatre keeps giving, over time and space, from the Theatre of Dionysus to the stages of Victoria. Here’s to the next 20 years of memories made, on and off the stage. Monica’s latest book, Web of Performance, is available as a free ebook through the University of Victoria Library.
  9. A gender equity and diversity report card for local theatre companies’ 2018-19 productions. IT HAS BEEN THREE YEARS since I last took a look at what was on offer for the Victoria theatre season with an eye to how well local theatre companies are fostering gender equity and diversity in their programming. Studies show that less than a third of Canadian professionally-produced plays are by women, or are directed by female directors, or appear in companies led by women artistic directors (the latter determine seasons of plays). The stats are worse in the US; less than 20 percent of plays produced there are written by women. Thus, it remains important to keep a close view on the equity we have on Victoria stages. Diversity is another area that needs improvement in Victoria, including increased programming of plays by international, minority and Indigenous playwrights, hiring directors with a view to diversification, and using more actors from multiple backgrounds with the principle of colour-blind casting in place. So how well are we doing for the 2018-2019 theatre season? Let’s begin with Victoria’s only full-time professional theatre company, the Belfry Theatre. Artistic Director Michael Shamata has had a good track record in staging plays by women, and a number of plays by Indigenous playwrights. This season features two plays by women, Kat Sandler’s quirky and surreal comedy Mustard in the fall, and Amy Herzog’s intergenerational dramatic comedy 4000 Miles next spring. Shamata is also bringing in the Indigenous musical Bears by Matthew MacKenzie, produced by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre (Edmonton) Productions. I do note only one woman director for the season, Anita Rochon, who will direct 4000 Miles. Overall, Shamata gets top marks for programming 60 percent of the mainstage season with gender and diversity in mind. The spring Spark Festival at the Belfry includes a solo play, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, by talented actress Haley McGee, and one by Vietnamese-Canadian playwright/ performer Franco Nguyen, Good Morning Viet Mom. Halifax’s 2B Theatre brings us Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story about Moscovitch’s Jewish grandparents’ emigration to Canada from Eastern Europe, their courtship and marriage. I saw this show in its off-Broadway run in New York this year, where it gained six Drama Desk Award nominations, including for Best Musical. Victoria audiences are in for a treat, and the theme of diversity is very present in this one. Alongside popular local comedian Mike Delamont’s new show Mama’s Boy, there is something for everyone at Spark next March. Turning now to our very well-established community theatre, Langham Court, how well does its 2018-2019 season stack up? It is Langham’s 90th season, a remarkable achievement and a testament to all of the volunteers who make the company work so well. Program Chairs Alan Penty and Pat Rundell have picked six plays and musicals, only one of which is by a woman playwright. That Elusive Spark by Victoria’s Janet Munsil is also being directed by one of two women directors for the season, Mercedes Bátiz-Benét. Shauna Baird is set to direct David Wood’s Goodnight Mister Tom. I also note that a couple of shows are based on books by women (Goodnight Mister Tom, 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee), but overall I have to give Langham a middling grade. Although I know that the company is consciously working on diversity issues, in terms of both membership and casting, I would still like to see some plays by international and/or minority playwrights included in their season planning. The University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre season programming is hampered by the need to produce plays from the dramatic canon for the sake of students’ theatre education. Most often these plays are by (dead) white men. This season, however, although three of the four plays are written by men, we do have an alumni play written and performed by Nicole Nattrass, Mamahood: Bursting Into Light. And in 2019, Euripides’ Trojan Women and Morris Panych’s 7 Stories are directed by faculty members Jan Wood and Fran Gebhard. So this 50 percent for women directors and 25 percent for one play by a woman gives the Phoenix an above-average grade compared to many past years. I have been seeing a welcome growing diversity in the student body at the Phoenix; it would be good to see equal attention paid to plays by women and minorities. Theatre Inconnu programs their season by the yearly calendar, so is already halfway through its 2018 season. Artistic Director Clayton Jevne has done better in past years with programming of plays by women and more women directors than is in evidence here. Only one of the four plays is being directed by a woman, Wendy Merk, and all four plays were written by men. I do note, however, that Jevne’s wife, writer Ellen Arrand, has written and will be performing her play Water People for the Fringe Festival, directed by Jevne. While overall, I am not seeing a level of gender equity that approaches 50/50, the diversity of the season scores very well, with plays from Chile (Neva by Guillermo Calderon) and Israel (Tenant Haymovitch by Ariel Bronz). Jevne often programs international plays that would otherwise not be seen by local audiences; this aspect of his season planning is always a strength. Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre stages its shows throughout the spring and summer at the Roxy Theatre. Artistic Director Brian Richmond tends to program modern classics, so the dead white man syndrome can prevail in this company’s seasonal fare. This year we saw one-act plays by Anton Chekov (arguably a diverse choice for his Russian ethnicity), Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Canadian classic The Drawer Boy, and my all-time favourite musical Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim. All four shows this season were directed by Richmond or by his son Jacob Richmond. It would be good to see some plays by women in future seasons, along with more women directors invited on board. And although Blue Bridge has a challenging mandate in terms of increasing its diversity, I still believe it is possible to find national and international plays in translation that would add to our understanding and appreciation of 19th and 20th century theatre. I am going to conclude this column by highlighting what, in my experience, offers one of the most diverse casts and women-centred production teams in the city. William Head on Stage cast members reflect the harsh reality that Indigenous and minority men are incarcerated at higher rates than the white majority population in Canada. In my time spent as a mentor actor on two shows with WHoS, I was struck many times by the diversity of my fellow actors, who were Asian-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, African-Canadian, African-American and Indigenous. And this fall’s production, an inmate-devised show called The Crossroads: A Prison Cabaret, is once again directed by Kate Rubin, in her fourth show for this long-running and unique prison theatre company. Rubin is working with a large production team made up of a majority of women: set designer Carole Klemm, stage manager and sound design mentor Carolyn Moon, writer and actor Kathleen Greenfield, actors Anne Cirillo and Jeni Luther, choreographer and costume design mentor Ingrid Hansen, and lighting designer Poe Limkul. They are joined this year by local musician and musical director Alfons Fear along with a number of other artists helping in different capacities. The irony that one has to trek out to a federal prison in Metchosin to see the kind of diversity and gender equity I am calling for is not lost on me. Monica is spending this fall on a welcome study leave from her faculty position at the University of Victoria. Her travel plans will take her to a number of international destinations where she plans to enjoy some theatre.
  10. Theatre SKAM and a cast of young people present the award-winning Concord Floral. JORDAN TANNAHILL is one of Canada’s most exciting and inventive young theatre artists. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for playwriting in 2014, at the age of 26, Tannahill has already built an impressive track record. His plays have been performed across Canada and his video projects have toured internationally including to the 2017 Venice Biennale. Tannahill has also published a book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, that castigates mainstream Canadian theatre and calls for new performance forms. Most recently, he published his first novel, Liminal, that was, in part, inspired by his mother’s struggle with cancer. I have been a fan of Tannahill’s since meeting him at a playreading event in Toronto. I was moved by his writing for young audiences, especially one of the plays in Age of Minority that went on to receive the Governor General’s Award: rheannaboi95. This play tackles a common topic in Tannahill’s work, that of homophobia and bullying. He is a queer artist and so has understandably been interested in addressing these challenging topics on stage. However, in rheannaboi95 there was no stage; the play was webcast live to audiences who tuned in to catch the one-man performance. The play invited audiences to comment directly in real-time messages to the actor as he portrayed the life of Sunny, a young South Asian-Canadian who has been discovered by classmates posting lip sync videos online. Sunny is proud of his performances of Rhianna’s songs, but has been hiding himself from his family and his peers. The consequences of his actions lead to fear and violence, with an open-ended conclusion that leaves the audience implicated in what happens next in Sunny’s life. The innovative web-based approach appealed to many young people who might otherwise never have had the chance to go to a theatre to see this work. So it was with great pleasure that I heard that Theatre SKAM will be mounting one of Tannahill’s plays, Concord Floral, in August. While this is not a play for young audiences, it does feature a youth cast. Tannahill was inspired by The Decameron, the 14th century collection of novellas by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In these works, a group of young people flee the plague and hide out in a villa outside Florence. There, they wait out the Black Death and entertain themselves by storytelling. In Tannahill’s play, the hideout is an abandoned glass greenhouse in a suburban field outside of Toronto. The young people who gather there to party are escaping their various fears of the future, their sexuality, relationships, and the consequences of past actions. Concord Floral was originally produced in Toronto in 2014 after a three-year development period. In 2015 it won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play. It has subsequently been produced in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre, at the Vancouver PuSH Festival and as part of the Magnetic North Festival. Every production has a cast of local teenagers, as Tannahill and his collaborators (Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner) have been adamant that youth performers are required. Jordan Tannahill and Kathleen Greenfield This is where Theatre SKAM comes in. Theatre SKAM Co-Founder and Artistic Director Matthew Payne and local director Kathleen Greenfield saw Concord Floral at Magnetic North in Whitehorse in 2016. SKAM is now operating a theatre school program, in which Greenfield teaches the youth classes. When Payne and Greenfield saw the play, they immediately saw it as a great fit for their students and other Victoria youth. As well, it is the kind of site-specific play that SKAM has successfully done many times in the past (in the backs of cars and trucks, at Macaulay Point, and along the Galloping Goose, among other locations). I got together with Greenfield, with whom I have worked on productions at William Head on Stage, to discuss the play and her vision of the production. Greenfield is a founding member of SNAFU Dance Theatre and has directed a number of that company’s shows (Little Orange Man, Kitt and Jane) as well as Sleeping Giants, the 2016 production at William Head. I asked her about the appeal of Tannahill’s play. She replies that, for her, the play explores very relevant issues for young people, such as “not having space in adult society and needing a place to be themselves, free of confines.” She tells me that “teens love this play because it’s written in their language and doesn’t shy away from reality.” In fact, the play has become quite popular with young people, even though it is not intended for young audiences. Greenfield tells me of fan groups online who share character portraits and quotes from the play. She says that her own teenage students at SKAM’s theatre school love the play, “with its blend of surreal and naturalistic elements and its messages about the consequences of bullying.” Characters in the 10-person cast include The Greenhouse, a Fox and a Couch, so the surrealism seems clear. For Greenfield, the play is an opportunity “to explore great writing and to experiment with abstraction. The play is structured like a horror story, in a way, and has shocking and haunting elements.” The play will be staged on a piece of land near Dockside Green, overlooking Rock Bay. Greenfield hopes that the cast of 10 will surround the audience (who may possibly stand on a revolving platform) with their choral storytelling, and that the lighting may include car headlights coming on as the sun goes down. Her production team includes Patricia Reilly (set), Tori Isaak (lighting), Carolyn Moon (sound) and Pauline Stynes (costumes). The production features a doubled cast of 20, so Greenfield will be working with Assistant Director Kai Taddei. The doubling makes more demands on the production team, with a doubled set of rehearsals, but will free the youth performers throughout the 3-week run to enjoy some time off before school begins again in September. The youth cast are being paid a weekly honorarium and were selected from over 50 young people who auditioned; six of those cast are SKAM Studio students. I also wanted to hear from Greenfield what she hopes adult audiences might take away from seeing Concord Floral. It seems clear from my reading of the play that one of Tannahill’s intentions is to create an intergenerational encounter. Greenfield agrees, saying, “One of my favourite lines in the play is ‘Life without beauty is unbearable.’ I want adult audiences to really see these young people. I want the audience to see how beautiful these teenage lives are, amongst all the chaos.” For me, Jordan Tannahill plays a large part in crafting the future of Canadian theatre. His career is one to follow, and the chance to see one of his plays performed in Victoria by Victoria youth is overdue. Update: The venue for this play has changed. Please see the website below for the latest information. Concord Floral runs from July 31-August 26 . Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.ca. For more information on this and SKAMpede (July 14-15) go to www.skam.ca. Monica Prendergast’s newest publication, Web of Performance, a curriculum guide on performance studies intended for youth 16-20, is available for free download or purchase.
  11. Intrepid Theatre’s May and June theatre festivals liven up the local landscape. MAY AND JUNE are typically quiet months for theatre companies that produce a season from fall through early spring, but for Intrepid Theatre, the spring months are filled with activity. Intrepid presents their UNO Fest (solo performances) May 9-19, followed by their OUTstages Festival (“a decidedly queer theatre festival”) June 19-24. Theatre-goers can catch over twenty performances from local and national companies, plus an international show from Ireland. I am always happy to see what these curated festivals have to offer. Similarly to the Belfry’s Spark Festival in March, these touring productions offer me the opportunity to stay in town, yet attend theatre from other places. We have a rich theatre community in Victoria, and it is inspiring and enlivening for local theatre artists and audiences to see work from elsewhere. I do not have the space here to go through all 20-plus performances that will be onstage in May and June, so here are some “critic’s picks”—these are shows I look forward to seeing, along with some thoughts on what they suggest about trends and topics in Canadian theatre and beyond. One of the first things I notice when looking over the UNO Fest program is that the majority of shows are performed by women. This is something to celebrate in a theatre culture that is struggling with gender-equity issues. Perhaps it is easier for a younger woman theatre artist to get her foot in the door by writing and/or performing a solo play? Certainly a number of these shows have been seen at various fringe and other kinds of theatre festivals, and have garnered positive reviews along the way. (Note: All quotes below are from the Intrepid Theatre website.) What kinds of topics or themes are these women bringing to the stage? On the more playful side, Dream Another Day, from Toronto’s Meagan O’Shea, considers the possibilities of a female James Bond through a “signature mash-up of dance, theatre, storytelling and visual spectacle.” Edmonton’s Ainsley Hillyard performs alongside Jezebel, her English bulldog, in Jezebel, at the Still Point as the dog and her human owner “explore the universe trying to unravel the mysteries behind time travel.” And what is described as a “darkly funny” show, Extremophiles features Calgary’s Georgina Beaty performing her play, which envisions a near-future world in which pregnancy rarely occurs. Finally, Ireland’s Margaret McAuliffe performs The Humours of Bandon, her look at the fascinating culture surrounding Irish dance competition. Left to right: Margerite McAuliffe, Grace Thompson, Darla Contois More serious solo plays performed by women this year include Toronto’s Grace Thompson in My Nightmares Wear White, an autobiographical piece about surviving a long illness. Our Fathers, Sons and Little Brothers comes from Makambe Simamba, a Zambian theatre artist now living in Calgary. The play presents the final moments and imagined afterlife of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American young man gunned down by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. It will be powerful to see a female African-Canadian artist addressing topics related to the ongoing killings of African-American young men in the United States. Vancouver playwright Kuan Foo’s SELF-ish, performed by Diana Bang, looks at the after-effects of a tragic event on a Korean-Canadian woman. Another theme that spans both festivals is the inclusion of a significant number of Indigenous plays and performers. This is another more-than-welcome trend as we witness a rise of Indigenous theatre across the country in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation report. The Only Good Indian, from Toronto’s Pandemic Theatre, is described as “part lecture, part meditation, and part threat; each night a different performer straps themselves into an extreme situation, and takes a raw look at where our similarities begin and where they end, forcing both the performer and the audience to ask themselves: What would I die for?” White Man’s Indian is written and performed by Cree artist Darla Contois from Manitoba. She takes her character Eva on a journey through a White man’s high school with a mix of humour and poetry. And UNO’s guest Indigenous curator, Yolanda Bonnell, performs her play Bug about “the women in an Indigenous family navigating addiction and inter-generational trauma.” Another theme in the UNO Fest are two shows using technology to create connections between people. We know how alienating technology can be, that our interconnectedness online is creating a social lack in people’s lives. But these two pieces take a look at the possibility of a genuine human encounter via telephone, cell phone and text messaging. In Landline, participants are sent on a guided audio walk and invited to text another real-time participant in Halifax while “prompted to share stories, memories, and secrets as the urban landscape transforms into a back drop for the relationship forming between two strangers.” Created by Halifax’s Secret Theatre, and creators Dustin Harvey and Adrienne Wong, I really like the company’s mandate: “We create meaningful moments that offer new ways of being together while shedding crooked light on how it is we’ve grown apart.” Boca del Lupo Theatre in Vancouver is bringing their Red Phone project here as part of UNO Fest. Participants are invited to speak to a stranger on a second phone while responding to conversational prompts written by prominent Canadian playwrights and writers. Again the focus is on how technology both connects and creates disconnection. Mindful performances such as these offer deeper reflection on the impact, for better and for worse, of technology on our lives. OUTstages in June focuses on plays and musical performances with LGBTQ2 topics and themes. Some plays are solo, including Vancouver’s Zee Zee Theatre’s My Funny Valentine and local Two-Spirit Métis artist Eddi Wilson’s Animal Medicine. The former play looks at the real-life 2008 homophobic murder of 15-year-old Lawrence King, and the latter “uses music, monologue and movement to dissect what they (Wilson) have learned from a life spent staring in the microscope.” Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua, from Toronto’s Justin Miller (in his drag alter-ego Pearle Harbour), comes here with a raft of four-star reviews and promises “an immersive extravaganza: part drag, part tragicomedy, part old-time tent revival.” Finally, I’m pleased to see a couple of children’s shows included in UNO Fest. Montreal’s Puzzle Theatre brings us Omelette, a comic physical theatre piece performed by Csaba Raduly, a Hungarian-Canadian theatre artist. And Vancouver’s Candice Roberts performs her play Ideas Bobert! that takes us into the world of Bobert, “a shy and curious fellow with a bird that lives in his chest.” Taking children to the theatre is one of the most effective ways to build future theatre audiences, so grab a child and go to these shows. Or grab a partner or friend to see one of the many worthwhile productions that Intrepid Theatre is bringing our way this spring. Monica is planning to take one or both of her adult children to see an UNO Fest or OUTstages show this year. See intrepidtheatre.com/shows/ for information about the shows she has discussed and more.
  12. Harassment, bullying and theatre culture. THIS COLUMN WILL BE A DIFFICULT ONE TO WRITE. Wading into the muddy waters churned up by disclosures of sexual harassment and rape in the entertainment industry feels challenging. The online debates have been at times strident and divisive. People have been judged and sentenced without ever appearing in court. But in the wake of the appalling lack of justice in the sexual assault trials of Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, it is understandable that some women are taking a more direct course. Publicizing experiences of sexual harassment and assault, and seeking damages in civil court, is getting results. The number of men who have been outed and have disappeared in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations has been staggering. A tsunami has hit and these noxious men have been swept away. This should feel good, and at times it does, but at other times I wonder about what is happening. I worry about younger women slapping the label of “Victim” on themselves and wearing it proudly, like a banner. Is this what women’s liberation looks like? That women who have suffered under victimhood can transmute that into a new banner of pride, “Survivor”? These matters feel too weighty for a theatre column. So I want to tighten my focus to consider bullying and harassment in my industry. In a report released in January by The Stage (England’s newspaper on the performing arts industry), over 1000 theatre artists were surveyed about their experiences of harassment and bullying. Over 40 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced harassment in the workplace, and over 30 percent reported cases of sexual harassment. Sexual assault was reported by 8 percent of respondents. Shockingly, it is backstage workers who report the highest levels of abuse: stage managers, assistant stage managers and technicians. In these cases, it is often actors, as well as directors and designers, who are doing the bullying. The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association also surveyed over 1000 members recently, with similar results. Nearly half of those surveyed said they had either witnessed or been the object of personal or sexual harassment. What makes theatre such a bullying industry? There will be those who wish to downplay the problem by talking about artistic temperament: where there is creativity and genius, there is also anger and vexation. This is nonsense, of course. The problem is one of power. Reports from professional theatre associations and unions have consistently called the theatre world out for what it has been, and remains to be, in large part: a boys’ club. Despite over 50 years of feminism, and its calls for gender equity, women in theatre still live in a man’s world. Two-thirds of leadership roles in Canadian theatre are held by men. Men most often run theatres as artistic directors, write the plays and direct them. For a young female artist entering such a male-dominated industry, often having been trained to tolerate harassment and abuse as part of the job, what is to be done? The revelations in December at Soulpepper Theatre, one of this country’s largest not-for-profit theatre companies, hit close to home for those of us working in Canadian theatre. Four actresses announced they are suing the company and artistic director Albert Schultz. I have visited Soulpepper a number of times when in my previous hometown of Toronto. I have admired how Schultz so capably built up an excellent theatre company, including its new theatre spaces, in a city that already had a vibrant theatre culture. The company’s accomplishments are many, including taking a number of shows for runs in New York. Their reputation has now been tarnished by allegations of long-term sexual harassment by its founder and leader. I am in solidarity with these women, and others who have spoken out about how they have been treated at Soulpepper and elsewhere. And as a theatre educator, I am especially gratified to see attention turn to the problems of harassment and bullying in theatre training programs. In Toronto, there have been allegations of harassment by instructors at George Brown College and by the founder of the Randolph College of the Performing Arts. On my Facebook feed, I have been alarmed to read posts by former students of a number of post-secondary theatre programs who tell of persistent trauma caused by teachers who humiliated, berated and bullied them. These so-called teachers should be ousted from their positions. But I know that in reality, most of them will continue to practice this kind of behavior. Why? Because it is understood that the world of theatre is a harsh one. Preparing for a career in performance involves preparing for a lot of negative judgment. There are still instructors (male and female) who feel it serves their students when they publically judge them as a way to toughen them up for the “real world.” Calling students out for their weight, personality, physicality (including racial identity) or sexuality are all common ways to attack and undermine young acting students’ confidence. And they are all things that these young people can do very little about. Well, you can lose weight, I suppose, but you can also develop an eating disorder as a result. This issue is endemic in the dance world, too, where girls are constantly told they can never be too thin. But the tidal wave of #metoo is having its effect on this toxic culture. Canadian Equity has announced an anti-harassment program called Not in Our Space. Members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres are adopting the campaign and encouraging anyone working in theatre to step forward and report issues when they arise. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it’s your job on the line. Yet it is an opening, the beginning moments of fostering a different kind of theatre culture. I look forward to a time when gender equity becomes a reality in the cultural industries, and in all industries, as well as in government and other sectors. I am in my mid-50s and am a product of this unequal culture. In the final year of my BFA acting program, I had been cast in leading roles in two of my senior productions. Then outside directors were hired to direct these shows. Both of them recast me into character roles, no doubt due to my appearance alone. I am a character actor, this is true; but in my theatre education it would have been so powerful for me to have been stretched by the challenge of playing a different kind of role. Later, when I was auditioning as a young actor in Toronto, a male director casually dismissed me by telling me to come back in 20 years, when I was the “right age” to play character roles. I stopped acting for over a decade, and became a drama educator. Although I have no regrets about entering into a very rewarding career, these wounds still sting, decades later. Yet I count myself lucky not to have been subjected to the kinds of sexual harassment and assault that many of my peers, and subsequent generations of young women theatre artists, have suffered. I have witnessed harassment and abuse, though, and carry the weight of not speaking out soon enough, or forcefully enough, to protect others. No more. Not in our space. Monica will be speaking about her research and publication project, Web of Performance: An Ensemble Workbook, as part of the University of Victoria Deans’ Lecture Series at the main branch of the Victoria Public Library on March 9. This new curriculum guide, co-edited with Will Weigler, invites young people to express their issues around identity and power in performance-based ways.
  13. A Belfry production looks at the grief and panic of losing one’s life partner to Alzheimer’s. THEATRE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT MEMORY. The act of memorization is at the heart of theatre; actors have to face the challenge of memorizing their character’s lines and also the blocking, cues, costume and set changes that happen throughout a performance. This memorization work can feel daunting as an actor ages. I know more than one actor who has left the stage because the memory work became too hard. I found myself back on stage in November at Langham Court Theatre. As a trained actor in my mid-50s, I am finding that memory work is harder than it used to be. My mind does not multitask the way it did in my younger years. The words don’t just drop into place. I have to use memorization tricks, such as finding a keyword in one line that springboards into the thought of the next line. Running lines a number of times a day, carrying my script with me wherever I go, going through it silently while riding the bus; these are all ways that helped me cement my lines in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs so that they finally became fluid and the effort to recall them lessened. It is not surprising that playwrights are writing more plays about memory loss as the Baby Boomers age. This generation is living longer than any prior one, and so is also suffering with diseases like Alzheimer’s at a higher rate. I saw Quebecois playwright François Archambault’s lovely play You Will Remember Me in Calgary a couple of years ago. In it, a history professor suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s is abandoned by his wife and left with his estranged daughter to care for him. Langham Court Theatre mounted another play on this topic last season—Taking Leave by American playwright Nagle Jackson—featuring an English professor stricken by the same disease. (Note to self: What is it about academics losing their minds in these plays?) Alongside plays on this topic are movies such as Still Alice, Away From Her and Iris. It begins to feel like an aging generation’s collective anxiety about losing one’s mind is leaking into our dramas on stage and screen. So it is that the Belfry is premiering Vancouver playwright Jill Daum’s play Forget About Tomorrow in January. Daum is married to singer/songwriter John Mann, the lead singer of folk rock band Spirit of the West. Mann was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015 at the age of 51. In 2016 he went on a farewell tour with the band, reading his lyrics off an iPad onstage. Mann has written two songs that are heard in Daum’s play. John Mann and Jill Daum Daum (one of the creators and performers of Mom’s The Word) has written a play about Alzheimer’s that looks at the very early stages of this experience. The fictional Jane (a stand-in for Daum) is long married to husband Tom, a therapist. He complains about feeling anxious and down, and has had to lower his caseload as a result. Finally, Tom goes to a neurologist who diagnoses him with early onset Alzheimer’s. The play goes on to explore how this news plays out for Jane, their two adult children, and for Tom himself. Jane finds herself lost in her grief and panic and these overwhelming emotions lead her to do something she will regret. Daum’s play pushes an audience to come to terms with their own potential responses to the illness of a loved one. Will we have what it takes to get through? It makes sense for Daum to have focused on the role of the wife and primary caregiver as the protagonist of her play. She, after all, has been Mann’s caregiver since his diagnosis. As Daum said in a CBC interview last year: “Things just get harder and you have to constantly adapt to it getting more and more difficult—and the person you love getting farther and farther away. I mean, there’s a reason why people are terrified of this disease; it’s very hard.” I was curious to hear from the play’s director Michael Shamata (also artistic director of the Belfry) about how and why he chose this play. He tells me, via email, “I saw a reading of an early draft of this play at the Vancouver Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. Jill had invited me to attend, as she was wanting me to work with her on its development. “The play is about a woman who is in denial about the role she is going to have to play as her husband’s caregiver—and her husband is still in his prime. The journey of the play is her acceptance of the hand that fate has dealt her. So it addresses Alzheimer’s not through a portrait of the victim, but by looking at someone who is being put in the position of becoming a life-long caregiver—and eventually an Alzheimer’s widow.” And yet, he says, it is also very funny. I asked Shamata about what he felt might be some of the challenges staging this play. He replied: “One challenge will be keeping the play flowing along smoothly. Jill has written a series of short scenes—which is entirely appropriate for a play that needs to follow the unfolding of the health issue—but that makes it a challenge to move from location to location. I am excited about the approach we are taking to the design. “Another challenge will be finding the quality of openness and almost naiveté with which playwright Jill Daum approaches life. The lead character is not intended to be Jill, but as she has written it, the actress who plays the leading role will need to find that same clear-eyed and progressive attitude that Jill possesses.” Speaking of casting, Shamata has cast some excellent Vancouver actors to tackle these tough roles. Jennifer Lines plays Jane and she is onstage for the whole play. Craig Erickson plays her husband Tom, while Colleen Wheeler plays Jane’s friend and employer Jill. I have seen these three in various Vancouver productions at Bard on the Beach, the Arts Club and here at the Belfry. No doubt the acting quality of the production will be high. Finally, I wanted to know what Shamata hopes audiences for this play will take home with them afterwards. He tells me, “The play is a celebration of loving relationships. It is a celebration of those who commit to living with their partner through whatever challenges life may put in their way. Therefore, I hope that audiences feel an affirmation of their own loving relationships—and also see the beauty in giving selflessly to another—the beauty that arises from meeting a challenge—despite incredible fear and disappointment and sadness.” Theatre itself is a metaphor for many of these things Shamata names. Theatre-making is hugely demanding, so much so that devoting one’s life to it involves facing a lot of fear, disappointment and sadness. The end of every performance, rooted in memory work, is always accompanied by a sense of loss. The loss of the transitory and ephemeral experience of a play that goes on to exist only in the memory. When those memories themselves are lost to diseases like Alzheimer’s, so too is the essence of a life, both onstage and in the real world we are all living and dying in. One day at a time. Forget About Tomorrow runs from January 23 to February 18 at the Belfry Theatre. Tickets are available at www.belfry.bc.ca or by phone at 250-385-6815. Focus is a sponsor of this production. Monica hopes that 2018 will prove to be a year in which she finds the time to test her memory with more theatre work. Her latest book, co-edited with Will Weigler, is Web of Performance: A Workbook for Youth.
  14. Pacific Opera brings two completely unique operas about past and current chapters in the Canadian story. IN NOVEMBER, Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) is presenting two brand-new Canadian operas: Rattenbury, by local composer/librettist Tobin Stokes, and Missing by Toronto composer Brian Current (with libretto by Vancouver playwright Marie Clements). I was interested to hear what the artists involved in these projects had to say about how each one was developed, what some of the challenges were in bringing them to the stage, and what they hope audiences will take away from the experience. With the help of POV’s publicist Heather Jeliazkov, I was able to get emailed responses to my questions. Below is a constructed interview based on what I received from POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernon (TV), Tobin Stokes (TS), Brian Current (BC) and Marie Clements (MC). It would have been impossible to have had all these extremely busy people in the room at the same time. I am grateful to each of them for taking the time to send me their thoughts. Left to right: Timothy Vernon, Marie Clements, Tobin Stokes, Brian Current MP: Let’s begin with Rattenbury, about prominent British and Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury, who built both the Empress Hotel and our provincial Parliament Buildings. As most here will know, Rattenbury came to a scandalous end, killed by his wife Alma’s teenage lover, their chauffeur. Timothy, what can you tell us about the inception and development of this piece? TV: POV has not been directly involved in this production, but functions as presenter. Rattenbury’s life could easily provide the fodder for a few opera projects, with varying emphases and points of view. Tobin has chosen, wisely I think, an episodic treatment. Before he began, I had dreamt of an opera with the Empress and Parliament buildings as singing characters, and the use of some of the songs Alma wrote for her club/cabaret appearances…also, of course, the bludgeoning on stage… TS: I became interested in exploring Rattenbury’s story as an opera about ten years ago. An opportunity came when The Other Guys Theatre Company received a grant from the City as part of Victoria’s birthday celebration a few years ago. I began some of the libretto and music, and we presented that with Kathleen Brett and Richard Margison singing the lead roles as a concert event at the Empress Ballroom. Then I entered a 12-minute teaser version, pared down to four singers, into a competition at the King’s Head Theatre in London. While we didn’t win the competition, the audience was very enthusiastic, and the theatre’s management urged me to carry on. MP: Tobin, what have been one or two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the creative process? TS: I realized the story I could tell was less large-style about Rattenbury’s entire life, his grand facades, and failed business dealings, and more about how his ambition, left unchecked, got the best of him. I realized the intimacy offered by using just four singers: this puts the audience close, like they were a jury in a court case. The result is more visceral I think, while the themes I’m exploring have a universal relevance. MP: What do you each hope audiences may take away from seeing the opera? TV: I think a renewed interest in earlier Victoria history (we are still living in his buildings) could be forthcoming. Such treatments also tend to “classicize” artistic and civic achievements—a good thing in view of the City’s propensity for tearing down the past. TS: While most of the audience probably knows the story of Rattenbury already, they may not be aware of many of the details and intrigue that unfolded. But the story isn’t just about an event that happened once upon a time, it’s about youth, love, and addiction. Opera communicates emotion, and there is a whole lot to get emotional about in this story. I enjoy giving great voices a chance to shine and I hope I’ve delivered that here. I’ve let the innocent popular music of the 1930s seep into the score, while digging deep into ambition, guilt, and legacy. MP: Let’s turn our attention to Missing. Timothy, how did this project unfold? TV: The initiative came from City Opera Vancouver, who commissioned the well-known Métis theatre and film artist and author Marie Clements to write a libretto treating the fate of women and girls who have disappeared, or been found murdered, on BC’s “Highway of Tears.” POV was then invited into a co-production arrangement, and participated actively in the choice of composer Brian Current, and in the casting, and exclusively in the choice of Timothy Long, the only Indigenous conductor in North America with serious and extensive opera experience. MP: So Marie, your writing is the basis of this project. How did that come about? MC: I was asked to submit a treatment, a synopsis of a proposed story line, and they accepted this and I began to write. I worked on a first draft, and then worked through it with dramaturge Paula Danckert and rewrote to second draft. We then went into a script workshop with actors, and I revised and wrote a third draft which was sent to composer Brian Current. He began his composition and we then had a workshop where the words and music were brought together with a room full of singers. MP: And what about for you, Brian? BC: Marie was recommended by Tomson Highway, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. Her text for the opera is extraordinary. Once the libretto was written, they commissioned four composers to anonymously submit a couple scenes, which were presented to a jury who did not know who they were listening to, and made a choice from there. So I was brought in relatively late in the process. It has been a remarkable process working with Marie, who I believe is a major talent. MP: Given the subject material, what have some of the challenges been throughout the development phase of “Missing”? TV: The libretto stipulates four native and four non-native singers. At a time when sensitivities are flaring around appropriate casting, we felt it important to find indigenous singers for the native characters, which added a layer to the usual challenges. MC: I think we were very aware of the gravity of the story. Not just the creative challenge of bringing the story to life, but that this story does not live in the past. It is very relevant today. BC: There is much text in the opera sung in Gitxsan (the beautiful language spoken by Indigenous groups up the BC coast and along the Highway of Tears), as well as the depiction of some drumming and a traditional wedding scene. These aspects had to be handled with absolute respect. From the beginning this has always been about “appreciating” Indigenous traditions and not “appropriating” them, which is surprisingly easy to do if we are not vigilant, and would be yet another example of the broader population taking from the Indigenous community. Being very mindful of this, we worked closely with native Gitxsan speakers in both Victoria and Vancouver. The real hero of this piece is Vince Gogag of Vancouver, who did the translation of the Gitxsan text and has been helping with pronunciation throughout. All the rhythms and nuances of the language are intact, so the piece also acts as an effort in language preservation. For the drumming, we collaborated with our Indigenous collaborators to make sure that there were no traditional rules that we were unknowingly breaking as to who could hold the drums and how. Only Indigenous members of the cast will be drumming in the show. Finally, for the wedding scene, the text was written by Vince and the music was constructed, with his permission, from recordings of his grandfather singing traditional songs. We wanted to just get out of the way and give Vince’s community the stage for that scene. MP: What do each of you hope the audience for “Missing” takes home after seeing it? TV: We hope, modestly, that the portrayal of the suffering endured by the Indigenous community will provide a cathartic moment, and help them feel that the settlers around them are beginning to understand. For the non-Indigenous audience, we hope that the deeply moving story of those who have suffered—as victims and survivors —will have a jolting effect, and help them to realize the terrible urgency of reconciliation and an attempt at reparation, however late and inadequate. BC: The story of the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada must be told immediately. It is an unspeakable tragedy for our nation that is still largely, and unconscionably, invisible to the wider public. It’s getting lost in the wash of the 24-hour news cycle. 1250 women. Imagine if 1250 non-Aboriginal women disappeared all at once from Ottawa or Quebec City or Victoria. There would be an urgent and international outcry. Our goal in writing this piece is to humanize these women and their families and to show that each and every one of these missing women is deserving of our heartbroken attention. Each death is really one hundred deaths, as it affects all those who have loved and cherished the victim. MC: I hope that audiences understand that the issue of missing and murdered women in this country is not an Indigenous issue. It is a human issue which we are all accountable to. I also hope the story of “Missing” can bring audiences together by unifying our voices. Both operas will be performed in November at POV’s Baumann Centre. For more information, go to www.pov.bc.ca. Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio Victoria’s On the Island. She will be appearing in Langham Court Theatre’s production of Les Belles Soeurs by Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay (Nov 15 to Dec 2).
  15. Victorians can enjoy a wealth of made-in-Canada works being staged locally this fall. AS I LOOK OVER THE LIST of productions opening this fall in Victoria, I feel heartened by the high number of both Canadian and local plays and operas. This is something to celebrate. In years past, the majority of plays produced in town would have more likely been American or British in origin. We now have a well-developed national theatre culture, and that means our regional theatre, the Belfry, can more easily program a whole season of Canadian fare. That is as it should be for a professional company receiving a lot of governmental support. But I am cheered to see that our local community theatre, Langham Court, is also presenting two Canadian plays this fall. The Phoenix Theatre at the University of Victoria is inviting back two alumni to present their plays about historical figures from BC history. And Pacific Opera Victoria will be presenting two new Canadian productions in November at their second performance space, the Baumann Centre. I have to say I don’t think I have ever been as thrilled by the Belfry’s lineup as I am about this upcoming season. (Not only are all four mainstage plays Canadian, so are the four being brought in as part of the Spark Festival in March.) Opening September 12 is a play by Hannah Moscovitch, directed by her frequent collaborator and life partner Christian Barry. Raised in Ottawa, Moscovitch is a national and international award-winning playwright with a fiery intelligence and a cutthroat wit. Her plays are always intriguing, at times provoking, and often give actors big challenges due to the psychological depths she plumbs. The Children’s Republic tells the story of survival and hope in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. A number of Moscovitch plays have appeared at the Belfry as Spark Festival touring productions, including What a Young Wife Ought to Know earlier this year, along with Little One and The Russian Play in past Spark Fests. I am also eager to see the Belfry’s production of the musical Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. Its premiere made a huge splash at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre and it has gone on to be produced at the National Arts Centre. Created and directed by former Victorian and Phoenix alumni Amiel Gladstone (one of the founders of Theatre SKAM) and musician Veda Hille, the October and November production will also bring back to town Phoenix alumni and prominent Canadian theatre actor and director Meg Roe, alongside her partner Alessandro Juliani. This one will sell out, so don’t delay in booking tickets soon. Over at Langham Court Theatre, the fall season begins with Vancouver playwright and director Morris Panych’s The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, directed by Janet Munsil. Winner of the 2003 Governor General’s Award, this touching comedy traces the journey of Iris, a young girl whose goldfish comes to life as a human just as her mother is planning to leave the family. Next at Langham is a Canadian classic (and one of my favorite Canadian plays of all time), Michel Tremblay’s 1969 comic masterpiece Les Belles Soeurs, directed by Judy Treloar. This all-women play shows us the lives of working-class French-Canadian Catholic women, oppressed by their husbands, poverty and too many children. These harsh realities are countered by the gathering of sisters and friends in Germaine’s kitchen. They are there to help her paste one million stamps she has won into booklets in order to claim her prizes. But her family and neighbours’ jealousy of her good fortune leads to betrayal, theft and total chaos. In October, the Phoenix Theatre is presenting WEST: A Tribute to BC Trailblazers, a double bill of short, one-person works by alumna and native Victorian Danette Boucher. After graduating from UVic, she moved to Barkerville, BC, creating historically-based pieces like Lady Overlander, the tale of BC pioneer Catherine O’Hare Schubert (1835-1918), the sole female member of a group of gold prospectors who travelled together from Winnipeg to Kamloops in the spring of 1862. The Schubert family made the arduous journey over the Rockies with three young children in tow while the tenacious Catherine (played by Boucher) was pregnant with her fourth. She gave birth en route, with the support of indigenous women, in a village on the Thompson River. Danette Boucher and James Douglas The Fred Wells Show will be performed by Boucher’s fellow Phoenix alumnus and husband James Douglas. Fred Wells (1861-1956) was a Depression-era American entrepreneur who believed that a second gold rush was possible in the Cariboo. With the support of investors, he prospected and found a gold seam. The miners who flocked to the area developed the town of Wells, BC, which bears the name of its founder. In an email interview, Boucher explains how she and Douglas find a lot of poignancy in bringing WEST to Victoria. “We attended the Phoenix in the 80s and 90s, and again for graduate work in the 2000s. Our professional work is, in many ways, the fruit of our educations at the department. Presenting at this wonderfully familiar theatre feels like a circle completed. Like the theme of WEST, this feels like coming home.” In the midst of witnessing the wildfires plaguing the Province’s interior, Boucher writes that “WEST has become much more to us than stories we love performing. [It] has become our love letter to BC. We hope audiences feel a connection to these stories that celebrate the idea of finding home.” November brings two new and locally-composed operas, premiering at Pacific Opera Victoria’s Baumann Centre on Balmoral at Quadra. The first is Rattenbury by well-known local composer and sound designer Tobin Stokes. Architect Francis Rattenbury (1867-1935), who designed both the Legislative Buildings and the Empress Hotel, was murdered by his second wife’s teenage lover (their chauffeur!), and the subsequent trial was a cause célèbre in the 1930s. The second new opera, Missing, is composed by Brian Current, with a libretto by indigenous playwright Marie Clement. Addressing the absences and deaths of so many indigenous women in Vancouver and on the Highway of Tears, Missing is a timely artistic statement on a national tragedy. During Canada’s 150th birthday year—as contentious as that event may be for communities who have lived on this land for much longer—our local theatre and opera companies are offering a broad and exciting range of homegrown and national fare. Monica Pendergast teaches drama and theatre education at the University of Victoria. Her new research project intends to survey key Canadian Theatre for Young Audiences companies which do high-quality artistic works for children and youth.
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