From left to right: Melissa Jane Shaw, Damien Atkins, and Sophie Goulet star in Seventh Stage Theatre’s Or, at the SummerWorks Theatre Festival. Photo courtesy of Water Lilly Photography.
The core of the ever-changing SummerWorks Festival (the Music Series, previewed here, now incorporates original musicals, and its performance art component became a Playground), remains theatre: cutting-edge plays that push the envelopes of politics and play. For our guide to SummerWorks’ best bets—the festival starts on Thursday, August 5—we’ve chosen six companies who’ve produced stellar work before.
Even before the SummerWorks Festival has opened, there’s already controversy over one of the selected plays, Homegrown, and its purported sympathetic portrait of one of the accused in the Toronto 18 terrorism arrests. While SummerWorks artistic director Michael Rubenfeld disagrees vehemently with the Toronto Sun‘s knee-jerk condemnation of that play’s source material, it’s clear from our interview, a day before the furor arose, that he hoped the festival’s offerings would provoke strong reactions. “For theatre to be relevant, it should have a politic,” argues Rubenfeld, specifying that “politics doesn’t have to be about government.”
“For example, [Freya Olafson’s] AVATAR is about the politic of our need and desire to be seen—that’s a politic,” he says. “Theatre should ask people to examine perspectives other than their own, and show them other possibilities.” Rubenfeld, an accomplished actor and playwright, is participating in the festival himself this year, in Foreign Exchange, an interactive discussion encouraging audience members to ask questions of six panelists representing different races, cultures, sexual orientations, and more.
“We’re trying to have an honest conversation about diversity, race, and culture. The way we usually speak about [these issues] is littered with fear and subtext. Putting it in a theatrical context gives us permission to make mistakes we aren’t allowed to make in real life,” Rubenfeld says. “I put my foot in my mouth all the time; with Foreign Exchange, we’re doing it publicly as a social experiment, so ideally, it can provide tools to deal with ignorance.”
While the six plays profiled below may not all be as nakedly politicized, like all good art, they seem to be intent on playing with their audience’s perspectives, and have a politic firmly in mind.
If there’s one local company that’s used this year’s slate of theatre festivals to its advantage, it’s Seventh Stage Theatre. “We came to think of it as our season,” says artistic director Kelly Straughan. “We started with a collective creation [Red Queen Effect at the Next Stage Festival], then a really difficult and challenging piece [9 Parts of Desire, a harrowing show about Iraqi women that Seventh Stage self-produced], followed that up with a tiny Fringe workshop [This Is About The Push, which made Torontoist’s must see Fringe Festival list], and now, a crazy Restoration sex romp.”
That last is OR, which is making its Toronto debut at SummerWorks. The year-old script by playwright Liz Duffy Adams was first produced in New York City in November 2009. “It’s in the realm of farce; it’s a modern play, with modern language, but she has put in all these stylized elements of Restoration comedy,” says Straughan, referring to the opening and closing doors, mistaken identities, and risqué bawdiness common in English theatre in the late 1600s.
The play revolves around an imagined love triangle between Aphra Behn, England’s first noted female playwright; Nell Gwynn, a famous actress of the age; and King Charles II, who had a rumoured affair with Gwynn. “She takes these three historical characters and writes material that touches on reality, and then takes huge liberties with them,” says Straughan, revealing that the three characters become very intimate with each other.
“Even within this [sexy romp],” professes Straughan, “there’s a message about the challenges women face when they want to work and support themselves.” But while there may be a relevant message behind the play, and the sex is all simulated (with no explicit nudity) the company thinks their audience will also enjoy all the funny and tawdry bits. “There’s a lot of smooching and grabbing of parts—today, we were rehearsing how to motorboat into cleavage.”
Loving The Stranger, or How To Recognize an Invert
In Ecce Homo‘s latest production, Loving The Stranger, or How To Recognize an Invert, the nudity, and the politics around the play’s sexuality, are firmly in the spotlight. Gay artist Peter Flinsch is the subject of writer/director Alistair Newton’s exploration of how Germany’s past criminalization of homosexuality informs current homophobic laws in North America. “Peter spent his whole life painting thousands of portraits of naked men, so to do a show about him and NOT fill it with naked men? That would be an insult to him,” says Newton.
Loving the Stranger uses Ecce Homo’s signature cabaret style (and text culled entirely from found material), but it stands out as the first play they’ve produced that focuses on a hero. Flinsch, arrested in 1942 for kissing a friend at a Nazi Christmas party, was interned in a prison camp, surviving to emigrate to Canada at the end of the war. “I went to Berlin to research the show, to make connections between Paragraph 175 and Proposition 8, and asked to speak to a gay Holocaust survivor,” Newton says. “‘Well of course you’ve already spoken to Peter Flinsch?’ No, I said. ‘Oh, yes, he lives in Montreal’.” So back came Newton to meet with Flinsch—which became an urgent matter, as Flinsch was very sick.
Unfortunately, Flinsch passed away a few days before the first workshop of Loving The Stranger at the Rhubarb Festival in March; his friends and executors donated artwork for auction, to raise money for this production. “Our generation owes a debt to him and his generation,” reflects Newton. “Because I have the right to produce this work, I have a moral obligation to do so.”
Countries Shaped Like Stars
Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman in Countries Shaped Like Stars. Photo courtesy of Mi Casa Theatre.
Many of the shows in the SummerWorks festival are making their debut, but Mi Casa Theatre‘s Countries Shaped Like Stars has been building up a full head of steam for the past two years, having been performed to critical acclaim in Ottawa, New Mexico, Vancouver, and elsewhere. “We’ve done the show in living rooms, [once as a birthday present], in bars, in cultural centres, in auditoriums,” says writer/performer Emily Pearlman, “and we love it, because the show becomes different with every space.”
Pressed to describe the show, Pearlman says it’s best viewed as “a dumb magic show, on a budget.” This is not to say that the show isn’t clever, but much of the appeal comes from making adults feel like children watching the show, “marveling at the simple things.” Technically, it’s a complicated affair, made even more so when Pearlman and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Di Gaetano have to do most everything for themselves. “There’s lots of danger for us as performers when we’re running the lights and wrangling all the musical instruments.” The show has frequently been performed without a technician or stage manager, though they’ll have both at SummerWorks. “When things go wrong, it can be very exciting.”
There’s a very necessary element of audience interaction to the show, though Pearlman assures us it’s not the sort of show where audience members are routinely pulled up on stage. “We’re doing a fairy tale for adults,” she says, “and if there’s one word that describes the show best, it’s whimsy.”
“AVATAR is best described as a duet between myself and a laptop,” says creator Freya Olafson. The Winnipeg dancer and “intermedia” artist is fascinated with the self-images we create online, and incorporated extensive research of social media sites, personal blogs, and even a little bit of Chatroulette into her latest show. “I have a background in dance, but the show isn’t really a dance piece,” says Olafson (who, in addition to her extensive dance training, has an MFA in New Media). She thinks of it more as an exploration of her self-image via the prism of the technology employed.
At the time of our interview, Olafson was in North Carolina, and enthusiastic about leading a workshop with teens, creating new work, and having them cull from their own time spent online to create their avatars. She’s looking forward to returning to Toronto, however, as she has previously performed work at the Drake Hotel and the InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre.
Ride The Cyclone
Ride the Cyclone features some very creepy children, who’ve been exhorted by a mechanical fortune teller to tell their stories through song. Photo courtesy of Atomic Vaudeville.
Victoria, B.C.’s Atomic Vaudeville returns to Toronto with the follow-up to their popular hit Legoland—and it’s a musical called Ride the Cyclone. A group of school children who’ve recently been in a horrific crash at a fairground in Saskatchewan each get a chance to express their deepest desires in song, while the rest of the group accompanies them, in a fashion similar to the most recent Sweeney Todd revival on Broadway.
“We’ve had two productions already, with Intrepid Theatre, here in Victoria,” Atomic Vaudeville’s Jacob Richmond says. The cast features a number of Atomic Vaudeville regulars (when not busy with theatre productions, the AV gang also creates and performs a regular comedy showcase in their home town, a version of which appeared at Theatre Passe Muraille last year). “There’s also a few recent UVic graduates,” fills in choreographer Treena Stubel. After all, the performers are supposed to be children.
The National Theatre of the World has already racked up a long list of accolades from both the Canadian theatre community and the comedy community (two factions who, very oddly, rarely mix). They were the winners last year of the SummerWorks RBC Arts Professional Award, for their creative use of videos and other new media to create buzz for their improvised play series Impromptu Splendor, and they recently had a big hit at the Fringe Festival with their Carnegie Hall, an improvised vaudeville cabaret.
Now, the three core members of NTOTW (Matt Baram, Ron Pederson, and Naomi Snieckus) are making it even more challenging for themselves. Impromptu Splendor used a particular playwright as the basis for each exhaustively researched show, and Carnegie Hall had a set structure, but they could improvise within that structure. For Fiasco Playhouse, however, each show will be individually tailored to their guests of the day for the nightly PWYC showcase—often with just an hour or two of preparation.
“We’re going to try to work my music, conceptually, into what they’re doing,” says musician Laura Barrett, noting that the three have performed full-on improvised musicals before. Barrett, like fellow guest Bob Wiseman, has experience with SummerWorks, having been a guest in the main Music Series; as for theatrical collaboration, she’s done plenty of that too. “Sometimes things don’t move much,” Barrett says, referring to the previous improv/music gigs she’s played, “because there’s too much to pull together. But these guys are amazing. Anything could happen.”
Barrett adds that she’s excited to see some of the shows, and perform in her own. “Once you find a performer you have a kindred spirit with, it doesn’t matter what medium they work in—you just glom together to make something happen.”
SummerWorks runs from Thursday, August 5 until Sunday, August 15. SummerWorks’s Theatre site has the full lineup and daily schedule.