Poised on the ‘edge’ of my seat! An Interview with Gabi Epstein and Sara Farb.

This afternoon I sat down with Gabi Epstein and Sara Farb, producers and performers in the Canadian Premiere Reading of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s song cycle Edges. The girls rush into a coffee shop on Bloor Street straight from a meeting about the show. As they take their seats and make their introductions, their eyes shine with the excitement of talking to me about this project.

Amanda Campbell (AC): So, firstly, I must ask, how did you first hear about Edges and this somewhat obscure musical writing duo?

Sara Farb (SF): Well, last summer I was in New York doing musical theatre with Circle in the Square Theatre Company and at the end there was a cabaret sort of thing and all the students sang songs. This guy sang this amazing song from this obscure show, and so I asked him what it was and he told me about Edges and it struck me as something that I would like to do. I had been an assistant producer at Acting Upstage and the more I heard the music from Edges, I just fell in love and wanted to give it a shot. So, I asked Gabi if she’d like to work on it with me and she suggested starting off with it as a reading.

Gabi Epstein (GE): Sara had been looking to put up a show, and we were looking for something to do.

SF: And there had been some lame choices… but this show really seemed to us to be the perfect one for us.

AC: Were the lame choices because the bigger shows are so expensive for a small theatre company to produce, and that limits your choices? Or steers you in the direction of the obscure shows?

SF: Yeah, I think, the obscure shows are more accessible for people like us…

GE: And what’s great about Edges is that it’s a song cycle, which is so hot right now, they’re like the new black. Songs for A New World has done really well and Elegies was a great success too and so it’s so exciting to be a part of that!

SF: The show is really geared toward the age group of people who are really excited about this sort of musical theatre as well, so it’s like we have a built in audience. The music is so likeable too and it’s about people in their twenties worried about turning thirty and the future.

GE: Sara played it for me and I loved it.

SF: I tried to keep the show a secret. I was so worried that someone else was going to find out about it and want to do it because it’s such a little treasure. But now here we are!!

GE: The music is just so great. I even listen to it when I’m working out on the treadmill.

AC: So since the show is small and new, do the writers know that you’re putting the show on here and that Edges is having its Canadian Premiere?

SF: Yes! And they have been so supportive and so nice! Actually, there’s a song on their demo CD that is not a part of Edges but we heard it and we loved it and we wanted to do it and so, since they had been working on it, there was no official music accompaniment-

GE: There’s no score.

SF: Yeah, there’s no score, so we asked if we could use it and they sent over the… the chord chart. And since our musical director is amazing he was able to sort it all out. It is so great to be in contact with the writers and they’re so excited- they said- for their work to be “international”. It’s great to be involved with the creators of the work you’re doing on a personal level.

AC- I have to ask, since there’s a song in the show about Facebook, do Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have Facebook, and is that how you were talking to them?

SF: (laughs) We were talking mostly by email…

GE: They do have Facebook though.

SF: Maybe after this is over I’ll add them as a friend on Facebook… I don’t know.

GE: We have definitely used the idea of having Facebook to promote this show. I mean it’s a great way to promote anything, but having the event posting and the group for this show in particular, because the show itself does make reference to Facebook, has been a really cool promotional experience.

AC: So, what made you decide to take matters into your own hands and produce this show yourselves?

GE: When Sara played the music for me I was doing Bye, Bye, Birdie at Talk is Free Theatre with this amazing cast of guys. And it is always a challenge in this business to find really talented guys, so when we were casting it in our heads- it was those guys we were thinking off- (Jordan Bell and Eric Craig)

SF: They were our first choice!

GE: Yeah. We knew the show wouldn’t be possible without the most talented boys in the city.

SF: It is really a challenging show for them; it’s like a vocal workout singing those songs!

GE: And of course we cast ourselves (both girls laugh). But that was sort of the point-

SF- These songs, though, really are the type of songs that I love to sing and they just suit my voice really well too.

GE: And there’s not a plethora of work out there, because there are so many talented people in Toronto, so there isn’t really enough to go around. But this way, being a producer and a performer, this project really fuels us creatively while putting us out there. I mean, Sara and I both do cabarets and we sing lots of different songs, but Edges is really something that we’re able to claim as our own. It’s exhilarating.

SF: It’s really amazing. I am so proud of what this show has become and how successful its been all ready with all the interest that we’ve had so far!

GE: I really think that all producers should work with a partner. I don’t know how people do it alone. It’s so nice to have that support there and to be part of a team and to have that second voice, that second opinion. And our amazing musical director (Reza Jacobs) and director (Evan Tsitsias) have really made the project their own too-

SF: It’s amazing how dedicated everyone is. For Gabi and I we have a personal investment in the show, but to see how much everyone else cares about it, is amazing.

GE: Yeah, I don’t feel like anyone feels like they “have” to be involved, like it’s work, everyone is so excited about what we’re doing and we’re sad at the thought of it being over.

AC: You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but from your experience, Sara, having spent a summer in New York, do you feel that in New York there is more support and nurturing for young musical theatre artists than you have found in Toronto?

SF: Yeah. There’s no comparison. Even going for Open Calls, the people in New York are so much more supportive of you.

GE: There are more opportunities in New York all around, so there’s that relaxed feeling that is coming from the fact that it’s less competitive, the work does go around more so than it does here.

SF: In New York, the community there isn’t very conservative in the way they chose their projects, either, there is a place for anyone there, really.

GE: But in the last few years in Toronto there has been a generation of people who are really being proactive and supportive, and who are taking risks and investing in young performers and new work and they’re trying to change the Toronto theatre community for the better.

SF: There has been a clear turn-around, yeah. It’s really exciting and we are glad to contribute to that because the supportive people are right there, they are the audience who will come see your show.

GE: It’s sort of the Spring Awakening crew, wouldn’t you say? Even, Jason Robert Brown sort of started it… that renewal in new work and young “unknown” casts.

AC- That said, would you say there’s a rallying sense of community among musical theatre people in Toronto or are there divisions bred out of competition?

GE: There is definitely a strong sense of community here. There has to be.

SF: There are only so many events and you see the same people at all the same places so there really has to be that sense of community. It’s growing, but it’s still a small section of people and everyone knows everyone.

GE: Artists support artists, that’s what so great. You want to go see everyone else’s work and so they will come to see your work and that’s what builds a community.

AC: Is there anything you could think of that would make the community of Toronto musical theatre artists even stronger?

GE: Hopefully it’s doing stuff like what we’re doing with Edges.

SF: There are so many full-blown shows that go on, but it’s the small ones that really seem to get all the artists’ support and when that happens all the time with various small projects, that really builds up the community.

GE: That’s not to say we don’t love the big shows. We do. We think they should hire us! (both girls laugh).

AC: The big musical theatre shows in Toronto right now are all touring companies from the states rather than being cast using local actors. What do you think about that?

GE: I think it’s important to have the big shows here if we want Toronto to be a theatre capitol of the world and if that means bringing in touring companies, which saves a lot of money, than I accept that, and I will support them by going to see the shows, but there is a fear there that all the theatre in Toronto will turn into touring productions.

SF: There was a period of time when almost everything done here was a touring show from somewhere else, and now the producers are starting to cast Canadians. And companies like DanCap are introducing a general audience to contemporary musical theatre like The Drowsy Chaperone, shows that these audiences, I don’t think really know much about. And I think that’s what these companies are trying to do, after they have introduced the shows, then they can cast and mount their own productions… so DanCap is sort of whetting the audience’s appetite for contemporary musical theatre.

GE: It would be ambitious to cast five big shows right now with Canadian actors and have them all playing in the same season, shows like The Drowsy Chaperone and Avenue Q

SF: But I feel like that’s the direction that we’re slowly headed.

GE: Yeah, we are.

SF: And hopefully someday it will be new shows that are getting their premiere on the main stages of Toronto with Canadian casts.

GE: That’s the dream.

SF: Yeah. It would be fantastic-

GE: But hopefully with the small shows, the producers of the bigger budget companies will have a chance to see how much talent they have here in Toronto. And I think after the success of The Drowsy Chaperone, the producers feel a bit safer in promoting the smaller shows that are happening here.

SF: Just give it a shot, what’s the harm?

GE: That’s what all actors want, really, is just their shot to prove themselves.

SF: And to work on a show from the ground up like this one is so fulfilling.

GE: Yeah, especially with Edges, with the song that is from the demo CD and not actually part of the show, we get to decide how we want to interpret it ourselves, which is so awesome!

AC- It is so true that obviously, the larger shows give rise to the smaller shows, but at the same time, if you look at shows like The Drowsy Chaperone that started in Fringe and, I think, Avenue Q which was never conceived as an “instant Broadway hit”, the small shows do become the big shows. That sort of thing does happen.

GE: Exactly. I think there was a newfound trust in pet projects after The Drowsy Chaperone and that’s so important in getting the theatre community to thrive and to get theatre back to where it was pre-SARS and pre-LivEnt. Back when the tour buses were a-flowing and we didn’t have to beg people to come to see Toronto theatre. And it’s really exciting to be right in the Toronto theatre community while people are starting to get excited about the theatre that is happening and it’s so wonderful to have the connections and the resources to be able to do a project like Edges.

AC: Going back to Edges, from what I can gather it’s about connection and choices made by young people in the postmodern world, which basically sums up most musical theatre of the past decade or so, what makes Edges unique?

SF: The music really speaks to a younger crowd, the people who get really excited about this type of musical theatre. The music is unbelievable and so compelling, you can’t help but bop along with it!

GE: The music is assessable, yet so profound. It touches on things that some people don’t like to confront, experiences that people have that they don’t want to talk about. Some people in the audience will be experiencing some of these things that are addressed in the songs, and as performers we are vulnerable singing about them, and the audience is vulnerable hearing it as well.

SF: It’s so witty, so insightful, the music touches clearly on what the point is- they write such wonderfully constructed songs. It’s very difficult not to enjoy the show, like if you set out not to like it, it would be difficult.

GE: I think it’s the challenge that it presents to the audience that makes it different from other musical theatre shows.

SF: It’s not predictable.

GE: No, Sara actually said something interesting a little while ago about the show, she said, a lot of stuff that is out there is about stuff that has already happened, this show is about the things that haven’t happened yet. That makes it interesting and unique.

AC: Toronto is the Mecca for musical theatre in Canada, do you think Toronto has enough musical theatre or should there be more?

SF: There’s never enough.

GE: There never should be enough.

SF: Yeah. We should never be satisfied. Like in New York, there is always room for more. But in New York, what is really great, is that they have so many off-Broadway shows and the shows run longer and have more publicity than the smaller shows here do, it would be really great to get to that point in Toronto.

GE: We’re starting to get there. People were as excited to see Evil Dead as they were to see We Will Rock You.

SF: Elegies was sold out last year and we had to add an extra show.

GE: People don’t know, there is so much going on here, in the regional theatres just outside of the city, especially in the summer, the summer stock, there is so much great theatre that make really nice day-trips. It’s all the same people who are in them… people just have to know about them.

SF: A show like Edges will really get people out of the mindset of what musical theatre is stereotypically.

GE: Yeah, there is that real negative connation that some people have that just isn’t accurate at all.

SF: Edges has this honesty there that people don’t usually equate with musical theatre, some people just think of-

GE: Jazz hands

SF: Yeah. Which is also great.

GE: It’s just not everyone’s taste. But this show Is more standing and singing- but that is just as much of the musical theatre tradition- standing there and telling a story- as… tap dancing.

AC: So true. So, just before we wrap up here, I noticed, again, on Facebook, that Gabi you have your employment listed as “the boss of myself”. Tell me a little bit about how important it is to take charge of your own career this way.

GE: You can’t sit there waiting for your agent to call.

SF: Which doesn’t happen.

GE: You have to make your own opportunities.

SF: Definitely. It is so important to have connections and build confidence in going out there and doing your own thing.

GE: And that way, you have a personal and communal contribution, and it makes you vulnerable, but that’s also why other artists support you, and that makes the community thrive.
Gabi Epstein and Sara Farb are forging their own pathway in the musical theatre community with their staged reading (somewhere between a reading and a performance, I’m told) of Benj

Pasek and Justin Paul’s song cycle Edges. It premieres on Saturday, October 6th and Saturday October 13th at the Centre for the Arts. 263 Adelaide Street W. 5th.Floor.

Support these two extremely talented ladies as they create artistic opportunities not only for themselves, but for the entire Toronto theatre community. Email edgyproductions@hotmail.com to reserve your ticket today!

Blood, Toes, and a Little Green Pig, CanStage’s Pillowman is Horrifically Funny

 

richard mcmillan & oliver beckett

When is a story just a story?

This is the question that haunts Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman. Not for the faint of heart, McDonagh forces his audience to contemplate when a story crosses a line, ceases to be words on a page but emerges into something heart wrenching and dangerous. The Pillowman is only a story, acted out by performers whose lives continue into curtain call, but it’s difficult to remind yourself of this when the production is hauling you headlong into the depths of a very dark and twisty world.

Audience members have extreme reactions to The Pillowman. Whether they’re disgusted by the horrific images, or taken with McDonagh’s sophisticated dark humor, or transfixed by insightful questions raised about freedom for art, thought and at what point an artist can be blamed for actions inspired by his work. Until you have sat in the theatre and witnessed it, you cannot know which reaction you’ll feel most intensely.

Despite the profundity of the questions it raises The Pillowman is a story and at CanStage it is portrayed with conviction, emotion and nuances of inescapable human experience. It’s difficult to keep the characters at a distance. Katurian, played by Shaun Smyth, is a writer who lives in a totalitarian state. Despite a horrifying childhood, Smyth’s Katurian seems cautiously optimistic. He is nurturing to his younger brother, has a strong sense of morals, yet has a skewed sense of using extreme violence to protect innocence and children. Smyth captivatingly and heartbreakingly holds all of Katurian’s complexities and contradictions in his hand while encouraging an audience to believe such a human can exist and be so likeable.
Also determined to save children is Officer Ariel, played with supreme rage and touching vulnerability by Oliver Beckett. The similarities between Ariel and Katurian are beautifully highlighted in Beckett’s performance, as is his uncertainty about whether to pound Katurian or turn the hand on himself. Ariel’s partner, Officer Tupolski (Richard McMillan) is also fraught with contradiction. With ease, McMillan is able to take his character on a fascinating journey from blundering bureaucrat to erratic, calculating totalitarian. Paul Fauteux is painfully innocent and happy-go-lucky as Katurian’s mentally handicapped brother Michal. Fauteux’s gestures, movements and vocal intonation create a brilliant unspoken subtext between the actor and the audience which enriches Michal’s past and illuminates the stories.

Director David Ferry allows McDonagh’s story to speak plainly through his cast of brilliant performers. One choice that works well is his use of puppets to depict Katurian and Michal’s childhoods. This allows the audience distance from disturbing imagery and gives a gift of comic relief in an intense show.

With its outstanding performances, tough questions, horrific imagery and humor audiences can’t help but laugh at, despite suspicions laughter isn’t the appropriate response, CanStage offers an intense, yet beautiful, opening to their 2008 season. After all, there is no place for “appropriate” in a Martin McDonagh play.

The BirdLand Theatre Production of The Pillowman at the CanStage Berkeley runs until October 27th, 2007. For more information please call 416 368.3110 or visit www.canstage.com.

Life is a Cabaret Old Chum, Come to Buddies’ Arthouse Cabaret!

Vaudeville is alive and well at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and it’s here, it’s queer and it’s fabulous! The artists in the Cabaret were asked to dream up their performances inspired by queer pop culture from the turn of the 20th century to the present and the result is a big, flashy array of merriment overlapping a subtle -yet poignant- socio-political comment on the history of queer culture and its reception. From the moment they enter the theatre, the audience is greeted with warmth and tongue-in-cheek humor by Keith Cole (the MC). Jonathan Monro plays the piano impeccably, while emanating charm and singing in his dreamy voice, and Paula Wolfson sings incredible, fresh renditions of classics like “Material Girl.” The music continues throughout the evening, inter-spliced with a hilarious (and flawless) performance by Stephen Lawson as Judy Garland, a fearless comment on the state of feminism today, a profoundly intelligent look at the Catholic Church and a moment of communal spirit as the audience bursts into “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay”.

The Cabaret uses an effective mixture of live performance and beautifully edited audio and visual material by Aaron Pollard, which overlap and invite the audience to interpret how these performances contradict or connect and the story told when two-often opposing- thoughts come together.

In relaying this to you, it sounds artsy and immersed in queer culture. That’s true, but mostly Arthouse Cabaret is fun, sexy, charming and gracious. No matter if you’re gay, straight, bi-curious, male, female or anywhere in between- grab those stilettos and run down to Buddies in Bad Times and catch this show!

Arthouse Cabaret runs until October 20th at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre Company, 12 Alexander Street. For tickets call 416 975-8555 or visit http://www.buddiesinbadtimestheatre.com/. (Please note: Show contains nudity and sexuality and is recommended for adult audiences only).

Morals Tomorrow! Get ‘Comedy Tonight’ in Forum at Hart House Theatre

matt selby

It wasn’t always a toga party for the actors on the stage in ancient Rome. They would be booed and pelted with rotten fruit if the audience was unimpressed or uproariously drunk- a far messier fate than any theatre review, no matter how scathing. To insure the future of his supper, Roman playwright Platus, on whose farces A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum was constructed, strove to pepper his plays with “something for everyone” to keep his audiences entertained. The actors in Hart House’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum have nothing to fear- there will be no rotten fruit hurtling their way.

The 1962 production of the musical with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart won two Tony Awards in 1962 and with recent revivals and a film starring Zero Mostel it has proven to be a continual financial success. At Hart House, the seamless direction by Graham Maxwell and gigantic, bawdy, outrageously funny performances by several crucial actors prove that this company won’t lean on the crutch of witty dialogue and catchy tunes provided by Sondheim, Shevelove and Gelbart, but is determined to claim their production as unmistakably unique.

It is difficult to comment on Graham Maxwell’s direction of this show as his choices seem so natural and effortless that they fade into the background, drawing no attention to themselves. This is a feat in the midst of a show laden with mammoth production numbers, endless exits and entrances and every clichéd stage convention an audience has ever seen. Wrapped in the comfortable cloak of comic traditions dating back centuries, Maxwell’s vision is fresh, energized and pokes fun of each convention it alludes to. Inspired by the idea of touring various acts to dozens of cities in a very short time, Maxwell’s show feels like a well-rehearsed Vaudeville set with dancing girls, cross dressers, romantic ballads, an ingénue, a eunuch, musicians, clowns, melodrama, and a singing, dancing, body builder with a particularly large sword, entering and exiting in a rapid whirlwind of laughter.

The sword wielding Miles Gloriosus has a body which would make a Spartan feel inferior, however it is clear that Matt Selby was not cast based solely on physicality. He is delightfully charming as the self-obsessed soldier with sharp comic timing, strong vocals and a sense to remain outrageously funny never excessively overdone. Marcus Lycus, the cross dressing courtesan, is played with poise by Greg Finney. The choice to cast Finney in the role suits the production and the vision of Vaudeville with perfection and adds another layer of complexity to a character who buys and sells the bodies of young girls. Mixing brazen with vulnerable, Finney is constantly hilarious and his conviction and courage will urge you to stand up and cheer. Another strong performance is Leonard Elias as Hysterium, whose gentle charm and deliberate character choices shine in the mold of Jack MacFarland wound too tight.

It is, however, Cory Doran as Pseudolus who really steals the show. Heaping with charisma with a twinkle in his eye, Doran is as naively charming and hilarious as I’m sure Nathan Lane and Mike Myers were before being corrupted by Hollywood. From his flawless vocals and comic timing, to his bawdy physical humor, Doran fills the audience with the confidence that he is able to do anything while still remaining delightful enough to get away with it. In his extremely capable hands the show flies by in a flash of wonder and fun and the audience is willing to forgive a few wonky harmonies and some trips over Sondheim’s slippery lyrics.

All in all, for a break from the ‘hysterium’ of the first month of classes take a break for comedic relief and go see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum playing at the Hart House Theatre Wednesday to Saturday until September 29th. Call 416-978-8674 for details.

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