DIY Artists Raise Their City Voices
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DIY Artists Raise Their City Voices

A grassroots book of monologues celebrates Toronto artists, with no help from government grants.

The editors of City Voices: A Book of Monologues by Toronto Artists: Anila Pant, Jenna Harris, and Ronit Rubinstein. Photo by Max Telzerow.

City Voices: A Book of Monologues by Toronto Artists
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
December 19, 7 p.m.

Between theatre-board misbehaviour, censorship, and indefinite hiatuses, 2012 has been a rocky year for Toronto artists. Plus, it all began with Toronto’s conservative municipal government considering a 10 per cent arts-funding cut, even though we’re still working toward the goal of raising per capita funding from $18 to $25. Fortunately, those cuts—along with many more of Mayor Rob Ford’s cost-cutting objectives—were avoided, but local singer and playwright Ronit Rubinstein and her writer friends Jenna Harris and Anila Pant are still enraged.

Wanting to provide a platform for their own work and for the work of their peers, they decided to experiment with self-publishing. They sought out monologues from anyone in Toronto with something to say, and collected them into a book called City Voices: A Book of Monologues by Toronto Artists. It features some of the city’s most exciting emerging writers, like Jordan Tannahill, Kat Sandler, Jason Maghanoy, and Jessica Moss. To end a rollercoaster year, the trio is launching the book tonight at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Torontoist spoke to Rubinstein about the process.

Torontoist: Where did the inspiration for City Voices come from?

Ronit Rubinstein: I think it was a combination of a few things. First of all, it was just a realization that as a writer in the early stages of your career, there are only so many ways of getting your work out there. Another part of it, too, is that all three of the editors are Toronto transplants, so for us it was a bit of an “Aha!” moment, that suddenly we had this community of artists whose work we wanted to show off. And then part of it is just in reaction to a less-than-supportive stance that the local government has taken toward arts funding. We wanted to show that artists will keep making their work whether there are grants available or not.

So, once you decided to go the self-publishing route, how did you approach fundraising?

We actually haven’t really done any. Maybe we should have. Hopefully we’ll make it all back in book sales. I foresee that we will. But yeah, we actually didn’t do an IndieGoGo or anything like that.

So it came out of your own pocket?

Yeah, the three of us funded it. If anything it’s a sign of how much we believe in the project, because we’re all artists, so if we’re investing in it we must think it’s worthwhile.

Were you concerned at all about the idea of self-publishing?

I think it has worked both for us and against us that the three of us had no experience in the publishing industry, because we had no idea really what we were taking on, what the challenges would entail. Had we known, maybe we would have been more nervous.

I think what’s been great for us is that we’ve had so many opportunities to have huge disagreements or fallings-out, but it’s been such a wonderful experience. It was really easy to have a conversation and make decisions together. Plus, we were lucky to have Jenna’s contacts in the publishing industry, and our graphic designer helped us out a lot, too. But mostly it has been a fun and exciting project, and we were too excited to be scared…. It’s been scarily seamless.

What were the criteria for monologues?

We didn’t have any thematic requirements. All we asked is that the writer be currently living in Toronto, or have lived in Toronto at some point. We wanted it to really reflect the city. But it didn’t necessarily have to be about Toronto. We have one that is set in Jamaica, we have a British one—they’re all over the place. Another requirement we had is that it be two minutes or under in performance, and that it be intended for performance. We didn’t want something meant to be read only on a page.

And what did you get back?

Oh, everything. We’ve got a piece from J.P. Larocque’s Fringe play Gay Nerds, which is about one guy telling the tale of his friend embarrassing himself terribly at a party, and it’s in the style of Lord of the Rings. Then we’ve got the voice of a teenage girl telling the story of what may have been a sexual assault. We’ve got a great piece from a 70-year-old woman about a woman rediscovering her sexuality with her first friend with benefits, as a widow. A 13-year-old wrote one about discovering environmentalism, and she’s all fired up, but its unclear as to how much she’s actually going to do. There’s a piece from Help Yourself by Kat Sandler, which was last year’s Fringe New Play Contest winner, which is about morality.

This year in particular there has been a lot of conversation about the divide between younger artists and more established artists, with the younger generation wondering when their “time will come,” or if they should take it themselves. Do you think that influenced City Voices?

Maybe it’s just that the people who are emerging are more likely to respond to an open call, maybe they feel they need the exposure…but if we’re getting to show those people off, that’s great. Us editors, we’re in our late 20s, early 30s [Editor’s note: Rubenstein is 29], so a lot of these people are our peers. You know, it’s tough when you’re starting out. If someone got their start in theatre with this, we would be thrilled. That was the vision of the whole project. But we do have several pieces by older writers, and you wouldn’t necessarily guess which ones are which. Especially when we had a meet-and-greet with the writers and learned who wrote what, I was shocked by a lot of that.

What do you think City Voices is saying?

We didn’t really try to communicate a particular message. What I hope readers take from it is just the wealth of talent that’s in the city. If someone’s background is in theatre, maybe you’ll be exposed to someone in the poetry scene, and realize [the existence of] that pool of talent in the city as well. What I hope people take from it is that they read something, love it, and then seek out that person’s work and just start following them.

Will there be a City Voices 2 in the near future?

Everyone’s been asking us that. I don’t want to jinx anything. I’m still too involved in this one, and I want to see how this turns out. We’d need some time because this has been very all-consuming, but we had way more wonderful submissions than we could have hoped for and we turned away a lot of great work. So the Toronto community could support another one—it’s possible.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

An Excerpt From City Voices:

“Next to Him,” by Jessica Moss

Peter is sixteen-year-old student at a private all-boys high school in Toronto. He wears a uniform. Peter is a talented actor, smart, funny…special. But he needs help: anyone can see that. He’s seeking it by clandestinely meeting with Eva, a therapist who is also the mother of his friend, Ash, while simultaneously engaging in some slightly illicit behaviour with Ash himself. Here, he talks about his feelings for Eva.

Next to Him examines the relationships between three people: Ash and Peter, tenth grade students at a private boys’ school, and Eva, Ash’s mother. Both Ash and Eva are drawn to Peter in different, secret ways, even against their better judgment. What’s help, anyway? And what does it mean to be special? Next to Him was developed with the help of the Steady State Theatre Project.

PETER: I dream about her. Only her. There used to be lots of girls. All the girls. Girls I know. Girls I invented. Girls that were halfway between the girls I know and the girls I invented. Those were the best. Now I just dream her. Except it’s not just a dream, because it goes on all the time. When I’m awake. When I’m talking to other people, when I’m walking to school, when I’m answering a question, it goes on at the same time as all these things.

She’s crying. I don’t know why but something made her cry. And she sits on her bed and I find her. She doesn’t want me to see her crying but I do. And I go to her. And first she doesn’t want me, doesn’t want me to see her cry. She sees me and says, “Oh,” like people don’t ever say. People don’t say “Oh,” and “Gosh” and “Gee,” but she does, every now and then, I hear her say these black and white movie things. She says “Oh,” because she’s surprised that I’m there. And she turns her back and covers her face in her hands and says that she’s sorry.

You don’t have to be sorry.

It’s nothing. I’m just…you know. I’ll be fine.

I know. You are fine. You’re perfect.

I’m not perfect.

Yes you are.

I go and sit behind her. I’m afraid to touch her, even though it’s a dream I’m still afraid. It’s better that I’m afraid. I want her so much that I’m afraid. Little sparks in thick air. Hairs prickling up before there’s any touch.

She’s still crying.

And she can put her head right here [His chest] and there is a space for it. There is a cavity that she fills. My body has never fit perfectly into anything but it fits her. And it’s thrilling and tingling and hairs stand on end but it’s as natural as drinking from a coffee cup in my hand. Nothing has ever been this new and nothing has ever been this right.

It would be better if I were taller.

In the dream I’m taller.