A brush with celebrity in the electric, tantalizing, surprising Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon

Ensemble with the October 15 guest Icon. Lighting design and effects by Carl Elster. 

 

Haus of Dada, Workman Arts, KC Cooper and Meek present Lisa Anita Wegner and Scott White’s electric, tantalizing and surprising Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon as part of Workman Arts’ annual Rendezvous with Madness Festival, running in the Workman Arts Chapel. The multimedia performance piece is part film, part performance art, part social experiment—as it explores the allure of celebrity and its impact on celebrity mental health. Each performance, a different mystery celebrity appears as the Icon, disguised in a morph suit. Will they reveal themselves or choose to remain anonymous?

Featuring performers KC Cooper, Emily Gillespie, Amy Loucareas, Meek, Jane Smythe and Lisa Anita Wegner; and hosted by creators Wegner and Scott White, audience members are ushered into the space as VIP guests of a celebrity. You’re given a VIP tag with your host celebrity’s name (I was with Tilda Swinton’s group) and invited to be seated by group for a three-part immersive experience of performance art and brush with celebrity.

We’re introduced to the genesis of Intangible Adorations with a brief documentary film highlighting Lisa Anita Wegner’s history as an actor, producer and filmmaker; and the diagnosis of Complex PTSD that led her to set off on solo film projects and an exploration of identity, iconography and transformation—and to the genesis of the morph suit-clad Think Blank Human that served as inspiration for this current project. For Wegner, art saves her life every day.

Prior to the appearance of the Icon, an audience member is offered the opportunity to get a taste of celebrity by joining Wegner and White up front and centre, along with the ensemble. It is a strange and discomfiting experience for the volunteer, even though she’s an actor. We’re reminded that lots of celebrities and performers are actually quite shy of the spotlight when it’s focused on them personally, as opposed to when they’re in character or in performance. Many performers are, in fact, introverts.

Wegner and White move on to give us a few rules of engagement with the Icon. Hints are dropped at who the celebrity may be: a female pop star of great renown, a major celebrity. There’s some buzz in the audience that it’s Madonna. A respectful hush falls over the audience as White ushers her in; the white morph suit, worn with a deep purple costume over it, covers her from head to toe, making it challenging for her to see. We’re called up by group to line up for a photo and an autograph; and then invited to head across the hall, into the Red Chapel.

While it may have a Game of Thrones edge to the name, the Red Chapel is actually a place of celebrity adoration—the Church of Celebrity, if you will. Here, we may sit where we like as we watch the ensemble, now all dressed in morph suits and costumes, prepare the way for the Icon as they move and dance (music by Pink Moth) around the ornate wooden throne, set on a dais. It is here that we will have a brief audience with her.

The Icon arrives to sit on the throne; White hands her a microphone and, through voice modification to maintain her anonymity, she speaks to us. Sharing personal anecdotes of youthful adoration and a more recent fan girl moment with a famous actor she respects and admires at the Academy Awards, she is genuine, candid, vulnerable and circumspect. She goes on to share her experience of and response to being famous, including sessions with a therapist; her talk taking on a confessional tone. Humble, forthcoming and generous, she moves to reveal herself—and then, with apologies, decides against it. The second-hand celebrity gained by the audience at having spent time with her is less important than the revelation that we are all worthy and beautiful people in our own right.

And so our time with the Icon comes to a close. The buzz about her identity continues: too tall for Madonna. Katy Perry? Lady Gaga? As we head back into the first space to collect our coats, ensemble members, acting as reporters, ask us about our favourite celebrities and how our views may have changed as a result of this experience.

If you had any aspirations to be a celebrity, the experience may have you thinking otherwise. And the electric buzz about the possible identity of the Icon was, I’m sure, accompanied by skepticism about whether the guest was an actual celebrity at all. How does that change the experience? And how would a reveal have changed the experience? Were we more at ease, as she was anonymous, vulnerable—humanized, even? Come and see for yourself—you have three more chances.

Intangible Adorations: Experience the Icon continues in the Workman Arts Chapel until October 19, with performances on Oct 16 at 8:00, Oct 18 at 7:00 and Oct 19 at 2:00 (final performance to be followed by a Q&A). Advance tickets available online. Enter through the main entrance off of Dufferin St. (where the box office is located up a short flight of stairs); a member of the company will come to escort you to the performance space.

Here are some photos I took last night; lighting and FX by Carl Elster. Thanks to Scott White for the photo of me and the Icon. And thank you to the Icon for sharing her time and thoughts with us last night.

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Check out the trailer.

 

 

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Interview: Melanie Peterson heading into the studio to record We Got This

Saskatoon-born, Toronto-based singer songwriter Melanie Peterson has been called “Mary Poppins with a broken heart”; writing and singing about life, love and friendship, her crystal-clear, emotive vocals and evocative lyrics combine bright positivity with a deep sense of longing and loss. Peterson will be heading into the studio to record her next album We Got This in September, and I asked her about the direction of this record. Here’s what she had to say about this upcoming project.

Hey, Melanie—Thanks for taking the time for some questions about your upcoming project We Got This! This will be your 6th full album? What was the inspiration for We Got This?

This will be my third full album. We Got This was inspired by a song I wrote in Edmonton after playing a wonderful music club there called The Blackbird. I had gotten to Edmonton thanks to the VIA Rail Artist On Board Program, where artists have the opportunity to play their way to the west coast and back; and had two days to myself before the train came through again, and I could continue playing my way to Vancouver. I decided to use my time well, and set myself the goal of writing a complete song in two days, one that I would perform at my show in Vancouver. I usually write about an hour every day, so a complete song in two days was something new to me. But I was in a city where I knew no one, it was mid-winter and I had this lovely hotel room all to myself, so I decided to write all day, both days, and ended up writing “We Got This”, which is now the title track to the new album.

The response I got to the song when I debuted it in Vancouver was very encouraging. I was playing in a noisy coffee house, with chatter and grinding expresso machines going on off every few minutes—but as soon as I began the song, the room got quiet and I knew then I had a special song on my hands. It wasn’t long before the idea of a new album, with “We Got This” as the title track, came to mind and I set about writing the album.

And what can you tell us about the overall tone, thematically or stylistically, for this one?

This is the first album I’ve written with an overall theme in mind. The theme being the journey from romantic devastation, to true and lasting love, with a few twists and turns along the way.

You’ve set up an Indiegogo campaign to help fund this album and you’ve got some great perks on offer! How’s the fundraising going and what tempting donor rewards are you offering?

The fundraising is going well. I’m at 15% funded and it is only week two, so I feel encouraged. One tempting donor reward is the “You Play on the Album” reward for those who have always dreamed of being on an album. They get the chance to come into the studio and sing, play an instrument, play the shaker or join in on a clap track, whatever they feel they’d most enjoy doing. There is also the “Ready for Your Close-up” reward for those who’d like to be featured in one of the music videos I intend to shoot for the album singles.

And the “Teach Me” reward, which involves four lessons with me, via Skype or Facetime if you are out of town, and in person if you are in town; I am offering song writing, guitar and/or singing lessons. I’ve been teaching for many years and am good at getting students who have wanted to be creative, but have put it off, to begin and really take themselves seriously as guitar players, singers and/or songwriters. And everyone who donates gets a signed copy of the album, their name in the credits and more, depending on what reward they choose.

Do you have an ETA on the album launch?

If all goes as planned, the album should launch in March 2020.

Anything else you want to shout out?

If anyone wants to hear my previous two albums, they can stream them on Spotify, and follow me there to be among the first to hear the new album. I’m also on Apple Music. And if they want to see pictures of this new album journey, follow me on Instagram and Twitter; my handle is @MissWatermeloni. And I’ll be playing the 2pm slot at the Bala Cranberry Festival on Saturday, October 19, if anyone wants to take in the festival and hear me play live with my trio.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? Cookie

What’s your least favourite word? Nipple

What turns you on? Love

What turns you off? Violence

What sound or noise do you love? Bubbles in a bubble bath

What sound or noise do you hate? Honking horns

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Lawyer

What profession would you not like to do? Doctor

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Did you bring your guitar?

Thanks, Melanie!

Melanie Peterson will be heading into the studio next month to record We Got This. Check out the Indiegogo campaign and consider making a donation; there’s a lot of sweet perks on offer, plus you’ll be helping a local Toronto artist do what she does best.

Toronto Fringe: Telling stories in the darkly funny, quirky, satirical News Play

Clockwise from bottom: Andrew Cromwell, Rouvan Silogix, Greg Solomon, Madeleine Brown & Charlin McIsaac. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions, in association with Prairie Fire, Please give us a dark satirical look at storytelling and journalism in Madeleine Brown’s sharply funny, quirky, edgy News Play, directed by Aaron Jan and running at the Annex Theatre.

Brother and sister children’s book team, illustrator Phoebus (Greg Solomon) and writer Joy (Charlin McIsaac), have hit a wall in their career; the fire woman superhero featured in their books is scaring kids and making them feel bad about themselves. When they return to their hometown Peterborough to visit their cousin Winny (Madeleine Brown), a troubled pyromaniac since the death of her parents in a fire when they were all kids—and the inspiration for their work—they find themselves suddenly becoming journalists. Winny’s recent fire escapade accidentally killed two Peterborough Examiner reporters, and Editor in Chief Art (Andrew Cromwell), former classmate and school bully, blackmails them into working for him in exchange for not suing Winny. The goal: sell 100 papers.

The siblings’ first assignment is producing an exciting piece about a local natural landmark—a big rock. They strike gold when Winny injures her hand while punching it, spinning the event into a story of significant bravery and resilience, while also making the town’s “crazy fire girl” look good in the media. This inspires local charity organizer Lyle (Rouvan Silogix) into inviting Winny to be the torch putter-outer at an upcoming event supporting those who’ve soldiered through personal injury.

Things go from crazy to bad to worse when Joy decides to take things to the next level. How far will she go for subject matter that people will want to read? Will her relationship with her brother, who’s against her increasingly extreme methods, be the same? And will their cousin Winny survive it all?

Great work from the cast is this sharp satirical trip. McIsaac and Solomon are great foils as the positive, cheerful Joy and the cynical, edgy Phoebus. Brown gives a lovely vulnerable performance as the shy, awkward Winny, who really does have reserves of strength that largely go unnoticed; still living in a town where everyone thinks she’s crazy, Winny perseveres because it’s her home. Cromwell plays the edge of menacing bully and charming manipulator as Art; you can tell immediately that Art was the school bully, and he’s desperate and amoral enough to go along with whatever scheme will sell newspapers. And Silogix gives lovely comic turns as the clueless, enthusiastic charity organizer Lyle and the gruff Greyhound bus driver.

Telling stories, making up stories and reporting stories—sometimes, they can overlap and get all mixed up. Are we fetishizing personal injury in our news media and charities? And is fake news, however small and local, ever harmless?

News Play continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Blinded by science in the darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Isaac’s Eye

Christo Graham & Brandon Thomas.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. gives us fact mixed with fiction, exploring Isaac Newton’s sharp ambition and unique vision in its darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Canadian premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, tightly directed and inventively designed by Adam Belanger, and running at The Assembly Theatre.

With the Actor (Francis Melling) as our guide in this anachronistic look at historical figures—separating fact from fiction as the story unfolds—we become flies on the wall of the attic room where Newton works; writing verses on the walls, and plucking thoughts and theories from his fastidious, imaginative mind.

Ambitious and determined to advance his work and recognition as a scientist—and straining to see the face of God, despite his rejection of traditional religion—a 25-year-old, prematurely white-haired Isaac Newton (Christo Graham) enlists the help of childhood friend and confidant Catherine Storer (Laura Vincent), who runs her father’s apothecary shop, for an introduction to Robert Hooke, Director of Experiments at the Royal Society in London.

Refusing to answer Newton’s letters, Hooke (Brandon Thomas) is finally forced to take notice of this young upstart when he receives documents outlining Newton’s theories—particularly those on the nature of light. Fearing Newton’s work could usurp his own, he sets out to visit Newton; and encounters Sam (Melling), a sick and dying man lying on the side of the road. Sam pleads for help to get to a hospital, but refuses Hooke’s conditions for aid, and is abandoned once again.

When Hooke arrives at Newton’s house, a battle of scientific wits ensues, with Hooke’s attempts at manipulation only serving to solidify Newton’s resolve. Newton believes light=particles; Hooke believes light=waves. Hooke challenges Newton to re-enact his needle in the eye experiment using a disinterested third party as a subject to prove his theory—and he brings Sam in off the streets. Thwarted and increasingly fearful at the thought of being dismissed as a serious scientific mind, Newton resorts to blackmailing Hooke with some personally damaging information gleaned from his diary. Then, it’s Hooke’s turn to reach out to Catherine for assistance; and he fights blackmail with blackmail. And we soon learn that both men are willing to say and do anything to obtain and maintain notoriety in the scientific sphere—and science costs them.

Outstanding work from the cast, playing with fact and fiction, and history with anachronistic language and perspectives. Melling is an affable and engaging narrator to the proceedings; and gives a comic and deeply affecting performance as Sam, who despite his filthy, plague-ridden appearance has wisdom to impart on the nature of life and humanity. Graham does a great job balancing Newton’s naiveté and amorality. Full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, single-minded and driven, Newton’s ambitions are so laser-focused on obtaining professional accolades, he’s unable to really see the woman who loves and supports him. No angel himself, how far will he go to get what he wants? As Hooke, Thomas draws for us a highly intelligent, accomplished and arrogant scientist and architect, living a decidedly libertine lifestyle. Possessing of a deeply jealous yet detached disposition, Hooke can be cruel and sadistic in methodology and manipulative in human interaction. Like Newton, he’s an extremely fucked up and lonely man—but unlike Newton, he knows it. As Catherine, Vincent gives us a shrewd, pragmatic and protectively loyal woman who’s nobody’s fool or doormat. With hopes and desires of her own, Catherine knows she has bad taste in men; and while she’s willing to help, she won’t suffer fools long. Like Sam, Catherine can see that which Newton cannot and Hooke can only grasp at: the grace inherent in everyday life.

What is the cost of ambition? Who and what is important, and who gets to judge? How do we see the world—and what do we miss?

Isaac’s Eye continues at The Assembly Theatre until October 20; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only)—box office opens half an hour before show time.

 

Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

Cast of 'I Call myself Princess'-photobyDahlia Katz-0270
Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

SummerWorks: Art, madness, longing & inspiration in the visceral, cerebral, deeply moving The Red Horse is Leaving

Moleman Productions presents a multimedia, multidisciplinary work in progress with its SummerWorks production of The Red Horse is Leaving; running for three performances in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery. Written and co-directed by Erika Batdorf, with excerpts from artist Thaya Whitten’s journals and performance talks, and co-directed and choreographed by Kate Digby, the piece takes us on a thoughtful, moving journey into the playful, pensive and tormented mind of Batdorf’s performance artist/painter mother. I caught the closing performance, along with a sold out house, last night.

Part lecture, part performance art, part fly-on-the-wall experience, the audience is invited into Whitten’s (Erika Batdorf) studio as she faces off with a blank white sheet of Masonite; struggling to manifest her vision, her concept, in colours and brush strokes on a two-dimensional surface. All the while, a Gargoyle (Zoe Sweet) watches, climbing cat-like over tables and chairs—and even curling itself around Thaya—largely unseen but felt; its glowing, lit spine flashing and changing colour along with her breath and pulse.

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, The Red Horse is Leaving also addresses the issues of meaning, ethics, outreach and economics as they relate to art; and the changing landscape of art and artists, and how their work is perceived and received. Back in the 60s, performance art was the big new thing; controversial, revolutionary and exciting. Not so much anymore. Referencing “the red horse”—the subject of Thaya’s work in progress—we get the impression that it represents her muse, her inspiration, her passion. And it’s eluding her.

Beautiful performances from Sweet and Batdorf in this profoundly moving, thought-provoking two-hander. Batdorf’s Thaya is an artist with a curious, sharp and tormented mind; and a playful, tortured soul. Longing for inspiration and connection with her muse and her work, as well as her audience, Thaya struggles to reach out—to the white space before her and the world around her. Sweet is both menacing and adorable as the Gargoyle; moving with precision and grace under and over furniture, and coiling around the artist. Both bird-like and cat-like, it nudges and prods Thaya, offering brushes and even sharing a snack.

Inside Thaya’s secret heart, like her, we realize that longing can be a dangerous and unfulfilling thing—but it’s part of our human nature to strive and struggle to find meaning in our work, our world and ourselves.

With shouts to the design team for their work in bringing this multimedia vision to life: Mark-David Hosale (digital technology and sound, costumes), Sylvia Defend and Joyce Padua (costumes), J. Rigzin Tute (original music composition) and Alan Macy (biosensors).

This was the final SummerWorks performance of The Red Horse is Leaving; look out for the Toronto premier in the Rendezvous with Madness festival Oct 13 – 21.

Department of corrections: The original post had the cast credits reversed; this has been corrected.

Toronto Fringe: Calling out manipulative sales in the quirky, edgy, razor sharp Everyone Wants A T-Shirt!

Brittany Miranda, John Wamsley, Charlin McIsaac & Madeleine Brown. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Has a slogan or statement on a product ever made you want to change your life?

Prairie Fire, Please explores the impact of—and calls bullshit on—corporate manipulation of our heart strings in Madeleine Brown’s Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! Directed by Aaron Jan, assisted by Anthony Tran, the satirical, thought-provoking piece is running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace for Toronto Fringe.

Beatrice Little (Brittany Miranda) and her partner (John Wamsley) need funding to grow Potatogram, their innovative, new messaging business. When Bea’s pitch is turned down by a local shopping mall business maven (Charlin McIsaac), a chance meeting with a former university classmate (Madeleine Brown) offers an opportunity to earn some money in a hot new business: selling products emblazoned with the statement “Women Rule The World”.

Faced with unfriendly responses to her sales pitches, zero sales and competition from a fiercely ambitious colleague (Wamsley), Bea realizes that selling t-shirts isn’t as easy as she thought and finds herself manipulating women so she can meet her weekly sales quota. And what’s that mystery influencer dude on the scooter (Wamsley) up to?

Edgy, quirky and insightful, Brown’s intelligent, darkly funny script plays devil’s advocate on the pyramid scheme sales model, manipulative sales relationships and commercialized feminism; and calls out systemic racism-induced barriers and the cult of celebrity. The sharp, entertaining cast is more than up for the challenge, with Brown, McIsaac and Wamsley shifting deftly between multiple hilarious characters; and Miranda juggling Bea’s journey through the insanely competitive world of the independent retailer (IR), all while trying to keep her primary partnership and business alive. As Bea confronts the dishonesty of it all, she’s got some serious prioritizing and hard choices ahead of her. Can a slogan on a t-shirt be the catalyst for real change—or is it just a way for some corporate entity to make money off our hopes and dreams?

Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! continues in the TPM Backspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times. These guys are selling out—including last night’s 10 p.m. performance—plus it’s an intimate space, so booking ahead is a really good idea.