Preview: The search for a healing prayer in Spiderbones Performing Arts’ mind-blowing, heart-wrenching Everything I Couldn’t Tell You

Searching for a healing prayer with science, music and ancestral language. Spiderbones Performing Arts combines the arts of neuroscience, and music and language therapy with traditional Indigenous healing principles in its moving, mind-blowing multi-media production of Jeff D’Hondt’s Everything I Couldn’t Tell You, directed by Erin Brandenburg and running in the Theatre Centre’s Incubator space as part of the RISER Project.

Cassandra’s (Jenny Young) neuroscience has brought Megan (PJ Prudat) out of a coma, but she fears the combination of electric current and music applied to the brain may have done more harm than good. Still struggling to remember what happened to her, every emotion Megan feels presents as anger; attempts at talk therapy and other standard treatments aren’t working and Megan’s responses, fuelled by alcohol and her hatred of Cassandra, are becoming increasingly violent. When Megan fires Cassandra and demands a therapist who speaks Lenape, Cassandra reluctantly brings the experimental, unorthodox Indigenous neuropsychologist Alison (Cheri Maracle) onboard.

Unlike Cassandra’s method of electric and music impulses input into the passive brain, Alison’s method incorporates active, directed output from Megan’s brain, and translates those choices into music. Even more importantly, Alison has learned that conducting sessions in Lenape calms Megan’s tortured brain—and she’s convinced that a combination of their therapies will uncover Megan’s healing prayer.

While their approaches differ, Cassandra and Alison are both haunted by the loss of someone they loved very much: Cassandra’s partner Melanie (Cheri Maracle) and Alison’s sister Steph. Torn between maintaining a professional perspective and distance, and sharing their personal experiences of pain and grief, they both struggle with the question: who are they doing this work for? And who are they really treating—and what does this mean for Megan’s recovery?

Strong, compelling and heartbreaking performances all around in this powerful three-hander. Young delivers a taut performance as Cassandra; distant and clinical, even cold, on the surface, Cassandra is tightly wound—holding onto self-control with all her might and she navigates the aftershocks of losing Melanie while continuing her work, and lashes out with her sharp scientific mind. Moments of beautiful artistry and tenderness are revealed in a flashback, where the shy introvert Cassandra meets Melanie at a conference. Maracle brings a remarkable sense of strength and conflict to the brilliant, haunted Alison; struggling with her own ghosts, as well as confidence in herself and her theories in the face of so much doubt and derision, memories of her sister both break her heart and push her to find a way to help Megan. Alison’s determined to connect—and persists through each barrier and set-back. Prudat’s Megan is part wild child, part lost girl; as her memories surface, she mourns the familial discouragement away from her heritage, her own Uma (grandmother) steering her towards piano lessons to get her away from the ‘evil’ drum. Her irreverent, devil-may-care feral outbursts are both a cover for and a symptom of her profound pain and suffering—and she’s got the guts to do whatever it takes to get better and get her life back, however dangerous it may be.

Shouts to the evocative work from the design team: Michel Charbonneau (set), Tess Girard (videographer), André du Toit (lighting), Isidra Cruz (costume) and Andrew Penner (sound/composition) for creating a world that combines the clinical with the natural in a striking, innovative way. White set, with images—brain scans, shimmering water and art therapy drawings—and English translations of the Lenape text projected on pieces of scrim that hang like hospital curtains. The scrim also creates ghost-like barriers for flashbacks featuring lost loved ones. And there’s an opportunity to hear the Lenape language in a visceral way, with bone conduction headphones that transmit the sound into your cheekbones, providing a physical experience of the language and leaving your ears free to hear it. Headsets are limited, and distributed via a combination of game of chance and lottery draw before each performance.

Science, music, art and language combine in the search of a healing prayer in Spiderbones Performing Arts’ mind-blowing, heart-wrenching Everything I Couldn’t Tell You.

Everything I Couldn’t Tell You continues in the Theatre Centre Incubator space until May 12. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and a short run.

Interview with the multi-faceted Lisa Anita Wegner

When Kat Leonard introduced me to multi-talented, muti-faceted, multi-media working artist Lisa Anita Wegner, what struck me the most was that Lisa credits art with saving her life. You can read her story here. And when I visited her blog site, I was blown away by the imagery in her pixel paintings.

I had a chance to interview Lisa over email – here’s what she had to say:

LWMC: Hi, Lisa. I was looking at your WordPress blog site and the Mighty Brave Productions site to get a sense of the work you do – and was amazed at the multi-faceted aspect of your work overall, and how it all boils down to authentic storytelling, and using story to make interior and exterior connections. You’ve worked as an actor, producer, writer, filmmaker and visual artist. What else? What came first for you and how did the media you work in evolve?

5-year-old Lisa’s Mary Poppins casting call

LAW: I have always made stuff with whatever I have access too. My first project idea to put on a Mary Poppins play didn’t fly because no one responded. I was five years old.

When I was little, I was shy but when I had an idea for a play, I would become bold. I got permission from the school principal to produce an all-grade two production of Little Orphan Annie and perform in the auditorium for the school. I played by myself a lot, and I would envision fully formed plays and then did my best make them happen. I really was just following instincts, moving toward what felt good. And when I was performing, I felt like it was doing the right thing.

I stuck with theatre mostly because I had no video camera and was good at making costumes. In grade nine, I got the lead in the high school play and played Catherine Sloper from Washington Square on a proper stage with older kids. I felt like I’d arrived home. In high school, I produced and performed several other plays, including a racy version of The Rocky Horror Show. I continued to produce plays of larger scale and after three years at York U theatre, I left to start my acting career. For several years, I dabbled in commercials and print work, with a string of small parts in local theatre eventually playing some meaty roles on stage (Mephistopheles, The Wife in Rashomon, Joan of Arc). With good reviews, I was happy, but far from creatively fulfilled.

With Mighty Brave Productions, I started my creative team, some of them still with me, all these years later. Each year, I would do one play in another city and one play in Toronto – I liked to do theatre in non-traditional spaces (church, radio station, dance studio) and here started to become obsessed with authenticity. If something was phoney, I lost interest immediately. I raised money, begged borrowed and bartered, and paid for stuff myself if necessary. I decided never to let money stand in my way of making anything.

In 2004, I produced my first full-scale short film, union talent, 50-person crew, two-camera set up. A veteran TV director, John Bertram (Degrassi Jr.High), and some of his seasoned team joined me. From then on, I was hooked indie filmmaking. I realized that this storytelling eye was more intimate and personal – and so up my alley. I set up the project, organized the team, dream the story and then be an actor on my own set. It is heaven on earth.

I nurtured my creative family and now have produced 47 film and video projects – from 10-second interstitials, to feature length films.

In 2008, I fell sick and basically couldn’t function (collapsed at Cannes, how romantic). Once I was home, I started making small video projects on my laptop while lying in bed, because that was all I had access to. Figuring out who I am through these videos was a big part of my healing. They are all based on what was going on inside my head at the moment. For example, I found a typewriter on the street and I shot a series of kitchen sink dramas about a woman who wanted to be a writer. I played both husband and wife in the series. Here is a playlist of some of these videos:

So Who Am I Anyway?, a short where I put on my own outfits and listened to music, I knew I used to like to see if it was still suited me. This simple little video was chosen as part of Selection 2011 at The Phoenix Art Museum and I was honoured to be there at the screening.

2008/2009, I could barely wash and feed myself, but if I got an idea for a video I would get up, set up, shoot, cut, post it and fall back into bed. I knew I was in the right job because no matter how sick my mind and body, that I couldn’t stop making stuff. When I was sick, I created as much content as when I was running two small production companies. This personal work really was me trying to figure out who I was after my mind stopped working properly. These little no budget, lo-fi videos affected more people and did more for my career than any other film I’d produced.

While for me, performing is the icing on the creative crack cake, but dreaming up a project and communicating the story are something I will never be able to stop doing, it’s the actual crack.

Someone called me a folk artist, because I make do with whatever is available to me.

LWMC: Do you still act?

LAW: Yes. I am performing in my current projects and once I am finished with my medical leave, I will act in other people’s projects again. I feel like I am 10 times the performer I used to be. Now, with the experience of putting my brain back together, I feel like I have a deeper, more complex, intimate understanding of my own emotional system, and the inner workings of my brain and heart. I am very much looking forward to getting back on other people’s sets again. Did I mention that being on set is like being at the most fun camp in the universe?

LWMC: I wanted to ask you about your pixel painting. How do you approach storytelling in this medium – and are there any similarities with the other media you’ve worked in? 

LAW: Pixel painting started as a therapeutic measure when I had a lot of anxiety. If I would do digital art, it would quiet my mind and calm my body. I rarely planned what I was doing. I would often start with a webcam shot of my face and I tried my best to convey where I was at. When I was finished, it was often a surprise to me what I created. I tend to use images from my life – if I’m watching a movie, I might grab a screen capture as my canvas and a picture of my face and go from there. The story or the message is revealed, but not planned.

After doing this awhile, I realized how much story one can convey in a moment. What stays in what is out of the image. And also in the creation of the image (I started filming me making them) Jane Siberry’s video “When We Are a Vampire” is one example of this and the current work I am doing with musician Benjamin Boles (both on YouTube).

LWMC: Your image appears in a lot of your pixel paintings – and though your style is influenced by the Dada movement, using yourself as the subject brings to mind the (surrealist) self-portraits painted by Frida Kahlo. Has your work become more personal, more autobiographical, since your work in art therapy?

LAW: At first, I was surprised that I used my own face so much. But it was always there right in front of my on the webcam. These self-portraits have evolved into something that is now a part of my life. I make them every day. I consider it a lifelong project to try to be more and more authentic in everything I make. Now, I am an authenticity junkie. I feel like my story is being told in everything I make, from pixel painting to feature film. I blushed when you included me in the same sentence as Frida.

LWMC: There’s a really cool sense exploration, playfulness and intensity in your work – and the imagery can be dark, whimsical or erotic. Do you set out with a theme in mind, does an idea come in a flash…do you just go for it? What sows the seed of a project for you?

LAW: Thank you. I feel creatively very free. I just put it all out there. I was surprised that the happier and more balanced I feel in my life, the creepier and darker my work gets. I can’t help making erotic stuff because it’s a part of me. I post that on and not too much on Facebook. I do think there will be more work in that direction.

LWMC: The juxtaposition of images and text is especially thought-provoking. Does the inclusion of text happen organically during the creation of the piece – or does the text come first and the piece gets built around it? Where does the text come from?

LAW: I’ve always liked words in pictures. I found my grade nine art project and I had already that basic style going. The words just pop out of me and into the image as part of my pixel painting trance.

LWMC: What are you working on right now?

LAW: I pixel paint every day, and I recently set up a studio so I can also paint with paper, paint and brushes. I’m working on an ongoing video series to Benjamin Boles’ one-man band improv set up (there is a YouTube playlist of all these) he creates music and I create videos based on the moment we are in. I have been calling this endeavour The Moment Factory. I have started layering all the performance videos together, so there is a visual echo of each prior performance in the current video. Here is a playlist of these:

I am also currently working on a multimedia project called The Interface Is The Message, a feature film called MY FAVOURITE MISTAKE and an larger scale art/video/fashion/performance installation with The City Of Toronto, which will be announced soon (keeping secrets is hard for me). I have also been working on some commissions and album art.

LWMC: Any upcoming exhibitions, installations or screenings?

LAW: One Desert Two Desserts will be screening in Phoenix, Arizona this month. You can see my pixel painting as part of Elvis Mondays when Benjamin Boles is playing at The Drake Hotel (dates tba). I am also speaking at WonderFest about How Art Saved My Life and showing some visual art pieces as part of the concert at The Gladstone Hotel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share with folks?

LAW: Figure out what it is you love doing and never stop. I never imagined my creative path taking the route it took, but I didn’t buck the current. I flowed with it and now I wake up happy every day. I can’t believe how lucky I am that I found my voice, and now I have the freedom to create what I want every day and see where it takes me. I learned to keep my reactive tap open. Everyone can do this, and I encourage everyone to find what it is for them and go after it with gusto. Pierce the mundane to find the marvellous inside you. You are worth it!

Here is my latest art work:

And here are other links: (films) (blog) (video shorts)

LWMC: Thanks, Lisa!

Transformed by clay & fire

hr_tbf-hero-618x358Back in the spring, I attended a sculpture exhibition of works created by students of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic art therapy group at the Gardiner Museum. While there, I had the opportunity to view the work and speak with a few of the participants, women survivors of violence and abuse, about their work and posted about it on this blog.

Transformation by Fire is an exhibition of this work, at the Gardiner starting today, from February 7 – April 28 – and includes lectures, workshops and an International Women’s Day dance performance.

The works are raw, honest, beautiful and disturbing – touchstones along a path toward hope.