Who Killed Spalding Gray?

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daniel macivor

Halifax is very fortunate to have the premiere performance of the newest Daniel MacIvor and Daniel Brooks collaboration here as part of the Magnetic North/ Stages Festival. Who Killed Spalding Gray? plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre until June 28th, 2014.

On January 11, 2004 Spalding Gray, a renowned American actor who worked with Richard Schechner’s experimental theatre company The Performance Group in 1970, went on to co-found The Wooster Group in 1975 and then became a celebrated solo theatre artist specializing in Monologue storytelling and went on to play Fran Drescher’s therapist on The Nanny (1993), committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in New York. At the same time renowned Canadian playwright and solo theatre artist Daniel MacIvor was in California having “an entity” removed from his body by a “psychic surgeon” under warnings from an ex boyfriend that this entity was trying to kill him. Throughout the play MacIvor melds the story of Gray’s depression and suicide with his own experience in California and tells the story of a man named Howard who also plans to kill himself, but is too afraid of failure to try. The result is a building of the stories we tell ourselves on the stories we are told and an examination of how “we search for significance wherever we can find it” and that, with faith, this significance informs and changes the story we tell, which changes the pathways of our lives. We can find connections everywhere, if we go looking for them, even ones that seemed to be unintentional or coincidental, and the same can be said for this play. It is left up to the audience to piece the bits together to try to build a meaning or an epiphany if that is what we seek, or they can be left to reflect the randomness and chaos of life.

MacIvor says that his work has often been compared to Gray’s, a connection that he questions and resists, likely because he isn’t sure whether he even likes Gray’s work. On the surface the form of their theatre appears similar- both told stories that often sound like truth to audience members- although there are many profound differences in the ways that they go about telling and performing and layering these stories. Gray’s work is infused with his perspective as an American WASP who lived in New York and connected ardently with the neurosis of someone like Woody Allen, while MacIvor’s work is swathed in his experience as a Gay, Catholic Cape Bretoner, which is quite a disparate experience. Yet, this quote from American Theatre Director Jonathan Demme about Gray could also be said about MacIvor, “[His] unfailing ability to ignite universal emotions and laughter in all of us while gloriously wallowing in his own exquisite uniqueness will remain forever one of the great joys of… performance and literature.” MacIvor also explores the perceptive of Helena Bonham Carter, another person who has a challenging, haphazard connection to Gray, since her husband (Tim Burton)’s film Big Fish, which she starred in, was the last film Gray saw before he boarded the Staten Island ferry and ended his life. The last lines of the film are “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.”

Does it matter if the stories we tell ourselves are true? Does believing the story we tell ourselves make it true? Was Daniel MacIvor saved because he believed that the entity trying to kill him was slain? Does an audience respond to a monologue more ardently if they believe it to be true? Is the monologue any less compelling if it turns out to be false? Does the truth about whether the story is fact or fiction matter if an audience believes in it regardless? Why doesn’t Robert Cushman, theatre critic of The National Post that MacIvor references in the play, care about the answers to these questions when the tension and delicate balance inherent between the performer and the audience is so informed by what we believe to be truth in the theatre and what significance we give to it. We are complicit in these stories by being active listeners- how we hear the story we are told is as much part of the theatre as what the performer says.

There is so much in this play to consider- the layering of MacIvor as MacIvor and MacIvor as Gray for example and the way that Brooks swathes the stage with intense light and intense dark rapidly and the drinking of the water, as harkening to Gray’s signature table with a glass of water and notebook and microphone, with allusions to swimming and to drowning, to the ferry, to MacIvor’s earlier work Never Swim Alone, to drunken benders and healthier choices and the very sustenance that MacIvor needs to stay alive. There is also the question of where this “entity” that was expelled from MacIvor came from, and where it went, and what (or who) it was, and who else is present here onstage or in the theatre that we cannot see. It also suggests that whether or not you believe in planes of existence, or “entities” or ghosts or spirits or the theatre, if Spalding Gray is the story and Daniel MacIvor tells us the story then, in a way Spalding Gray is living on inside of us and that knowing this has the potential to be both significant and transformative for all of us… or it could just be a very captivating lie.

Who Killed Spalding Gray plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre as part of the Magnetic North/ Stages Theatre Festival at the following times:

June 27 at 7pm

June 28 at 9pm 

Tickets for all shows are available at TicketPro either by phone (1-888-311-9090) at TicketPro outlets in Halifax, at the show’s venue prior to the performance or online at this address.  

Angsty and Fierce: A Neptune Theatre School Spring Awakening

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james maclean & julia topple

photo by ingrid bulmer

For a city with tragically few opportunities for performers who live here to be cast in professional (and professional quality) musical theatre Halifax sure is filled with more than its share of talented young musical theatre performers. Between its Youth Performance Company, its Pre-Professional Training Program and its newer Musical Theatre Foundation Program, Neptune Theatre is giving a solid basis of training for all of these rising stars- the question for me when I see a production as strong as the PPTP/MTFP production of Spring Awakening, playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre through May 18th, is who will give steady employment in Musical Theatre to these students once they graduate and are we doomed to continue to export our most talented performers to flood the over-crowded musical theatre market in cities like Toronto and Manhattan? It is also utterly absurd to me that of all the theatres doing musicals in the country, the most difficult theatre to break into for a former student of Neptune Theatre School is very likely going to be Neptune Theatre itself. Shouldn’t Neptune be focused primarily on training its own artists of tomorrow? Surely that was at least part of the original intention in the creation of the Theatre School in 1983.

Just as significant is that this rendition of Spring Awakening, despite being a student production, features the most innovative, focused, poetic and graceful staging and choreography (by Halifax’s own David Overton and Véronique MacKenzie respectively) that I have seen in a musical on a Neptune stage in years. Overton and MacKenzie’s expertise here really gives these young performers a strong foundation on which to build their characters and to tell this poignant, angry, desperate story of teenage loneliness, confusion and how so many young people come to have such a low opinion of themselves, their capabilities and the world that seems so often to ensnare rather than to liberate or provide for them.

Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Expressionist play of the same name, Spring Awakening is a coming of age story set in Germany at the end of the 19th Century where fourteen year olds are confronting puberty in all the same ways that teenagers grapple with these profound changes in their lives and their bodies today. The perfection of Spring Awakening is the colliding of Wedekind’s story from the past with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s contemporary pop rock score, which captures the universality of these themes and these characters. The production is enhanced by having a band onstage instead of backing tracks, although the sound balance is not alway ideal, as the band sometimes overpowers the performers’ voices.

At the heart of this production are Julia Topple’s sweet and innocent Wendla, James MacLean’s young socialist revolutionary Melchior and Adam Smith’s tormented and overwhelmed Moritz. Their deep friendship and need for one another is immediately apparent and the ways in which they are continually thwarted by the adults in their lives never seems cliched or overdramatic— only tragically inevitable. Scott Bailey, Brandon Lorimer and Danielle Doiron provide some spirited comedic moments and the entire company comes together beautifully in the show’s rich harmonies and ensemble numbers.

In the same way that Spring Awakening is a rallying cry from the young to the old, demanding to be seen, to be heard and to be taken seriously and pushing the complex issues that are so often relegated to whispers right onto centre stage we can also see the young performers of Halifax doing the same. For Moritz his situation is desperate: it is a matter of life or death- and for these musical theatre actors the myriad of issues surrounding the future of theatre in Halifax is just as immediate, frustrating and urgent. I hope that the 2014 graduates of Neptune Theatre School’s Pre-Professional Training Program and Musical Theatre Foundation Program won’t find themselves proverbially “Totally Fucked” as soon as they exit the stage after the final curtain call.

Spring Awakening plays May 16th and 17th at 7:30 p.m and May 18 at 2pm and 7:30 p.m. at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre. Tickets, start at $15.00 are available at the boxoffice (1593 Argyle Street), by phone at 902. 429-7070or online at www.neptunetheatre.com.  

Alien is Even Better the Second Time Around

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annie valentina winning best female performance for alien at the atlantic fringe festival photo by timothy richard

Annie Valentina’s one women show Alien is an intimate and autobiographical journey deep into a world that many Haligonians  know only by vague connotation. A hit of the 2013 Atlantic Fringe Festival and winner of the Best Female Performance Award there, The Doppler Effect remounts this poignant show at the Neptune Studio Theatre as part of Neptune’s Open Spaces program.

Valentina was born in Soviet-era Bulgaria, the daughter of politically active parents critical of the Communist ideologies of the Eastern Bloc. The family was forced to flee to Norway shortly after the destruction of the Berlin Wall where Valentina perfected the art of pretending as a way of assimilating into her new culture and her new surroundings so that she would be able to survive being a teenager in a strange place: a teenager who knows deep down that she doesn’t really belong. Once she graduates High School Valentina escapes again, this time on her own to the most exotic sounding place by the ocean that has a theatre program she can find on a map: Halifax, Nova Scotia. Once again she is grappling with constructing a new identity in a different language and the enormity of, once again, having a fresh start.

Alien is a story of fitting in and of standing out. It is about the struggle to assimilate in attempt to belong to a place called home, and with other people in their culture, but also needing to hold on to one’s own identity and sense of self as to not lose oneself entirely to culture shock or pretend.

Valentina has a strength in her own vulnerability here. She emanates empowerment, even when she speaks about feeling disenfranchised, rooting the story in one of victory, of triumph and of hope. She also embodies a number of different characters, most vividly her strong, practical Bulgarian mother, who clearly resents deeply what the Soviets have done to her life and her country. This adds perfect colour and texture to the story, helping us to immerse ourselves in Annie’s experience. She also does a sweet job of embodying herself as a child so that we are able to see the reflections of that Bulgarian child prodigy poet who is obsessed with other people’s belongings in the adult Canadian emerging playwright standing before us who is still fascinated by other people’s stories.

Director Margaret Legere and Designer Nathaniel Bassett give Valentina a clothesline upon which to hang the important relics of her memories, to beautifully capture the fact that not only is Alien a memory collection, but it is also a memory exhibit. In this play we are able to peer into this one person’s own history and we are encouraged to see more of her than what initially meets the eye. We can also come to a greater understanding of ourselves, our country and how both connect to the world as a whole.

There is even more to love in this remount of the play and Annie Valentina is right at the heart of it.

Alien plays today (January 11th, 2014) at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) at 2:00pm and 8:00pm. The show at 2:00pm is a Pay What You Can Performance. Tickets for the 8:00pm performance are $25.00 (regular) or $20.00 (under-waged) and are available in person at the box office at 1593 Argyle Street, by phone at 902.429.7070 or via this website.   

On Hearts & Minds & Trees

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laura burke in heartwood

The Doppler Effect have remounted their Mayworks Halifax 2013 hit Heartwood, written and performed by Laura Burke, at the Neptune Studio Theatre and it plays there, in conjunction with Annie Valentina’s Alien, until January 9th.

An autobiographical one woman play, Heartwood powerfully challenges its audience’s preconceived notions of Schizophrenia and the people who are battling it and living it every day. Indeed, Heartwood even confronts the medical profession’s own issues with defining the term and the idea that some doctors believe that if one dramatically recovers from Schizophrenia then that only proves that they were misdiagnosed in the first place. Indeed, even in a world that is becoming increasingly informed about the spectrum of disorders like Autism, Schizophrenia is still too often pushed to the shadows with a persisting stigma or taboo associated with it, fuelled usually by misinformation, ignorance and fear. Burke’s story and her perceptions about her journey and the incredible resilience and strength it has taken to get her onto the Neptune Studio stage is incredible, captivating and deserving of an audience.

As a writer Burke is gloriously poetic. Heartwood is rife with vivid and unique imagery that is haunting and evocative and poignant. Her depiction of the terror that seized her as she experienced the early signs of Schizophrenia on a city bus is gripping and her sudden triumphant expression of ownership and survival and the importance of forging her place in the community in slam poetry is rousing like a war cry. Burke is easy to watch onstage and with her self deprecating humour and the frank glimpses she gives us into a deeply personal journey of self discovery and self preservation, arguably against the odds, she keeps the audience rooted ardently to her side throughout her performance.

The challenge that I have with Heartwood as a play is that I find the beautifully eloquent, richly descriptive telling of the story a little limiting to the dramatic action. Burke performs the narration of a story from her past but rarely truly embodies the person who is actively living the experience. In this way, the audience is not able to connect directly with the play’s real protagonist, Past Laura. Instead, our perception of her is very carefully shaped and held at arm’s length by Present Laura, who acts as a sort of liaison- telling us far more than she shows us. It leaves Heartwood feeling very written and very performative, rather than an immersive experience where these theatrical wheels don’t show.

On the one hand, for a play about something as tumultuous and complex as Schizophrenia it seems strange that Heartwood is so meticulously ordered and that Burke is always so perfectly, exactly clear in how she expresses herself to the audience. Yet, given the history she describes with her need for control, dating back to the eating disorder she had when she was fifteen, one can start to see the form reflecting the content. Perhaps there is a cautiousness at play here as well because the danger of the subject matter still exists and that Burke needs to keep Past Laura at that emotional distance for the well being of Present Laura. There is certainly an interesting layering and blurring of reality and fiction and performance and experience here and that is part of what makes Burns so captivating to watch.

Annie Valentina directs Heartwood and does an excellent job of making the Neptune Studio stage seem to cozily swathe Burke so our focus is intensely centred on her at all times. She makes beautiful use of light and shadow, aided by Garrett Barker, but I wanted to have clearer transitions when Laura disappears into shadow and then back out into physical form. Are these shadows beautifully constructed images created by Present Laura to represent her past experiences or have we been suddenly catapulted into Past Laura’s brain? How do we as an audience get to these places and how do we get back from them? What about Laura?

I would encourage audiences to go and see Heartwood primarily because Burke is telling a truthful, rare and important story that will stir emotions and debate, and she is a formidable writer. If she has not already considered penning a memoir, I would strongly urge her to begin writing one. I think this story may be even more well suited to the page than the stage. Her prowess as a wordsmith is impeccable.

Heartwood plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until January 9th while Alien plays until January 11th. Showtime is 8:00pm. Tickets are $25.00 (regular), $20.00 (underwaged), or $30.00 for BOTH SHOWS! (Available only by phone or in person). Tickets can be purchased at the Neptune Box Office (1593 Argyle Street), by calling 902. 429.7070 or at this website.

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