At the 2013 Next Stage Festival, Plays Bring Comedy, Hockey, and Music
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At the 2013 Next Stage Festival, Plays Bring Comedy, Hockey, and Music

This year's edition of the Next Stage Theatre Festival is here. We interviewed Julia Lederer, Tony Nappo, and Natasha Greenblatt about their shows.

Julia Lederer's With Love and a Major Organ opens at the Next Stage Festival tonight. Photo by Katherine Barcsay.

Next Stage Theatre Festival
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
January 2–January 13
Various times. Check website for schedule.

2013 is here, and so is the Next Stage Festival, with some (mostly) not-quite-new plays.

An initiative of the Fringe Festival, Next Stage is a juried collection of remounted shows that have already made an impression on the theatre community (not necessarily at the Fringe Festival). Oh, and there’s a heated beer tent, too.

We talked to three Next Stage participants about their shows. Would you rather see a poetic romantic comedy, the story of a self-destructive hockey brawler, or an attempt to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through live music? Read on for details about each.

With Love and a Major Organ

Julia Lederer’s comedy, With Love and a Major Organ, ranked among our very favourite shows at this summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival. We called her “lyrical flights of fancy” a “revelation.” Here, she tells us how she became so deft with comic poetry.

Torontoist: So where does this show come from?

Julia Lederer: There was a love letter contest in Walrus Magazine, a short thing I thought I’d try. So I wrote a version of the first letter in the play, and I never ended up submitting it. This was in 2009, about the time the Crapshoot series started [at Theatre Passe Muraille]. I submitted it and performed it there, and then thought, “what would be the second letter, and the third?” That led to Theatre Kairos’ playwright’s unit, HotScrawls, and working one-on-one with my dramaturge, Aynsley Moorhouse.

Tell us about your experiences in New York that helped the show—and yourself—develop such a funny voice.

Well, I didn’t train as an actor in university. I trained as a writer, and a director, and studied theatre academically. I wanted to know what it was like to really train as a performer, and I also wanted to leave Toronto for a little while. So I got into this conservatory program in New York, just six weeks over the summer, and as I was doing it I realized, “Oh, there’s a reason people do this for longer than six weeks!” So I stayed for almost a year, studying at HB Studio, and at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and Magnet Theatre, and Primary Stages. It was an opportunity to try all of the things that terrified and excited me—like my last semester there, I took “improv for musical theatre” at Magnet, and Chekov scene study at Primary Stages.

In New York, I learned different ways to work as an actor, and I got to practice being an actor, which I’d never done. I’d auditioned and been in shows, but never worked on myself. So that really helped give me the confidence to write the role in the show for myself.

As for the show, I felt like what I was interested in writing was different from what I’ve seen here. With the size of the community here, and the funding available, and the audience for theatre, there’s only a certain number of shows that will be produced. In New York, it felt like there was anything and everything to see, which was inspiring. And I was so lucky with the Fringe here, ’cause it felt like it was the only place in Toronto we could try it—which is kind of what the festival is for. And I was so lucky to get this cast and team, people I knew and trusted.

I figured it wasn’t a horrible script, otherwise [director] Andrew [Lamb], and Martha [Ross], and Robin [Archer] wouldn’t have agreed to do it. But it was still a huge surprise to me that it went as well as it did.

Besides Aynsley, when did you start putting together that team?

I asked Andrew and Rob [Watson] at Theatre Awakening for advice when I was on the Fringe waitlist and still thinking I might not get in. And I didn’t even think to ask Andrew to direct—I thought he’d be too busy—but when I sent them the script for dramaturgical advice he said, “I don’t know if you have a director yet, but I think it’s really funny, and I’d be interested.” And I said, “Wait, what?!”

I’d had Martha in mind for a long time, on the other hand, as I started writing it while assistant directing on More Fine Girls, and was watching her every day. And I honestly just wanted to see her on stage more.

Sudden Death

Tony Nappo and MJ Shaw of Sudden Death. Photo by Max B. Telzerow.

Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman’s Sudden Death is one of the few Next Stage shows that’s brand new. Tonight’s opening-night audience will see the first full performance on the play’s ambitiously designed set. Tony Nappo plays the self-destructive protagonist. We asked the plain-spoken actor, who’s beefed up considerably for his role, to describe the show to us.

You play a real person in Sudden Death, right?

Tony Nappo: I’m playing John Kordic, who was an NHL enforcer. At one point, he played for the Leafs, and he won the Stanley Cup with Montreal. He probably wouldn’t have made it to the NHL on talent alone, but he was an amazing fighter, in the age of the goon, when Chris Nilan and Wendall Clark and Bob Probert were around.

The story of his death is the arena of the play. And I mean that literally and metaphorically. Jenna McCutchen’s done an amazing job with the design of the hotel room and hockey rink. It’s the night of his death. He died in a hotel room in Quebec, post-career, pumped up on steroids, cocaine, and booze. The cops were called, he fought ten of them for twenty minutes before they cuffed him. And then his heart exploded.

Ultimately, the play’s about addiction. Charlotte has chosen this guy, and the night of his death, and the structure of a hockey game—first, second, and third period—and added vaudevillian play-by-play announcers (played by Greg Gale and Andrew Shaver, who’re really fucking funny), and Layne Coleman as his junior A coach, a Faustian figure. Kordic’s deal with the devil was that he became a notorious goon to become an NHL player.

You played another retiring pro athlete recently too, on film.

Yeah, Rob Wells of Trailer Park Boys, and I play tag-team wrestlers in a film that was shot in Newfoundland, called Beat Down. His daughter gets into wrestling, and I take her under my wing. In the film, my character has milked his low-level fame as far as possible, and is ready to get off the road. But Kordic—he was ready to do anything to keep playing, and he was so fucked up. I met Chris Nilan at a screening of this documentary, The Last Gladiators, and asked him about Kordic, and he told me how Kordic’s father wouldn’t speak to him, because he thought the fighting was shameful. Most dads would be happy to see their son win a Stanley Cup, right? But also, Kordic’s parents would call team managers and tell them to stop paying their son, because he was spending all his money on drugs, and they were worried he was gonna kill himself. Which he basically did.

I was a boxer when I was younger, and I’ve played hockey all my life. I play these days with Dave Bidini’s team, the Morning Stars, in a league for actors, musicians, comics, etc., called the Good Times Hockey League. And God knows I’ve seen my share of drugs in both worlds. So I think I can understand what Kordic was going through. I don’t have to invent much to play this role.

The Peace Maker

Harveen Sandhu and Rebecca Auerbach tackle peace in the Middle East via music in The Peace Maker. Photo by Amy Siegel.

Natasha Greenblatt’s The Peace Maker has been seen in progress all around town over the past few years, but Next Stage marks the first full production of the playwright’s ambitious project, which uses a live band (including actor-musicians) and large cast to tell the story of a teacher who tries to bring Palestinians and Israelis together using music, with unexpected results.

Torontoist: So The Peace Maker has had quite a journey to its present version, yes?

Natasha Greenblatt: I’ve been working on it for four years. In 2009, I went to Israel on a birthright trip—a free trip offered by the government (and private donors) to discover your heritage and get in touch with your Jewishness. And I spent two months after that in the West Bank with an organization called Project Hope, teaching drama in refugee camps, and in the city, to young women, old women, to kids under fifteen. It was a very intense and inspiring experience, and I started writing at the end of it.

When I came back home, Andy McKim asked me if I had anything for the Buzz Festival at Theatre Passe Muraille. And I sort of bullshitted, “well, I’ve got this piece…” And then I had to really work at it. I presented 15 minutes at Buzz, and did five more readings, each longer, until we had the whole thing. All the readings helped immensely—having an audience, seeing how they react.

And you realized pretty early on this wasn’t going to be a one-woman show.

Ha! Yes. It started with four actors, and then I added two more, and an actor/musician, and then it snowballed. There’s now seven musicians, on top of six actors, three of whom play music too. The show’s in part about how music is a universal language, and the main character hopes it’ll help create peace in the Middle East. Obviously, it’s not that easy.

Of course, I’ve thought a lot about the politics of the show. But you don’t have to know much about the issues. A lot of it is about her search for her own identity, trying to define herself as an activist and human being.

CORRECTION: January 3, 2013, 10:00 AM This post originally gave an incorrect credit for the photograph of Harveen Sandhu and Rebecca Auerbach. The correct person has now been credited. We regret the error.