Theatre as an Incendiary Device
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Theatre as an Incendiary Device

Amy Nostbakken talks about bringing Ballad of the Burning Star, a controversial drag musical about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to Toronto.

Amy Nostbakken, front, and Nir Paldi, left, in a scene from Theatre Ad Infinitum's Ballad of the Burning Star  Photo by Alex Brenner

Amy Nostbakken, front, and Nir Paldi, left, perform in Theatre Ad Infinitum’s critically acclaimed but controversial Ballad of the Burning Star. Photo by Alex Brenner.

Ballad of the Burning Star
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
May 19-24
$19.99 – $49.99

Tall and striking, with an elastic body and vocal cords to match, international theatre artist Amy Nostbakken first grabbed the eyes and ears of Toronto audiences in 2012 with The Big Smoke, an unusual dramatic monologue about an artist’s breakdown, in which she sang, a cappella, pretty much the entire text. Last month, she was back to premiere Mouthpiece, a high-energy vocal/physical duet with Norah Sadava, in which the pair eagerly ripped apart outdated female stereotypes.

But now the Toronto-born Nostbakken is poised to give us a bigger, even more unusual, and far more controversial show. She’s one of the co-creators and performers of Ballad of the Burning Star, a musical theatre piece that not only takes on the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but dares to do it in the form of a drag cabaret.

The U.K-based production, making its North American debut at the Theatre Centre May 19 to 24, arrives draped in critical notices as dazzling as the gold lamé outfit worn by its hero/heroine, a drag queen named Star. But it has also seen its share of detractors, both Jewish and Arab, who’ve harangued the cast, staged boycotts, and issued threats. A satire that uses its drag act as a cheeky vehicle to examine—in the words of veteran Guardian critic Lyn Gardner—”the collective conflicted psyche of Israel,” the show might well be asking for trouble. But Nostbakken describes it as a sincere work based on the personal experiences of Israeli-born actor-director Nir Paldi, who plays the incendiary Star.

First seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, Ballad of the Burning Star was created by Theatre Ad Infinitum, of which Nostbakken, Paldi, and George Mann are co-founders. The three are graduates of l’École Jacques Lecoq, Paris’s famed physical-theatre school, and started Ad Infinitum in London before Nostbakken hopped back across the pond to resettle in Toronto. The company began gaining international attention with solos like Nostbakken’s The Big Smoke, which was directed by Paldi and picked up various awards and nominations, including a Dora nod for its Toronto run. But Burning Star is, in Nostbakken’s words, “our biggest, most ambitious production to date,” with six singer-dancers (including Nostbakken) as Star’s militarized backup group, the Starlets, and an onstage musician wryly dubbed Camp David (Pete Aves).

The show’s big ambitions also include trying to cut through the rigid attitudes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide—a task not made easy in Canada, which under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has become one of Israel’s most adamant supporters. Indeed, the federal government was just recently accused of suggesting it might use hate-crime laws against protest groups that advocate boycotting the Jewish state.

Chatting with Torontoist by phone, Nostbakken discussed bringing the play to town, its reception in the U.K., and what its creators hope to achieve.

Torontoist: Your gig at the Theatre Centre will be the first time you’ve performed Ballad of the Burning Star outside the U.K. How does that feel?

Amy Nostbakken: It’s exciting. I’m so interested to see how the audience reacts, if only because there’s such a large Jewish population in Toronto and such a small one in the U.K. You can feel it when you’re performing, where people get certain things—you can feel the Jewish population in the audience, how big it is, depending on what the reaction is.

What sort of reactions have you had to the show when you’ve done it in Britain?

We’ve done two national U.K. tours and the reaction has been overwhelming. We’ve tried to make a piece that avoids the political debate by focusing on the human story. It’s a very complex human story, about the conflict inside one Israeli man’s head, his inner identity crisis, which hopefully reflects the complexities of what it’s like to be born in Israel, to be Israeli, and the discord between being a victim and being the persecutor. We have tried to balance it. Of course, it’s from the point of view of an Israeli, but we’ve tried to give the Palestinian side, too. What’s been interesting is that we’ve sparked reactions from both sides, negatively as well as positively.

What kind of negative response has it received?

One of the most vivid memories I have was in Edinburgh. At one point in the show, Nir walks into the audience, and this time a man grabbed his costume and started yelling at him about how what the play says about [assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak] Rabin is propaganda. And Nir didn’t miss a beat. In character as Star he said, “Oh, that’s very interesting, darling. Why don’t you meet me for a drink after the show and we’ll talk about it?” Then, at the end of the show, after we’d made our bows, the same man stood up and started yelling again about how it was propaganda. At which point, someone else in the audience shot back, “No, mate, it’s a play.” So I’m wondering how vocal the audience will be here.

Have you had any actual protests outside the theatres?

On tour in the U.K. we’ve had threats of protests from pro-Palestinians and we’ve had security measures in the theatre, but nothing that’s culminated in violence. And when we performed in a Jewish cultural centre in London, there were boycotts through the Israeli embassy. So we’ve stirred up both sides. And when we were running at the Battersea Arts Centre, we had a symposium afterwards where a Palestinian actor—who, like us, had trained at l’École Jacques Lecoq—stood up and was raging and raging at us. Of course, his opinion is important and it’s important that he spoke, but he wasn’t listening. It made Nir very sad. He said it felt like being back in Israel.

Nir Paldi, right, as Star with Amy Nostbakken (floor) and other Starlets in a scene from Ballad of the Burning Star  Photo by Alex Brenner

Nir Paldi, right, as Star with Amy Nostbakken (floor) and other Starlets in a scene from Ballad of the Burning Star. Photo by Alex Brenner.

Inside its drag-show trappings, the play tells the story of a Jewish boy growing up in Israel. Is it Nir’s story?

It’s a mix. There’s a lot of autobiographical content. Like the character, Nir grew up within an Israeli settlement surrounded by occupied territory, so there’s a lot of truth in that. But the main narrative is fictional. A lot of people come up afterwards and ask the cast if it’s true or not. They really need to know. But I don’t think that’s important.

Are you Jewish yourself?

No, I’m not, and neither are most of the other company members. We’ve got two Israelis in the cast, but the others are British, Japanese, and Austrian. Almost everyone we cast in our shows has trained at Lecoq, just because we share the same vocabulary. We can work very quickly that way.

Ravi Jain is also a Lecoq grad and his company, Why Not Theatre, is one of the show’s co-presenters. Was he instrumental in bringing the production here?

Acting Up Stage came on board first. But then I was talking to Ravi about the show, and he happened to have been in discussions with [artistic director] Mitchell Marcus of Acting Up for a while, wanting to collaborate on a musical project. Then the Koffler Centre also came on board. So people seem to want us. But what’s crazy is that nobody’s seen the show. [Laughs] They’re bringing us all this way on the basis of the reviews and the feedback that we’ve gotten.

Has doing this piece changed your perception of the Israeli-Palestinian situation?

What’s happened to me is what we hope will happen with audiences at large, which is to provoke a dialogue and greatly inform people. A lot of people feel reluctant to speak about the subject because they feel they don’t know enough about it, which is a mistake. We need to be speaking about it no matter what we know, in order to spur a dialogue.

Nir is also one of my dear friends and he’d been telling me stories even before we started this project, about what it’s like growing up in Israel. He’d tell me a story about how, when he was a young boy in grade school, one of the craft projects was to decorate your gas-mask box. I remember going, “Whoa! Your what? What are you talking about?” Israelis just take war for granted; it’s part of their upbringing. Whereas war is not normal for the rest of us, especially Canadians. To see another person’s perspective and to try to understand what it’s like to grow up in a place like that is so valuable and so important for us—we want people to try to relate to it as personally as possible.

This will be your second show at the Theatre Centre this spring. Was Mouthpiece the first one you’ve created in Toronto?

Yes, we established a Toronto company [Quote Unquote Collective] for that show.

You’re originally from Toronto.

I was born here, but I was raised in Ottawa and I took my theatre degree at Concordia in Montreal. Then I went to Paris to study at Lecoq and after that I lived in England for a few years. I came back to Toronto almost four years ago and, despite myself, I fell in love with the city, so I stayed. Now I work roughly half the year in the U.K. I’m going back there in the summer to develop a new show. But I’m greatly inspired by the theatre scene in Toronto, so I want to try to work here as much as I can.