Talking Love and Longing with Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s “The Break”. Image sourced from Marian Keyes’s page. 

Marian Keyes is a bestselling Irish novelist — the prolific author of sixteen books of fiction, well regarded for titles like Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and Last Chance Saloon. In her latest novel, The Break, Keyes continues to build on past themes, exploring relationships from female perspectives, and tackling difficult topics with a characteristic sense of humour and wit.

Amy’s husband Hugh has decided he needs some time off from their marriage — no, it’s not a divorce, but a break. Hugh will travel Southeast Asia while Amy remains at home with the kids, working her PR job and sorting through understandably muddled emotions. Amy has her own desires, feelings that tempt her to stray from her commitment to Hugh. Keyes works through a series of questions. Is Hugh a bad guy? Is Amy guilty of emotional unfaithfulness? Is their relationship built to last? She’s not quick to jump to conclusions. Instead her characters learn to accept messiness and to simply find comfort in companionship.

“I used to think the line dividing sane people from insane people was entirely black or white – sane or insane – with no grey area.,” thinks Amy, “but suddenly I see now that the grey area is enormous. It spreads far and wide and into every part of life.”

Last month, I had the opportunity to ask Marian some questions about the book. Take a look at our conversation for insights into characters and thoughts on what makes or breaks a satisfying relationship.

Rachel Gerry: Your style of writing is truly funny; Amy is full of one-liners and witty observations. What is the value of presenting serious content in a lighthearted manner?

Marian Keyes: Hello and thank you! I always write about issues that impact the lives of women and they’re often serious things. Using humour is a trick to keep the reader reading despite the subject matter being uncomfortable or challenging. I think it’s probably a way to also keep me writing. However, I’m very careful to never use humour to undermine a serious subject.

R: Social media plays a significant role in this novel. Facebook helps Amy to keep an eye on Hugh when he is away and to monitor peoples’ reactions when he returns. Do you believe that platforms like Facebook have a negative impact on modern day relationships?

MK: I’m not really on Facebook for the very reason that I find it unsettling and sometimes actually upsetting. Seeing other people out ‘Living their best life’ and being on amazing holidays etc. makes me feel like my own existence is pretty pathetic. I guess I see how good it can be in staying in touch with loved ones who live far away but by presenting an idealized picture of other lives, Facebook can erode the value we put on our own less-than-perfect relationships.

R: Amy’s affair with journalist, Josh Rowan, is strictly emotional before it becomes physical. Is there an important difference between these forms of infidelity?

MK: I don’t think I’d be too happy if my husband was emotionally infatuated with another women. But I think I’d be far more distraught if it was physical. Up to a point I think flirtations are okay, I mean we’re all human. But in Amy’s case, it was a bit more than that, long before it got physical.

R: At times, the children seem to have it more together than the parents. “We’ve been chill about this,” reminds Amy’s daughter, Kiara. Where do they derive their strength and maturity?

MK: Kiara was very much inspired by my beloved niece Ema, who is amazing. She’s an old soul even though she’s only 17. Also, I think modern kids have been given an education in emotional intelligence that I never got. They have the language to express how they feel, they have labels to hang their emotions on. Schools are so pro-active in trying to prevent mental health issues that it’s made a difference to how teens view the world. As a caveat though, I should stress that while they can be wise about other people, they still find their own feelings confusing and sometimes overwhelming.

R: Many chapters begin with the announcement of the weekday, often a Monday. What does this say about Amy’s routine? Her feelings towards it?

MK: It’s predictable, it’s tough and there aren’t that many opportunities for fun. Like, so many people, poor Amy has a lot on her plate.

R: “I feel like I need to hurt you,” says Amy when Hugh returns. Is it important to feel even in a relationship?

MK: I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the question. But I totally understand Amy wanting to hurt Hugh because he’s hurt her so much. I think it’s a natural response.

R: Amy realizes that no relationship is black and white. “Life is all about the grey”. When you began to write this book, were you aware of its ending? Or were you unsure of how to navigate through “the grey”?

MK: I had NO idea how it was going to end. It was only through the writing of this novel that I realised just how much of life is ‘grey’. Every relationship is nuanced and now I feel that no-one has any right to comment on another person’s relationship: the people who are living it are the only ones who truly understand its unique complexity. So yes, I was very uncertain about navigating the nuances. All I knew was that there were no goodies and no baddies, just flawed humans trying to do their best.

R: What do you believe is most important quality in a long-term relationship?

MK: Tricky one. I was going to say Kindness because it’s what I look for in everyone. But I guess for a longterm relationship to survive, it means the 2 people have to learn to forgive each other for their fallibility. Holding each other to impossibly high standards is going to fail. From time to time, even when we love someone, we’re all going to make mistakes, get things wrong, be thoughtless, selfish, foolish. To recognise that your partner is just a flawed human being, just like you, instead of a perfect saviour, can be disappointing but it also provides a realistic view of things from which to work.

R: (With reference to the above.) Do you think that your characters ever find it?

MK: Absolutely!

Thank you very much, these were great questions

Marian Keyes’s “The Break” was published earlier this year by Penguin and is now available online and in store. Find out more about the author here.

A Conversation with Designer Natalie Dusome


Designer, entrepreneur, mother: Natalie Dusome is a woman that wears a lot of stylish hats. Her accessories brand Poppy & Peonies was launched in 2016 and her fashionable and functional handbags have garnered her a huge following and well-deserved brand recognition since.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dusome one evening in Toronto, where she appeared in a whirlwind of warmth and positive energy. I asked her about starting a business, growing up in a small town, and why finding your old designs from school is actually a good thing.

Natasha Grodzinski: When did you first discover a passion for designing?

Natalie Dusome: Honestly, I’ve always loved fashion, since I was a little girl. I come from Penetanguishine, which is this tiny town, there’s 700 people. I was always so different than everyone else. The other kids int the town weren’t into fashion at all, and I can remember begging my mom at seriously, eight years old, to buy fashion magazines! What kid does that? It was just this fantasy world. I would open up the magazines and it would take me somewhere else. Of course, I love where I’m from and I’m so grateful for where I’m from because it has kept me very grounded and humble, and I had a great upbringing. One of my grandmothers loved to sew, the other one loved to draw and my dad is a carpenter. With all of these different influences my life, I was led to fashion design.

NG: That’s a very creative environment to grow up in, and it’s you putting your own love into it.

ND: My grandmother would always be making us clothes for our Barbies and I would sit there and cut the fabric with her. I didn’t realize at the time, you know I was four years old, what an impact that would have on me. Even my dad, he would design all of these things: furniture, kitchenware, he even made his own barbecue. He would come up with his own idea and then go into the garage and would bring it to life. I think that being in that environment groomed me for what I want to do.

NG: It’s really nice to hear about a creative home like that where you feel like you’re able to grow and express yourself.

ND: Yes! And what was really awesome is my mom works at a hospital and my father’s a carpenter so they did not know any kids who were into fashion, but they didn’t care. They said, “If this is what you want and this is your dream, we’re going to fully support you.” I find that’s rare.

NG: I know you went to Ryerson for fashion design and then went the corporate route. What was that transition like, to go from small town to big city?

ND: I took a minor in marketing when I was in school. I was always interested in the business side of fashion. I was always fascinated by it. We had students in our class who were so creative that they never wanted to make anything that someone could actually wear. I was interested in something wearable but with an edge. For me, working for companies like Abercrombie or Fossil was so cool because I was able to see, okay, this is what people actually like to wear. This is what people are buying. In fashion design, you can make such crazy, out-there designs, but at the end of the day people want simple with a twist. They want wearable or functional but with a little something different. The experience I had in that commercial world really helped me towards what I do today.

NG: It seems like a perfect marriage of interests to start your own business: the creative side with the marketing side.

ND:  Yes, because our bags are trendy and affordable but they also have the functionality. That’s something different we have for the product.

NG: I actually wanted to ask about this: as a businesswoman and a mom, I imagine function came into your brain when you were conceptualizing the brand.

ND: That’s really where it came from. Before, I was living in New York and it was always fashion first for me. I was a huge fashionista. I would run around New York in heels until I had blisters!

NG: I know about that!

ND: And you do it. You’re like, “I don’t care, this is fashion and I look good.” When you become a mom, it’s like, oh God, I can’t be running around with heels and this baby. You need to still find ways to express yourself and your fashion, but do it in a wearable way that has functionality for your new life. That’s really where it came from; I became a monad realized my old style wasn’t working with this new part in my life. Looking around I realized a lot of people were just like me and needed the same things.

NG: It’s akin to how I was a little happy when sneakers became cool again. I’m gonna save my arches.

ND: Yes, exactly! And the thing is when you’re out of school and getting into your career it’s the most important thing. But you realize there are ways to look good and still have function and comfort.

NG: When you did decide to start your own brand, was the accessories the first place you went to? Or did you play around with other ideas?

ND: I’ve always done handbag design. It’s a bit funny, I created this line of handbags when I was 16 years old. I approached a local boutique to carry my bags and they must have felt sorry for me because they did carry them. They were these wire, beaded bags and I look back and just howl because they were so funny. When I did my collection at Ryerson, it was very denim, wearable, which got me my job at Abercrombie but I also designed these handbags, which were pretty nice considering I was young and in school. I’ve just always been passionate about handbags and accessories.

NG: Do you ever pull out one of those ones from school?

ND: Oh my god, I howl! You know how mom’s always store your stuff from school? My mum said to me, “Nat, I need to clean out some of this stuff, please help me.” And we were rolling on the floor laughing about the stuff I had made at Ryerson. My dad was always so supportive and I had these metal plates he engraved ‘Dusome,’ my last name on so I could make little labels. We had this little press so I could make the labels. It was so funny.

NG: I used to write creatively a lot in high school and some I read back, I think, ehhhhhhh.

ND: Exactly, but it’s cool to see how far I’ve come. I found some old handbag sketches from school and think, wow. It’s the progression.

NG: When you made that decision, was it terrifying?

ND: It was terrifying. At the time I had been working for Aldo for five years. I was their head designer. I was travelling to London, Paris, China, Italy, it was a dream. From the time I was little girl, I would see these editors, designers and socialites, these high-powered women and I would dream about being one of them. I worked so hard and became one of those designers at a reputable, amazing company. Not only did I reach my dream, but I loved my boss and the work I did. So, to leave my dream job to start my own company scared the shit out of me. It really did. But I knew in the long run, for the sake of my family and for me always wanting to start my own company, it was now or never.

NG: You have always wanted to start your own business then?

ND: Yes, and it’s funny, back home a lot of us are parents now so we had this high school party where we got sitters and acted like we were in high school. I found my old yearbook picture and it asked, what are you goals and whatnot. Under “What’s your goal?” it read, “To build a million-dollar global brand.” And that was in Grade 9. Laughs. But I did it! I mean, we’re not quite at that level but we’re well on our way.

NG: The brand really is blowing up right now.

ND: It’s been amazing. We’ve had so much support. It’s unbelievable. The influencers, the press and everything we’ve had has been unreal.

NG: When you see one of your bags in the street…

ND: I love it. People must think I’m nuts because I’m staring at them. Even in our town, a small community, everyone is so supportive. I’ll be having a crummy day, I’ll go to the grocery store and see five women wearing my bag and I think, how can I have a bad day?

NG: That must feel so good.

ND: It’s really cool. Not all of the customers who buy bags will recognize me, of course, so once someone was in front of me in the coffee line and I said, “Oh, I really love your bag.” She said, “It’s Poppy and Peonies, it’s a local brand,” and I don’t want to embarrass them so I play it off. Sometimes I say it and sometimes I don’t.

NG: It’s that validation for all the hard work.

ND: It’s so rewarding, especially at places you don’t expect it. I’ll be at Pearson or in other cities and I’ll see it. It’s so nice to make a product that people like and excites them.

NG: For any other young designers thinking about starting their brand, do you have any advice for them?

ND: I think loving what you do and being passionate are the most important things. Sometimes things get so tough that you want to give up and the passion is all that keeps you going. If you don’t have that, it would be easy to let something go. It takes determination, perseverance and a positive attitude to get you through those difficult times. You need to love it so much that you would do it for free, you would stay up until four a.m. doing it, you would do it on vacation. Trust me, there are days where it gets so tough. If you really love it, you’ll succeed at it.

Interview has been condensed for print.

You can visit the Poppy & Peonies website here and follow their Instagram here.

A Conversation with Bea Pizano on CAMINOS 2017

The CAMINOS Festival kicks off next week at Aluna Theatre in conjunction with Native Earth Performing Arts. The festival showcases works-in-progress by local artists who work to push the boundaries of dance, theatre, and performance art. Each night of Caminos Festival offers something new for its spectators. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

We had the opportunity to chat with Aluna Theatre’s Artist Director, Bea Pizano about what to expect with this year’s lineup.

Kimberley Drapack: How is everything going at the moment?

Beatriz Pizano: It’s busy but you do accumulate knowledge during festivals. We’re in a better place than ever. We have a great list of artists that are showing their work so I am really excited.

We open on October 4th and we’ve been seeing a lot of artists because part of what we offer, because they are works in progress, is rehearsal space. We see them coming into our studio. Also, if they need any dramaturgical support, any consultation on direction, or design, we’re available for them. We want to make sure these pieces don’t die after a presentation.

This is just the second Caminos festival for the works in progress. We started in 2015 and back then, I invited some artists to present. This year, I put a call out and we got over 40 applications. This year is quite curated because what I saw in the first festival was a great forum for the work. Six or seven of the artists managed to get a grant based on the work that they presented. We provide them with a totally professional videotape of the work that they present. We don’t present readings, we do full performances for 20 minutes with design elements so they look really good.

One of the things that I find with people who are trying to enter the grant system, it’s really hard to have a body of work if you are just beginning. Most of them don’t have a really good record of anything they have done. Just the fact that you’re presenting in a curated festival makes it better, but if you can present 20 minutes of really great work, the possibilities open up.

K: It must be hard going through the application process.

BP: We try to keep it small, but it’s really hard to say no. Although we live in a time where more grants are given, there are a lot of artists. I really focus on people that I believe are going to take the work to the next stage. After many years helping, because we have put so much investment into artists, it’s OK. Some people try it and they decide that it’s not for them.

At this point, we’re at an important phase in our community that is really exploding. I am putting all the support into people that I know are going beyond. That’s what guided me this year. Those are the artists I’m fascinated to be around. I don’t like the word “hungry”, but they really believe in what they are doing.

We take care of their publicity and marketing to give them the chance to concentrate on the presentation. We take the heavy load.

We’re trying the same format that we tried last year. We present about three pieces per night. This year, we found that with this festival, that the Cabaret is a really important part of our festival. It starts at 9:30 on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and they are free. We discovered that it was important to have things that we can offer that are of no cost. We present stand up, short pieces and burlesque, and people who are experimenting and of course, we have to dance. We have really fantastic DJ’s and live music.

We have very affordable liquor thanks to our sponsors, so I’m trying to keep everything as afford as possible. You pay for one ticket for the entire evening, but if you only want to come to the cabaret you don’t have to pay for anything.

K: CAMINOS 2017 will also feature an international conference on Performance and Human Rights titled, ‘Unsettling the Americas: Radical Hospitalities and Intimate Geographies.’ Can you tell us what to expect from the conference?

BP: The conference is about how art talks to the outside world and to the community in which we live and to the world community. These conversations about performance and human rights have always been really important to us. This year, the graduate drama department at York University came to us and told us about a gathering they do with academics, registered students from all over the Americas every year, and it takes place in a different country. This year, they’re doing it in Toronto and they said they would love to partner with us.

We’re partnering with them, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics in New York. 150 graduate students are coming from all over the Americas and the conversations begin at 2:30 in the afternoon. They are free to the public on Thursday and Friday. They are bringing amazing panelists from all over the countries and will bring really good discussions about things.

This year we are talking a lot about the Latinx community. The Spanish language has a gender, things are either masculine or feminine, so this movement that has been gathering a lot of strength in the states and now in Canada, where they put an ‘x’ at the word ‘Latin’ so you don’t have to define your gender. I’m very excited about their proposals. We have one night that we are calling the ‘Latinx’ night, on the Thursday.

K: What else should we expect at the festival?

BP: We’re very lucky to have Lido Pimienta presenting her one-woman show, We’re in a Non-Relationship Relationship. She just won the Polaris Prize. She has played in all her festivals and this week she just received the most prestigious prize in music in this country, but she’s going to be acting. She’s hilarious. Lido is fearless. Every time I see her on stage I think she has so much guts.

We are also presenting part of our new work which is going to be produced next year at the theatre centers. Everybody has a little bit of everything which is really cool. Most of the pieces are from 20-25 minutes so that we can present many pieces during the night.

I also got a call from a dancer from Mexico, and I thought, this isn’t an international festival, but she sent me a tape and her work is really good so I am having her as a special guest.

I am also bringing a company from Montréal. As we grow, we want to keep grow this idea of Pan-Americanism and Canada is part of Pan-America. We are all part of it, we produce Indigenous, Latin, Latinx, and Canadian artists.

We are trying to expand these perspectives little by little.

K: It seems very inclusive.

BP: When I say that my Pan-Americanism includes Canada, it also applies that Canada includes the world. We’re all a Pan-American community. It’s really exciting. After I saw that we had over 40 applications, I understood that we were on the right track. Our sponsors have responded really well again and we’re starting to gain support.

Everything we do and all the support goes to the artists. That’s what it is for. The jump from being able to produce is the hardest, you may have a great idea but the production side is really hard, especially those who don’t have a body of work yet.

A festival of works-in-progress is a very beautiful place to present because audiences are very engaged. They really feel that they are part of the creation process. They’re crucial. In the exercise of presenting 20 minutes, you really have to distill what the piece is about. It really helps you to understand what you are doing with a piece.

K: It’s also a great beginning for an artist. You’re giving them the opportunity to develop an idea, one they may not have had the opportunity to fully develop into something yet.

BP: In a very professional manner. The competition out there is getting really tough. We have so many great artists in Toronto. You can apply for a grant and there are a lot of other people doing so. With younger artists who are starting out, sometimes they don’t look as good because they haven’t been able to develop their production value yet.

We try to emphasize that we try to bring as much professional support to the artists as we can. Everything isn’t just in the writing in theatre, it’s in the magic of all the elements coming together. I want everyone to feel very supported when they go on the stage because they deserve it.

K: How did Caminos first begin and what have you learned in the past few years of the festival?

BP: In 2014 we realized that our community of artists were not producing work because Aluna is about the only Latin-Canadian company that produces work. Aluna is a small company that can only produce about two shows a year, and I wondered what we could do with all these great artists that need to help to produce their work?

We thought it was important to maintain the presence of a festival, but how do we keep this momentum going? The first Caminos was so much fun. I didn’t expect to have such a great time, it was short and manageable and a lot of great new audiences came. It was a community.

We saw a mixed-audience. Contrary to belief, our audiences have been mostly Canadian. The last six years we have worked to build the Latin American audiences. This is the same with the artists.

My dream one day is to not have to speak about diversity anymore but that we all see each other’s work and we all work together. The divisions are necessary at the beginning, but for me, Canada is an exciting place.

The conversations that I see the conversations taking place in Toronto aren’t happening everywhere, but we are speaking a lot about diversity of perspectives and inclusivity. You never know how this opens doors for an artist.

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A Conversation with Maestro Kerry Stratton of TO Concert Orchestra

Casa Loma

There’s little doubt that Mozart is not coming back as the hottest producer any time soon. Yet, for many, his name is not only familiar but also synonymous with grandeur, quality, and a kind of genius our culture continues to celebrate. That his is the music and style whose vestiges are still engrained in our culture is a testimony to its power and endurance. And that is even if not many listen to it — we will long deliver eulogies to Mozart and his music, and many like it.

But Maestro Kerry Stratton and the Toronto Concert Orchestra is trying to change that. They want to bring back out to the streets from their mausoleum classical music, symphonies, and the genre’s particular genius and ability to move and connect us.

Over the course of the summer, at the beautiful Casa Loma, Maestro Stratton and his orchestra delivered on their promises to make the genre relevant again. Downright rejecting the culture of exclusivity associated with orchestral music, Symphony in the Gardens attracted a motley audience of old and young, connoisseurs and those simply intrigued; during intermission, conversation flowed between parties and in line to get second glasses of wine.

I spoke with Maestro Stratton over the phone prior to meeting him in person. In both, he was candid and jovial about his love of and his misgivings about the way we appreciate music. His affection for his players and the music was contagious.

Maestro Kerry Stratton

Hoon: You’ve led orchestras in a number of different cities, Budapest, Prague, Seoul, among others. Can you speak to Toronto’s orchestra or classical music culture, and how it’s different from others and if it has a potential to grow here?

Kerry Sratton: Well, I would say that the first potential for growth for any orchestra anywhere in the world is the growth of its public. That’s one that comes to mind. But there is another kind of growth, the growth that comes because no matter what we do, we can improve upon it. That’s the kind that every orchestra, truly great ones, understand — they know that they must continue to hone their art. That’s what makes them as wonderful as they are. This is not an art form for the complacent.

H: How do you think the public can be engaged with Toronto’s orchestras and their growth? It’s not the most popular form of entertainment for the public at the moment.

KS: First of all, I absolutely adore your choice of words, “entertainment”. I have colleagues who regard that as, for some reason or another, well, say, a dirty word. And I don’t feel that way. I feel that if there’s anything that we must remember about the great composers is that they understood that they must entertain and they must entertain with considerable immediacy as well.
For some reason or another there are artists who disdain that. But it was certainly well known to Mozart. It was well known to Beethoven and many other composers who sought to…. Handel was told once by somebody departing a concert, “We were well entertained.” And Handel’s answer was “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
That’s what I think, if you asked me the question “what do I want for the public.” It’s not really that they should buy a ticket (though that’s a marvellous thing and we need them badly). It’s that they should leave better than they arrived. That’s what I think it should do. Yes, it should uplift us, no doubt about it. But it should also entertain and I do not regard that with any kind of disdain whatsoever.

H: Thank you for your candor.

KS: Well you know I’ll put it to you this way. If you want a motto from my orchestra it would be “you pay admission not tuition”

H: What would you say differentiates classical music in terms of the connection between performers and the audience?

KS: Well, that’s a very good question because it’s an enormous question, and the key aspect of it is that the connection is something you cannot manufacture. I think it is the strength of the performer’s personality, and will always be a matter of the strength of personality. I don’t think it will ever change. In one way, the public is infallible — they truly are. I forget who said it but, “Do not disdain popular culture”: to disdain popular culture is to make a huge mistake. Nobody can tell you who the speaker of the house was in 1935 but they can all tell you who Shirley Temple was. It is the humanity that makes the connection — the human to human connection is what makes going to one of our concerts far better than the best thing you can find. It’s not a human being with an electronic machine.

H: There are certainly stereotypes about classical music and going to concerts and listening to a symphony — that it’s expensive and you have to dress a certain way, be a certain kind of a person.

KS: I would put it to you this way: Who better to dress for than Mozart? But instead of worrying about that, I think the public should come looking for that humanity I mentioned in my previous answer. Some of the great symphonies, you need life experiences to appreciate, but that’s not something that should hold you back. There are things that you tell someone at different stages in their lives. Some are ready earlier, some are not ready until they’ve gone through certain stages. The lines are entirely clear. I think we are still hung up on the Hollywood version of classical music and its culture, which is all rubbish. Hollywood never gets it right. Ever.

H: Do you think there is a way to ‘modernize’ or otherwise make classical music more relevant to today’s audience?

KS: One of the things I find very tiresome these days is that there are all kinds of articles about ‘Look, Franz Liszt was the Mick Jagger of his time” or so and so is the someone of his time. No, they weren’t, I find that very tiresome. Franz Liszt was like no one else, Franz Liszt was like Franz Liszt, and he swept people away with the power of his play, his delivery, and his genius. So he doesn’t need to be compared to somebody modern. Franz Liszt will speak to you as Franz Liszt.

H: Is there something that a Toronto orchestra is doing to attract a more younger or diverse audiences than the standard ones?

KS: Well that seems to be the Holy Grail for orchestras everywhere not just Toronto. I would say if you want a younger group, then you better start getting a board of directors for the younger demographics and an orchestra that can engage in what you’re doing. And I have a young orchestra and they are very much engaged in what they do, and you cannot hide that from the public. It is as obvious as a fresh hair cut. These young excellent players fully engage in what they are doing. It is contagious! It is utterly contagious to the public and that’s what brings people back. We’re finishing out fourth summer at Casa Loma and I tell you, it has just been a revelation. There is no single demographic. We’ve got everybody, we’ve got people of all ages and ethnicities. Truly, I can say this and invite anybody to come and experience what I can say. If I’m saying this to a reporter who might check me out, you’d be damn sure I’m telling the truth. [I am and did, and found this to be true.]

H: Classical music is often associated with the past. How do you conceive of its future? Where is classical music going? Not just in Toronto but in general.

KS: ‘Classical music’ is a horrible misnomer. You take classical music and the first thing that comes to mind is ‘dead white guys.’ I’ve got some wonderful young composers that I have been featuring. They’re alive, they walk the earth, and to deny them an opportunity to be heard is to deny the chance of making the spirit of Beethoven dwell within them. And I am perfectly willing to hear these people. And it isn’t out of some sort of charity — you can forget that aspect. I am entirely convinced of what they are doing. If the conductor is convinced about the piece, then he can convince the players, and the players will convince the public. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I found composers that I think are absolutely convincing. What I cannot abide is the pseudo-complexity of too much modern music. It is ridiculous how serious they can take themselves. My only question to that is, and this is not rhetorical, Who do you think you are? Please answer my question, I want to know.

H: I think people (myself for one) think of themselves simply as an audience member. It is more of a passive role for most people. It’s sometimes hard to see or remember that the audience is just as important in creating a culture.

KS: I’ll tell you something and you probably already know this so I’ll remind you. My choice of words is that I will remind you. When you’re on stage, I don’t care if it is to announce, to sing, to act, to read a poem you know if the audience is with you or not, and you feel it. It comes off like paint. You cannot not know if the they’re with you, and it’s the greatest feeling when they are and you should be covered in sweat if they’re not. I will put it to you this way, what we look for in a concert, in a performance, in an art- they are all the things that can’t be taught. And if a performer cannot truly experience from her experience, learn how to do it, then some other line of work should reckon as soon as possible.

H: If you had a particular favourite when you’re at Casa Loma, the people should look out for or if t changes all the time.

KS: Oh no, I’m afraid my love for music is quite promiscuous. There’s that wonderful line in that I forget which Broadway musical it was but the guy said, “when I’m out with the girl I love, I love the girl I’m with” — absolutely true. One night if I I’m with Beethoven then I love Beethoven but if it’s Mozart the next night, then Mozart is my true love, and on it will go. And that’s the only way it should be. You cannot be playing one composer and wishing you were playing somebody else, that’s the route to failure.

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A Conversation with Ronnie Rowe Jr. on Black Cop

Every September, Torontonians eagerly wait for the arrival of TIFF and its noteworthy films and spectacular talent. This year, TIFF mounted over 336 films through a range of genres and early releases. It’s my favourite time of year. Not only are stars brought in from all over the world, the festival is special in that it is a great place for new and emerging talent to shine in. Some are right from our own backyard. Ronnie Rowe Jr. is a Toronto native who is hot on our radar. He stars in his first feature film Black Cop, which premiered at TIFF, a spectacular feat for someone new to film.

I caught Ronnie Rowe Jr. on his way to a fitting for a TV show in Toronto that he can’t quite talk about yet, but something tells me that Black Cop won’t be the last we see of this talented individual.

Photo Credit: TIFF

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in acting?

Ronnie Rowe Jr.: I was actually forced into acting funny enough, because of a grade six teacher. He was really into musical theatre so he forced all the grade sixes to audition for these plays. One of them was Oliver Twist, another one was Greece, and another one was the Sound of Music. Through this opportunity, that’s when I fell in love with acting. I got to play Danny Zuko, so I might have been the first black Danny Zucko. I got to play Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, I was the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.

I thought it was amazing that I could remember the lines. It never felt like I was memorizing.

K: Did it feel like second nature to you?

RRJ: Yeah, I thought it was so much fun and the most fun I’ve had. I got to be free and do it in front of people and they enjoyed it.

The lights really helped. I got nervous at one point, and thought, “oh, I can’t even see anybody.”

Photo Credit: HO-Cylla von Tiedemann

K: What has it been like building your career in the Toronto film and theatre scene?

RRJ: I just came off a theatre tour with Soulpepper, we remounted Kim’s Convenience. We got to go Off Broadway because of it.

I started doing independent theatre about five or six years ago with Unit 102. Through that, more people in the theatre scene started to see me. I got invited to audition for Tarragon, which I booked, but funding fell through.

I did a play with Obsidian Theatre and over at Theatre Passe Muraille and from that, I got to tour Canada with Kim’s Convenience. I got to tour Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, and Off Broadway all this year. It’s been a great year so far.

K: You’ve hit all the major Toronto theatre venues.

RRJ: I love theatre so much. Every time I come off of a theatre run I become this different tool. You get to work the same material for so long and you can’t get bored with it, you have to become fascinated with it, dig deeper, find more things and keep it fresh. It’s a great teacher for me.

K: Do you feel as though it builds a different skill set as opposed to preparing for a film scene?

RRJ: I feel as though it sharpens my actor because of the repetitions. Anytime I’m doing a theatre run I’m always working that material. You discover so many things. The more you say something, the more it comes to life. I love the process of theatre because it’s pretty long.

I think film is like that as well. You get to draw out certain aspects, and you’re trying to find these within the character and the themes. Those processes feel very similar to me.


K: Does one feel more like home than the other?

RRJ: I feel very comfortable in both theatre and film, and I love them both for different reasons. With theatre, it’s the immediacy, and the intimacy. With film, it’s that it’s so character and story driven. It’s about those moments and that’s where the similarity lies. These moments are so key in theatre and in film.

It’s the same with TV, but I feel as though you get to flush out a bit more with those two mediums.

K: It’s nice to have that immediate connection with your audience through theatre.

RRJ: There’s nothing like it. Whenever there is that first joke in a play, to kind of catch the audience within that state of performance is amazing. Then, you just dance with it for the rest o it. 

K: So you’ve been a natural since the beginning?

RRJ: It just really makes me happy, being up there and expressive and vulnerable… I love it because it’s so scary. 

I found that within the journey of self-discovery and trying to find out who you are, I always needed art to be part of what I do, whether it’s poetry or acting, I need to be artistically expressive.

K: Do you write poetry as well? Did you start as a kid?

RRJ: I do. I’ve been doing it for awhile but it’s just now that I’ve started sharing my pieces more.

K: Do you remember the first time you showed someone a poem?

RRJ: For sure. I’m pretty sure it was a female. 

It’s always nice to get feedback and when people resonate with what you’re saying. Just like with acting or any other form of expression.

K: What is it like to have a film premiering in TIFF?

RRJ: I haven’t seen the film in its entirety yet, so the premier will be the first time I’m actually seeing it. It’s a weird thing, where I’m going to be judging myself…

I’m from Toronto and to have my first feature film premier at home. It’s pretty epic. I have such a great support base and family and friends that are so excited to see the film. I get to experience this first thing with them. It’s pretty awesome.

K: Tell us about Black Cop. How did this collaboration first begin?

RRJ: The movie is a satire/drama. It’s a man’s struggle between his duty and who he is as an individual. Through every day life, he experiences profiling, or being profiled by a police officer and it sets him over the edge to take things into his own hands and set out on a path of revenge.

K: What were your first thoughts on the script?

RRJ: I’ve worked with Cory Bowles (director) before on one of his short films called Free Throw. That was four years ago, and he always told me that we were going to work together again. Last year, I get a call and he says he has a script that he wants me to look at.

I read it and thought that it was dangerous. He asked me to come in and tape and to show the producers what I could do. Then they said they wanted me to do the damn thing.

We filmed it in twelve shooting days on a micro budget. I’m really happy with the things I’ve seen based on what we had to work with. It’s pretty amazing.

It’s a dream come true. Most actors I know want to be a lead, but a lead in a feature film and one that has life, a real story behind it. For it to be premiered at home… I couldn’t have wrote it any better.

K: How does it feel to be a leading man?

RRJ: It feels fantastic. It’s something that I was always capable of being and now I’m thankful for the opportunity to showcase that and for other people to see what I already believed.

K: What can Black Cop tell its audiences, especially considering the current political climate around the world and issues around profiling?

RRJ: I feel as though it’s a very timely film. I don’t know if it’s necessarily going to tell you something, but what it does is allow you to observe a different perspective. A perspective that I’m sure that not everybody considers. Based on how things go down, you know that not everybody is considered, or else things would be different if they did.

This film will start conversations and open up conversations that you may have not started before.

Photo Credit: TIFF

K: Black Cop reveals its protagonist as “calculatingly taking control of terror rather than submitting to it.” Is that part of the revenge story you were talking about? What does this mean for your role?

RRJ: Definitely. It means that he begins to profile the profiler. We have heard or seen things through social media, and some of these things may be what you encounter with this gentleman, because he’s heard it. He’s thinking, “let’s see how it feels when you go through it.”

It may promote empathy. It’s easier to sympathize with something, when you see someone like you go through it. The film gives you this opportunity.

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