Friday, 12 August 2016

A Moment of Silence--Lost in Translation?

by Mohammad Yaghoubi
Nowadays Theatre
Playing at SummerWorks 2016

Shiva wakes up to find she has been asleep for three years. In that time, the world around her has changed drastically. Her friends and family seem different. Strangers act oddly. It’s Iran in 1980 and she has just slept through the Islamic Revolution. For the next ten years, Shiva continues to fall asleep for years at a time. Each time she wakes up there’s a new change she has to try to grasp: the war with Iraq, a series of murders of dissident artists  as well as transformations in her own family. Meanwhile, the playwright creating Shiva’s story begins to receive phone calls threatening his life.

"A Moment of Silence" is written by the award-winning, playwright, director and screenwriter, Mohammad Yaghoubi, and has been translated and performed in several languages. The play makes its Canadian debut at SummerWorks 2016 and is the first English-language of Nowadays Theatre. I haven't read the text, but considering its accolades on the international theatre scene, I think there must be something lost in translation because the production I saw recently failed on several levels.

The use of surtitles for an English-Language play baffled me. As the captions were stage directions, I assumed that they were a deconstructionist tool used to reference the act of writing, but their use was inconsistent throughout the performance. At one point, there is even a captioned footnote about a writer who died in Canada. Why? I don't know. The best use of the surtitles was in letting us know what year it is when Shiva wakes up, but even then, the titles didn't appear for the last year.

I'm sure that in the original work, Shiva must come across as confused and angry at her circumstances. For better or ill, life is roiling by her, and she has no way of determining her fate; she can't live her life, only react to her situation upon waking. Each time she awoke, I hoped for some connection to her plight, and each time the actor let down me down. The anger was there, but where was the despair, the loneliness, the frustration and fear? This production offered a strident, one-note Shiva who bored instead of engaged me.

The programme description (above) indicates that the playwright is male, but here, the character is female (Shirin) married to Jimmy, a taxi driver. This adds to the play's references about the changing social restrictions imposed upon women after the Revolution (from short skirts to mandatory hijabs; justification for driving with no male relative in the car), but does little else. I should have empathized strongly with the female writer's initial defiance and eventual fear of the terrorizing phone calls she receives over the years, but again, the emotions just weren't there. Firstly, the actors have no chemistry as a couple in a long-term relationship and, secondly, the voice acting on the telephone calls wasn't convincingly menacing.

"A Moment of Silence" should have resonated with the importance of its subject matter; instead I ( and other theatregoers) couldn't leave the theatre fast enough. I am always recommending Iranian films to my friends and readers/listeners, and had hoped to do the same with this play. Sadly, frustratingly, I cannot. I will, however, seek out the text so that I can compare what I have seen to what is intended. It's a play in high regard, after all!

If you've already bought a ticket, please do leave a comment about your experience. If you haven't purchased a ticket, please support another SummerWorks performance instead.

If You Must...
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street (south of Queen, north of King)

Saturday, August 13, 3:30 pm
Sunday, August 14, 2:45 pm
$15 General Admission, no latecomers

Images Source

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

d'bi.young anitafrika on BLEEDERS at Summerworks

d'bi.young anitafrika, mother to moon and phoenix,
dub poet, playwright, actor, director, educator
My chat with d'bi.young anitafrika about the final part of the Orisha Trilogy, SummerWorks and running The Watah Theatre.

donna g: What has it meant for you to return to SummerWorks?

d'bi:  SummerWorks has always been my festival of choice because of the love and solidarity that the team puts into the process of curating the festival. It is an accessible space that welcomes all villages to witness and participate in the story. It is a festival by the people, for the people. It is supportive. It is fun. The quality of work presented is deep. Being a part of the magic again this year has been a dream come true. I believe that storytelling is for the healing of the people. That philosophy methodology is evidenced in the theatre festival and it is an honor to be associated with SummerWorks. 

donna g: In watching bleeders, some might say that this final work in your Orisha Trilogy doesn't quite fit. It is, after all, a futuristic dub opera. What's your response to this perception?

d'bi: My committment is to create 3 pieces of storytelling that are stylistically very different. It excites me to see that Esu Crossing The Middle Passage, which featured three storytellers on stage, and She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt , which featured two performers on stage are so very different from Bleeders which features thirteen performers on  stage. The subject matter however is deeply interconnected through all three pieces of work as I attempt to create a deeply intertwined triptych. The Orisha Trilogy as a body of work explores Black identity and it's complex expressions of divinity, gender, sexuality, and the erotic. Each play is set in a different landscape. Esu Crossing is set in the past aboard a slave ship in The Atlantic Ocean, She Mami Wata is set in present-day Jamaica in a strip club and church and Bleeders is set in future Ontario in the core of the earth. The landscapes reinterpret the triangular journey of Black folks, voyaging from Africa to the Caribbean to North America under the influence and protection of The Orishas. Bleeders specifically deals with environmental issues, while Esu Crossing and She Mami Wata deal with Racism and Homophobia respectiveley. However the entire trilogy is drawing attention to the intersectionality of all issues of oppression. It makes complete sense to me that my work grows not only in complexity but also in size and aesthetic. I have always envisioned that I would create large scale political dub opera theatre, as that was what I witnessed as a child growing up in Jamaica. I feel like I have wet my feet with Bleeders and the intention is to continue growing in that direction.

donna g:Yo ur cast includes members of the Watah Theatre, but also a couple of actors who have only been with the company for three weeks! The acting is seamless. What methods did you use to achieve such unity?

d'bi:In all my work I use the Anitafrika Method with the Sorplusi Principles. The Method is a ground-breaking self-actualization, creativity, and leadership process for artists, instigators, educators and change-makers from all walks of life. Sorplusi was inspired by the seminal dub theory work of my mother Anita Stewart and the dub theatre work of my mentor ahdri zhina mandiela. The method provides an intersectional anti-oppressive framework, rooted in creative discovery for self and collective empowerment. The acronym S.O.R.P.L.U.S.I represents the principles of Self-Knowledge, Orality, Rhythm, Political Content &Context, Language, Urgency, Sacredness and Integrity which the practitioner explores through their five bodies: the Physical, the Mental, the Emotional, the Creative and the Spiritual. During Sorplusi sessions practitioners are challenged to uncover their deepest integrities and are invited to continually ask the questions Who am I? How am I? What is my purpose? Supported by the method through a range of meditations, regression exercises, physical, theatrical, literary and leadership activities, each practitioner is guided through a sacred process of uncovering their own empathetic eco-system of accountability and responsibility existing between them and the society they mirror; developing a unique critical-analytical, self-reflective, oppression-aware life-lens. 

donna g:Playing animals can come off as comic rather than dramatic, but everyone did a credible job of bringing us into their world. What made you select those particular animals for the story?--or were the animals selected based on each actors strength?

d'bi: I chose eight animals who are superstars in the mythological; animals who are celebrated in indigenous traditions globally and who have so much to teach us about our own humanity. Anansi the Spider, Coyote the trickster, Snake the feminine and the phallic, Monkey the signifier, Lion the powerful, Buffalo the keeper of life and death, Crow the storyteller and Elephant the wise. The actors chose the animals they felt most drawn to. Additionally each actor was given an Orisha as well as a Sorplusi Principle and Sorplusi body to explore. These elements formed the basis of their characters. The actors were encouraged to research mythologies that featured both their animals and Orishas and to bring that knowledge into their character work. After so much homework, I was absolutely innerwhelmed at the way they brought these creatures to life. 

donna g: Once again, you're collaborating with the phenomenal Waleed Abdulhamid. How would you describe the creative process that has developed between the two of you over the years?

d'bi: Simply put, I love Waleed.  He is the embodiment of mentorship. He is gentle and direct. He is compassionate and empathetic. He is disciplined and passionate. He is brilliant and genius. And he is humble. Through him I learn everyday how to be an artist and a human being. Each project, moment that we spend together deepens my understanding of his own creative process and its impact on my own developing ethos. He demands so much of me creatively, intellectually, politically, and spiritually; he asks that I grow constantly and sometimes I resist, the way a little sister resists being taught how to ride a bike by he elder brother. Sometimes I throw tantrums, partly because I know he will be patient with me through them and partly because he spoils me a bit. I am so deeply greatful to the ancestors for arranging this meeting in this lifetime. I am working with a master artist who mirrors the deep humanity that I am working towards. Our creative process is wrapped up in everything that we are and we work together like water in the oceans. Waleed has made it possible for me to grow in the direction of Dub Opera. I describe this new work as a Dub Opera, a term I did not coin, but which I am (re)defining as a new threatrical genre representing a meeting place of Jamaican Pantomime, Dub Poetry, and Opera. Dub Opera is large scale theatrical/political spectacle with mythology and magick at its core, ridding Reggae riddims while telling a story through music.

donna g: After the performance you mentioned the difficulty of The Watah Theatre in obtaining sustainable funding. Could you expand on this? 

d'bi:  I am a child of the village of Toronto. I am so humbled by the fact that my own personal work as an artist receives an incredible amount of support. In fact I have been able to run The Watah Theatre from what I earn as an artist because my work gets such incredible support from the people. I think it is important to note however, that the kind of support The Watah Theatre is not getting, is institutional support. Institutional support is very different from the ongoing solidarity we experience from the community. The community is and has always been with us. But I must share with you that the pervasiveness of deeply institutionalized systems of racial discrimination makes it so that First Nations, Black and POC arts initiatives and companies like The Watah Theatre routinely receive disproportionately less or no funding resulting in a shorter life-span and forced closure. This reality makes building and sustaining an institution for Black people very very very very very very very difficult! Of about fifteen grants, we have been successful with three. However, I am not about to give up! My expectation is that there are members of our community who will support developing strategies for Watah to not only survive but thrive because they believe deeply in what we represent and in the work that we produce. There are people amongst us who are moneyed and who also have a great heart. Until the institutions change and open up access, we will continue to work on self-sustaining strategies. A project like Bleeders, I do believe will take care of itself, because it provides an immediate sense of gratification through its storytelling and people will support the project for this reason.  

donna g: You have also stated that charging tuition is not an option. Why?

d'bi: The Watah Theatre providing tution-free artist residencies to Black artists is my attempt at supporting artists who have something crucial to share with our world. So far we have had over 100 artists come through our doors in the Distillery District yet our funding has been sparce. We are currently running a funding campaign to help secure our home and to continue to contribute to the cultural landcape that so desperately needs the voices of Black artists.

BLEEDERS (Orisha Trilogy 3) A Dub Opera
by d'bi.young anitafrika
Presented by: The Watah Theatre

The Theatre Centre Mainspace
1115 Queen Street West (just east of Dovercourt)
Tickets: $15
Wed. August 10th9:15 PM - 10:45 PM
Friday August 12th7:45 PM - 9:15 PM
Sunday August 14th3:15 PM - 4:45 PM

Photo Credits: The Watah Theatre, and Dee Kofri|

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Director John Shooter on The Pitchfork Disney

I recently had the opportunity to see The Pitchfork Disney, directed by John Shooter. The play centres around a pair of siblings (Hayley and Presley Stray), living in a squalid East London flat, reminiscing about their dead parents while consisting on a diet of chocolate, mystery meds, and fear. To pass the time the siblings invent stories that are fantastical and nightmarish. Intruding on the Hansel and Gretel pair is Cosmo Disney, a circus-like character who possesses a twisted charisma that charms yet frightens Presley, and, later, Cosmo's sidekick, Pitchfork Cavalier.

donna g: The Pitchfork Disney is such a departure from Abigail's Party and Talking Heads. What precipitated the move in Precisely Peter Productions selecting Philip Ridley's play as its next theatrical offering?

John Shooter: When thinking of our mandate, l didn't want to be pigeonholed into doing specific types of plays, from a certain country, about a particular theme. I wanted to stage a diverse range of plays which interest me. The thing is, l don't really find them so different. In fact, one common theme between all five productions l've brought to Toronto so far do, l feel, have a common thread. They all give a voice to those in society who are usually discarded and are never listened to in normal circumstances. They are about human frailties and talk about the struggles and anxieties of living in a modern society. All the plays were written at least fifteen years ago but they are still bang up to date with their themes; and, of course, they are all laced with sharp witted humour which l love.

donna g: This play and the whole "in yer face" genre had a significant impact on British theatre in the 1990's. Did this movement effect you at all? What impact do you think this play will have on Toronto audiences in 2016?

Nikki Duval and Justin Miller
John Shooter: I would say that the explosion of "in-yer-face" theatre was a changing and exciting time in British theatre. I was a young drama school student at the time and we all loved this wave of plays as they were exciting and invigorating and spoke to our generation. We could relate to them. Philip Ridley is considered the most innovative living playwright. I would certainly agree with that. It is a gift to work on this rare gem of a play. As one audience member commented, it is both disgusting and beautiful.

donna g: For the most part this is a three hander with a fourth character making an entrance very late on the play. Could you please share your selection process for the cast? This is not an easy piece of theatre for any of your cast members.

John Shooter: To be honest, although the play is weighted (in terms of dialogue) on three characters, I see it very much as a four handed as the character who arrives last is crucial to the play and the whole experience. In fact, it was that character, Pitchfork Cavalier (Yehuda Fisher) that I cast first. I'd met Yehuda last year when he helped out on Brimstone and Treacle. I knew that I wanted an actor with excellent physical and vocal comedy skills and knew that Yehuda would be perfect. And perfect he is in every way.

I had met Nikki Duval last year (when l stalked her) through her agent, Kish Iqbal of Gary Goddard!  She's a very special actor and l had this urge to work with her. As soon as l heard her read, l knew that she was the one. She's so wonderful and has me in stitches.  I then cast Ayinde Blake. Again, he walked through the door, said three words and l knew he was exactly what l was looking for. He's a superb, lovely guy.

Ayinde Blake (left ) & Justin Miller
So, believe it or not, l had cast the roles of Hayley, Pitchfork and Cosmo before l'd found our Presley. The reason being that, l knew that these three actors would be snapped up quickly and l didn't want to risk losing them! Then I came across  Justin Miller. I'd seen Justin in Tom Arthur Davis' production of Birth (for which he was nominated for a DORA award). We read together (with me reading Hayley and Cosmo) and as soon as l heard him, l thought immediately, he's the one l'd been looking for. What a wonderful and lovely guy he is.

donna g: You've staged plays at the historic Campbell House and Theatre Passe Muraille? What lead you to an obscure location in Kensington Market?

John Shooter: I was looking for a venue which suited the play. I wanted to find an area which was alive with a creative buzz but laid back and accessible at the same time. As soon as l walked into Double Double Land, l knew that this would be the perfect venue. Daniel Vila and the other guys who work there have been amazing. They've really made us welcome and have allowed us to make the place our own for the duration of the run. I love this venue.

donna g: Could you please talk about your collaboration on the production design.

Nikki Duvall
John Shooter: I first met set and lighting designer George Quan over two years ago and we worked on Abigail's Party together. We knew that we wanted to create a world which was both real and surreal at the same time and to create the feeling of a grotty, decaying slum where the Stray twins had been festering for ten years before the audience meets them. George has done a phenomenal job. I love his use of colours and textures and how wonderfully he's complimented the set with his imaginative lighting design. He's an amazing guy.

The sound designer is Thomas Ryder Payne. He's one of my favourite sound designers and l love all his work. We chatted about the play, he came up with some sounds. I suggested some slight changes using only three (very basic) adjectives and from that he was able to come up with the perfect sound design for the whole show. A true professional.

Sandra Mandich made the dazzling red jacket. She's a York University graduate and was recommended to me by a leading film and TV costume designer. She did such a wonderful job and was totally committed to our project.

l had to find a good, reliable, committed and talented stage manager. You may think that's easy but it certainly wasn't. Until of course, l met Stephanie Simonetta. She's a York University student and what an asset she's been. I love working with her. She's the perfect stage manager and keeps us all in line!

Honestly, even if no one ever comes to see this play, l will always remember this show as a wonderful collaboration between a group of the most talented, humble and committed artists and technicians around.

donna g: Why did you decide to flip things so that the audience and not the characters is on the stage?

Nikki Duval & Justin Miller
John Shooter: The venue is set up with a raised stage at the far end and the audience are supposed to be seated at ground level. I didn't like that for this play. It would have felt too much like a "play" and that's not what l wanted at all. I, therefore, turned it around and made the little cupboards and extra rooms as part of the flat. Also, as the exit door is part of the set, the audience can't escape. Well, they could, but they would be attacked by Hayley Stray or even by Pitchfork Cavalier!

donna g: The play has no intermission? Was this as the playwright intended or was that your decision to encapsulate the audience in this nightmarish world for the length of the play?

John Shooter: The playwright prefers no intermission but if necessary, he indicates where the interval should be. I can't imagine this play with an interval. It's an experience in which you need to get on the track at the beginning and continue the journey until the very end. I know in this new world of flashy social media people's attention span has decreased. But, with The Pitchfork Disney, our audiences have been riveted. That's all thanks to the excellent writing and superb cast and designers.

donna g: The play has been on for a few days now. Has there been any surprises in the audience feedback?

John Shooter: The audience feedback has been amazing. One lady wants us to take it to Vancouver and it always generates lively debates about the different interpretations of its meaning. I think people are also amazed by how engrossed they are throughout the whole play. How many plays can hold your attention for two hours these days...with no intermission!

Hope to see you all there. Everyone deserves to experience the dark genius of Philip Ridley.

The Pitchfork Disney
On now until May 22, 2016
Double Double Land
209 Augusta Avenue (Kensington Market)
Toronto, ON M5T 2L4
General Admission $25 (ages 17+); Seniors/Arts Workers $20
2 hours, NO intermission, NO latecomers
Access involves climbing stairs, no wheelchair access, No washroom
Recommended 17+