Chelsea Riesz, Lisa Alves, Courtney Lamanna, Joella Crichton, Mercy Cherian & Cathy Huang—rehearsal photo courtesy of Jenna Borsato
HERstory Counts opened its second season at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night with Love Between the Lines, written and performed by the ensemble, and directed by Co-Artistic Producer/Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Neales, assisted by Ellie Posadas, with dramaturgy by Co-Artistic Producer/Co-Artistic Director Evangelia Kambites.
For those of you not familiar with HERstory Counts, it’s a company that produces “true stories, performed by the creators themselves, offering a space to challenge and push past the ideals of the status quo. We feature and celebrate female-identified womyn of all backgrounds, all ages, all races, all histories, all sizes, all sexual orientations, and all abilities.”
Featuring autobiographical storytelling from six writer/performers, Love Between the Lines is an examination of love in its various forms and incarnations, each story weaving seamlessly in and out of the other. Joella Crichton’s exploration of the stages of grief following a break-up; Chelsea Riesz discovering sins of the father in her relationship dynamics; Cathy Huang’s love letter to a kindred spirit grandmother; Lisa Alves navigating identity and the complicated, close-knit ties with her mother; Courtney Lamanna connecting the dots as she recognizes and strives to break the cycle of abusive relationships; and Mindy Kaling doppelganger Mercy Cherian’s undying love for a dying, ever protective father.
Told with vulnerability, humour and courage, the storytelling is up close and personal—candidly revealing all the maddening, heartbreaking, messy struggle, comfort and elation of these relationships. Incorporating memory, personal insight and even confession, each actor plays out her truth on a bare stage; her story animated by the other actors, who deftly transform into parents, lovers, inner selves, a tarot card reader and even—most hilariously—goofy, fiercely protective street dogs in India. These stories move you to laughter, tears and even maybe your own a-ha moment. These stories resonate.
With shouts to Stage Manager Mariah Ventura, Creative/Production Assistant Robin Luckwaldt and Production Manager Jenna Borsato for their work on this production.
Love in all its complex, messy, glorious forms in Love Between the Lines.
Love Between the Lines continues at Red Sandcastle, with performances tonight, Saturday and Sunday night at 7:30pm, and a 2:30pm matinee on Sunday. Get your advance tickets online or purchase at the door half an hour before show time. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate space and last night’s opening was a packed house.
This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.
The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.
Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.
Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.
Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.
As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.
Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.
Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.
With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).
Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.
Created in a collaborative village of diverse womyn, SILENCED is directed by HERstory Counts Founder, Co-Artistic producer and Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Neales, with dramaturgy by Evangelia Kambites and coaching/mentorship by Ordena Stephens-Thompson.
In SILENCED, seven womyn share deeply personal, formative moments in their lives. Each short autobiographical story shifts seamlessly into the next as the staging weaves the individual stories with participation from the entire cast, acting as family, friends, lovers—and even on occasion a chorus of internal and external voices of support and derision.
Growing up Irish Catholic, Shannon Murphy as she finds herself attracted to women, starting with a primary school teacher. Muzzled by playground teasing and her father’s repulsion of all things LGBTQ, she struggles with her emotions and desires. Playful, honest and tender, Murphy shares how she broke out of the shame and silence, choosing to be true to herself and come out as a lesbian.
A Nigerian immigrant to Canada growing up black and in poverty, Ruby Ajilore lives in a loving home with her devout, watchful mother and hard-working, jovial father. Quickly learning that she is judged by the colour of her skin, as well as class and even her hair cut, she gradually turns her search for identity inward. Fierce, funny and thoughtful, Ruby reminds us all that it’s what’s inside that truly counts.
Part Ojibwe, part South Asian, Yolanda Bonnell and her family experienced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. As the years pass, she finds she must choose between her family and her own peace of mind. This lived experience has far-reaching impact—even long after being out of that environment, she is haunted by ongoing nightmares of the abuse. Told with frankness and an adorably contagious sense of humour (the juice!), this is the story of a survivor with a strong will and a gentle soul.
No matter how hard or long she studied and prepared for tests at school, Laura Meadows was failing miserably. Stigmatized by labels of “retarded” and “slow,” she finally learns what’s amiss when her mother connects with a teacher who knows better. Laura has dyslexia, and a magic pair of glasses gives her the power of reading. Her elation is deflated when she learns that it’s a genetic condition. Meadows gives a determined, plucky performance; glimpsing a possible future in which she will share the magic of her special coloured glasses with her child.
Excited to explore sexuality in a respectful, consensual way as a young adult, Risha Nanda finds the experience impossibly painful. Diagnosed with vaginismus, she hearkens back to her teenage years, when her good girl reputation came under fire after a washroom encounter with a boy from another school turned her into a target for slut shaming. Told with frankness and a deep awareness of high school social dynamics, Nanda reveals her journey of self-discovery and acceptance; good girls can have good sex too.
When Eilleen Posadas finds her family life resembling that of a beloved Filipino telenovela, the real-life impact of an abusive father with shady basement dealings and the questionable actions of a neighbourhood playmate is far from entertaining. What is her father doing down there? And what was that boy doing on top of her while they were hiding during a game of hide and seek? Cheeky, engaging and poignant, Posadas’s story is one of eye-opening revelations and a strong will to carry on through disillusionment and adversity.
As a middle-aged, educated white woman, Denise Norman recognizes her privilege. As a child, community racism forced her apart from her black kindergarten BFF; realizing the reason as she witnessed with horror the events that unfolded following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Acknowledging the injustice that remains today, she is a fighter, advocate and ally calling out issues that must still be addressed. Personal and political, she shares her story with a tender fierceness that brings tears of laughter and pathos.
Each is a brave piece of storytelling, combining a sense of rage and fragility. And each womyn endures and struggles to find her voice—and each shouts out her experience loud and proud.
Shattering the silence with first-person storytelling candor, rage and humour in the powerful, political, personal SILENCED.
With shouts to the production’s behind-the-scenes support from SM Caitlin Cooke and Assistant SM Maya Findlay for keeping it all running smoothly, and Social Media Coordinator Shayna Virginillo for shouting it out.
SILENCED has four more performances at Red Sandcastle: Dec 9 and 10 at 7:30pm, and Dec 11 at 2:30pm and 7:30pm; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate venue and a popular production, so advance booking is strongly recommended. Please note the early start time for evening performances.
Keep an eye out for future productions. This is the beginning of some powerful womyn-fueled storytelling. You can follow HERstory Counts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Seven performers. Three nights. One theatre project just getting started.
Artistic producer/project founder Jennifer Neales had been frustrated about the lack of diverse voices in theatre – particularly womyn of colour – for 10 years; that is, until she decided to do something about it. And that something is the HERStory Counts theatre project, which opened its inaugural performance at Red Sandcastle Theatre for a three-performance run last night.
Neales joined forces with some kick-ass creators and actors to put together a show featuring seven autobiographical monologues, where the actors were also the playwrights. Along with Neales, the creative team includes Jenna Borsato, Melanie Hyrmak, Franny McCabe-Bennett and Melissa Major.
Each monologue transitioning seamlessly into the next, this HERStory Counts program moves like a game of theatrical tag – playful, challenging and inclusive. The actors remain seated onstage throughout, participating with active listening and engagement – and an occasional declaration of sisterhood. Here’s a taste of the program, in order of appearance, including the unofficial (and very fitting) monologue titles, provided by Neales.
Tennille Read – Oranges are Green in Trinidad. Part memoir, part journey of discovery, Read takes us on a series of childhood and young adult visits to Trinidad, where she has a close bond with her grandfather. When she’s a child, he teaches her the alphabet, and instills in her an appreciation of education and curiosity; as an adult, she finds they have very different, culturally-informed views of education as she struggles with his response to her decision to study theatre at university instead of science. Her challenges continue as an actor, with casting choosing to only see the “exotic” possibilities of her appearance, while ignoring what makes her a unique individual. Oranges in Trinidad are green on the outside, but still orange on the inside – and it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Kelly Wilk – Captain Grief. Finding herself a widow in her mid-30s with young son to raise, Wilk takes us on a heartbreaking and hilarious journey of loss, grief and acceptance as she finds a unique way of coping – one that includes a cape. Bold, irreverent and outspoken, Captain Grief says what Kelly cannot say, faces what she’s reluctant to face and goes boldly forward into life without a beloved wife. Learning to be her own hero, Kelly finds she is Captain Grief.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson – Focus, Balance, Priorities, Selflessness. An actor, wife and mother of two daughters, Stephens-Thompson ignores the naysayers and doesn’t doubt that she could be an actor and a good mom as she breast-pumps during rehearsal breaks and takes calls from her kids during auditions. The constant rejection and racial stereotyping in casting (she’s Black) are discouraging, though – enough to make her quit acting for a while. Then, a breakthrough moment of encouragement and clarity changes her perspective and brings her back to a career she loves.
Evangelia Kambites – Strong Black Womyn. The title says it all. Kambites was brought up to be a strong Black womyn, and finds that identity challenged when she’s faced with a fight or flight choice in a confrontation with an aggressive and racist attacker, where verbal assault becomes physical. Living with PTSD and depression, she finds compassion and empathy for her assailant, who she learns is mentally ill himself, and discovers that she can still be a strong Black womyn in spite of it all.
Janet Romero-Leiva – Perfect Baby-making Body. Romero-Leiva and her female partner wanted to have a baby and decided to do it the old-fashioned way – with sperm in a cup. What follows is a frank, funny and moving journey through the IVF process of sperm donor selection, hormone supplements and pregnancy. The doctors told her that she embodied perfect baby-making conditions – but, then, nothing is ever really perfect, and she and her partner have a hard decision to make.
Susan A. Lock – Good Hakka Daughter.Lock is a smart, hard-working, good Hakka daughter with smart, hard-working, good Hakka parents. As a teen, she finds herself anxiously, but bravely, coming to terms with her high school course nemesis, chemistry, which despite her best efforts, she is unable to get. Intrepid and self-aware, she realizes her limitations and breaks it to her dad so she can get permission to quit the class. Academic pressures become more serious in university, where she must choose between her health and the possibility of disappointing her parents.
Sundance Nagrial – The Birthday Club. In elementary school, Nagrial is a bright, happy ray of sunshine and the chief party planner for her classmates’ birthdays. At home, there is no birthday party for her, but an ongoing battleground where she fights to protect her brother and mother from her abusive father, as her mother bears the brunt of the family violence. A startling and heart-wrenching reminder that you can’t always judge a book by its cover – you never know what’s going on beneath the larger-than-life personality that someone reveals to the world.
The storytelling is engaging, entertaining, deeply honest and moving. In facing personal obstacles and tragedies, each of these womyn finds reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. On the road to self-discovery, each finds what’s really important and what she’s capable of.
With shouts to multitasking stage manager Jenna Borsato and Neales’ wife Helen Tweddle, who worked front of house.
Strength, struggle and identity in the funny, brave and poignant HERStory Counts.
HERStory Counts has two more performances at Red Sandcastle: tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Tonight is sold out, but there may be some seats left for Sunday’s show. Please note the early curtain time.
Keep an eye out for future productions. Like I said at the top of this post, this is just the beginning.
Actor/Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales has assembled a company of talented creators, producers and mentors to create an exciting new theatre project, set to premiere at Red Sandcastle Theatre April 22-24. #HERstoryCounts is an indie Canadian production, presenting a series of autobiographical monologues that bring to life personal stories of “endurance, strength, loss, survival, and love that push the boundaries of what is often expected of womyn on stage. . . Real stories told from each of our different perspectives.” I asked Neales about the project and the team behind it.
LWMC: Hey, Jennifer – thanks for taking some time out to talk about #HERstoryCounts. What can you tell us about the genesis and inspiration for this project?
JN: It’s such a pleasure for me to talk about #HERstoryCounts. It is absolutely my most favourite project to date. The project began to take form at the end of 2015. I had just come back from tour as an actor in trey anthony’s play ‘da Kink in My Hair: Girls in Red Lipstick Tour, which taught me about standing in my truth even in the face of adversity, and trey, her partner Janet, and I went to see an incredible piece of theatre called Nirbhaya #endthesilence curated by Nightwood Theatre. This piece of theatre sparked in me something that I didn’t know was there. It ignited a fire in my belly so hot that I had to create something. #endthesilence. Wow. Womyn’s voices are still being silenced all over the world. Here. In Toronto. In our families. Within our educational system. In judicial institutions. EVERYWHERE.
In the middle of January, Matthew Jocelyn announced the 2016-17 season for The Canadian Stage and there was not one person at the creation level (creators, writers, directors) who identified as a person of colour. And, the response to the outrage that so many of us felt was that they would be “casting diversely.” For myself, and so many other theatre artists, that was no longer good enough. What we REALLY need is diversity of perspective. That’s when I knew my production would be #HERstoryCounts. Our inaugural production features womyn from all different backgrounds writing their own stories. Real stories from lived experiences.
LWMC: And what made you decide to choose a monologue format?
JN: I chose to use a series of monologues because in this way, each of the womyn, who are all so wonderfully different, could tell their own stories. I wanted this production to be more than just one voice, to have more than just one writer.
LWMC: You have an impressive group of creators, producers and mentors for the launch of this project. Who’s onboard with you – and how did they become involved?
JN: I am so grateful to every single womyn who is on board with #HERstoryCounts. Creating their own work is Evangelia Kambites, Susan A. Lock, Sundance Nagrial, Janet Romero-Leiva, Tennille Read, Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Kelly Wilk. I have worked with or have seen these womyn on stage, and have always been impressed with their talent and their commitment to telling the story in front of them. I personally asked for these womyn. The mentors I have on board are trey anthony, who has hired me on a number of occasions to act in her shows in Toronto and on tour, and is a very dear friend; Anusree Roy, whose work has always inspired and excited me, and someone who has always been so kind to me; and finally, Melanie Hrymak, (also a creative over-seer) who I have worked with only once before, but whose work I have followed since that time, and someone I consider a friend. My Stage Manager and fellow artistic over-seer is the accomplished Franny McCabe-Bennett, my Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Producer is the fabulous Jenna Borsato, and my last artistic over-seer is Melissa Major, an accomplished playwright, theatre company owner, and performer.
LWMC: #HERstoryCounts gets its inaugural production April 22-24 at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Is this going to be the first of many such productions?
JN: Yes, I see #HERstoryCounts as a movement. Here in Toronto, all over Canada, and hopefully on tour internationally. My goal is to have different voices on stage, different perspectives on stage for each production.
JN: YES!!! Word-of-mouth is how most things get done, and for #HERstoryCounts it is no different! Spread the word! I would be so honoured if people would share the link with their networks – reach out to anyone and everyone who has any sort of pull and knows the worth of supporting womyn in theatre.
LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?
JN: I would like to give a massive shout out to screen-writer, director and producer Kate Johnston, who offered her assistance in preparation for the Indiegogo Campaign video pitch script. I would also like to acknowledge my amazing friend and digital producer Meg Norton, who made the filming and editing that much easier by offering her advice and know-how.
Finally, I want to say thank you to each of the incredibly brave and astounding womyn working on this project with me. Their courage and enthusiasm has caused such beautiful things to happen already. This is not a show you want to miss. These are womyn everyone should know, and work with.
LWMC: I’d like to finish with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire. What’s your favourite word?
JN: Bugger-face (my wife is British 🙂 )
LWMC: What’s your least favourite word?
JN: The mispronunciation of supposedly – “suposably”
LWMC: What turns you on?
JN: My wife. 😛
LWMC: What turns you off?
JN: Accepted ignorance.
LWMC: What sound or noise do you love?
JN: The two gentlemen playing the violin and the accordion so often at Yonge and Bloor station.
LWMC: What sound or noise do you hate?
JN: Metal scraping across flooring.
LWMC: What is your favourite curse word?
LWMC: What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?
JN: Professional horseback rider.
LWMC: What profession would you not like to do?
JN: Any profession where you have to carry/use weapons.
LWMC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
JN: You did good, girl.
LWMC: Thanks, Jennifer. All the best with #HERstoryCounts. Look forward to seeing it at Red Sandcastle.
JN: Thank you so much!
Keep an eye out for #HERstoryCounts at Red Sandcastle Theatre (Apr 22-24); in the meantime, give the project a like on Facebook.
Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.
Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.
This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.
McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.
The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.
With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.
Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.
Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.