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 Couple of Storytellers: a Conversation with Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève

A synopsis of Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions on Crow’s Theatre’s website reads, “Passion and death, loyalty and betrayal, truth and fiction, hope and despair, Illusions is a deceitfully dark comedy that playfully unravels the paradoxes of the lives of two couples.” To watch the play, for couples in various stages, seem equal to attending an event where so much self-consciousness and suffering is foreordained; the disparity between rom-coms and life is disheartening, but the similarities, the moments of recognitions in art is a downright catalyst. Perhaps for the better; perhaps for the worse. Imagine the conversation on the ride back home, the late-night not-quite-sleepy thoughts.

Now imagine you were a real life couple delivering the unraveling of ‘paradoxes of the lives of two couples.’

Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève Perron, who are partners in life, will do just that as partners in storytelling. Andrew, who is also a co-director in the production, plays Man 2 while Marie-Ève plays Woman 2, infusing their voices that carry their personalities and experiences into Viripaev’s text. I called them up the other day to ask about the production and the creative process in talking about a subject in such proximity to their lives.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we could not conduct a three-person interview and instead I spoke to them separately and asked some similar questions; I have conflated portions of the interview where appropriate. 

Hoon: What drew you to Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions

MÈ: I actually saw a production of Illusions and I really liked the text. And I was really excited to come and work in Toronto, in English. It’s my first time playing here, and it’s a big challenge for me as a French Quebecer who spent like 10 years in Paris not speaking English at all. I also really like the space at the Crow’s and it’s exciting to do a production in a new theatre. The group that we are, those who are playing with me, I like them and I thought it’d be fun to play the show together.

A: Marie-Ève introduced the play to me. The initial impulse came first but when I read it, I felt a lot of exciting theatrical potential in it. The text has an interesting and layered storyline. I was drawn to the potential dramatic and comedic possibility of the text. I also knew I wanted to work with Marie-Ève on a piece. She wanted to act in something in English in Toronto and this was an opportunity. So when I was considering texts to do that with, it became obvious that Illusions would be a really interesting fit because it speaks of two women and two men on stage speaking about lives and love and death and betrayal and sadness and illusions. I thought it could be a really good fit for Marie-Ève and I to be actively doing together. Initially, I was thinking of just directing but then I thought, Well, no, it would be nice to act with her, especially on this piece with such a thematic resonance. And it was from there that I thought of Brett Donahue and Laurence Dauphinais who are also a real life couple composed of an Anglophone and a Francophone.

H to Marie-Ève: Describe your character for us. How did you prepare for your role? 

MÈ: It’s interesting because it’s not a usual play — we are playing storytellers who are mostly telling a story about two couples, Danny and Sandra, and Margaret and Albert. I’m Woman 2 and there’s a Woman 1 and there are Man 1 and 2 as well. The author is really funny. At the beginning of the play he wrote, These four people come onto the stage just to tell the story, as if we have no other purpose than to tell the story. But of course we are telling a love story — one couple’s been together for fifty years and the other has been together for fifty four years — so of course what we are telling will be influenced by our perceptions and the way we tell it.

H to Andrew: Were there any difficulties working with a translated text? 

A: I got my hands on the English translation, the one we’re presenting and truth be told I think it’s a fantastic translation. But I also had the French translation that was helpful in cross-referencing ideas. The French translation came second and there are subtle shifts in the text. I think it’s more than just shifts between sensibilities in English and French translations. The French translation happened two or three years after the English one and the play evolved over that time. You know I haven’t spoken to the playwright about this but I can only assume that the shifts that happened in the translations are something he condoned. So his evolution in seeing the play has grown, rightly. So we’re not doing an adaptation by any means, we are presenting the English translation. But it is informed by our access to the French translations and its sensibilities.

H: I know this isn’t your first project together but it seems that Illusions may be the first one that deals so directly with relationships. Could you tell us what it was like working alongside each other on this production? 

MÈ: It was interesting because the first time we worked together he was directing and I was on stage. It’s a different perspective with a different relationship because there’s the director and there’s the actor. But this time, he’s the director but he’s also acting and we’re playing a couple together. It’s a different process with a different way of talking to each other. Usually in life we like the same things; artistically speaking, we have similar tastes. It was easy on that part — we agree on when some thing is working or when some thing is not. It is challenging in the sense that we speak more directly to each other than we would to, say, a coworker. But mostly I would say that it was fun trying to create together. Of course we all share different stories together and some of the things we are telling remind us of what’s happened to us or what could happen to us, which makes it a good reflection of our own lives.

A: That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the play; the real life resonances in the text. It’s not without its complications, for sure. Any creative process, from my perspective anyways, with your partner involved is potentially — not necessarily, potentially — fraught with frustrations and miscommunications, arguments. Truth be told, we’ve managed to steer clear of most of those. When you wake up with a person, you go to work with that person, and you are creative with the person then you come home with that person… there’s not a whole lot of relief. It can become more agitated than it needs to. The fact that Brett and Laurence go home together — they have their own dynamic, which Marie-Ève and I aren’t a part of. So any pressure that might build up during the rehearsal day or in any process [between us], when everyone leaves, it sort of escapes and the next day you just start again. But when you are working with your partner, you have to be really vigilant about not bringing that tension home because it will become a pressure cooker. We are two people who, when we go home, will continue to talk about the work. For me, for Marie-Ève, for us, we had to learn to leave the work where it is and to be partners again. We had to try not to affect our lives as partners affect our working relationship. But then again, the lines are intentionally blurred in this play. So I think we are just gluttons for punishments, so to speak [laughs].

H: You both work across film, television, and theatre. What would you say, as an actor and a director, makes theatre different from or exciting in ways not found in film and television?

MÈ: It’s the audience. The fact that we play in front of real people and it’s about communication; it’s direct and raw. I think that makes it thrilling and exciting — nobody will edit anything at the end. We’re responsible from the beginning to the end to what we’re bringing to the stage and giving to the audience. I really like that part, which is something film and television don’t have.

A: I love TV and film. I love them but theatre is my first love and when you have your first love, it’s hard to kick that. But what I love about theatre doesn’t exclude my love of tv or film, because they have their own things that make them wonderful. But with theatre, a lot of it for me is the process, the fact that you actually get to dig in for weeks on a text with the artists and the creative team. In film, that’s just often not the case; there’s neither time nor money for that. But the process is sort of part and parcel of what makes theatre theatre; the fact that you spend weeks working on something with people; then you have to bring that night after night after night and bring the work to light over and over again to the audience. The creative process for me and the rehearsal process is for sure about understanding the text and characters and the arc of the piece, but it’s also about living and breathing as an ensemble. Again, I don’t mean to say that this is not necessarily the case in film or television, but it is true of theatre for me. It’s about teamwork and the ensemble. For me I think that came right from playing sports and loving collaboration, being on a team, and doing something as a unit. I love the fact that we get the chance to try again and again, and totry something new: it’s like a baseball or a hockey team, ‘the power play is not working, we gotta do something different tomorrow night.’ That’s what theatre is for me.

Hoon to Andrew: I’ve asked the same question to a few directors and I think you’re the first one to speak less about the audience and more about the process behind the stage and what goes on it.

A: So many of us talk about the audience because we love the audience. But I also think it doesn’t need to be binary like that: theatre is about audience and tv and film are not about the audience. TV and film are also about the audience. It’s on a spectrum. It’s ultimately done to share with an audience and the way we share is different. But in all mediums, the work is shared with the audience.

Hoon to Andrew: How would you describe your style as a director?

A: I think my approach changes every time, given the new material and new stimulus, new teammates. Like a coach — a coach brings in a system and the players execute the system. But I don’t think the system can exist in a vacuum, it can’t just exist in a coach’s head. He or she needs to be able to communicate that to the team for them to execute it. And I think it needs feedbacks need to come back to the coach and there’s going to be a back and forth. I think, for me, that’s what it is: I have a strong idea of what it is that we should be doing, an aesthetic I gravitate toward, and a lens I look through and come back to at moments of confusion. But ultimately it needs to involve the imagination, intellect, and instincts of the entire creative team. And not just the performers but also the designers and stage management; the development of a true creative ensemble voice. It needs to come through, I think, for it to be cohesive, a single lens’s end but I don’t think it needs to begin and end with that single lens. In fact, for my money, that’s limiting. To have the opportunity to have access to many imaginations over one single imagination is a gift.

Hoon to Marie-Ève: What are some roles or ideas you’d like to explore in the future? 

MÈ: I like to sing, so I would like to play with that, something where there’s more singing. I watched really great documentary plays lately that I really enjoyed. I like this kind of theatre and it intrigues me.

Crow’s Theatre production of Ivan Viripave’s Illusions, directed by Andrew Shaver and Paul Flicker and starring Brett Donahue & Laurence Dauphinais and Andrew Shaver & Marie-Ève Perron opens on Friday, April 21st and closes on May 7th. You can purchase your tickets here.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Soheil Parsa: Director, Humanitarian, and Visionary

The Iranian-born Canadian director Soheil Parsa is taking over Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with his remount of Blood Weddings. The play, written by Garcia Lorca, was initially produced by Parsa in 2015 and was a great success. It won six Dora Mavor Moore Awards, two Toronto Theatre Critics Association Awards, and earned a place on NOW Magazine’s Top Ten List for the year.

Blood Weddings returns to the stage from March 4th to the 19th with the original cast and crew. Parsa has gone deeper into the concepts behind the play after six weeks of intensive training with the cast. He hopes to bring light to the importance of the play in our current world as it retains a striking cultural, political, and social relevance to our current age.

Blood Weddings tells a story of two rival families who have more in common than it may appear on the surface. Parsa reminds us that while we may have our differences, we are fundamentally the same and should hold onto that hope for humanity.

Kimberley Drapack: Tell us a little bit about the play. What made you decide to put on this specific piece?

Soheil Parsa: I was fascinated by Lorca and his plays since I was in Iran. I was a theatre student back home. I knew Lorca, I knew his poetry. I always wanted to do this piece. It was very close to my philosophy and it was very close to my heart.

The story itself was inspired by a newspaper story found by Lorca. It tells a story of a conflict between two families, but gets to its peak when a girl runs away with her ex-lover, the son of the enemy, on her wedding night. Thematically, I think the story is about the tragic ending of the unfulfilled love that has been caused by the need to preserve honour and appearance in society. That’s a major theme, as well as the conflict between individuals — their desires for freedom amidst societal law and conventions.

Lorca was a homosexual man and the experience of these social conventions and limitations of being a gay man in a male-dominated society, doesn’t really make sense. For him, society is kind of a precious instrument that locks away the primal response of human beings.

The play has other layers and themes that are really interesting. One of them is the status of women in a male-dominated society. Other themes include love, death, the concept of “being real,” and fate. There are many layers in this piece and that’s why I think it’s a fascinating play.

K: How was casting?

S: I cast the show 2 years ago and it was very challenging to cast it because of the non-naturalistic, non-realistic style of the play. Once I did, in a six-week journey I established a common vocabulary within myself and the cast so we are all on the same page. It’s very exciting. It took us a long time.

K: It must have been a lot of hard work.

S: It’s not a common scenario or style in Canadian theatre, that’s why it was a challenge. The cast is extremely talented, and it was a mutual trust so everything is good.

K: Your first run of Blood Weddings in 2015 did incredibly well. What made you decide to bring it back for a second run?

S: It was a kind of necessity after two years. I think that the themes and the story are more relevant and more immediate after two years, considering what is happening around the world. One of the themes of that play that some people might not notice is an overall tribal attitude: the lack of forgiveness, and lack of empathy or compassion in humanity. Things get tribal and people get so locked in their own culture or their own vision and they cannot see anything else. For me, that’s kind of the source of violence in the play.

Given the success of the play two years ago, we of course wanted people to see it who haven’t yet. It was really important for me to remount this piece in this time, in this situation, with these things happening around the world.

K: The play, although written in 1932, holds certain themes that are applicable to our current world. Why do you think this is?

S: That’s an important question because of certain political situations in the world and the division between us and the other. I think that’s one of the major themes of the play. It’s about the other family that never, ever forgets. The hostility that happened in the past, that lack of forgiveness. This kind of tribal attitude, the importance for the characters of this play to preserve honour and social appearance. I think we see that in many countries around the world right now. National religious identities are often singular. I call it a “choice-less identity.” They cannot get rid of it or open up and see humanity as a whole. We are all caught in our personal, national, and religious identities. Despite all of our differences, I think that it’s important to realize that we have a lot in common. I think for this reason the play at the source doesn’t look so political, but it is. It’s talking about our society, our attitude as individuals, and how we want to please others.

K: It’s interesting — now that it’s your second run, and that you’ve had the time, you can find those layers within the play.

S: Yes, to go deeper to the essence of the play, to give us this opportunity in the second run to go deeper within the characters and the whole concept of the play. It’s been really very useful. It’s not just a remount, it’s beyond that for me. It’s the ability to go deeper in every level, to the essence of the play.

K: What challenges did you face in bringing this script off the page?

S: One of the main challenges for me was communicating and conveying the unique and the unusual style of this play with my cast. The dominant style of theatre in North America is naturalism and realism. This naturalistic approach to acting wouldn’t be appropriate for this play. It’s a highly visceral, poetic, and visual drama. That’s the way that I look at this piece. The play incorporates songs, poetry, music — its action is set in this symbolic and stylized universe. The universe moves between the real and unreal worlds constantly, back and forth. With the naturalistic approach to theatre, it would be very difficult to convey this universe and go deep down and create this kind of theatre. That was a challenge.

I was blessed with having a very strong and talented cast who trusted me and collaborated with me over those six weeks, as I’ve said, in an incredible journey to discover the style of the play and create a powerful production. I appreciate the collaboration of the entire creative team, cast and crew, to help me to get this play off the page.

K: That must have been an incredible journey to share with so many people considering the size of the cast. 

S: Yes, and diverse. We have actors from at least seven different nationalities and backgrounds on the stage. Again, it’s going beyond naturalism and realism. That really helped me to diversify my cast because I accentuated the fact that it did not take place in any specific culture or any specific country. We accentuated the timelessness and placelessness of the play. For example, in the first scene, the mother and son are from two different cultures. The mother is from Columbian heritage and the son is from an Asian heritage. After thirty seconds, it really doesn’t matter anymore.

I stripped down the scenic elements: the props and costumes from it’s original Spanish culture. Although the Spanish culture is there, (I’m not saying its totally gone) but it’s not really happening in Spain. The play can happen in any country around the world, or in any culture around the world. It’s so beautiful on the stage, because you can kind of see the human race.

K: Does your production bring anything new to the story?

S: I think through the timelessness and placelessness of the play, I made the story a human story. Audiences from all cultures and ethnic backgrounds can enjoy it and connect to it.

I haven’t really challenged the concept of the story, or the themes of Lorca, but as a storyteller and as a theatre director, I opened it up for people to see it from a different angle than looking at just a Spanish play. It’s one of the most important achievements as a director, that’s what I’ve brought to the story: the universality, even though I’m not a big fan of that terminology. This production goes beyond all cultural and geographical barriers.

K: How did you get into theatre? What about it inspires you?

S: I started theatre back home in Iran at Tehran University during the Islamic Revolution. At this time, I was in my fourth year of theatre school and I was an actor by training. After the Revolution, I was expelled from theatre school because of my non-Islamic background, which is the Baha’i faith. I stayed for another two years, but it was impossible for me continue because of the whole situation. I was in fear of being arrested everyday.

When I was very young, I was attracted to theatre and, like other theatre practitioners around the world, I first wanted to be an actor. When I came to Canada I realized a limitation that I had due to my language and accent. I wouldn’t be able to pursue acting. I gravitated towards directing and I’m really happy with that decision.

What inspires me most about theatre is that it’s direct, human connection with the audience. As an artist and human being, I personally always strive for this immediate, live and direct connection with other human beings.

Another thing that fascinates me about theatre is about here and now. It’s about this very moment they’ve created and it’s about that shared experience. You really see this at live concerts. Film doesn’t have this quality. I’m not saying it’s inferior to theatre, but there is a passionate and powerful characteristic to be live, and be created onstage to connect with its spectators.

K: Why is theatre an important medium for storytelling?

S: Through the live and direct connection. It’s really there, and it’s happening live. The power of live storytelling is really special. It goes back to the millions of years of storytelling and that live connection between people and between families. It’s really unique and that’s why it makes theatre one of the most important forms of storytelling.

K: You established the Modern Times Stage Company in 1989. What was it like to start your own theatre company? 

S: It was a different time and the situation was really different in those days. The company was founded in 1989 by myself and Peter Farbridge, an actor of British heritage. In the early nineties, there weren’t any theatre companies that were led by artists from diverse cultural backgrounds. In those days, the appearance of a theatre actor from Iran wasn’t very common. I’d say I was perhaps one of the first Middle Eastern students who studied theatre at York University in 1985. It was a strange phenomenon. I remember some disheartening comments from some members of the community, in terms of my potential as an immigrant to become a successful member of the Canadian theatre community. Eventually, I trusted myself, and that was the reason I fled my country to come to Canada and pursue my dream in theatre.

Perhaps the central motivation for forming the company came from the recognition that there would be little or less opportunity for me to be hired as a director by Torontonian theatres. That’s why I decided to create the company and create my own work with Peter Farbridge. We have been working together for thirty years. It is a very interesting combination: a Canadian of Iranian heritage, and Peter, a Canadian of British heritage. It was amazing when we got together. We never talked about our differences — it wasn’t an issue at all because the work was amazing. We talked about Brecht, we talked about Lorca. We’ve now created forty productions and gained national recognition.

K: You describe the company as addressing “themes of loneliness, the mystery of existence, the search for happiness and truth, and the conflict between Fate and Will.” How does this apply to Blood Weddings?

S: I think these themes certainly exist and are prominent in this play. It’s really close to the mandate and philosophy of the company, and to my own philosophy. Overall, Lorca’s characters are archetypal beings. They’re besieged by the forces that are greater than themselves: the unknown forces that they can neither control nor comprehend. These characters perhaps present fate and destiny. They are leading these actors as they are the masters of these characters. The dark and unknown forces that exist in this universe also exist in Shakespeare. They exist in Macbeth for example with the witches. Who are they? It’s really hard to define them.

Another thing is the concept of loneliness. Lorca’s characters, particularly the women, are fascinating. They are lonely, solitary, isolated figures, yet very strong. You feel in Lorca’s characters the things you cannot understand or comprehend. It’s beyond their control.

K: How can people become involved with the Modern Times Stage company? 

S: We have a strong online presence where we try to reach out to people to communicate what we create. The intention behind what we do is not through the identity of politics. As artists, we want to create good theatre and we want to communicate and establish vocabulary between ourselves and audiences. As a theatre company we receive government funding, but it’s not always enough. We try to develop members for the company and communicate with them, to get their support and to get sponsors. In terms of a community or artistic involvement in Mainstage, we have workshops. In April, we have a three-day symposium about the concept of diversity as a practice. We have classes, and we want to involve younger generations to pass on our experiences.

Don’t forget to see Blood Weddings, starring Beatriz Pizano, Bahareh Yaraghi, Carla Melo, Carlos Gonzales-Vio, and more at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre from March 4th to the 19th. To read more about Soheil Parsa and the Modern Times Stage Company, you can find them at http://moderntimesstage.com/ or through their Facebook page

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Anton Piatigorsky of ‘Breath in Between’

With multiple awards throughout his career, Anton Piatigorsky’s reputation is well-established as an author, playwright, and librettist. Now he is making his directorial debut with his latest play, Breath in Betweenwhich opened at Crow’s Theatre earlier this week.

With his distinctly intelligent voice, Piatigorsky’s works have continually been concerned with the meeting points between the political and the personal. The Iron Bridgehis first collection of short stories, portrays 20th century dictators as teenagers; his latest novel, Al Tounsi takes its cue from the famous Boumediene V. Bush trial of 2008 and the workings of 21st century democracy’s justice system. I recently had a chance to chat with Anton concerning his latest novel and his directorial debut at the Crow’s.

Hoon: Al-Tounsi is based on the 2008 case, Boumediene V. Bush. Tell us about the research and the creative process behind the novel.

Anton: I don’t have a law degree, so I had to spend a long time studying the law. I loved it — reading opinions and dissents, law review articles, briefs, text books. Simultaneously I researched the U.S. Supreme Court as an institution, and the lives of the Justices, looking for overlaps between how the law functions and how the people on the Court make their decisions.

The novel is a kind of ‘legal realism’ in fiction — it looks carefully at the ways legal thinking and opinions can’t be separated from the lives of the justices. So, while I had to learn the arcane details of the Guantanamo Bay Supreme Court cases to write the book, I also had to think carefully about the ways the conflicts inside those cases might play out quietly inside of Justices’ domestic lives.

H: The novel is concerned about the American judiciary system and ways in which it is inevitably informed by personal and political leanings of those in power. Your blog — especially your post concerning the Oregon standoff — also often deals with politics and its not-so-clear mechanisms that dictate our daily lives. Are these subjects you were always interested in?

A: I am most interested in the way people use ideas, how supposedly objective beliefs or thoughts can never really be separated from the personal lives of the people who have them. We think we can be objective, but we never really are.

That point of view can be summed up by the old adage: the personal is political (or philosophical), and the reverse. I think we are acting out larger political and social ideas all the time in our personal lives, but conversely our political and legal culture is an outgrowth of our personal lives.

H: You studied religion and theatre at Brown, two subjects that seem simultaneously antithetical to and part and parcel of each other. Why did you decide to pursue those two fields? And does one inform the way you approach the other?

A: Both theatre and religion need ritual to exist. Both use ritual to impress their foundational (or sacred) myths and insights into their spectators and participants, so that there is no longer any separation between ideas and the people living with those ideas. I’ve long found that ritual process fascinating. Both religion and theatre are kind of like ‘applied philosophy’, which is my real interest. How do people use ideas to build world-views for themselves and their communities?

H: What was the creative process behind Breath in Between?

A: It was strange and a bit mysterious, like the play itself. I wrote the first draft quickly, long ago, in a largely unconscious way. I have spent years figuring out what all the components mean, and how to refine the story to make it clear. That process happened in the writing, and it continues to happen in the direction. It’s enormously fun and interesting, working with the actors at figuring it all out, and how best to express it. That process has brought me to a point where I now have great clarity about the play’s meanings and events, so it was ultimately quite satisfying. I’m sure it will remain a challenging play for audiences, but everything in there has a definite purpose.

H: Did you have some details of the production in mind as you were writing the play?

A: I did — but you never know for sure which details will work, and which won’t, until you put it on its feet. It was surprising to see the ways in which I was accurate about some of my assumptions, and completely wrong about others.

H: What is your sense of what intimacy is in a digital world?

A: I think there are total contradictions around intimacy in our digital world. The internet and smart phones and social media make connecting with anyone endlessly easy — so intimacy is available no mater where we are, or who we are. But then the nature of the digital form — screens, phones, pictures — is the exact opposite of human intimacy, so it simultaneously inhibits meaningful connection.

I think this contradiction can make our present intimacy crazy and bizarre and intense all the time. It can be totally satisfying at one moment, but entirely frustrating the next. It’s not bad and not good — it’s both and neither. I often feel I’m swirling in a storm caused by digital communication, and that our whole culture is, and I have no idea at any given moment if I am being truly intimate or totally alienated. I think many of us are largely just shocked by all this.

H: You were born and raised in D.C. and now live in Toronto. Has moving to Canada affected your outlook on things?

A: I love Canada. I moved here a long time ago—well before the U.S. went completely nuts. From the moment I moved, Canada seemed saner than the U.S, a place where people have a more realistic idea of what it means to be a person, and part of a country. The U.S. is guided by huge, unrealistic myths and stories about itself that filter down to everyone. Canada has some of that, surely — and plenty of real social problems and contradictions — but I feel like the modesty of Canada’s foundational myths, ideas, and values creates a much more functional and humane society. I’m almost always relieved to be a part of it.

H: What are you reading these days?

A: Jacob Wren’s riveting Rich and Poor. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. I’m gradually reading Robert Caro’s massive, magnificent biography of Lyndon Johnson. Last year, I read and loved the poet Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs. And I’m really looking forward to reading Pasha Malla’s Fugue States when it comes out in the spring.

Anton Piatigorsky’s Breath in Between is a surreal love story revolving around Roger — a murderer of two willing victims — and Amy, who he meets, post-muder, in a bar. Intimacy, communications, and isolation in an increasingly more digitalized world are at the heart of the multi-Dora Award winning playwright’s directorial debut. 

Breath in Between, starring Kyle Gatehouse and Julia Krauss, runs through March 11th at the Crow’s Theatre as a part of its 2016/2017 season. For tickets, click here.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and instagram.