Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

_mg_0059
Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

_mg_0150
Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

Advertisements

Tantalizing treats & 2016-17 season sneak peeks @ Nightwood Theatre Dramatic Spring Social

It was a fabulous night of tantalizing treats and 2016-17 sneak peeks in very good company as Nightwood Theatre gave invited guests a sneak peek at its 2016-17 season at a Dramatic Spring Social, held at the home of Nightwood Board Chair Karon Bales on Wednesday night. The evening’s festivities included delicious food and drink, with wine supplied by GreenLane Estate Winery, and food from Sublime Catering and Beacon Restaurant Concepts.

kelly & beth
A.D. Kelly Thornton & Managing Director Beth Brown – photos by Taylor Trowbridge

Host Karon Bales welcomed us to her home, thanking us for our attendance as she highlighted the importance of theatre and the arts, and our shared dedication to the advancement of women. Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton and Managing Director Beth Brown echoed the importance of equity in the arts, hearkening back to the founding of Nightwood in 1979 – and shouting out founder Cynthia Grant, who was present – and its dedication to producing “relevant, dynamic and powerful theatre.” And that the low proportion of produced works written by women (22%) is evidence that, even in 2016, there is still a need for a women’s theatre.

We were then treated to excerpts from three of the four productions from Nightwood’s upcoming 2016-17 season:

Mouthpiece (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). A Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken. Presented as a double bill with Quiver.

Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava
Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava

Gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements make this an engaging and evocative piece. Performing an excerpt from the second half of the play, Sadava and Nostbakken portray two sides of a character whose mother has died. Shifting from the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies of a roots spiritual to the unison voice message from the woman’s aunt, the audience is both moved and tickled as this young woman deals with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. I missed the RISER Project production last year – and will be sure to see it this time around.

Anna Chatterton
Anna Chatterton

Quiver (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written and performed by Anna Chatterton, directed by Andrea Donaldson. Presented as a double bill with Mouthpiece.

Chatterton incorporates a vocal processor, laptop and microphone to create atmospheric and vocal effects to orchestrate this multi-character one-person show. In the excerpt, 14-year-old Maddie observes the world around her, particularly her mother’s bad romance with boyfriend Daniel, who turns out to be cheating on her. This revelation is exacerbated further when her teenage sister tells them the one he’s cheating with! Funny, dramatic and quirky, it’s a remarkable and engaging piece of solo storytelling.

Unholy (Jan 15 – Feb 5, 2017 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written by Diane Flacks, directed by Kelly Thornton.

Niki Landau
Niki Landau

Set as a live, televised debate, four women argue the question: “Should women abandon religion?” The play weaves flashbacks with debate moments, where each woman’s personal life is revealed (showing us what’s not being said). In the excerpt, Niki Landau performed a flashback: a hilarious drunken Jewish wedding toast from the sister of the bride that turns into confession and accusations of favouritism.

Century Song (April 12 – 29, 2017 at Crow’s Theatre). A Volcano Theatre production; created by Neema Bickersteth, with Kate Alton and Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson and performed by Neema Bickersteth.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Century Song combines song, movement and projected images to create a feast for the senses as the storytelling takes the audience on a stunning journey of 100 years of women and art.

With thanks to Nightwood’s Marketing Coordinator Taylor Trowbridge for the photos and Development Coordinator Victoria Leberge for the invite.

Coming up soon for Nightwood: The annual Lawyer Show fundraiser; this year, it’s Guys and Dolls (June 9-11 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts). Also, coming up: the Creativity Gym; contact Michelle Alexander for info.

Can’t make it to The Lawyer Show, but want to support Nightwood? Consider making a donation.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

A marvelous evening @ Mini-Soulo Festival, ft. Bits & Pieces by Diane Flacks & Katie Ford

Tracey Diane & Katie
Diane Flacks & Katie Ford (front), Tracey Erin Smith (back) – photo by Shy Alter

Last night’s program for Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre’s Mini-Soulo Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre was a multipurpose, big fun event that combined theatre fundraiser, love-in and new solo works.

Smith played auctioneer throughout the evening, calling out fabulous items that included a ukulele lesson from Jodi Pape (who serenaded us before the festivities began), one night’s rental at Red Sandcastle Theatre, a photo shoot with Shy Alter and a surprise last-minute offering of a year’s membership at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, courtesy of Savoy Howe.

Solo show class student Sara Armstrong kicked off the night’s performances with her show Tripping on the Way out of Town. Featuring personal stories of her life, spanning childhood memories to experiences of sexuality, and bookended with camel rides, Armstrong’s show is unflinchingly frank, and a strong commentary on the assumptions and expectations of others. Peppered with humour and dance breaks, the serious subjects are matter-of-fact and avoid the slide into maudlin. Funny and poignant, keep an eye out for Armstrong and this piece.

For the main event, Diane Flacks and Katie Ford performed a reading of their two-person solo show Bits and Pieces, which received dramaturgical support from Smith. Part stand-up, part monologue, part dialogue between two good friends, Flacks and Ford take us on a trip of life, love and resilience.

From the opening back and forth on everyday things we should just stop doing, to personal experiences of fear and courage, the piece is equal parts autobiographical, inspirational and motivational. Whether performing in character, like Flacks’ hilarious self-involved but present hot yoga instructor, or presenting personal anecdotes – Ford’s musings about a fledgling relationship and whether to keep it at a safe arm’s length or dive right in, and both share heart-wrenching accounts of experiences with death – Flacks and Ford make us laugh, cry and think.

Ultimately, Bits and Pieces is about finding your authentic self, getting back up when you get knocked down – and just staying present. Life really is too short after all. And what if, like Ford’s dog Ollie, you thought the whole world was your friend?

Bits and Pieces is a funny, moving, joyful ride through life’s experiences, and a reminder to stay present and not give up. A work in progress, I look forward to see where Flacks and Ford go with this piece. In case you missed it, check out the cowbell interview with Flacks and Ford.

The Mini-Soulo Festival wraps up this afternoon (Sun, Nov 30) with workshops and a public reading at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Congrats to Smith and SoulOTheatre for winning NOW Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Small Theatre Company!

mini-soulo fest

Interview with Diane Flacks & Katie Ford – coming to Mini-Soulo Festival with Bits & Pieces

LobsterComing soon to several theatre spaces around Toronto: Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre present the Mini-Soulo Festival (Nov 27-30), with workshops at Red Sandcastle Theatre, and performances at Factory Theatre, Panasonic Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Featuring in the Mini-Soulo Festival on Nov 29 at Buddies in Bad Times is a staged reading of the play Bits and Pieces, written and performed by Diane Flacks and Katie Ford, with dramaturgical support from Smith.

Emmy, Gemini and Dora-nominated writer/performer Diane Flacks is no stranger to writing and performing in solo shows (her own shows Myth Me, By a Thread, Random Acts, and Bear With Me, as well as writing Luba, Simply, Luba for Luba Goy) or intimate two-handers (her work with Richard Greenblatt on Sibs and Care). Flacks is also a featured parenting columnist in the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, as well as on CBC radio, and her book Bear With Me, What They Don’t Tell You About Pregnancy and New Motherhood was adapted into a solo show, which she toured across Canada and performed at the Winnipeg Comedy Fest. Most recently, she’s been working as a writer/producer on the critically acclaimed NBC/Global sitcom Working the Engels. Flacks is Nightwood Theatre’s 2014 playwright in residence, developing Unholy, a play about women and religion; and her new two-act drama Waiting Room will have its world premiere at Tarragon Theatre January-February, 2015.

Best known for her work on hits like the film Miss Congeniality and TV sitcom Family Ties, writer/producer Katie Ford more recently wrote the Emmy-nominated TV movie Prayers for Bobby. Starting out as a stand-up comic at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, Ford went on to become a playwright – and her play Out in America was produced in New York and Los Angeles, where it was voted as one of the best plays of the year by the L.A. Times. Ford is currently the executive producer of Working the Engels.

I had the opportunity to interview Flacks and Ford about Bits and Pieces – here’s what they had to say:

LWMC: Hi, Diane and Katie. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about Bits and Pieces, and its upcoming reading at the Mini-Soulo Festival.
KF: My pleasure.
DF: Me too!
LWMC: Bits and Pieces is described as a “two-person, one-person show.” What is the show about?
DF: We’re calling it a theatrical conversation. Two stories that echo and reflect each other, and end up pushing each other to reveal something unexpected. Just like one of those great, surprising conversations with a good friend.
LWMC: And what can you tell us about the genesis of Bits and Pieces, and how the two of you came to work together on it?
KF: Diane and I are good friends and when I moved back to Toronto a couple of years ago, I wanted to write a show for her to do – a one-person show. At the same time, I started performing again (I had been a stand-up at the beginning of my career at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto). Diane and I both performed onstage for a benefit and each did a monologue about ‘fighting;’ it was so fun to be onstage with her – there was such an ease and camaraderie there, I for sure wanted more of that. So we just started developing pieces – writing separate pieces for ourselves that we would read the other and then the other one of us would develop a piece that would be compatible.
DF: And I adore Katie’s writing and performing voice, and wanted to see more of that! We have a unique chemistry and we both are interested in similar themes. We are both provocateurs, but funny. And nerds. It’s such a joy to share a stage with someone you admire and who has your back.
LWMC: Diane, you’ve written and/or performed in several solo shows over the years, as well as some lovely two-handers and intimate smaller cast shows, including a very successful run of Lois Fine’s Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week at Buddies recently. How has that experience informed the storytelling for Bits and Pieces?
DF: A friend of mine says that he always ends up writing to his obsessions. After all these years, I still write and act about the things that obsess, outrage or tickle me. When normal people are disturbed by something, they go to therapy or directly try and resolve it. People like me try and make art out of it. Or at least make people laugh.
LWMC: Katie, you’re more known for your work behind the scenes, creating, writing and producing for some notable hits in film, television and theatre. What’s it been like for you as you prepare to act in this piece?
KF: I know – it has been a lot of years writing/producing and not stepping on stage. But it has been great – having spent many years doing stand-up, when I got back on stage it felt like home. I also took an improv class with Kate Ashby, which was amazing – worked with great women in that class. Bold, funny and they have your back – what more could you want? So it’s been nice. It’s not really acting, as I don’t consider myself an actor, it’s more stand-up pieces with a literary bent.
LWMC: Writing and performing a piece can be a challenge in terms of division of labour, time and energy. Have the two of you been continuing to write and re-write as you rehearse – or are you focusing more on performance at this point? How has the process unfolded as you create this piece?
DF: We’re constantly re-writing! It’s really fun to approach this both as writers and performers at the same time. And of course, it’s much easier to have perspective on someone else’s work than your own. And since these two pieces are echoes or reflections of each other, in a way, when we help re-write each other, we help ourselves, if that makes a weird kind of sense. We really don’t have to worry about division of labour. It’s a labour of love.
KF: True dat.
LWMC: And how did you come to join forces with Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre?
KF: Tracey came to see us do the first performance of this piece. And she was so amazing and so receptive, and really saw what we were trying to do.
DF: She’s also fascinated by solo performance and stretching the boundaries – this is a pretty good example of that. She’s got great vision and is so generous.
LWMC: Is there anything else you’d like to share about Bits and Pieces?
KF: Really just that I can’t wait to share it. And share the stage with Diane. And that it is a work in progress…but fun, hopefully.
DF: I have a feeling there might be snacks…
LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?
KF: I love the name of your blog/mission statement of “Life with more cowbell.” Nice.
LWMC: Thanks! And thanks again for chatting with me. All the best with your final prep for this performance of Bits and Pieces – and break legs at the reading!

mini-soulo festYou can register for the Mini-Soulo Festival workshops online and follow SoulOTheatre on Twitter.