Drama Club: Hello, Gracing the Stage!
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Drama Club: Hello, Gracing the Stage!

Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.

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Aaron Willis and Julie Tepperman perform from their show Yichud/Seclusion this Friday. Photo provided by Convergence Theatre.

For seven years, Steve Fisher has been e-mailing a weekly newsletter with listings for theatre, music, comedy, dance, and film. The newsletter, known as “Gracing the Stage,” developed a readership 1,000 people strong, almost entirely spread through word-of-mouth. About a month and a half ago, Steve launched gracingthestage.ca, which is fast becoming an essential Toronto arts blog. “Transitioning the weekly newsletter to a website has definitely increased my workload,” says Fisher, “but I’m too much in love with the site to mind how it eats up all my waking hours….The emailed newsletters, which I’ve been sending out in one form or another since 2002, have always been relatively succinct; they gave the vital info about shows, and briefly mentioned what I thought made this or that particular show special. But I couldn’t really elaborate on those short listings, or give much background info, in the restrictive update format….What excites me most about the site is all the myriad ways people can choose to consume the content; that flexibilty of access is what makes blogs like Torontoist so revolutionary.”
To help support this undertaking, Gracing the Stage will be presenting two launch parties for the website, one focusing on theatre and music this Friday at the new Bread and Circus Theatre Bar (the one on Augusta), and one focusing on comedy on Saturday rather appropriately at Comedy Bar. With performances from such diverse acts as Entire Cities, Maylee Todd, 10,000 to Flight, Convergence Theatre, and Peter Katz, Melissa D’Agostino, the events each boast a pretty impressive lineup. How was Fisher able to assemble such a troupe? “The simple answer is that I asked some of my favourite performers directly, and they said yes!”
As far as Fisher is concerned, Toronto already has an arts scene on par with the other great cities of the world; what we need is a little self-confidence. “What we need to bolster is the wherewithal to effectively market and promote local talent to local audiences, to get them to realize that the $5 show at The Rivoli is better than the toothless prime time comedy being aired on an American station; that a workshop production of a new play at Tarragon Theatre has the potential to become an off-Broadway hit; that the band playing a Wavelength show at Sneaky Dee’s could be the next Broken Social Scene. A supportive government (all three levels) could help promote Toronto as the cultural mecca it is. It just makes economic sense to use our gifted performers to market this city to the world. But to start, we need to convince our most immediate neighbors of the innovative work that’s a subway ride away, at most.”
After the fold, we’ve got interviews with Convergence Theatre and Melissa D’Agostino, a review of Soulpepper’s take on Travesties, and even more theatre stuff!

Convergence Theatre

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Convergence Theatre’s take on Orthodox Judaism, and the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. Photo by Convergence Theatre.


Convergence Theatre’s Julie Tepperman and Aaron Willis have developed a reputation for creating exciting new theatre that involves audience participation and often uses nontraditional performance spaces. But recently, they’ve also gained a reputation for trying to change the way performer-creators are able to co-operate with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. Feeling current agreements were limiting and unrealistic for small-scale productions, Tepperman and Willis were at the forefront of creating the Indie Caucus, which has been working over the last year to draft a new agreement that, if successful, will allow for more theatre to be created. A motion that resolves CAEA takes steps to address members’ dissatisfaction by forming a committee made up of member-creators will be put to a vote at the CAEA Annual General Meeting next Monday Feb. 23rd at 6pm. The Indie Caucus urges all CAEA members to come out and vote. For more information, see the group’s Facebook page.
Torontoist: What will you be performing at the Gracing the Stage launch party?
Convergence Theatre: We will be performing the third scene of our new one-act play in three parts: Yichud/Seclusion. “Yichud” translates to mean “seclusion” and is a ritual associated with Orthodox Jewish weddings—the Yichud Room is a private space where the Bride & Groom go to be alone together immediately following the wedding ceremony. In this scene, the young nervous newlyweds Rachel & Chaim (who have agreed to a traditional arranged marriage) are now alone in the Yichud Room for the very first time ever. Awkward moments and uncertain expectations make for a hilarious and touching encounter.
What’s next for Convergence Theatre?
Developing a more fully realized version of Yichud/Seclusion with the support of a partnering theatre company (TBA!) and developing a site-specific extravaganza for the 2010 Luminato Festival…stay tuned!
What do you think about Toronto’s arts and culture scene? What’s great, and what could use improvement?
What’s great about the current arts scene in Toronto is the vast amount of work being created and the sheer number and diversity of artists creating it, from the international work that is showcased in this city, to the innovation and risk-taking that goes on from within our own indie arts communities. That said, though the artists are very diverse, the audiences often are not. Now more than ever, we must constantly be exploring new and creative ways to reach out to new people in an effort to expand and build diverse (and younger) audiences.

Melissa D’Agostino

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Melissa D’Agostino brings her outrageous Lupe Dominguez persona to Comedy Bar. Photo provided by D’Agostino.


Torontoist: What will you be performing at the Gracing the Stage launch party?
Lupe has dreams of being the next Oprah Winfrey, and I think 2009 might be the year it happens! At Gracing the Stage, Lupe will be working on her audition for the grand lady of talk TV, and looking to the audience for help with the ongoing saga of her love life, of course!
How did it feel to see Lupe Dominguez be given the honor of being named one of Torontoist’s “Heroes of 2008”? And why is it that audiences connect so well with Lupe?
It was an enormous honour to be named a hero of 2008, and be included in such esteemed company on the list! 2008 was a banner year for Lupe, and the Torontoist list was the cherry atop a delicious sundae! In terms of why audiences connect so well with Lupe: Lupe works really hard to connect with them! When Adam Lazarus and I create our shows, we are very conscious of how to relate to the audience and how to truly make them a part of the experience. Lupe is unabashedly honest about her life: the good, the bad, and the saucy. I think people can relate to her struggle to find love, freedom and acceptance—always with hope that something great is on the horizon. We also always give away food, and I think that helps.
Where will Lupe go next?
Lupe may make an appearance in Toronto in the Spring, but mostly she’s taking her show on the road. She’ll make an appearance at the Full Bawdy Comedy Show in Hamilton (April), our hit show Lupe: Undone has been invited to the UNO Festival in Victoria BC (May) and we’ll be debuting some new material in a workshop performance as part of the Festival of Ideas and Creation at Canstage (June). And of course, she’ll likely pop up on the interweb interviewing someone, or looking for something!
What do you think about Toronto’s arts and culture scene? What’s great, and what could use improvement?
I think there are a lot of great things about Toronto’s arts and culture scene, but I think we could use much improvement as well. There is a movement right now to amend some of the Canadian Actors’ Equity policies to make it easier for indie producers to get their shows up with feasible budgets and workable agreements. I think this is vital to the future of theatre in this city. There is so much exciting work coming from smaller, independent companies, and they need the opportunity to grow. I would say the most discouraging thing in this city is that it’s pretty difficult to pick up momentum and keep producing exciting work when the larger system provides more obstacles than opportunities. These smaller companies create viable work under incredible restraints: there are ways to alleviate some of the stress of this, and a CAEA amendment would be one of those ways. I also think we as artists have to continue to find ways to get people excited about live performance. The only way our work is sustainable is if there are audiences to see it: and new audiences coming into the fold. With Lupe, we try to do this by using the internet as a tool in marketing and storytelling, by engaging in a hybrid performance style that reaches out to a wide demographic, and by performing in unlikely public spaces like the Dufferin Mall. There are a lot of companies working in this way, using alternative spaces, multi-media, creative marketing. I think the larger theatres and producers in this city have to start looking to the smaller companies and recognizing the limits of certain administrative structures. How does all this new, provocative, engaging art fit into an old system of subscriptions? Does it? Does it have to? I think we have to start asking new questions. And take risks. Big, beautiful risks.

Travesties at Soulpepper

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David Storch as James Joyce in Travesties. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Anyone who went to an artsy high school or was a member of a University drama society is probably familiar with Steve Martin’s 1993 play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In it, Pablo Picasso improbably meets Albert Einstein and later, impossibly, Elvis Presley in a stereotypical Parisian brasserie and the three discuss art and politics in a light, charming, amusing way free from the any concern about plot or character.
Predating Martin’s play by about twenty years is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a piece that has surely gained more acclaim than Picasso, if most assuredly less popularity with amateur theatre groups. In Stoppard’s play, we have Vladimir Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce instead of Picasso, Einstein, and Elvis, and their common location is a Swiss library rather than a French bar, but the results are much the same. Fortunately, since it’s Stoppard instead of Martin, the play is about twice as smart. Unfortunately, since it’s Stoppard instead of Martin, the play is about twice as long.
Last night, Travesties opened Soulpepper’s 2009 season at the Young Centre (where the show will run until March 21). To be fair, the play is a good deal more complicated than Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The protagonist of the story is actually a fourth historical, if marginal, character named Henry Carr, a minor bureaucrat remotely connected to James Joyce and a production of The Importance of Being Earnest the Irish poet directed. The narrative, a hodgepodge of Shakespeare sonnets, musical numbers, and a huge amount of dialogue lifted directly from Earnest, represents the scattered (and unreliable) memories of an old and senile Carr. As one expects from Soulpepper, the cast is superb. Diego Matamoros is phenomenal as both younger and older version of Carr, demonstrating the comedic range he doesn’t always get to explore. Jordan Pettle is quite delightful as Tzara, and David Storch’s Joyce is an absolute riot. It’s a very entertaining night of theatre (if a lengthy one), and the arguments presented are always eloquently written and fabulously delivered. But they are arguments. And Travesties isn’t so much a play as it is a Master’s thesis presentation with terrific production values.

On Stage This Week

Lady in the Red Dress is a new production by fu-GEN playing at the Young Centre. The play, which runs until February 21, is a Chinese-Canadian noir mystery that mixes the aesthetics of Murakami and Frank Miller (along with a heavy dose of David Lynch). The script is sometimes messy, and the performances don’t all gel, but the design is gorgeous and Nina Lee Aquino directs the piece with a deft hand.
CanStage‘s season returns with Miss Julie: Freedom Summer, which opens tomorrow at the Bluma Appel. This new version of the Strindberg classic re-imagines Julie and Jean’s illicit affair as an interracial coupling in 1960s Mississippi. It plays until March 7.
Buddies in Bad Times’ annual Rhubarb Festival begins its final week tonight with six different performances going on in their Cabaret and Chamber spaces, featuring work by such artists as Ame Henderson, Michael Rubenfeld, Anand Rajaram, Bryce Kulak, and Evalyn Parry. The festival runs until February 22.
Toronto the Good continues at Factory Theatre. The new play about racial profiling is written by notable Toronto playwright Andrew Moodie. It runs until March 1.
Ubuntu (The Capetown Project) plays at Tarragon. This collective creation is a collaboration between South African and Canadian artists and features Holly Lewis and Michelle Monteith. Runs until March 1.

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