A Conversation with Morro & Jasp on Clowning, Feminism, and Performance

Toronto is no stranger to many great forms of theatre, spanning from the bright lights of Mirvish to the quaint and intimate smaller venues decorating our city. We can easily find a home away from home within these performance spaces. Currently, at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction graces the stage with an ultimate power-duo, and one of the only female-centered clown duos within the GTA.

Morro & Jasp, otherwise known as Heather Marie Annis (Morro), and Amy Lee (Jasp) have geared up for an entirely new production based off their years of experience and studying circus shows across the U.S. Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is said to ask questions regarding “the meaning of faith, and will have a series of male chorus members onstage with them (the first time they have ever shared a stage with anyone) challenging them, and making them ask tough questions about the society they live in.”

Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee, together with director Byron Laviolette, have created 10 full-length shows over 12 years, which led them to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. It is no question that Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is destined for greatness, creating an immersive theatre experience for all to enjoy.

Kimberley Drapack: When did you begin clowning?

Morro & Jasp: We met in university and started clown training in 2004. Byron Laviolette, our director, had studied clown in high school, approached us to work on a clown show after he saw us do a physical theatre piece together in the student festival.

K: What prep work did you have to partake in for the show?

M&J: We do our hair and makeup together do a physical, voice and clown warm-up. Then put on our noses.  We go through our clown masks and colours (a tradition of Pochinko-style clowning). Then, right before we go on stage, Morro tells Jasp (in the style of Darth Vader) that she is her father. Then we play a game. Then we repeat our mantra about how we are going to have the most fun together and then we dance.

K: What does this form of theatre offer audiences opposed to more traditional forms of theatre?

M&J: The clown nose reminds audiences that we are playing together, so people are allowed to invest in the game of theatre with us. We don’t ask them to pretend there is a fourth wall, which we feel allows them to let their guard down a little more and laugh at themselves. Also, since clowns are not regular humans, they can comment on human behaviour in a way that makes it seem new and things we take for granted as “regular” behaviour doesn’t seem so regular when it is done by a clown.

K: What is a feminist clown and what does it mean to you?

M&J: We can only define that for ourselves, not for all feminist clowns. But for us, because we are women and we make work that is true to ourselves and reflects our experience in the world, we are feminist clowns. We don’t constantly think about feminism when we are creating work, we think about the theme we are exploring and try to put that on stage in the most honest way. That, to most people, reads as feminism, because it is our truth.

K: How have Morro & Jasp evolved since your earlier shows?

M&J: We started making Morro and Jasp shows for kids and the clowns were younger in those shows, to reflect the audience we were playing to. Since then, Morro and Jasp age, mature, and change with every show and mirror our own journeys. They are constantly evolving based on where we are at in our lives, and therefore where they are at in their lives. Right now, they are very confused about the state of the world.

K: Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is said to be a response to the “state of the world.” What does this mean to you?

M&J: To us, the world feels more confusing than ever right now and it is hard to know where to look for guidance and answers. This show is an exploration of how we develop our own stories of what life is or should be, and how that affects us and the people around us. We were curious about how faith and belief plays a role in the world today and how that guides us or gets in our way.

K: What was it like sharing the stage with additional cast members? Why were they added to this show?

M&J: Sharing the stage with Anand, Elliott, and Sefton has been exciting, challenging, rewarding, and has made us look at what we do and how we do it in entirely new ways. They have been bending over backwards, sideways and upside down to work fast, on the fly, then change everything, to accommodate our style of working. It has definitely reconfirmed that we have an unconventional way of working, and we are so grateful to have found playmates who can role with our punches.

We added additional characters because this play is about Morro and Jasp coming up against a world and feelings that they can’t figure out how to navigate. Their relationship is strained when the play begins and we wanted to challenge Morro and Jasp to have to find a way back to each other with a whole new set of elements coming between them. Also, because our play is about systems of belief, we felt it was necessary to have other characters start to follow the clowns and buy into their beliefs.

K: What does Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction hope to show its audiences? What themes can we find within the show?

M&J: We certainly don’t have answers to the questions we are posing in this show. By creating it, we have just discovered more and more questions. But those questions are about belief through the stories we are told or the stories we tell ourselves. When do these stories go too far? When do they get entwined with the human desire for power and status? When do they start to divide us? When do these stories prevent us from being authentic, open and able to connect with one another? When do they keep us from dancing like no one’s watching?

K: What is the most essential element to clowning?

M&J: Play.

K: What is next for you? Can we expect to see Morro & Jasp in the future?

M&J: You can certainly expect to see lots more of Morro and Jasp in the future! Our video game, Morro and Jasp: Unscripted, will be out later this week, so you can buy that on the App store and you can make us put on plays for you all the time! In the fall, we will be playing Of Mice and Morro and Jasp to high schools with Manitoba Theatre for Young which is going to be a magnificent adventure. We also have some more shows in the works that we can’t talk about yet.

K: Anything else you would like to add?

M&J: We could go on forever, but we have to go back to rehearsal, so we will just say – come see the show! If you’ve never seen a clown show, or you don’t think you like clowns, you should still come. We promise to surprise you.

Don’t miss Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction, which runs through June 24 at Streetcar Crowsnest and continue following our arts and culture coverage on  FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Paul and Niki of Theatre PANIK

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Niki Landau and Paul Lampert the Artistic Directors of Toronto’s renowned experimental theatre, Theatre PANIK and their production — as actor and director, respectively — of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies

When I visited them during rehearsals at Tarragon theatre, Niki was acting out an emotionally fraught scene with actor David Schurm. After Paul’s notes and a jovial conversation between the production teams, we sat down in a corner to discuss Strangers, Babies, and what it’s like for Niki and Paul, who are a couple in real life, to work so together.

Photo from PANIK

Hoon: How did you come across Linda McLean’s play, Strangers, Babies?

Paul: I was looking for an interesting, vibrant script from writers we haven’t heard of before. This may sound slightly strange, but I actually found Linda McLean on the internet. Not the play, but I found the agency that represents McLean in North America. They have the biographies of the playwrights and descriptions of the plays – so I ordered three or four copies and read it.

Niki: What was really exciting about Linda McLean — the reason why we even went down that road — is that she’s been produced all over the world but never in Canada. She even came and gave the keynote address to our Playwrights’ Guild in 2009 but still was never produced here. To find a female playwright who writes the way she does and who’s gaining notoriety is…it’s a real find.

Paul: The writing is wonderful. It’s very crisp and tight and great for actors because there’s a lot to mine. On the first get go, when I read the play, I went, This is such good writing for actors. It’s an interesting role for Niki because she’s in all five of the scene or playettes.

Niki: I think what was interesting about it was the idea of a woman, the central character, and the five men in her life and how they are affecting it. The premise is unusual in that it’s often the other way around.

Photo by Neil Silcox

H: Niki, could you tell us a bit about the character you are playing?

Niki: When we first see May, she seems relatively normal, a bit fragile, maybe a bit quirky. You sort of wonder what’s going on with her. As the play goes on, you discover that she has things in her past that are either secret, disturbing, or horribly violent. She’s desperately trying to move on with her life and to lead a normal life. And it’s really hard. She comes up against each of the men in the scenes — she has to get through them to get to a more independent life.

H: From what I understand, audiences will be able to walk around the theatre space and follow the course of the action that way. Was that your decision or was that part of McLean’s direction? 

Paul: Right, it’s not in the play. It’s written open ended and McLean doesn’t give a lot of stage directions. So our idea was to set it up almost like a curated art gallery with different dioramas or exhibits wherein each one of these men lives. May travels from one scene to the next and so does the audience. So they can be actually inside the room or peep through these windows we have — each environment May is in is radically different without having to use moving set changes.

Niki: I think before now, it was done at least somewhat conventionally. What’s really neat about this is that one of the themes in the play is concerned with what it’s like to live in the city. May is always missing the parks, the nature, trees, birds — she really longs for an open space. And in each of these scenes there is an apartment, a hotel room, a hospital…tight spaces. The idea is, What do we do with our huge feelings — our anger, our passions — in these little rooms. We have to be so contained, so under control. I think it lends itself to this feeling of being trapped.

Paul: Ironically, there is one scene that is outside but it’s also the cathartic and climactic scene of the play, in which you figure out, without spoiling, “what went down.”

Photo by Neil Silcox

H: Tell us a bit about Theatre Panik.

Paul: We’re trying to push the boundaries of what theatre is. Two years ago, at Nuit Blanche, we did something called Peep, which was a way of experimenting with the idea of peeping into windows and viewing. So we combined that with the curatorial theatre or gallery theatre idea (we don’t actually really have a name yet) for Panik.

Niki: Curatorial theatre is something we’re working with for now [laughs]. Part of the reason that we are doing this is because theatre can’t just stay static. Now that what theatre used to be able to do — a certain kind of realism — tv and film can do better, theatre needs to keep growing and changing and exciting people. I think what people want now is an experience. They want to go out at night and experience something they will not forget that’s also going to be engaging and exciting to talk about. I know when I’ve seen theatre like that, I talked about it for years. I think that’s what people want now from theatre, not what they already know and expect.

H: Panik has been called the ‘alternative theatre.’ What are your thoughts on the label?

Paul: I don’t have a problem with it. We’re certainly not mainstream. If that’s the label that needs to be applied, that’s fine.

Niki: I think no matter what, we’d always want to be alternative [laughs]. I think we are a bit contrarian in that way.

Photo by Neil Silcox

H: I know you guys are couples in real life…

Niki: Yayy!

Paul: Nobody’s asked us that for a time [laughs].

H: Well, here it is: What is it like to work together on a play that deals directly with personal history and relationships? 

Niki: We fell in love working on a project. To a certain extent, it’s really great to see each other in our elements. Sort of like, Oh, there you are doing that thing you do best. That’s really great. We have all these different roles we’re playing as director actor producers, parents, and husband and wife.

Paul: I know other couples who have this kind of working relationship, all to a different degree of success. We’re lucky in that we really enjoy working together. After working together for so many years — what, 17 years or something? — there’re a lot of short cuts. I can just turn to Niki and say, You know that moment? And Niki goes, Yes, I know. And no more needs to be said.

Niki: When we go home, usually the last thing I say is, You did great today. So that part is really nice.

Paul: I also compliment her [laughs].

H: Okay, let’s move on before you make people jealous. PANIK’s mandate, first written shortly after 9/11, includes the statement, “Gathering, in today’s world, is becoming a bit of a risk.” What are your thoughts on it today? Do you want to change or revamp the message in any way? 

Niki: I wish we would have to change it. That’s been there since the beginning because when we founded it, it was close to 9/11 that there were still a lot of fear mongering about gathering. And there was a time when I thought maybe we should change that. But then unfortunately, it’s even scarier now. It feels as if fear mongering’s been justified. I really do think that gathering and being communal, sharing our stories are all very important. I think that is a huge strength in the face of a lot of fear and divisiveness.

Paul: We make a point of trying to be as inclusive as possible in our gathering. The community is important to us.

For more information on PANIK and to get tickets to Strangers, Babies, visit their website here. Strangers, Babies by Linda McLean runs through May 28th. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Emil Sher on The Boy in the Moon at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre

Sitting at Pearson Airport waiting to hop on a flight to the Yukon for a reading tour through the Canadian Children’s Book Centre is Emil Sher. Sponsored through TD, the “TD Canadian Children’s Book Week” happens each spring and invites authors and illustrators to “foreign lands.” The main rule when applying is that one may not tour within their own province. Emil applied for B.C., Newfoundland and the Yukon and will be giving talks in schools and other communities throughout the course of the week on his books, Away (2017) and Young Man with Camera (2015).

In a thirty-five minute conversation, we bonded over our love of Montréal, theatre, and academia.

Emil was born and raised in Montréal and one of our initial talking points was how we both were in the same undergraduate program with the same major at McGill University. Just recently graduating from McGill, it has provided me with some solace to see a former graduate of the same program as finding a great deal of success within a creative field. This of course is not without years of hard work and nurturing relationships.

After his time at McGill, Sher went to Africa for two years to teach, and later returned to Montreal where he achieved his MA in Creative Writing. Upon graduating, Sher considered his options.

“Do I go the academic route? Which was one path to take, and obviously an honourable one. Or do I freelance and stitch together a living? That’s the choice I made. Despite the odds, and common sense, I’ve managed.” 

Within his choice of becoming a freelance writer, Sher has had considerable success as an author of many genres. As Sher puts it, he “wears many hats” which showcases his endless creative capabilities and success within whatever field he chooses to navigate. Sher has engineered two lives within one lifetime. On one hand, he has had great success with his writing, and at the same time, he continues to teach and hold workshops for young writers. He has successfully fulfilled both prophecies.

We had the opportunity to speak with Emil about The Boy in the Moon, his upcoming projects, and why theatre should not set up an audience member with the expectation to learn something, but rather, provide the spectator with an onslaught of new questions about life and human nature.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first begin writing?

Emil Sher: God Bless Canada, we have wonderful arts funding. I received a Canada Council Grant for $10,000 in my early twenties. $10,000 now barely covers my daughter’s tuition, but then, it went a long way.

I started down that path and worked on a novel that didn’t get published but was great apprenticeship of sorts. I ended up doing a fair bit of Radio Drama for CBC, some children’s animations, and a screenplay that was shot in Montréal.

It was just a matter of nurturing relationships. Since these projects take so long, you really want to make sure you are working with the right people because it’s always a challenging journey. You can never control the outcome.

You work on a project, whether it’s a book, a play, or a film, and there is absolutely no control over how people will respond to the story. So much of the gratification and the hard work comes from shaping the story, and that goes back to finding fellow travellers who are in for the long haul.

K: What was it about Walker’s story that made you want to adapt The Boy in the Moon into a play?

ES: I’ve long known Ian Brown and I think he’s one of the finest writers in the country. He has a lovely hybrid of humour, self-deprecation and real heartwarming insights. He writes beautifully crafted phrases.

It began as a series on Walker with beautiful photographs and I almost instinctually knew it was going to be a book. Of course, that’s exactly what happened and he nurtured that into The Boy in the Moon.

I read The Boy in the Moon and because I wear different hats and have my toes in different waters – I’ve done children’s fiction, I’ve done non-fiction essays in the Globe, and I do theatre for both children and adults – and I saw a play called A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a beautiful non-fiction book about her husband who keeled over one day from a heart attack when they were having dinner. She writes about that process. As it turns out, that book was turned into a stage play and they lifted whole pages out of the book whole with no effort to dramatize it, but just simply present her thoughts and insights on stage. I thought it worked beautifully. It wasn’t a conventional play, but it was a beautiful narrative.

So then I thought, this has been done before. You can take a non-fiction, first-person voice and transfer it onto the stage. Ian’s book is entirely first-person and told through his eyes but I knew that Ian alone did not raise Walker. Joanna Schneller, his wife, is a film columnist for the Globe and Mail, and I knew it was essential to weave Joanna’s voice into this story as well.

The third act I call “Planet Walker.” It is made up of all the people who have formed and shaped Walker’s life, primarily his sister Hayley, Olga, the family nanny, and all the doctors and social workers who stepped into Ian and Joanna’s life and had an impact.

In some cases, I took words that he had crafted and gave them to Joanna, because I knew that these would have been shared thoughts and shared perspective, and on top of that, I interviewed Joanna on my own. One of the most gratifying moments was seeing Ian at the Ottawa premiere in 2014 learn things about his wife that he heard on stage for the first time.

I also spoke with Hayley, their daughter. I spent a morning with Olga, the nanny, and I wove all those interviews into the fabric of the play. What you see in the play is large chunks of Ian’s book, but also original material that you wouldn’t find in the book. It added layers to the narrative.

K: What were the main surprises or challenges that came up for you through this process?

ES: Chris Abraham, who is directing the Toronto premiere at Crow’s Theatre, has done verbatim theatre before. I thought, why not only approach a great director, but one whose mined this territory before. It takes a certain sensibility.

Verbatim theatre is not necessarily inherently dramatic. It’s not like taking dialogue between two characters where you can take it where you want to. Here, are spoken words that have already been expressed, and you sort of have to shape it. That was probably the biggest challenge; taking something that seems static and making it dramatic.

One thing that Chris has done is he has added a third actor, Kelly McNamee, who plays Hayley and a host of other roles. One beautiful layer to this production is dance. There are some really lovely movement pieces, where it becomes its own character almost.

I knew ultimately that we could harness the tools of theatre in ways that could really underscore of what I think is the power and beauty of the story. There is an intimacy to theatre that you don’t have in other forms of storytelling. It’s so live and so present.

K: Along with The Boy in the Moon, you also translated the story, Hannah’s Suitcase into a play. What are the difficulties in adapting works with such sensitive subject matters? What role or responsibility does a playwright have in this situation?

ES: The book is called Hannah’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, who is a CBC producer. I read that book to my children about ten or eleven years ago. I knew about the book and that it was about the Holocaust. My late mother was a Holocaust survivor, so there was that draw of course, and I thought it was a beautiful story. You rarely hear the words “hope” and “Holocaust” paired together. It’s a hopeful story because its largely driven by this Japanese teacher who was relentless in uncovering Hannah’s story. I found that profoundly moving and inspiring.

I migrate towards the dark because that’s where I think a lot of hard, but important truths are about human nature.

I think ultimately, you have to honour the story. That’s probably the biggest challenge and responsibility. I think it’s so important to preserve the core of the story which could be tricky in the first place. You can add layers, but you have a responsibility to be faithful with that core.

K: Chris Abraham, (the director of The Boy in the Moon) commented that this show “makes a very intangible experience tangible.” What does this comment mean to you? How does it relate to your specific style of writing?

ES: You have on a page, a story in a newspaper or in a book, that visually comes to life. That goes back to the intimacy and power of live theatre. When you hear Ian’s struggle, his quest and his journey, visually given voice to by an actor, that’s very different than reading it off a page.

When you read a book, it’s unmediated, which is part of the power of reading, (which is why I write novels as well) and theatre by its very nature, has to be mediated. There is the actor interpreting the story. When it’s in the right hands, it can be absolutely transcendent and that’s what makes it so tangible, because you literally hear the emotion in someone’s voice.

On the other hand, the power of theatre often comes from what isn’t said. You can have moments of silence on stage that are just so powerful and so weighted. To me, that’s taking the tangible, which is often emotions, what we experience but can’t often express, and what theatre does, is gives it expression. 

K: It seems as if there are a lot of layers to this production.

ES: There is movement, sound, and gorgeous lighting by Kimberley Purtell and Thomas Payne. They are all threads, that when woven together, creates a singular experience.

K: Do you find that theatre is a way to teach people these certain aspects of storytelling?

ES: I’m always reluctant to be any type of teacher on stage. I don’t think a play should provide any lessons or that audiences should arrive expecting to learn something. Rather, I feel a play should challenge us in ways where we don’t leave the theatre with answers so much as a raft of questions.

A stage is not the place for tidy answers. An audience shouldn’t step into a theatre expecting any. Life is layered and complicated, all the more so when it means weaving a boy like Walker into the fabric of our lives. Adapting The Boy in the Moon was more than simply a great privilege linked to a deep responsibility. It was a reminder that theatre is a communal experience, and it is in community where we find the answers to the questions — raw, necessary, urgent — laid bare on stage.

K: You’ve spent a lot of time working with children through various workshops that you hold. What inspired this process? What have you learned through it?

ES: Childhood is so formative. This is PSYCH 101; but I think that to work with children is such a wonderful and marvelous opportunity to help create an environment they can carry with them, long after childhood. I don’t know if they will, but it’s a privilege to till that soil.

I may go and plant some seeds, but what they do with those seeds is up to them. If one or two bear fruit that I may have had a hand in nurturing, then it doesn’t get better than that. There is no question that childhood experiences are formative. They shape who we are.

Childhood is still an opportunity for hope.

K: What can The Boy in the Moon teach us about childhood and growing up?

ES: It’s complex and layered, tangled and beautiful. It can take years to understand. Like all the chapters of our lives, I think there’s much there to unravel. I don’t think we should feel the need to understand everything at a given point. There is something that may have happened to us in childhood that may only make sense to us while we’re adults and that is OK.

K: In stories dealing with tough subject matters, authors will often include moments of comic relief. Do you find this necessary within a story like The Boy in the Moon?

ES: That’s definitely part of it – there is humour in The Boy in the Moon. I think it almost becomes a pressure valve of sorts, but it also is more than that. Humour can reveal some important truths.

I think humour is essential to navigate life. There is a lot of darkness out there and if you look hard and long enough. Humour is one way of coping with the darkness and maybe subvert things when they need to be subverted.

K: Do you find this has been a useful tool within your writing?

ES: Definitely. Humour is really hard to pull off well, and when it fails, it really falls flat. It’s often at one’s own expense, so of course we are going to laugh.

K: What advice do you have for young writers/authors who wish to tackle sensitive subject matters within their work?

ES: The golden rule for anyone who wants to write is: write. We can spend a lot of time thinking about writing, and far less time actually writing. Don’t hold back and don’t censor yourself. Don’t question it, just get it down, because then you have a ball of clay to work with. Otherwise, you are dealing with air.

In terms of sensitivity, I think you have to be sensitive to any stuff that you are tackling. Whether it is a family with a profoundly disabled son, because we are all ultimately human and vulnerable and fallible, I think you should use the same sensitivity no matter what story you are telling.

Don’t get distracted by bells and whistles or prose that can ultimately be more of a detour than the destination.

K: What would you want audiences to take away from The Boy in the Moon?

ES: If they leave with a question they hadn’t considered before they arrived, that would be terrific. That would be gratifying.

After The Boy in the Moon, Sher will continue with his adapted musical version of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater that’s opening this October at the Segal Centre in Montreal. He is writing the book and co-writing the lyrics with composer and lyricist Jonathan Monro. The show is being directed by Donna Feore, whom Sher describes as “one of the country’s finest musical theatre directors.”  

Catch The Boy in the Moon onstage at the Streetcar Crowsnet Guloien Theatre from May 9th-27th and continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Ngozi Paul of The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely

When a spokesperson for Ngozi Paul’s (Da Kink in My HairThe Emancipation of Ms. Lovely reached out with the possibility of doing a Q & A with the actor/writer, I was excited to read the description of the play. The Emancipation, the e-mail said, is concerned with Ms. Lovely’s struggle to understand herself as a black woman as she awakens to her sexual identity; her narrative is intertwined with that of Sarah Baartman, the Venus Hottentot, the historical symbol of racism, colonialism, and the male gaze and the objectification of the female body.

It was instantaneously obvious to me how the play would be pertinent to our times post-November, 2016. But near the very end of the email, I read that the play was a NOW Magazine Critic’s Pick at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival.

My excitement gave way to a quiet reprimand — it was clear that somewhere I wrongly assumed the play to be a product of the current political climate. Much of the urgency with which we address key issues of race, gender, and sexuality indeed have to do with the circus in Washington — but they have been urgent issues long before that. Which is, despite the mainstream’s corrective or good intentions, bittersweet — certain struggles, limited to the experience of a certain people and outside the scope of others, had to wait so long to see the light. The problems of well-intentioned, broad-strokes, universal social and cultural movements are plain to see not just on television but within expectations that the Emancipation or works of art like it must have been written some time last year.

Perhaps that we — yes, most likely I’m not the only one — are surprised or mildly, sardonically amused by how prescient the play seem to be is the very reason why the play is relevant today. It is not that the play alone has a sense of urgency. It is, rather, that the audience should be indignant, should sense the urgency of their roles as immediate participants in the larger culture.

Here are a few questions I had the chance to ask Ms. Paul.

Hoon: What drew you to take part in the Emancipation of Ms. Lovely?

Ngozi Paul: I wrote The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely because I was working on the 1st Time Project, which is a multi-platform that centers around the first sexual experiences of women from intergenerational and intercultural perspectives. d’bi young, who is a monodramatist and friend, challenged me by saying that if I was going to ask women about their sexual experiences that I should dive into my own experiences. I was in South Africa at the time and this was where I really started to research the story of Sarah Baartman. The parallel between how she was objectified and how pop culture objectifies women resonated with me. I wanted to just “put it out there” and share openly the labyrinth of sexuality that mass media projects onto us and the crazy hilarious and often dangerous ways it affects us.

H: How did you prepare for the role?

N: Preparing for the role and writing the piece has been a process of several years. I traveled to South Africa and spent time with local artists and storytellers. I really just spent time learning as much as I could, dancing and staying open to serve the story as best as possible.

H: The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely deals directly with race, gender, and sexuality through Ms. Lovely’s life. To what extent would you say that an individual experience is a reflection or extension of a racial/cultural/sexual identity?

N: Our culture is made up of several individuals that make up a collective. I feel as though it’s the individual’s experience that make up the community. How we grow has a lot to do with what kind of images we are exposed to.

H: In what ways — both positive and negative — do you think popular culture informs a person of color’s self-discovery?

N: I feel like pop culture and mass media is probably what has the most effect on us. We are constantly being exposed to these images, positive and negative. Pop culture is made and fueled by consumption. When someone tells you something about yourself, at first you believe it. It takes a long time for you to see who you really are outside of what the media says. The mass media makes it hard for people of colour. We have to create new narratives about ourselves and change the story. This is the role of the artist, to challenge the way that we see ourselves and to encourage us to evolve.

H: Do you have personal experiences of being typecast for a role?

N: I try not to audition for stereotypical parts anymore. If I get material that doesn’t feel in alignment, I don’t go. This is why I began creating my own work. I made the mistake of reading for parts that didn’t feel right when I was younger and learned from it.

H: What do you think the theatre industry and community can do in order to make theatre more diverse without necessarily catering to the majority’s preconceived notions of an ethnicity or culture? Or is this in and of itself a typecast question?

N: The industry is like a collective made up of individuals. Individuals need to make the right choices to make change. I always think of Gandhi’s saying, “be the change you want to see in the world.” The quote isn’t the easiest thing to implement but it is something I try to live by. Producing this show independently and collaborating with like-minded people helps. The more a diverse group of artists are able to connect, collaborate and work together, the more change we will see. At the end of the so-called ‘minority’ is the majority so we have to change our own minds. We are the one we are waiting for.

H: In what ways would you say that theatre addresses our current cultural and political zeitgeist that television or film can’t or don’t?

N: I feel that theatre, unlike all other art forms, is “in the moment.” You have to see it live. It happens in person. Connectivity is the only way that theatre works. That’s what I love about theatre. It’s all about human connection and love.

H: What are some roles you’d like to explore in the future?

N: Nina Simone. I love comedy…. and the 1st Time Project.

H: What are your plans after the Emancipation of Ms. Lovely?

N: We are planning on touring the show and it is currently being written to come to a screen near you.

The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely runs from March 28th to April 8th at Crow’s Theatre in Leslieville. The one-woman play is written by and stars Ngozi Paul (Da Kink in My Hair) and is directed by Canadian Screen Award winner Zack Russell (She Stoops to Conquer). 

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Greg MacArthur on Turning Life Experience Into Art

For those fortunate enough to have spent some time living in Montreal, there is almost an indescribable quality that artists feel while living there. It’s almost as if a certain inspiration can be breathed in, and likeminded creatives loom on every corner. From cramped jam sessions in a plateau apartment, to an over-crowded gallery opening in the Mile End, there is something imaginative at play. Greg MacArthur creates an ode to Montreal titled in A City and hopes to eternalize his time spent living there through the play. A City, produced as a gallery installation, is an immersive piece of art that hopes to interact with its audience through a shared experience.

We had the opportunity to discuss A City with Greg and better understand the inspiration behind it.

Kimberley Drapack: What inspired you to write A City?

Greg MacArthur: In a word: Montreal. I had been living in that city — after moving there from T.O. — for a dozen or so years. It was a life-changing time for me. I fell in love with Montreal — my life, my friends, the physical space. When I knew my time was coming to an end, I wanted to immortalize the city somehow. The result is this play. 

K: A City is said to be presented as a gallery installation or tableau vivant. Has the play been adapted for this format, or is it specified within the script?

GM: I always intended this work to be presented outside of a traditional theatre space. My works of the last few years have been playing with the conflation of live performance, text, sculpture, and installation. I am interested in using alternative spaces and venues for my work to see how it affects the viewing experience.

K: What does this set-up offer an audience as opposed to a more traditionally staged play?

GM: I think ideally it will make an audience feel more immersed in the work. It will challenge their notions of what live theatre — narrative representational work — can be. By placing this work in a new or different context, hopefully the audience will relate to it in different, or surprising ways.

K: In what ways does verbatim theatre allow the script to come alive?

GM: There is a level of casualness, of authenticity, of failure in a verbatim text. People do not speak in well-constructed paragraphs or complete thoughts. We are a changeable, messy, conflicting species. A verbatim text allows for all the strangeness and absurdities of humanity to shine through, unpolished, unedited. That being said, most of this script has been written, re-written, reworked, invented. It is meant to replicate true speech, verbatim speech. It is not truly a verbatim piece of work.

K: You stated that A City is reflective of your time spent in Montréal. Why is that?

GM: Again, the city had a profound effect on me. The script is a mash-up of my experiences, friends, hang outs, dive bars, street corners, mythologies, walks, dinner parties, strip clubs, etc. It represents a very specific time in my life. It is reminiscent of a diary for me.

K: What does a type of theatre that strips away the fourth wall offer to its audience?

GM: A more authentic, present, inclusive experience. There is no attempt at illusion or representation. There are only live bodies in space. The performers, the audience all share in the experience, together, equally, being in the here and now. No walls, no fences, no barriers.

K: It was noted that this story is meant to “explore that time in your life when you’re young, bold, feeling like the world belongs to you and your future is guaranteed, and then it inevitably comes apart.” What does this mean to you?

GM: I think everyone has a place, a time, where everything felt, if even for a brief time, perfect. Your age, your friends, your space, everything. You couldn’t imagine ever leaving, or wanting to leave. But you do. You have to. Montreal was like that to me. A crazy lover, a mysterious stranger, an intoxicating late night random encounter.

K: When writing A City, you had a large amount of source material to work with. How did you decide on what you were going to use and what you were going to save for a rainy day?

GM: Anything goes…as long as it doesn’t give away where the bodies are buried. Or get anyone arrested.

K: What lessons can we learn from A City?

GM: I don’t think there’s any lessons. I hope, rather, it jars, for members of the audience, memories —  of people, of places, of times of joy and loss and love and youth.

K: A City is a piece within a trilogy of plays you have written. How do the other two stories relate to one another? Are there certain themes that crossover? What can we learn when comparing the three?

GM: All three pieces — A City, A Man Vanishes, and The Golden Suicides — are focused on the intersection of life and art, of truth and fiction, and of performance and installation. They all share a unique creative aesthetic: They are meant to be staged environmentally, as installations rather than traditional theatre pieces. The scripts are a conflation of verbatim/found text, fictional writings, and confessional musings. These works are a departure for me. They allow me to move away from a more traditional theatre aesthetic and to explore a more multi- (or inter-) disciplinary practice.

K: What can an audience member expect from A CITY?

GM: A genuine experience.  A picture. A memory. Dried chickpeas. And Vitamin Water.

Don’t miss out on seeing A City at Artscape Sandbox from March 14th to April 2nd. Bring a friend, bring your high school gym teacher, or bring your grandma, and don’t miss out on the fun. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.