Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

Creatures of myth & memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory

Cover art from Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory by Dee Sparling     

dee original smallDee Sparling is a local Toronto poet/spoken word artist and singer. We’ve been friends for about 16 years, and folks who frequented Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir, either at Q Space or The Central, will recognize Sparling, who performed poetry and a cappella songs during the open mic spots. She’s previously self-published two poetry collections, Sol Believers: Prose-Poetry from the Orion Spur and Freedom Codes: Prose-Poetry from Empires Within, and has recently published Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

In the Author’s Note, Sparling describes Cryptids as playing “upon the concept of nostalgia and the role it takes in shaping personal and societal narratives,” as well as featuring “various types of mythical beasts and conjurings.” Cryptids as pieces of memory, and also as mythical creatures and monsters.

Cryptids is a magical, evocative collection of 16 poems, woven with rich, textured language that includes ancient biblical (“Ecce Venus” and “Gethsemane”) and mythological (the nod to the Kraken in “Fimbulwinter”), as well as political and natural, references. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling of being gathered around a campfire, hearing tales both fictional and non-fictional—especially “Credit Valley Cryptids (A Final Goodbye),” which conjures up reminiscences of a different time and place with its compass-eye view of ghosts, shades of history and natural landmarks.

Some of the pieces are playful in their observations, taking the point of view of the creatures themselves (“The Underground” and “Memory and the Moray Eel”) or ponder the situation of a creature (“Sparrow without a Care”). And “Painted Desert” portrays the otherworldly, deadly beauty of a landscape with a cheeky, Wild West flavour—the High Noon of the cacti—while drawing a metaphor for the will to thrive and live, coupled with warnings of more parched earth on the horizon.

The cautionary tone continues into space with “Centaurus Loves Cassiopeia,” highlighting humanity’s sense of entitlement with the line “Earth, thy vanity begins… with the licking of your lips;” into the digital realm in “Troll Bytes” and the perception of power in a world of ongoing obsolescence.

Creatures of politics aren’t spared in the pointed and sharply funny “A Day in the Counter-Revolution,” a satirical evolution of man as political animal. Or was it all a dream? And ruminations on the younger generation and nature take on an introspective, speculative tone in “Millennial Breeze” and “Nature Remembers You.”

Words that paint pictures, reminding us of how tricky memory and perception can be—and how these combine to create our own mythology.

Creatures of myth and memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

Keep an eye out for Dee Sparling at Toronto poetry/spoken word events.

Beautiful, brave & touching family storytelling in Stories We Tell

I was very happy to finally get to see Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell at the Varsity yesterday afternoon. And, like the real-life storytelling in the film, there will be different variations from those who attended the same screening as to what they saw and what they took away from seeing the film. Here’s mine:

Written or verbal storytelling – even of real-life stories – is filtered through the storyteller, so the same story is never told exactly the same way twice. Details or moments may stand out for one storyteller, to varying degrees, and some may have pieces of the story that others had not witnessed or noticed. In addition to including voice-overs of personal correspondence, family footage and re-enactment scenes (some done with actors), Polley interviews family friends, siblings, the dad she grew up with (Michael Polley), and her birth dad (no spoiler here) and his family, all adding pieces to the puzzle of her examination of how the story of the secret of her birth is told – from the family jokes that Michael wasn’t her dad, to her subsequent investigation, discovery and revelation of her actual birth father. And just as interesting is the exploration of the personality and life of her mother Diane, who died when Polley was 11 years old.

Some of my favourite scenes involve Polley and Michael in the sound studio, with Michael doing the voice recording – while being filmed – reading a piece (part letter, part memoir) he wrote shortly after she told him about finding and meeting her birth father. These scenes are both hysterically funny and extremely touching at the same time – the camera shifting between Polley and Michael – and tears come to my eyes again as I recall the love I saw on the screen. Love and such good humour in the face of such a difficult revelation.

There’s a lot we can learn about a person by hearing what others have to say about him/her and, although she’s no longer with us, we get a glimpse of Diane Polley – albeit mostly second-hand – from descriptions and stories told by those who loved her. Although, again, like all storytelling, any description of an individual personality will be filtered through the eyes – like the lens – of the storyteller. For me, this was also an exploration of a mother the filmmaker didn’t know for very long, relying on others to fill in the blanks of that narrative. It’s clear that Diane was a vivacious woman, a big, fun personality who was loved a lot by her family and friends. Again, told with love, respect and understanding – and even forgiveness – we see Diane’s story too, running in parallel with Polley’s exploration of her own story.

A beautiful, brave and touching film, Stories We Tell shows us the discomfort, pain and humour of this very personal family story, with re-enactment scenes so skillfully shot and edited into the narrative – sometimes with actors playing the family – that we feel like we’re seeing more footage from the family’s personal archive or, in some cases, getting a fly-on-the-wall point of view of some extremely private moments, which also include some quiet, reflective shots of Polley in the background on set. And like all good storytelling, the personal becomes universal in that we can all relate somehow – and laugh and cry and feel surprised as the story unfolds.

Stories We Tell continues its run in Toronto at the Varsity this week. Go see this. Here’s the trailer: