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 Britta Johnson on Life After

It takes a very special person to make a musical come to life. The challenges are apparent even from the writing process — one works to intertwine an original story with lyrics and imagines it into something corporeal. Britta Johnson has mastered this difficult task, and is making waves in the Toronto theatre scene with her new production, Life After

Britta, who’s been compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim, is quickly making a name for herself and building a respectable brand most writers hope to achieve. Toronto’s Musical Stage Company was so impressed by her work that they have chosen her to develop and produce three new musicals for the next three years — something unprecedented in Canada.

We had the opportunity to chat with Britta just days before the opening of Life After. Learn about her story below and click here to purchase tickets.

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

Britta Johnson: I grew up in Stratford. My parents were both pit musicians and I grew up in the theatre seeing all the plays every year. It would often be substitute for babysitting. When they couldn’t find someone to take care of us we’d go see Hamlet again.

It was a really big part of my youth. The culture of Stratford, most of the people you look up to are making a comfortable living in the arts. It felt like a natural progression.

There are three of us in my family and we all went into it not thinking it was strange. Now that I’m an adult I see that it’s a bit strange but I didn’t know it at the time.

I started writing for my high school kind of as an excuse to get out of class and hang out with my friends and it slowly became a big part of what I do.

K: It seems as though you grew up with a great support system within a creative field.

BJ: Absolutely. I was the youngest in my family and both my sisters were really good at piano, and it was partially me being competitive that I wanted to get good at it fast.

K: What facets of musical theatre first drew your interest?

BJ: It wasn’t ever a decision that I really wanted to be a musical theatre writer. I was always really interested in theatre and storytelling and I’m a musician and a pianist. I used to want to become a writer for The Simpsons and it happened through writing for my high school shows that I learned I had a knack for it.

I think storytelling is important and there are all kinds of things that are made possible when you use music that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It’s always the work I’m most curious about. I certainly don’t unconditionally love the form but I do think that when you get it right telling a story with music, there’s some honesty there that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without music.

K: When you’re writing a script, do you find it a tough process to jump from dialogue into a song?

BJ: It’s generally kind of rare that I’ve done all three, writing scripts and then the music and lyrics. I’m usually more of a songwriter, which makes it easier because someone else is making those decisions and it’s an active collaboration. With this piece, it’s not a super traditional musical, it’s mostly music and really plays with time and space. It’s not a super narrative-driven, linear thing. It was really about mining the emotional moments that were important to musicalize and then just making sure that they audience could stay on board and it felt like it had a natural progression and a satisfying arch.

That’s always the hardest part to write: the moment before someone starts to sing. It’s so strange.

K: How did your writing process begin for Life After?

BJ: It started as a series of songs about a loss of the same person. A story started to grow around it, but really music is the central driving feature. It was an organic process because I didn’t walk in knowing what the story was. I walked in knowing what I wanted to explore, which was what grieving feels like when you face it for the first time. Figuring out what story to hang it off of, because I do think you need some kind of foundation to let it live in and then figuring it out what that would be to earn the musical moments and to earn the emotional world that we were trying to set up.

K:How does it feel to be compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim?

BJ: I mean that’s insane. I can’t really take that on board or I’ll have a nervous breakdown. I think he’s the master and the reason why I write what I do. That’s always exciting to read and I think he manages to do amazing things with his music. I’m honored by that, but if I think about it too hard I’ll need to leave town.

K: Not only is Life After well underway, you will have a busy next couple of years with The Musical Stage Company developing and producing three new musicals for the next three years. This is unprecedented in Canada. How does this process work? How do you feel at achieving such a big accomplishment?

BJ: Well, talk to me when I’ve written them, so who knows?

It’s crazy. It’s totally unprecedented and I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to get this kind of support and I know I’m lucky to be coming up at this time where in this country it feels like people are starting to get excited about musicals again. I think what happened with Come from Away is part of that and I think that The Musical Stage Company are really unique in their vision and they’re so smart and ambitious. I’m lucky that my aesthetic lines up so much with theirs.

It’s huge and so exciting. Usually, as a freelancer, you have to finish one project and then have a nervous breakdown because you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. To know where I’m landing after this is so huge. I get to turn the page and work on the next thing and to build my brand along with such an incredible company. I’m so thrilled I hardly know what to say.

K: How do you continue this flow and begin the next process? Do you have ideas in the back of your mind of what this process might entail?

BJ: Both musicals are already kind of on the burner. The next one is well underway and we’re doing a workshop of it in the winter. Life After is the only musical where it’s just me. The other two musicals will be with collaborators.

If I was doing three musicals alone, I wouldn’t have time to be speaking with you right now. (Laughs). I also want to go outside and sleep and stuff. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about them, but we’ve decided what they are and they’re on their way.

K: How do you continue to stay inspired while writing and producing multiple works at a time?

BJ: The lucky thing about my work is that it’s all very different from one another. Nothing else sounds like Life After. When I’m working on something, I try to immerse myself with things that make me feel the way I hope to make the audience feel.

I’ll often make myself playlists of music that gives me the feeling that I want the world of the show to have, and read things about the topic. I always try to immerse myself a bit in the feeling and the world of the show. I’m lucky and think I’d burn out a lot faster if I didn’t get to work on such different stuff. Nothing is like each other, or else I’d totally run out of ideas. I can turn the page and then think about the next thing I need to think about.

K: Do you ever start on one project and find that there are similarities with another? Is it ever difficult to have those moments?

BJ: Absolutely, and I do run into those. That’s when I need to cleanse my palette and try to listen, watch or read new things. I struggle to write more than one thing at once. I usually like to fully immerse in one and then fully immerse myself in another and I haven’t quite figured out how to do the juggling act but I’m working on it. Otherwise, there is a bit of bleeding that happens.

K: Life After has some sadness behind it, but there is a lot of honesty and truth in sad stories. They’re important to tell because a lot of people can relate. Do you find that when you’re writing or going through the process of developing a show you’re looking for something that an audience can grasp onto?

BJ: Absolutely. I think honesty has to be key, especially when you’re working in as heightened a form as this. You start feeling like you’re manipulating or lying to people pretty fast when what your characters are singing isn’t truly rooted in something about the human experience. Even if it is a comedy or a tragedy. I always hope, even if I’m working on something totally outlandish there is something within it that people can find to relate to. Especially when you’re talking about something like loss, or grief, something that literally everyone in the entire world has to walk through. You really want to get it right or else it feels like a disservice to your audience.

K: Do you ever feel as a writer you have a certain amount of power? Do you feel an added pressure?

BJ: Absolutely, and then I have to remind myself that nobody dies if they don’t like my show or if it doesn’t speak to them. Also, it would feel like a wasted opportunity if it didn’t. I want people to feel glad they came. You can only ever try your very best.

K: What’s your favorite part of opening up a show?

BJ: I’ve never got to work on this scale before. These are big companies involved and it’s a very extensive and impressive team. I’ve never got to collaborate on this scale before where everyone in the room is the very best at what they do.

It’s been really thrilling at how quickly things can happen and I trust everyone in the room so much and the collaboration has been so exciting. The piece has grown at such a rapid speed.

Getting into the rehearsal room was something that’s been in my head for so long and has been so great. It really is a team effort and that’s what I love about theatre, even though I get to do all the interviews. It’s good for my ego.

Don’t miss Life After from September 23rd to October 22nd  and continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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.

Photo Credit: @RILEYSMITHPHOTO

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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A Conversation with Neeraja Ramjee on Broken Images at the Red Sandcastle Theatre

With Broken Imagess Canadian Premiere at the Red Sandcastle Theatre comes a unique, one-woman show starring Neeraja Ramjee, written by the contemporary playwright, Girish Karnad, and directed by Clinton Walker.  This psychological thriller is a commentary with many different layers, focusing on the ways in which we construct ourself in our current world.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Neeraja to discuss the context of the play and the way in which image dictates our self-worth in our current world.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre? What was your first production? 

Neeraja Ramjee: I went to acting school in New York, I wanted to put what I was learning into practice and auditioned to be a part of theatre companies in New York. I became a part of a couple theatre companies and started auditioning for parts and got more involved in the acting/theatre community. The first production I was part of was very special for me, it was my first time acting in front of a large audience, and it was equally terrifying and thrillingJ. It was a lovely one act play and I portrayed this character who wanted to commit suicide and through the play, she talks herself out of it.

K: Tell us about your experience in presenting a one woman show. What are the difficulties? What are the surprises? 

NR: This is my first time performing in a one woman show and also producing it. I wanted to do something where the story excited me, was different and challenging, and this show presented all of these elements to me. Any solo performance is a challenge, because you are the only flesh and blood actor on stage, with all eyes on you and you have to take the audience through the journey of the character and tell the story. There is a lot of technique, tact and authenticity that goes with it and you cannot afford to sit behind on your heels. When you have another actor on stage, you can play off of them and you get energy from them. In a one woman show, really the audience is the other character. The playwright has written such a masterpiece with such an arc for the character and so many levels of complicatedness – so to hit it, be present in the moment and move the story along, all by yourself is definitely a challenge. There is a technology element to this piece of theatre and a level of precision involved there, which is also very exciting and challenging at the same time. I surprise myself everyday by discovering something new about the character, and her underlying intentions. It’s been quite the journey discovering her, and quite frankly discovering parts of me through this journey.

K: Tell us about Broken Images. How did you stumble onto this play and what can it teach us? 

NR: BROKEN IMAGES is a masterpiece of self-delusion and self-worth, taking a cutting look at the Indian literary establishment, the desire for fame, and the need to win at all costs. When Manjula, a mediocre Indian writer gets international fame for a book she wrote in English, and not her native tongue,  she gets flak from her literary community, and is questioned without warning by her ‘Image’ to unearth the scandal behind her sudden rise to fame.

I had watched Broken Images staged over a decade ago, and it stayed with me because it was a unique storyline that was edgy and I knew people would connect to it.  Fast forward a decade, when the opportunity presented itself to produce a play, I knew I wanted to recreate Broken Images. . The play explores themes such as identify crisis (do we really know who we are), reality vs hyper-reality (do we live in a false reality, do we project ourselves to be different from who we really are?), and the desire for fame, which are all still very relevant in today’s digital/social media world.

K: It is said that with Broken Images, you hope to nudge diversity in the local theatre scene a bit further, as well as make people aware of the negative effects of social media. What does this mean to you? Why do you feel that people are unable to be within their present moment?

NR: As an avid fan of the performing arts, and most certainly theatre, one would be hard pressed to find many diverse actors in lead or one person shows. If this show could open doors, nudge diversity in theatre a bit further, wouldn’t that be great. There is so much talent out there, so many stories to be told from different cultural standpoints, it would be great to walk in and see more diverse actors in prominent roles, telling stories that hit us as human beings, irrespective of race, gender, caste, and creed.

I think social media and digital is great for a lot of things, it makes our life more efficient, makes the world smaller, gets us information way faster, helps us spread important messages, gets people together etc., however I think it’s great as long as it does not affect the emotional well-being of people. We are all performers in some way or the other, and the question really is do we project ourselves to be different than who we really are and is that false reality of ‘perfection’ impacting our emotional well-being, because we tend to evaluate our life based on a ‘false reality’ we see. I think, and I am as much prey to it J, sometimes we are so interested in capturing the moment, vs. actually being present in the moment and soaking it all in.

I was reading an article recently on how social media is harming the mental health of young people. There is a need to constantly feel a sense of ‘self-worth’ with the number of likes you get, and a fear of missing out and not being looped in with your friends. I think we chase ‘perfection’ that we see on social media/television/billboards, which quite frankly does not exist, and can be quite harmful, if it affects the emotional well-being of people.

The play touches on themes such as false reality, self-delusion, self-worth and the impacts of it is relevant to the current digital/social media world we live in.

K: At the same time, as being a successful actor, you are also a very successful business consultant. How do these two worlds collide? How do they intersect?

NR: The two worlds I live in are on either end of the spectrum. As a consultant, your emotions are always in check, controlled, it’s the exact opposite as an actor – emotions are raw, with no inhibitions. At the end of the day – art imitates life, it is about people, human behavior and there are elements from my personal and professional life that I bring to the characters I portray. The discipline, professionalism and analytical side of me helps me as a producer and actor, and my creative side helps me look at solving business problems with a different lens.

K: What is wrong with society’s obsession of image? What are the dangers, and how do we navigate away from this?

NR: As human beings, we are perfectly imperfect, which is beautiful. However, we project ourselves in society to be ‘perfect’ and quite frankly perception is reality J. There is a pressure to be ‘perfect’ . Most of the posts you see online are of people having a ‘perfect’ time, it’s the way we like to project ourselves. You seldom see posts about challenges in people’s lives on social media. I don’t know if our lives can be as perfect as Instagram J. If we chase this perfection which does not exist and it affects  our emotional well being, that’s when it becomes dangerous. What’s real and what’s not? Why does someone look so perfect at 7 am in the morning, when I look pretty crappy with my tousled hair and puffy eyes……if this leads to questioning your self-worth, if you begin to define yourself by a social media post, or a like or comment – then we have a problem.

K: How did your collaboration with Clinton Walker begin? What is it like working with a director in an intimate, smaller rehearsal space that makes up the one woman cast?

NR: When I knew I wanted to move forward and produce Broken Images, I knew I wanted a director who was talented, was on the same page as me in terms of the vision for the show and also someone who was focused and challenged me. My agent (we share the same agent) introduced me to Clinton who had directed a one person show last year at the Fringe and has been in the industry for close to 40 years. When I met Clinton, we had an instant connection, it’s hard to put in words and we bonded because we both don’t have patience for BS :D. I am very fortunate that he jumped on this journey with me. It’s been an incredible journey so far. We entered this maze of what’s real and what’s false, and the different avatars we play. It’s been a frightening and thrilling experience. We’ve shared laughs, tears and discovered things about ourselves and most importantly had fun as we navigated through this brilliant piece.

K: Not only are you starring in this production, but you produced it. What was it like to wear both hats? Were there any difficulties throughout?  

NR: This is my first time producing and it’s been a learning experience for sure. Very exciting and challenging at the same time. As an actor, I had more of myopic view to the entire production of a show. I understood the story, my character, how it fits into the larger storyline and did the best to take the audience through the journey. As producer, your pulse is on every element of the show – getting the right people onboard is one of the most important elements, if you have people you can trust and work well with, half the battle is won. Managing all elements of the production and the minutia of it has been challenging and then switching to actor mode J. But I love it, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

K: What do you hope audiences take away from Broken Images?

NR: I think a good play entertains you and hopefully affects you, impacts you in some way. Hopefully the audience walks away entertained, and also slightly impacted/changed or with questions to ponder on J.

K: What can we expect from you in the future?

NR: Depending on how we do, it would be lovely to take the play to New York. Continue to work on my craft and see what is interesting, challenging and authentic for me to take on J

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Q&A With Mani Eustis

Mani Eustis is a Toronto-based playwright and creator of Fancy Bits TheatreAccording to her website, she started the company “a year out of theatre school on the belief that there were too many tragic plays about women and comedies where the only female roles were the ‘not funny character’. The solution, start a company dispelling the myth of the humorless lady.” We sat down with her to talk about her latest play, Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show”, which she wrote and directed and is set inside of her own kitchen!

Adina: Could you talk a bit about your writing process? How long did this take you to finish?

Mani: The writing process was very organic, if the play feels like stream of consciousness that’s because it was. I went into it being frustrated that I was not doing anything creative so I told myself — Okay Mani you need to finish a play, that’s it. Usually I go into a project having these big ideas of what I want to create but for this I just wrote a scene and then looked at it and tried to find patterns or themes and then let that inform the next scene. It was a really enjoyable way to write. It was also fast because I wasn’t constantly editing myself, or worrying about a rigid narrative or structure. In some ways, the show is still in its early stages. I am sure I could add to it or edit and improve it but I also think there is something to be said for just doing a project quick and dirty.

A: A lot of this play skewers playwrights who use rape for shock value. How do you think writers can balance telling stories with emotion without exploiting pain to get some cheap tears?

M: I think the first thing to do is to move away from the portrayal of rape and violence against women as leading to hysteria. Not that it is a not-valid way to react to trauma but there are so many ways that people deal with traumatic events, so many surprising and subtle ways that I feel the media and theatre rarely explores. I honestly think sometimes people google search “how does it feel after rape” click the first link and then base their characters’ experience on that. But really, it’s all subjective, some people might be really moved by stories of women enduring hardship. I just feel I know the story so well that I would prefer to see a play about a woman organizing her bookshelf over a woman getting thrown against it.

A: Which works/writers/directors did you use as inspiration, if any?

M: I watch a lot of comedy and TV. I also have been incredibly inspired by the Toronto based absurdist dance theatre company ROCK BOTTOM MOVEMENT.

Still from Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show. Photo by Justine McCloskey

A: What, if anything, were you hoping for the audience to take with them after the show?

M: I would love for the audience to a) have thought it was funny and enjoyed their night; or b) are angry and didn’t get it (because everyone has a right to their opinion); and c) have different interpretations about the play itself gain insight into things that maybe even I missed.

A: The play makes great use of its kitchen setting. Did you always know it was going to be in your apartment?

M: As soon as my boyfriend and I moved into the apartment I knew I wanted to do a show in it. The high ceilings, hanging lights, and open space were just begging for it. So yes, I wrote the whole show with my kitchen in mind. However, once we started rehearsal I really discovered that the space had way more to offer then I realized, all the cupboards as the back drop lent themselves so well to adding an heir of strange mystery and randomness.

A: Were there any specific playwrights that inspired ‘Jeremy’, or is he just a composite of obnoxious male playwrights?

M: He was definitely a mix of people and ideas.  A lot of the play draws from my experience with theatre school feeling pressure to share intimate details of your life, feeling pressure to emote even if you can’t or don’t want to. I once had a class where we actually had to go around in a circle and say, ‘ I AM LOST’ one by one, moan it. My question is when does all this ‘feeling’ become one big circle jerk? Jeremy is an embodiment of the self-indulgent. An artist who literally masturbates onstage. And we hate him, and love him and are incredibly jealous of him. He is that pretentious guy who is so beautiful but a complete asshole and on top of it all will always be more popular and successful then you. He is the quintessential fuckboy (excuse my language).

A: What are the connections you made between writing and astral projection?

M: I think as a writer and an artist particularly a female artist. To a certain degree you are trying to see your art and yourself from an objective point of view, I want to see what other people see.  There is this constant other gaze and if only you could see what they could see. This is obviously impossible but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could for a second step outside yourself and look at what you created and really see it. Get rid of all the ego and insecurity. So, Astral Projection was a little bit of a metaphor for that. The playwright tries to leave her body so she can look down on herself and see herself clearly.

Still from Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show. Photo by Justine McCloskey

A: What was the casting process like?

M: The casting process was great! I am so lucky to have found three women who are so talented and so perfect for their roles. The audition itself was probably more unique then a lot of auditions in that I had them do a comedic interpretive dance to “I’m Crying” By Roy Orbison (which was later a part of the play) And one of the main things I was looking for was people who wouldn’t take it to seriously who were able to be goofy. Because despite some serious themes the whole show is really a goofy show. I remember Marina Gomes who plays the playwright did a funny dance that involved a lot of slo-mo running. I also remember being a little intimidated by Marina Moreira and thinking- bam yep she’s perfect for the Artist.  As well Mallory Palmer doing by far the best old Hollywood voice I have ever heard so I wanted her to play Audrey. Also, she is very tall. This is something I tell her all the time that she is so tall! Short people appreciate tall people. So, long story short I am so happy with my cast. They are so talented and funny.

A: Are you working on anything now?

M: I always have a million ideas for things I want to do, start writing etc. But I am not actively working on anything besides this just yet. I will probably go through the dreaded grant application process soon though because I would really like to be able to pay my actors more then profit share and I haven’t yet been able to pay myself so I would like to maybe have enough money to pay my actors and me.  But whatever it is it will be a comedy in some sense of the word and only have women in it. I think the next show will probably have much more drag in it. I really like girls playing boys. I think its because as an actress I love playing male characters but after university that doesn’t really happen and its a shame because there are so many great male roles out there that could probably be better acted by a women.

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