Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

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A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors & escaping a monster in Brenda Clews’ gripping, magical Fugue in Green

Like a bullet in slow motion, she floated over treetops for as long as it took to blink.

A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors and escaping the clutches of a monster, this is the opening line of Brenda Clews’ mesmerizing, magical novella Fugue in Green, published by Quattro Books.

Teen siblings Steig and Curtis struggle to survive live with their cruel, controlling and abusive mother Leica while their filmmaker father Reb is away working in England. Their monster mother is a catalyst for Steig’s escapes into the woods that surround their Vermont home, where Steig finds solace in nature. It is in these moments that we learn that Steig is a magical, elemental young woman who becomes the landscape she loves and shelters in. She also sees ghosts: her grandparents and a former teacher. And the ghosts tell her things. And she has a spritely sentinel: a bird man called forth from her connection to the woods to be her guardian.

Reb lives and works with his dreams—and dreams while awake—the everyday becoming surreal, expressionist visions that surround him; a visual poet, he creates poetry with images instead of words. And what of the mysterious and angelic Clare, a magician with a camera who arrives in his life at the precise moment he needs her—both personally and professionally?

Steig’s younger brother Curtis busies himself with more traditional, earth-bound teen pursuits. While not fully immune to their mother’s unreasonable expectations, unpredictable behaviour and wrath, he bears the least of it. And when their mother goes too far with Steig one day, Curtis launches a plan to flee their mother, contact their father and join him in England. Their journey to safety is fraught with terrifying memories and shared visions, but is also protected by forest spirits.

Secrets are revealed—with devastating results. Reb had no idea about the child abuse going on in his own home; forced to move beyond his own sense of guilt of being so distant from his children, who he realizes he barely knows, he’s determined to make a safe, supportive home for them. He’s been away too much and for too long. Meanwhile, back at the family’s home in Vermont, and realizing that her children are gone, Leica flies into a spiralling, destructive rage that echoes across an ocean.

Supernatural, spiritual connections emerge and reveal themselves; the battle between order and wilderness embodied in the relationship between Steig’s mother and Steig—and even Reb. Love, family, myth and metaphysics intertwine, winding around these relationships as the two children escape the witch at home and into the arms of those who truly love them.

Magical, sensuous and seductive, Clews’ words swirl around you and draw you in; mesmerizing with evocative colours and haunting, ethereal—and sometimes disturbing—images. A short, gripping modern fairy tale, it’s perfect for curling up for an afternoon or evening read, easily finished in one sitting.

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Brenda Clews

Clews is also an artist and a poet; you can view her work on her website, and on YouTube and Vimeo. You can also connect with Clews on Twitter and Facebook.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.

With gratitude

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Cowbell series – Gratitude

I’ve been reminded – several times this week – how rich I am in wonderful, creative friends. Whether it’s someone recommending or inviting me to go see a band, a movie, a play, read a book or a poem – or whatever – there is such a wealth of sharing and connection in my life right now that I just had to pause and say thank you. And that goes for you, too, dear reader. Thank you for dropping by. Thank you for your comments, compliments, queries, suggestions.

We are all the richer for sharing thoughts, ideas, feelings and art.

Lisa Mac - image of me
Wink – photo by Lisa MacIntosh

With thanks to photographer Lisa MacIntosh who went out of her way to go outside to her car, take this photo and send it to me today. She says it reminds her of me. I can see the resemblance. 😉

A brave & vulnerable hero’s journey – Just Lift Your Feet

Twitter JLYF header DSCF0736-editfinl_1Actor/playwright Heather Allin’s one-woman fable Just Lift Your Feet had its  Toronto Fringe Festival opening at the Robert Gill Theatre last night, playing in a late-night time slot to a small but engaged audience.

Directed by Dennis Hayes, Just Lift Your Feet has its origins in a SoulOTheatre solo show workshop intensive with Tracey Erin Smith. Drawing on archetypal characters, spiritualism and personal storytelling, the play examines fear, creativity and being true to oneself.

Lost and struggling to find her voice, Morgan’s trek to the forest in an attempt to regain her creative mojo becomes an unexpected hero’s journey – one in which the shadow self (the goddess Morgaine) and wise self (the Doe) battle for her allegiance. As Morgan tends to the injured doe, protecting her from Morgaine even as she protects her creativity from the bitch goddess, she finds strength in fragility.

Allin does a lovely job of using specific physical and vocal characteristics to draw and differentiate each character – and the one-person sword versus dagger fight between Morgaine and Morgan is masterfully choreographed and executed. The set, props and sound transport us to a world of magic realism: the music wondrous and twinkling, the wood and rock of the forest with its luminous birch trees and blue/black fabric river, the warrior’s breastplate, sword and dagger – and the red fabric that represents the severely injured animal.

The performance was followed by a brief talkback Q&A session, where Allin, Hayes and the audience discussed character delineation, and the process of finding and writing the story. The possibility of a version with multiple actors came up too, but one audience member noted how the piece is especially powerful as a one-woman show. I have to agree with the latter assessment – the play’s themes of personal journey, and the inner struggle against fear and striving to find a true voice, are well-suited to a one-person format.

Universal in its depiction of the longing to find one’s place – one’s self – in the world, Just Lift Your Feet is a brave and vulnerable piece of storytelling that touches, teaches and tickles.

Just Lift Your Feet runs at the Robert Gill Theatre until Saturday, July 13. Click here for complete show date/time details.

Just Lift Your Feet – interview with actor/playwright Heather Allin

S3lgwNs8bmvaHRI5RnMpjysm3SA20iBRu2--D1NuG5kJust one week away from the opening of the Toronto Fringe Festival, my friends, and I had the pleasure of interviewing actor/playwright Heather Allin, who took some time amidst a super busy pre-Fringe schedule to answer some questions over email about her upcoming one-woman Fringe play Just Lift Your Feet.

LWMC: Hi, Heather. Thanks for taking the time to speak about Just Lift Your Feet. What is Just Lift Your Feet about?

HA: It’s the story of a woman, a creative woman, who has lost her connection with herself. Fear, loss and failure have arisen. She heads off to the forest, hoping to leave the judgments behind to try to reconnect. She fails miserably. In so doing she “gives up,” opening her world to the non-ordinary experience. There she meets a Goddess and a Doe who vie for her creativity, one who wants to consume it, while the other wants to help her reconnect. In the format of the traditional Hero’s journey, Morgan, the lead, is shown the path she took and relearns how to be connected with what matters, and at the end of her fantastical journey, she reconnects with those two sides of herself, goddess and wise woman, to be able to create again, for the joy of creating.

LWMC: Just Lift Your Feet had its genesis in a SoulOTheatre solo show workshop intensive with Tracey Erin Smith. Can you tell us a bit about that process and how you came to find this story?

HA: I loved that workshop. In it there were four other fantastic women, each of us with stories to tell. Tracey was like a guide in the dark helping us to find creative impulses and stories that were meaningful to us, that she would hear, spell bound. Presenting that piece to an audience gave me a focus to craft a play and the opportunity to see if it was of interest to friends and strangers. From that I decided I wanted to continue to develop it. This version is very different that that one. Yet the threads of what I wanted to talk about: fear, and how debilitating fear can be; the power we all have inside ourselves to be creative and contributing and connected humans with self, others and everything around us. I was fortunate to have my friend and dramaturge Jani Lauzon to help guide me along the path as a writer of a play. SoulOTheatre was the kick-starter to this play. Tracey helped to inspire me and to keep me going when the fear of failure arose – as it still does.

LWMC: Had you written anything before?

HA: I have written many an essay, speeches, president’s messages, scenes and a short play, but this is my first full-length play.

LWMC: How did you manage to navigate your dual writer/actor role during the dramaturgical and rehearsal process? Did you find one hat more challenging to wear than the other?

HA: I feel like I’m wearing about 15 hats. Letting go of ‘writer’ was probably the hardest, because it’s also the newest. If I’d known how much work it all is, I might have thought twice, but probably still chosen to do the show. I had to learn to triage, to delegate, and when that didn’t work, I had to let some things not get done, and be okay with it.

LWMC: You also have scenes where you’re playing multiple characters in various relationships to each other. What’s that like? What helps you ground yourself in each character throughout as you shift back and forth?

HA: I’ve put together a fantastic team: voice, movement, fight and of course my director and stage manager who can be that outer eye, and help me figure out the gesture, the voice, the breath, the stance and the power. All of which went put together, create characters on stage being played by one woman. My set, lighting and sound designers support the story, and my performance. My communications team have put together a beautiful and integrated branding of the show that evokes the play.

LWMC: Dennis Hayes is your director for the Toronto Fringe production. How did you find each other? Did he also assist with dramaturgy?

HA: Dennis is incredible to work with. He knew my two co-producers and they recommended he be the right person for this script. Jani Lauzon has been working on the dramaturge of the script with me since last summer. She’s helped me learn how to tell a story dramatically and theatrically. Dennis has helped to sculpt those intricate moments.

LWMC: Any revelations – personal or professional – that came about during your time writing, editing and rehearsing that you care to share?

HA: When I began thinking of writing, I thought I didn’t have anything to say. Then I realized I had so much to say I couldn’t begin. And so I followed my heart, and at each step of my journey the right people arose to help me get to the next step. There are stories in each of us. It takes a lot of bravery to start and even more to finish, but step by step you move forward. If it calls to you, follow your heart.

LWMC: At this point, do you have any plans for Just Lift Your Feet beyond the Toronto Fringe run?

HA: Well, we frequently refer to “in the Mirvish production,” while recognizing we’re in the Fringe Festival. In my quiet moments, I hope I can develop the play to its next level, and that it will find spots in a theatre company’s season. I also think it could travel. So yes, but right now I’m focused on this stage, and this time.

LWMC: Do you have any other projects in the works?

HA: Right now, this is my focus.

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

HA: I encourage everyone to find your own creativity. I ask you all to support the arts and, in particular, artists. Watch us, so that theatre lives vibrantly. Pay us, so we can afford to bring you new stories. Enjoy theatre, and what it offers. I am fortunate to have some very talented and dedicated artists working with me on this project. The team that surrounds me and supports the creation of Just Lift Your Feet are amazing to work with. I thank them.

Thanks, Heather!

For those of you on Facebook, check out the mention of Just Lift Your Feet in 2013 Toronto Fringe Picks by Derrick Chua.

Just Lift Your Feet runs July 3-13 at the Robert Gill Theatre:

Show Code

Length

Show Time

Venue

903

90

Wednesday, July 3, 2013 – 10:30pm – Thursday, July 4, 2013 – 12:00am

Robert Gill

909

90

Friday, July 5, 2013 – 5:15pm – 6:45pm

Robert Gill

917

90

Saturday, July 6, 2013 – 7:30pm – 9:00pm

Robert Gill

928

90

Monday, July 8, 2013 – 3:00pm – 4:30pm

Robert Gill

937

90

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 – 8:30pm – 10:00pm

Robert Gill

940

90

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 – 2:00pm – 3:30pm

Robert Gill

966

90

Saturday, July 13, 2013 – 10:30pm – Sunday, July 14, 2013 – 12:00am

Robert Gill


Cowbell’s got a brand new bag

Cowbell’s got a brand new bag for 2013, chickens.

Over the past little while, I’ve been mulling over the fact that I’ve been seeing a lot of amazing artists – in music, theatre and poetry/spoken word mostly, as well as books, TV and film – and having a blast seeing/hearing their work and blogging about it. I’ve also been enjoying the heck out of scenic painting – assisting a set designer in bringing into being his/her vision for the world of the play. But making very little art of my own. For a long while, I saw blogging about – and, by extension, shouting out and supporting local artists – as my art. And it is – don’t get me wrong. But I was also feeling an untapped source of creativity within myself, put on hold for a variety of reasons, that needs to be allowed to flow as well.

It’s been just over two years since I started this blog. Fairly early on, I realized that my main focus needed to be local Toronto music, theatre and poetry/spoken word. I’ll still post about movies, TV and books once in a while, but there are other blogs that do this (The Televixen, The Mind Reels and Dorothy Surrenders are just a few that come to mind) – and do a much better job than I. Recently, I’ve decided to change things up a bit and include more photos and start doing interviews (like this one I did with actor/playwright Dawna J. Wightman) and participated in The Next Big Thing online interview. And I’d like to do more photo posts and interviews in the coming year.

Now, I want to strike a balance between shouting out other pe0ple’s art and creating my own. This means I’ll need to carve out some time for myself, which inevitably means I won’t be seeing and posting on other artists quite as much. I’ve already taken some steps in that direction and promise to keep you posted. So don’t be surprised if, in the near future, you see a post about some of my own work. Of course, all this on top of the full-time office job that pays the rent, and keeps Camille and I fed. I also want to give myself permission to see a performance and not blog about it the next day. Take the night off, so to speak, once in a while. I’ve found that with all my note-taking, picture-taking and just generally watching a performance with an eye on posting about it, I end up missing out on part of the experience. Sometimes, I just want to let the work wash over me and experience it in the moment without having to think about a headline or a write-up. No worries, I’ll still be getting out to see stuff and telling you all about it in this blog – I’ll just be giving myself some space now too.

I’d like to leave you with this fun and touching video of a male chorus, recorded in an Oakville, ON Tim Horton’s by employee Danfi Parker. It brought a smile to my face and a bit of a tear. If anyone knows who these fellas are, please give me a shout.