A Reflection of Things Learned (So Far)

lessons

Yesterday I read a very insightful and lovely piece by Theatre 20’s Artistic Director Adam Brazier on lessons that he has learned so far about being the AD of a young, ambitious, Canadian theatre company and one dedicated to fostering Canada’s own musical theatre. Many of the reflections that Adam wrote about I ardently related to, some I also find difficult, some made me laugh, and some lessons I don’t think I have learned yet.

I have been writing reviews for the Canadian Theatre for five and a half years. I often say I have been so lucky to have made the best theatre school in the country for myself and to surround myself with the country’s greatest teachers. Every time I enter the theatre I learn something. I become a better actor, a better playwright, a better theatre critic and audience member and, I think, a more ardently human being. I am so often humbled and overwhelmed by the talent in my midst. I do love my job.

I would like to take some inspiration from Adam Brazier and to offer to you some of the lessons I have learned about the theatre in the last five years.

  1. We are all in this together! A theatre community that is built on cliques, animosity, insecurity and jealousy is toxic to the theatre created there. We are all on the same side. We all want the theatre in our communities to succeed. Recreating Junior High power dynamics in the theatre is a disservice and an insult to everyone.
  2. Play Together! Cross-Pollination between multidisciplinary artists is amazing and exciting! Not only does it create incredible, new, imaginative work, but it helps to bridge the gaps between audiences for different art forms in the city. Bring the music lovers to the theatre, bring the dancers to the Comedy club! Bring the musicians to the magic show! See what happens!
  3. My Target Audience Isn’t the Theatre Community and Neither is Yours. If you take away the other theatre artists and your family and friends and you are left with an empty house, it means your theatre company hasn’t found its audience yet. Building a unique and loyal audience made up of theatregoers from the general public and continually finding ways of engaging with them and getting them excited about your shows and the theatre in general is massively important to the success of your company. It’s crucial. If you’re doing theatre just because you want to impress someone else in the theatre community, invite them over and perform it for them in your living room for free!
  4. Politics are IMPORTANT and Not Just For Funding. Is the neighborhood where your local theatre is thriving or dying? This makes a huge impact on who comes to see your shows. Does your target audience have more or less disposable income than they did last year? On every level, the people in charge of running your community have the potential to help make the theatre there thrive. Vote smart!
  5. Say Yes. Stay Optimistic. Always Try. I am continually so inspired by what happens when bright, engaged, passionate members of the theatre community rally together for change and make the theatre in their city better or easier or more accessible. Don’t wait for someone else to do it or you will be waiting forever!
  6. More Previews!!! More Previews!!
  7. Diversity is Beautiful. The theatre community should reflect the demographics of its city and the more stories that are being told from different experiences and perspectives the more vibrant and interesting the theatre in the city will be. This is another reason why being exclusive or cliquey in the theatre is counterproductive: inclusiveness is where new things grow.
  8. GO TO THE THEATRE. ALL OF IT. And not because you want to “support your friends.” I borrowed this from Tony Nappo. “I don’t go to the theater (film or live) solely to be entertained or supportive- I go because it is a part of my job to see what people are doing- to know what is happening- to see THE WORK.” And go to the shows that come in from out of town FOR SURE, because it is SMART to know what people are doing in the rest of the country (and the world) and it’s VERY likely that you will leave INSPIRED.
  9. GET INSPIRED. DON’T GET JEALOUS. GET INSPIRED INSTEAD. JEALOUS IS BORING AND KILLS CREATIVITY, WHICH IS TOXIC TO THE THEATRE.
  10. Most people are a little shy and a little awkward and insecure and most people don’t love schmoozing, but being friendly and smiling at people at Opening Night and introducing yourself is not just about networking, it’s about being nice and it’s about welcoming visiting artists into your city and it’s about making friends, which makes the theatre community stronger and better.
  11. In most cities in this country Fringe is the most magical time of the year.
  12. Know your theatre history. That new idea you had, I’m pretty sure Paul Thompson thought of it first. (Seriously though, learn from your theatre history so we can move forward instead of in circles and have some respect for those who came before you, they helped to pave the road that brought you here). Know your theatre geography. Just because it didn’t happen in Toronto doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.
  13. An atmosphere where critical thought and conversation, dialogue and debate are welcome and open honesty is appreciated is a thousand times healthier than an atmosphere where everyone is fed the lie that everything and everyone is perfect so nothing ever grows. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not finished getting better yet (as soon as you are, you are toast).
  14. MORE PREVIEWS! MORE REHEARSALS! MORE PREVIEWS AND REHEARSALS AND MORE TIME AND REHERSALS AND PREVIEWS BEFORE OPENING. LET THE THEATRE BAKE. DON’T RUSH. IT’S OKAY.
  15. The most inspiring and brilliant people live and work in this country and I am helplessly in love with the Canadian theatre.

Stay Fascinated. 

Theatre 20: I Dreamed a Dream

Early on Thursday morning I sat in the Panasonic Theatre and watched one of my dreams come true. This was the official launch of Theatre 20, a “Toronto-based, artist-led theatre company formed to present story-driven musicals by developing Canadian works and by re-imagining existing repertoire.” Adam Brazier, the elected Artistic Director of Theatre 20, spoke to us about the vision that he and sixteen other artists have for the future of musical theatre in this country, and it is an exhilarating, inspiring, beautiful dream that we are all daring to make our reality.
In May 2010 when I realized that Canadian Stage was changing its mandate and it looked like that company would no longer be presenting musical theatre shows to Toronto audiences once or twice each season, I asked where the place for us, the musical theatre community was. I asked who would be presenting large-scale musical theatre in Toronto made up entirely of Canadian casts. This city is filled with brilliant, bright performers, someone needs to stop the exodus to New York, someone needs to make a reason for our most talented musical theatre stars (because they *are* STARS) to stay in this city and this country and for that reason to be a truly rewarding one. I didn’t know at that time that Adam Brazier and sixteen other artists had been asking themselves the exact same questions for almost two years and that they were determined to do something, something bold and daring, something truly heroic, to change the landscape for musical theatre in this country. Out of these questions, out of this need, out of the desire to give Canada a voice, its own distinct, proud voice, in the realm of musical theatre, both within this country and internationally, came Theatre 20, valiant and filled to the brim with promise.
In May I had visions of a theatre company that would bring the productions of shows like Sweeny Todd, Les Misérables, Kiss Me Kate, The Drowsy Chaperone, Hairspray, West Side Story, Sunday in the Park With George, the ones that are done every year with Canadian casts in regional theatres across the country and at Stratford and Shaw, to Toronto. I hadn’t dared to even wish for a company that would foster the development of our own Canadian written musicals, and that would actually produce shows like War Brides: The Musical, or Pelegie, or Two Pianos Four Hands or Variations on a Nervous Breakdown or something I have never seen from Marek Norman or Leslie Arden or Reza Jacobs or Daniel Abrahamson, or Allen Cole or Bob Martin or Waylen Miki or Jonathan Monro or Jim Betts or the dozens of Canadian musical theatre composers whose names are not familiar to me because their work largely sits on a shelf unread and unproduced. The fact that Theatre 20 seeks to do both is extraordinary.
I know that I sound a bit like a broken record to my avid readers, but I do ardently believe with every fibre of my being that the artists that we have in this country are world class, bright sparks of genius and more than capable of bringing us theatre that can be lauded and heralded as being of distinction on the International stage. I think that the only thing that prohibits us from taking our rightful place as the proud home of our own unique, flourishing, riveting, envy-inducing musical theatre tradition is a theatre company willing to invest in it. I also think that with the talent that we have in this country, investing in these artists, investing in these projects, believing in us and fostering our community is not an arduous task. Adam Brazier and his sixteen compatriots believe in this truth as fervently as I do and I am so excited to see where their passion and their nurturing and pioneer spirits leads all of us.
Theatre 20’s first initiative is an especially exciting one, as they are working with Montreal’s Copa de Oro Productions on the English translation of René Richard Cyr and composer Daniel Bélanger’s adaptation of Michel Tremblay’s seminal play Les Belles-Soeurs. The French production of this new musical ran for eight months in Montreal, which is record-breaking for a theatre show in Quebec, and now Allan Sandler has the rights for the show in English, which is being given a reading tonight in Toronto, with a cast of fifteen women, including a wide assortment of Canada’s most celebrated female musical theatre actors. The cast performed a number from the show at the launch, led by the always vigorous powerhouse of wonder, Louise Pitre. I have to tell you that visually, having the opportunity to see fifteen women, women of all ages, standing in a line onstage, singing their hearts out is a jubilant feat of its own. You don’t realize how rare it is to see that many people singing on a Canadian stage, and for them all, every single one, to be women, until the reality of it is upon you, and then you wonder why such deliciousness is not savoured far more often. From the little one can garner from a single song, Les Belles-Soeurs, named Sisters in English, looks to have all the promise of a fantastic new musical. I look forward to seeing more of it in the very near future. Theatre 20’s immediate focus is on fundraising and launching their concert series, but the founding members of the company are already looking forward with zeal to their inaugural season at the Panasonic Theatre in 2012. The company is also dedicated to education and community outreach and have programs in the works for schools, opportunities for mentorship and also opportunities to work with at-risk youth and providing avenues for all sorts of participation in various aspects of theatre as well as fostering and inspiring and cultivating the theatre audiences of tomorrow.
I think what our theatre audiences need, and what our prospective theatre audiences need, is that they need to realize that although we all operate from underneath a great big cloud of inferiority, that the reality is that we are not second rate. Canadian work is not boring, it is not mediocre, it is not merely adequate and we need to change the language and the dialogue that we have when we intersect with the theatre artists of this country. The people who will undoubtedly change this entirely flawed perception that I think many people have and that I am continually infuriated to see blindly perpetuated by the mainstream Canadian media, are the founding members of Theatre 20. Tamara Bernier Evans. Adam Brazier. Evan Buluing. Brent Carver. Dan Chameroy. Juan Chioran. Ma Anne Dionisio. Susan Gilmour. David Keeley. Trish Lindstrom. Nora McLellan. Eliza Jane Scott. Rosie Shaw. Carly Street. Steven Sutcliffe. Louise Pitre. Colm Wilkinson. When they all stood onstage together, I was gobsmacked just by the sheer power of their combined auras of greatness, and when they started to sing “Sunday” I was so overwhelmed, with goosebumps in places I’ve never had goosebumps before, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to hold in the tears of joy and pride that threatened to rain down my cheeks. I knew if I gave in to the inclination it wouldn’t be tasteful tears on my cheek, but messy crying of an overwrought musical theatre dork who was watching as one of her dreams began to bloom right before her astonished and mesmerized eyes. Overwhelmed, the vision of all seventeen of them, my seventeen special superheroes, standing up for all of us, paving the road for everyone, asserting our own Canadian identity on this art form… I knew I was witnessing a piece of Canadian history and one that I will hold onto forever.
I love that we have gotten the good fortune to claim Colm Wilkinson as our own (although I wonder why he hasn’t been appearing in every single musical that has been produced here that fits into his busy schedule…?!) regardless… I am honoured and delighted that he is helping to see the fruition of this beautiful company. Adam Brazier also read a lovely email of support from David Mirvish, extending his well wishes and exerting his confidence not only in Adam but in all the musical theatre performers in this country. It was the first moment in three years where David Mirvish has been humanized for me and I am thrilled that this company has his support and that he seems to want to see it succeed and to thrive. As Mr. Mirvish said, very eloquently, in his letter, Canada has been exporting its talent to the United States and abroad for far too long, it is time to bring it all back home.
I have heard the people sing. When the beating of our hearts echo the beating of the drums there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

Assassins Will Blow You Away!

janet porter and lisa horner
photo by guntar kravis
On the Ides of March Marcus Junius Brutus assassinated the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar thus securing an enduring legacy for himself that still immortalizes his name over two thousand years later. In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins (1991), being mounted in a co-production between BirdLand Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre and playing at the Theatre Centre until January 23rd 2011, nine assassins, or would-be assassins, of American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, are examined in one of musical theatre’s darkest, most controversial and politically provocative pieces.
Assassins is a concept musical, which means that it does not follow a traditional narrative, but rather uses a unifying idea, or concept, to give depth, subtext and a sense of cohesion to songs, scenes and monologues, which might otherwise not seem to be so intricately connected. Instead of providing an entirely historically accurate survey of the assassinations of the American presidents presented either as a revue or a documentary book musical, Sondheim and Weidman have their ensemble of murderers interacting with one another across time and space in the fictitious No Man’s Land of a seedy shooting gallery at a tawdry nightmarish shadow of an iconic American fair. Here the Proprietor engages with all nine angry, disillusioned, desperate misfits and appeals to them with familiar American rhetoric. He alludes to the American Dream and the rights and freedoms of all citizens to pursue and protect their own happiness and their power and potential to aspire to become whatever their hearts desire—even the killer of the President of the United States.
Instead of vilifying these figures or encouraging the audience to identify with them too closely or to show them pathos and understanding, Sondheim and Weidman dramatize how the same red, white and blue ideals that have been perpetuated not only by the presidents, but also by American culture in general throughout the decades since the Civil War were, in each case, distorted or used to defend each assassination. In this way, the assassins themselves become a distinctly American phenomenon and citizens that have been clearly influenced by the culture, history and politics of their country and their time.
If it sounds intellectual, intense and disturbing, those elements are certainly inherent to the piece, but in the construction of the show as a musical Vaudevillian spectacle in the hands of a wry, sardonic Proprietor, the dark humour pervades most of the scenes, which makes the overall experience an oddly hilarious and cathartic one. In this production, directed by Adam Brazier, the carnival aspect of the show is intensified, with actors playing their own instruments (directed by Reza Jacobs) and adding to the meta-theatrical and Brechtian aspects of the show. This allows the audience to apply Sondheim’s use of pastiche in music (he borrows from all iconic genres of American music: waltz, cakewalk, folksong, gospel and 70s soft rock) to root the assassins in their disillusionment with the mainstream culture they lash out so aggressively against in a delightfully theatrical way. Brazier is also magnificently effective in conjuring an ambiance of tension on his stage. The play begins, magically and with a bang, as each assassin in turn takes aim at a balloon on a giant target, and after that, although the guns are implied by pistol-shaped pieces of what looks like pipe, I found myself flinching as I watched our motley crew carelessly swinging them around enthusiastically amid their singing and dancing. I also couldn’t help but draw a connection between the pipes and the sad reality that the promise of prosperity and success in America has been for so many nothing but an empty, bitter pipe dream.
Sondheim and Weidman have created an incredibly compelling piece of theatre, but what makes this production pack such a wallop of a punch is its powerhouse ensemble, who work together seamlessly to root the play in its wide array of fascinating characters. Alex Fiddes gives quiet dignity to Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated William McKinley in 1901, and his scene with Whitney Ross-Barris (as Emma Goldman) is the sweetest in the show. Kevin Dennis gives a nice combination of wild rage and excruciating pain to Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill President Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt because he did not want to travel out of a temperate climate to kill President Herbert Hoover. Steve Ross is a spotlight chaser as Charles Guiteau (who killed President James A. Garfield in 1881), and Sondheim gives him a production number he likely would have relished in, which, of course, Ross delivers with ultimate panache. Christopher Stanton and Janet Porter, as John Hinckley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme respectively, sing about obsessive and delusional unconditional love in “Unworthy of Your Love,” a hilarious and disturbing ode to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Porter also has an equally hilarious rapport with Lisa Horner’s Sara Jane Moore and Horner gives a vivid and detailed performance of the impulsive, lost, disorganized housewife with wild mood swings who tried to kill Gerald Ford and ended up killing her dog. If you’re looking for some joy in this production, set your eyes on Ezra Tennen, as “boy,” he is sure to make you smile.
Geoffrey Tyler emerges as Lee Harvey Oswald out of the all-American Balladeer in this production, a hesitant working class man on the brink of suicide before he is convinced by John Wilkes Booth and the other assassins that he must be the culmination of all their work, that he is the one who truly has the power to change the world, to make it weep and squash its optimism and its innocence in a radically significant way. In this portrait of history there is no doubt that Oswald certainly did not act alone.
Martin Julien is sneaky and slimy as our Proprietor, weaving in and out of the action, stirring up violence but abandoning all responsibility and disappearing from the consequences of the future, like a shifty dark thought that permeates the minds of everyone. Graham Abbey, as Samuel Byck clad in a dirty Santa suit, who tried to hijack an airline and crash it into the White House in attempt to kill Richard Nixon, is mesmerizing in his monologues during which he makes tapes documenting his feelings of resentment as his attempts to connect to public figures, such as Leonard Bernstein, go unnoticed and his employment and personal prospects are just as grim. Abbey evokes true pathos, while never relinquishing his own sardonic humour. Paul McQuillan is both fiery and charming as John Wilkes Booth, the first to assassinate an American President (Abraham Lincoln in 1865), showing off both his gorgeous baritone voice and all the sweeping charisma “Wilkes” would have needed as an actor in the 19th Century.
In the wake of the tragic assassination attempt on Democratic Member of the House of Representatives Gabrielle Giffords on January 8th, with Sarah Palin using shooting rhetoric and iconography on her website, Assassins is sadly more relevant than ever. Last year in an interview for Metro Canada Adam Brazier said, “It’s very seldom people take the risk of producing theatre that is thought provoking. We produce fiscally minded shows and that means being brave sometimes.” Assassins is absolute proof that being brave and choosing artistic merit over money in musical theatre can often lead to a sure fire hit.
Assassins plays at The Theatre Centre (100-1087 Queen Street West) from January 8th, 2011 to January 23rd (performances Wednesday-Monday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm) All tickets are $35 and are available at the door or by calling 416.504.7529 or going online to http://www.artsboxoffice.ca/. For more information please visit http://www.birdlandtheatre.com/ or http://www.tift.ca/.

Musical Theatre Super Heroes

adam brazier, louise pitre, dan chameroy
It appears that Christmas has arrived early for the Toronto musical theatre community with the announcement that a new artist-run company dedicated to producing large scale, professional musicals starring Canada’s own multitalented artists, will announce its inaugural season in 2011.
According to this somewhat vague article from The Toronto Star, the company will be structured similarly to Toronto’s very successful artist-run classical theatre, Soulpepper, and will include a core artistic base which includes such formidable Canadian musical theatre stars as Adam Brazier (Rocky Horror (Canadian Stage/ MTC), Mamma Mia (North American Premiere), Into the Woods & Women in White (Broadway), Louise Pitre (A Year With Frog and Toad (LKTYP), Toxic Avenger (Dancap), Mamma Mia (Toronto/Broadway) and Dan Chameroy (Beauty and the Beast, Ross Petty Pantomime, 9 seasons at Stratford). Rosie Shaw will serve as General Manager and other artists said to be involved are Tamara Bernier, Juan Chioran, Evan Buliung and Carly Street, all shining examples of Canadian musical theatre prowess.
This company, in my humble estimation, is exactly what Toronto needs right now, and truly is a dream come true for our city. Since founding TWISI in 2007, I have been advocating for the establishment of just this sort of company, one that is headed by artists whose intentions are to produce musical works of substance and artistic integrity with high production values and utilizing the myriad of talented artists that we are blessed to have here in Toronto. This company is also said to be dedicated to the development of Canadian written musical theatre, an overdue investment in our budding composers and lyricists who will further the development of Canada’s own, unique musical theatre identity and experience.
At a time when Broadway is struggling under the weight of massive commercialism, where producers passionate about telling stories, making dreams come true and truly believing in the combined power of music, skill, heart and faith are nearly all superseded by CEOs interested only in blockbusters and selling t-shirts, American musical theatre aficionados worry about the Broadway business completely alienating future Irving Berlins, Cole Porters, Stephen Sondheims, Frank Loessers, Alan Jay Lerners, Comden and Greens, Cy Colemans and Kander and Ebbs.  How can the future of American musical theatre hope to thrive in a world of Jukeboxes and revivals? If ever the time was ripe for Canada to invest in its own musicals, for Canada to support its composers, lyricists and librettists, for Canada to encourage a musical theatre movement; that time is now. We have never had a Golden Age of musical theatre in this country, nor iconic Tin Pan Alley style musicians, but as I look at the young, incredibly talented musical theatre writers in Canada at this very moment, I believe, undoubtedly, with my entire heart, that this is our time. These composers, if given even half the chance, will not only burst out onto the freshly established musical theatre scene, hopefully through the development of this new company, but will also be poised toward international renown. The sky is the limit for the future of Canadian musical theatre; we just need to shine the light on it and it will grow.
There was a time not too long ago when Canadian actors were flocking, mostly to New York, not necessarily because they had secured an artistic opportunity there, but because Toronto’s potential for offering its artists exciting and fulfilling prospects for employment, especially in musical theatre, were dwindling rapidly. Now it seems like Canadian actors are working in exciting and inspiring avenues in New York, as Carly Street is slated to begin her run in Brief Encounter on Broadway, Kate Hennig was recently in Billy Elliot on Broadway, Bob Martin’s newest musical Elf opens there November 14th and Mirvish’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert cast heads to Broadway in the new year, just to name a few, but, more importantly, it seems that for the first time in a very long time, it is exciting and electric and hopeful for actors to stay right here. This new company signifies a future, our future, and the prospect of it being exhilarating and wondrous and a moment in theatre history that we will all someday look back on with pride and gratitude.
It is clear that the artists involved in the creation of this company, Adam Brazier, Louise Pitre, Dan Chameroy, and everyone else who will become the backbone of this venture, believe in Canadian artists, they believe in their own power and ability to create an alternative, a balance, if you will, to incessant American tours and jukebox blockbusters. If Adam Brazier’s critically acclaimed production (with Birdland Theatre/Talk is Free) of Assassins is any indication of what is to come, these artists believe, as I do, that Toronto deserves the very best.
I am filled with hope and delight, and a heart filled with thanks and anticipation for 2011. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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