A Rose-Coloured Window on Toronto
Soulpepper Academy’s Gregory Prest is a bike courier with a secret, and Karen Rae straddles delightful and deranged in Window on Toronto. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
It’s not often that a love poem is touching, romantic, hilarious, disturbing, sickening, eerie, fantastical, and just plain weird. All at once. Unless, of course, it’s a love poem about Toronto. Then, yeah, sure. Totally.
“Sometimes you’re just walking down the street and you listen to a violin, and it’s playing so well on the corner. You know, the street players can be so talented, so poetical…All the events you see at once are layered, it’s completely surrealistic. They fly like the bird,” László Marton gushes in his Hungarian accent. With a home base in Budapest, directing at least one play with Soulpepper every year for the past 13 has made Toronto practically like a second home. So much so, in fact, that his most recent project with the theatre company, Window on Toronto, is a testament to his affection for the city, the people, and their quirks that give it life.
As one half of a Double Bill opening at Soulpepper next Monday, Window on Toronto spans one year, four seasons, and hundreds of stories in a rapid 45 minute–long “merry-go-round” (as Marton puts it) of Toronto’s personalities⎯the too-trusting tourist, the frat boy, the new Canadian, the manic mogul, the vagrant that only speaks in curse words, and more⎯seen through the one vessel that comes across such a wide variety of characters every day: the 4’6″ by 4’6″ square window of a food vendor truck at Nathan Phillips Square.
“We were given the proposal to choose a place that defines Toronto. We thought that Nathan Phillips Square was a kind of nexus, a nucleus of all the different places, the heartbeat that pumps the lifeblood of the city,” says Jason Patrick Rothery, a member of the Soulpepper Academy, a collective of emerging theatrical artists training with the Soulpepper company, which is performing Window on Toronto as a finale to their residency.
The project has been through several stages of workshops over the past two-and-a-half years (the first one was when this class of the Academy began their session, so it has come full circle); this is the third time they’ve revisited it.
As the Academy’s playwright, Rothery has taken on the role of the world’s most patient hot dog vendor, spending most of his time with his back to the audience as his fellow members change through costume, age, mentality, income, ethnicity, profession, and emotion at breakneck speed. “There’s a strong feeling of urgency, that something’s happening to them. There’s a brief flash, and then they’re gone,” Rothery says. The challenge in these brief snapshots is creating recognizable, fully-formed characters in an instant, to provide a wide perspective on the city as a whole through the narrowest of viewpoints.
Toronto’s experiencing a surge of verbatim theatre, using in-depth research and interviews to create a true representation of a social issue or story. And Window on Toronto is definitely grounded in the reality of the streets of Toronto and the Academy’s experiences themselves (“Any actor can draw upon a wealth of customer service experience,” jokes Rothery about his role as the vendor). But it doesn’t attempt to be a work of journalism.
“I wanted to teach them to think about new ways to think about theatre, and invent a new language for theatre as an art,” says Marton. For this show, their new language is a mixture of documentary and improv. With the characters and concept based in fact, the actors are free to turn it into fantasy.
“There is no text here, just the ability of observing and bringing back an emotional memory,” Marton explains. This is where Marton’s love letter becomes a poem⎯with the freedom of improv, the characters can range from the uncomfortably real, like a father breaking down over the stresses of parenthood, to the beautifully surreal: a self-playing violin that prompts a multi-piece orchestra on the sidewalk.
“Toronto has such a sense of humour. It’s sometimes really funny, warm, and embracing for a foreigner,” raves Marton, a statement that might stir a snort or snicker from a local, accustomed to pounding the pavement every day, eyes to the ground and headphones in our ears, trying to shut out the very characters that Window on Toronto puts on display. At first, we’re skeptical of the rose-coloured tint of this food vendor window, but as Rothery recounts his destination-less wanderings when he first moved here from Calgary two-and-a-half years ago to join the Soulpepper Academy, we begin to remember the initial intoxication we felt when we stumbled across unexpected neighbourhoods, street artists and musicians, or a moment of unsolicited kindness.
“There’s a magical reality bubbling under the surface,” Rothery says. And through a 4’6″ by 4’6″ opening, we may be able to catch a glimpse.
Window on Toronto will be performed alongside (re)Birth: E. E. Cummings in Song , with previews on now and opening night on May 9 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street). Tickets from $28-$65, available at 416-866-8666 or by visiting www.soulpepper.ca