Little Death, a poetic play about an ailing man’s erotic quest, helps launch Why Not Theatre’s ambitious RISER Project.
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
April 17-May 3
For a low-budget indie production in an intimate venue, Daniel Karasik’s Little Death has some big names attached to it. The show, opening this Saturday at the Theatre Centre as part of the RISER Project, boasts an impressive cast that includes Shaw Festival leading lady Nicole Underhay and veteran actress Kate Hennig, whose credits include starring on Broadway in Billy Elliot the Musical. How did playwright Karasik and his director, Zachary Florence, manage to snag those heavy-hitters for the premiere of a new play in the centre’s 90-seat BMO Incubator?
“We asked,” Karasik says simply. “When we put out a call for submissions for auditions, we had a couple of actors reach out and express interest—Kate and Nicole. Neither of whom I knew personally,” he adds. “I think the Theatre Centre has a certain prestige and appeal, even though we are in the little incubator space.”
He’s being modest. Clearly, Hennig and Underhay weren’t just drawn to the venue, but also to the script. Little Death—the title is a pun on the French slang for orgasm, la petite mort—is a stark, emotionally charged play that pits mortality against fidelity.
Alex (played by Christopher Stanton), a young husband faced with a possibly fatal illness, spends his evenings in a hotel bar, seeking sex and solace with strangers. While his wife Brit (Underhay) knows and reluctantly consents to his philandering, it puts an unbearable strain on their marriage and forces them to finally confront their feelings for each other. It’s a lean, rhythmical piece of writing, in which the tense domestic scenes between Alex and Brit play counterpoint to Alex’s sexual dalliances with other women, including a magazine editor (Shauna Black), a film starlet (Elizabeth Tanner), and an older married woman (Hennig).
The play is a very personal one for Karasik. The 28-year-old playwright—who is also a published poet, as Little Death’s lyrical style suggests—began working on it while dealing with health issues of his own and breaking up with a girlfriend. “It’s not strictly autobiographical,” he cautions, “but it definitely has a strong emotional grounding in some of my experiences around intimacy and the fear of death.”
Karasik wrote Little Death during a playwrights’ retreat at the Stratford Festival and the script helped gain him entrance into the Young Writers Programme at London’s legendary Royal Court Theatre two summers ago. Since then, the piece has received readings and workshops at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, the Yale School of Drama, and The New Group in New York. Feeling it was finally ready to be staged, Karasik was initially planning to rent the Incubator and bankroll a production himself.
“I was going to do it on a shoestring,” he says. “I was hoping I’d be able to attract some interesting people to do it, a strong cast and creative team, but I didn’t have any funding.”
That’s when the Theatre Centre steered him in the direction of Ravi Jain. As it happened, Jain, indefatigable artistic director of the ubiquitous Why Not Theatre, was in the midst of organizing the RISER Project, a new producing model designed to help emerging indie theatre artists mount their work without losing their shirts. The project partners them with senior companies to help provide the funding and resources that make a production more affordable.
Jain says the project addresses a Catch-22 in local theatre. “In Toronto, there’s not really support for the artist who nobody knows yet, who doesn’t have a body of work,” he says. “But to build that body of work is so expensive and so hard to do on your own.”
The senior partners in the RISER Project—including the Theatre Centre—assist with cash, rehearsal space, and publicity. It’s an investment, Jain explains, likening it to a theatrical Dragons’ Den. “It allows them the initial conversation to say, ‘I really liked your show. I’d like to present it in my season.’ Or, ‘I’d like to invest in it more to develop it further.’ It becomes an opportunity to have those conversations that are difficult to establish with senior companies.”
Why Not Theatre tried what Jain calls a “beta test” of the project last spring, when it presented three productions in repertory with senior partner Theatre Smith-Gilmour. This year, it’s taking four shows and presenting them in pairs. Little Death and Mouthpiece, a vocal/physical theatre piece by Amy Nostbakken (The Big Smoke) and Norah Sadava, share the stage from April 17 to May 3. Mahmoud, Iranian writer-actor Tara Grammy’s 2012 Toronto Fringe hit, and Paolozzapedia, a solo about Italian identity from physical comedian Adam Paolozza (The Double), will run May 13 to 24.
The senior companies involved this year are fu-GEN Theatre, Necessary Angel, and Nightwood Theatre. Jain says the project was able to expand due to a $100,000 grant from the Toronto Arts Council‘s new Open Door program. “That support was really significant because it told us that people were really looking for another way of producing [theatre] in the city.”
Karasik, who self-produced his last play, The Biographer, in 2013, says the RISER Project has come at the right time. “The cost of producing theatre independently in Toronto has gone up quite considerably since I started doing it outside of the festivals about six years ago,” he notes. He pegs the budget for Little Death at about $18,000, of which he’s put up $5,000.
He points out that there are no artists’ fees—the actors and creative team will get paid out of the box office revenue. “So we’re all trying to hustle tickets,” he says, laughing. That means Little Death really is a labour of love for all concerned.
“To produce in this city as an artist is a losing venture probably 80 per cent of the time,” Jain adds frankly. But he hopes the RISER Project will improve those odds, while allowing what he jokingly calls the “one per cent” of Toronto’s well-funded theatre companies to invest in promising upstarts. “The hypothesis we’re testing is whether the ecology of the theatre community will function better with just a greater flow of money from the top to the bottom.”