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Monica Prendergast

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  1. Monica Prendergast

    How history haunts the theatre

    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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Monica Prendergast

    UNO and OUT

    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.
  5. Monica Prendergast

    Not in our space

    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.
  6. 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.
  7. Monica Prendergast

    Murder in two operas

    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).
  8. Monica Prendergast

    Home-grown, Canadian theatre

    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.
  9. Monica Prendergast

    Shakespeare season

    “All the world’s a stage,” especially in the summer months. VICTORIA HAS HAD a summer Shakespeare Festival for 26 years now, an impressive legacy of success. Let’s begin with a little bit of historic context. Theatre Inconnu’s founder and artistic director Clayton Jevne began presenting Shakespeare plays in the summer of 1991 in collaboration with actor/directors Ian Case and Tariq Leslie. The first Shakespeare Festival took place in Inconnu’s small space in Market Square, then moved to a tent in the Inner Harbour. It was there, in the late 1990s, that I first saw Jevne perform, in the title role of King Lear. A few years later, Jevne chose to move away from producing the festival and in 2003 actor/director Michael Glover took over. He established the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival (GVSF) as a non-profit society and created a board of directors. The newly-constituted festival staged The Taming of the Shrew in Centennial Square, and in subsequent years, performed in the theatre and on the grounds of St Anne’s Academy. Glover now works at Camosun College, so in 2005 he brought the GVSF to that location, where the Festival has been held outdoors on the campus ever since. Glover has appeared in a number of productions over the years, but stepped down as artistic director in 2014. Karen Lee Pickett, local playwright and actor, was hired as Festival producer in 2012, and she was selected by the GVSF board to take on the artistic direction as well. Pickett’s strategic plans over time have been to continue to professionalize the festival through increased sponsorship and funding. This enhanced budget has allowed her to attract more professional actors to the Festival, and to have them mentor young actors-in-training. These young actors are often theatre students at the University of Victoria or the Canadian College of Performing Arts. Her focus has been on capacity building, the creation of a repertory season in which an ensemble of actors play in both shows, and a collaborative Shakespeare education program for students carried out last fall with staff at Craigdarroch Castle. Pickett sees lots of room to grow more educational programs over time, especially given the strong positive response to this pilot project from the teachers and students who participated in it. I sat down over coffee with Pickett and this season’s directors, Kate Rubin (Macbeth co-directed with Pickett) and Janet Munsil (Love’s Labour’s Lost). Rubin directed Merry Wives of Windsor in 2013 and Munsil directed Twelfth Night last year. I asked them about their approaches to this season’s pairing of plays. From left: Kate Rubin, Karen Lee Pickett and Janet Munsil (Photograph by Monica Prendergast) “We’re describing this season as moving from the nitty-gritty to the pretty,” jokes Pickett. The dark and nightmarish world of ancient Scotland in Macbeth, with its clan wars, opens up to the light and romantic world of courtly love of Love’s Labour Lost. Quite a contrast for the actors in both plays, never mind the night-to-night shift in design from the bleak Scottish moors to the rich palaces of Navarre (a small kingdom between France and Spain, the setting for Shakespeare’s comedy). Pickett and Rubin shared their collaborative approach to co-directing “the Scottish play” Macbeth: “We are finding our way in rehearsals,” says Rubin. “My work is relational and character-driven; I use movement exercises to unpack the scene, while Karen Lee’s expertise is in the language. One of the ways we differ is she will look at the lines to determine what is happening, and I will look at character dynamics and how to crack that open.” The production is set in a non-specific but “pre-kilt” warrior era of ancient Scotland—still tribal, pagan, and adhering to matrilineal lineage. In this world, women were warriors too, so the production features a female King Duncan and sons, although Pickett has decided to keep the play’s original pronouns. “There is so much in this play that is masculine, so our choice was to keep pronouns male, even with women actors. We’re not hiding the fact that they’re women, just as they are not ancient Scots. We can get into a weird space when we try to play another gender, so these are clearly women in these traditionally male roles.” This production of Macbeth will also feature live drumming and a vocal chorus to support the military and supernatural elements of the tragedy. I then asked Munsil to tell me about her vision for Love’s Labour’s Lost. “This is a world that is super-saturated with romance,” says Munsil, adding, “The production has a Regency feel to it, inspired by artist Maxfield Parrish. We have pastel lanterns, big urns of flowers. The princess and her posse are in beautiful flowing gowns. I’m thinking of them as ballerinas, versus the men, who are Romantic poets.” Munsil notes that the play is “in the mood for love but does not end happily,” and is constructed as a kind of pastiche “whose plot is revealed in the first 150 lines, then the rest of the play is made up of frivolous displays of romantic love, interrupted by death.” She views these courtly young people as typical adolescents who are “mostly absorbed in their own story, but into the mix is thrown some brilliant linguistic gymnastics, such as the love poetry the boys write.” Designer Carole Klemm has the challenge of creating simple and adaptable sets that will work for both plays. Rubin tells me that for Macbeth the look will be natural and organic, playing off the trees and rocks that surround the outdoor stage at Camosun. Klemm is creating a large triangular pagan symbol that will anchor the play visually, woven from branches. This will contrast with the brighter and more colourful look for the comedy. Pickett reflects that for her, one of the main changes that has moved the Festival forward artistically has been adopting the repertory company model. Doing both shows asks a lot of actors who have day jobs, but she sees the company forming close relationships: “The trust level is so high that they can take risks.” Alongside the post-secondary theatre students, this year’s ensemble has a couple of teenage actors playing smaller roles in Macbeth. Audiences will see experienced actors such as Trevor Hinton, playing the title role of Macbeth, working alongside talented emerging actors. The audience also has the pleasure of seeing these same actors tackling very different roles in each play. I finish up our engaging conversation by asking how these 400-year-old plays might connect with 21st century theatregoers. Rubin and Pickett talk about how Macbeth makes a strong commentary on the dangers of tyranny that (unfortunately) has contemporary resonance given these troubled political times. And Munsil acknowledges the power of a Shakespeare comedy to lift an audience out of their lives and into the very real pleasures of watching the pitfalls and frivolities of young romance. The Festival previews on July 6 and runs until July 29. A new joint initiative with the Esquimalt Township Community Arts Council, Bard Across the Bridge, will host additional performances of Macbeth August 3 to 5 at Saxe Point. Take a look at the GVSF website at www.vicshakespeare.com or buy your tickets at www.ticketrocket.co. Bring a blanket and some mosquito repellent and get your dose of summer Shakespeare. Monica saw Susie Mullen perform in her final GVSF show as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night last summer. That production, directed by Janet Munsil, received the Victoria Critics’ Choice Award for Best Ensemble. Susie Mullen died this January at the age of 66. She was a powerhouse of an actor, and was a great pleasure to work with and to see on stage. She is much missed.
  10. Monica Prendergast


    Be part of the change. Get off the couch and see live performances. PROMINENT CANADIAN PLAYWRIGHT, director and actor Daniel MacIvor wants to know: What’s theatre for? In the opening event of the Intrepid Theatre UNO Festival, MacIvor will be presenting his own take on “What’s Theatre For?” No doubt the dialogue that ensues will be a meaty one. My own sense is that theatre is for memory, community and learning. Theatre companies document and archive their shows, to varying degrees, with videos, photos, and files kept of reviews, posters and programs. But all of that material is only a distant echo of the lived experience of the actual performance. The archive of theatre lives in the memory of its audience. All of the performing arts share the essential qualities of being transitory and ephemeral in nature. You have to be there, as part of the live encounter between artist and witness, to play your essential role as a conduit of memory. Our consumer culture tends to frame theatregoing as just another product to purchase and consume, often mindlessly. But what happens if we reframe it in a more mindful way? If we engage with the sense that we, as viewers, hold a privilege and obligation to carry the memory of a performance (if it was, in fact, memorable, of course) into the future? As a regular and dedicated theatregoer, I carry with me a mental list of the top theatre experiences of my lifetime. These are the highlights of my own personal memory archive. I have to reconsider my list after seeing something that leaves a powerful residue of artistry and meaning. I have wonderful conversations, sometimes in theatre lobbies during intermissions, with colleagues, family and friends about what’s on my list compared to theirs. It is these kinds of conversations that lead us from our more individual experience of theatre to the more social one of being part of a theatregoing community, together. Like most of us these days, I have an ongoing Netflix addiction. It’s too easy to just stay at home and zone out with another series or movie binge. Going out to see theatre, a concert, dance show or opera takes energy and effort. Fundamentally, the performing arts require you to show up—with brushed hair and suitable attire! Yet the rewards of showing up are the rewards of becoming, for a couple of hours, part of a community. This community enters the playing space as part of an unspoken but understood social contract. We agree to turn off our cellphones and open up our crinkly candy wrappers before the lights go down. We try not to disturb our neighbours or the performers during the show. We respond with laughter, attention, consideration, gasps, and, on occasion, tears. We demonstrate our enthusiasm and gratitude in applause, at times on our feet. We talk to our companions about what we have seen and heard. We spread the word. For me, as someone who has lived and breathed theatre for most of my life, there is a utopian impulse at play in this process. Something hopeful and generative is created, albeit temporarily, when groups of people come together to share in the witnessing of performance. Of course I am aware of the limits of this idea. Too often the people I see around me in these communal events are people who are very much like me: white, educated, and middle-aged or older. I would be happy to see a more diverse, intergenerational mix in audiences. I do worry about the future of the mainstream performing arts if the most established companies cannot attract a younger and more diverse audience to sustain their futures. We all need to feel that we are a valued part of the community, and the theatregoing community is no exception to that rule. Finally, as I am a theatre educator by trade, I have to believe in theatre’s educational power. In this belief I sit with philosophers as far back as Aristotle and Horace who understood theatre’s power to both enlighten and instruct. Human behavior, revealed through stories of characters who are deeply tested by life, is analyzed and interpreted in dramatic action. Theatre is a laboratory for the study of humanity. I have always found the many-layered complexity of the art form to be illuminating as well. In addition to the text of a play is the interpretive work of the actors and their director. Then the worlds of set and costume design enliven the play. The way light and sound are applied add more layers of meaning. (On the sound front, recently I was stopped in a rare moment of aesthetic arrest by the use of Joni Mitchell’s song “Blue” in a National Theatre Live screening of Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler. The song revealed the psychology of Hedda, her self-proclaimed lack of “talent for living,” in a new and memorable way.) On an even more idealistic level, I believe in theatre’s potential for making the world a better place. My work in the field of applied theatre, also known as community-based or grassroots theatre (among many other names), has taught me plenty. It has shown me how theatre-making can open up spaces within communities for the sharing of stories and the consideration of alternative possible futures. I have seen this happen in my work with William Head on Stage, Canada’s only inmate-run prison theatre company. I think about how Ibsen’s plays shocked European society of the late 19th century. How Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls attacked Margaret Thatcher’s neoconservative regime in the 1980s. How Tony Kushner’s Angels in America woke up middle-class audiences to the realities of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. These plays, and many more, bolster my faith in theatre as a tool for awareness and social change. If these thoughts provoke some of your own, perhaps you can bring your live self to Daniel MacIvor’s “WTF” talk, then will yourself off the cozy couch in the days that follow so you can play your sacred role. Be part of the community bearing witness to the often edgy, social-change-themed Uno Fest performances, then compare your list of memories to another’s. Intrepid Theatre’s 20th Annual UNO Fest runs May 17-27, 2017 in the Metro Studio, Intrepid Theatre Club and more. Daniel MacIvor’s keynote talk, “WTF: or What’s Theatre For?” Wednesday, May 17 at 8pm, Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra Street. Go to intrepidtheatre.com for more info, a listing of all performances and a link to purchase tickets and passes. Tickets can also be purchased over the phone at 1-855-842-7575, or in person at 101-804 Broughton Street. Monica Pendergast is co-editor and chapter author of a forthcoming e-book, Web of Performance: An Ensemble Workbook for Youth, also being published by the University of Victoria.
  11. Monica Prendergast

    Alice Munro, word for word

    The Belfry gives us two stories from Canada’s beloved Nobel-winner. THERE IS A FORM OF THEATRE that presents literary texts in verbatim style, or word for word. San Francisco is home to theatre company Word for Word that has been staging literature verbatim-style since 1993. Some authors whose work has appeared on stage there include Richard Ford, Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Donoghue and James Baldwin. The artists who tackle this kind of work have to attend to the challenges presented by dramatizing literature, but without the intermediary step of crafting a script. Every. Word. Counts. The risk of this kind of theatre-making is that it slips into a mash-up of Reader’s Theatre (talking heads) and Story Theatre (in which both narration and action are spoken). The risk is that the result is like watching an audiobook, lacking the essence of stagecraft: theatricality. Yet what I hear about some past Word for Word projects sounds intriguing, inviting both actors and audiences to imagine the transition from page to stage together. Techniques such as having inanimate objects tell part of the story, or using visual metaphor to illustrate interior psychology, can create powerful moments on stage. For example, New York company Elevator Repair Service has performed a six-hour verbatim version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby titled Gatz that proved a great hit there as well as on tour to many countries worldwide. Set in an office, a worker frustrated by a broken computer pulls a copy of the novel out of his Rolodex and begins reading it. Magnetically, his peers are pulled into the reading and staging of the novel, using only what is available to them in the workplace. New York Times’ theatre critic Ben Brantley describes the effect of the experience: “It’s…that elusive chemistry that takes place between a reader and a gorgeous set of sentences that demand you follow them wherever they choose to go.” In April, the Belfry embarks on its first-time-ever word for word literary project, staging Alice Munro Stories. I spoke to Belfry Artistic Director Michael Shamata about how this production has unfolded. It turns out Word for Word has performed two Munro shows themselves, and Shamata was contacted by Word’s Artistic Director Susan Harloe. Would the Belfry be interested in bringing in their latest Munro show? Shamata tells me, “I realized that having an American company come here to perform Canadian literature could not be justified.” He suggested to Harloe, “What if we did our own production and have you come and be the consultant?” Shamata travelled to San Francisco with General Manager Ivan Habel and Vancouver director Anita Rochon to see a sampling of their work. Then the Belfry held a workshop a year or so ago to experiment with the word for word approach, and to select their choice of two Munro stories. Director Rochon carried out a second workshop earlier this year in Vancouver with the acting company hired for the production. All Alice Munro fans will want to know which stories from her canon will be staged. Shamata gives me some insights, saying, “The first story is Differently, a beautiful piece about couples, essentially about a woman who encounters a man that she used to have a relationship with. It’s about regrets, about the ways we can behave to each other. Set in a hospital room, it will start with a woman in bed, her husband and daughter by the bedside and they begin reading the story, with a doctor and nurse coming in at some point.” And Act Two? Shamata discloses that, “The second one is a bit more acted out. Save the Reaper is a fascinating but complex story about a grandmother and grandson in a car who head off to try to find a place that had some memory for her and stumble on some bizarre events.” The story’s subtitle “Can you trust your children with your mother?” indicates that this one has some of the heightened dramatic tension, verging on horror, that appear in certain Munro tales. And what about the director Shamata has chosen for the production, Anita Rochon? Shamata describes her as “a smart, smart young director” whose work has been previously seen here. Itai Erdal’s one-man show How to Disappear Completely and Spark Festival shows KISMET: One to One Hundred and Through the Gaze of a Navel were all co-created and/or directed by Rochon. She has cast actors Jenny Patterson (Homechild), Gerry Mackay (A Christmas Carol, Jitters), Michael Scholar Jr. (The Black Rider), Carolyn Gillis (And Slowly Beauty) and newcomer Arggy Jenati. The production is designed by Peter Hartwell (Red, Best Brothers), lit by Alan Brodie with sound designed by Antoine Bedard. Shamata describes what he hopes audiences will experience when they come to see Alice Munro Stories: “It’s a wonderful way of hearing the actual words that have been written, without messing with Alice Munro, putting it in a theatrical realm and finding a theatrical vocabulary for it without changing the words at all. I think it will be a very cool event, it will feel like theatre but I know that Anita is smart enough to not try to disguise what it is we’re doing, that we’re celebrating the words, not trying to pretend it’s something else.” Alice Munro Stories is the final mainstage production of the 2016-2017 season. It runs April 18 to May 14. Backing up a bit to March, the Belfry presents Spark, its annual festival of innovative theatre from across Canada (March 9-26). This year I am looking forward to seeing a mix of local and touring productions. Local shows include a new project by Atomic Vaudeville, BlissKrieg, “a musical comedy about the last two people in the universe.” Those familiar with Vaudeville’s comedy revues and their hit shows Legoland and Ride the Cyclone will look forward to this one. Victoria actor and sound designer Brian Linds is premiering Reverberations, a site-specific show that takes place in an “undisclosed location” close to the Belfry. Spark is also presenting Theatre SKAM’s new play Joan by Matthew Payne about longtime Victoria arts devotee Joan Mans and her touching friendship with Payne, who now tells their story. Another production coming here for Spark is a new Itai Erdal project, This is Not a Conversation. Erdal, an Israeli Jew, enters into dialogue with Palestinian Arab Dima Alansari. A discomforting but necessary exchange ensues. Also, Toronto’s Evalyn Parry brings us SPIN described as “a tour-de-force performance celebrating the Bicycle as muse, musical instrument and agent of social change.” But the play I look forward to most is brilliant Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know, presented by Halifax’s 2B Theatre. Two of Moscovitch’s earlier plays have appeared at the Belfry’s Spark Festival, Little One and The Russian Play. She can be counted on for her intelligence and innovation. With all this activity at the Belfry, don’t miss out on other shows around town in March and April, including season closers at the Phoenix (The Government Inspector) and Pacific Opera Victoria (Les Feluettes/Lilies), based on the play by Quebec’s Michel Marc Bouchard). Langham Court has Taking Leave, a dramatic comedy inspired in part by King Lear, followed in late April by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Finally, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre opens its summer season with Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Plus, Canadian puppeteer/genius Ronnie Burkett returns with his hilarious and risqué Daisy Theatre to Intrepid Theatre. How lucky for us! See the calendar at www.focusonvictoria.ca for dates and details for all of these productions. Monica works at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Education and is currently undertaking a new research project on Canadian Theatre for Young Audiences. She also reviews theatre on CBC’s On the Island.