FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Classic Canadian Gothic comes home in the quirky, magical, lyrical Trout Stanley

Natasha Mumba, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff & Shakura Dickson. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Claudia Dey’s Canadian Gothic classic Trout Stanley comes home to Factory Theatre for a new production, cast through an African Canadian immigrant lens, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, assisted by Coleen MacPherson—opening last night in the Mainspace. Quirky, magical and lyrical, twin sisters celebrating their 30th birthday—the same day their parents died 10 years ago—find an unexpected guest in their secluded house in the woods. Love, family and devotion are assessed and put to the test as relationship dynamics evolve in hilarious and poignant ways.

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Shakura Dickson & Natasha Mumba. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Set in 1990s rural B.C., twin sisters Sugar (Shakura Dickson) and Grace (Natasha Mumba) Ducharme have only had each other since their parents died on their birthday 10 years ago. The introverted Sugar hasn’t left the house since, and refuses to stop wearing their mother’s track suit; while extrovert Grace dons a stylin’ mauve jumpsuit and goes to work at the town dump every day, scoring the occasional print modelling gig—including a recent billboard ad. It’s their 30th birthday; and along with the tragic memory of their parents’ deaths, the date seems to be extra cursed. Every year since they were orphaned, a woman in the area who shares their birthday has gone missing and turned up dead, found by Grace. And this year, the Scrabble Champ stripper has disappeared on her way home from work.

Things get even stranger when an unexpected guest on a mission turns up at the twins’ secluded house in the woods: a young, handsome-ish man with the unlikely name Trout Stanley, who we soon learn has much in common with the sisters—and who is immediately and inexplicably drawn to Sugar. Like the twins, he was orphaned and has set out on foot, searching for the lake where his parents drowned—and now he’s lost. But, with a possible murderer on the loose, can Sugar and Grace trust him?

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Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Raha Javanfar. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Outstanding work from the cast in this captivating, mercurial, lyrical three-hander; playing characters that are all both feral and fragile in their own way. Dickson brings an adorable child-like sweetness to the soft-spoken, broken-hearted Sugar; singing snatches of made-up songs, and singing and dancing to her mother’s old Heart record, Sugar lives in a world of her own, surrounded by dozens of the tragic biographic figurines she used to make (shouts to set designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the beautiful, detailed set of the Ducharme home). Mumba brings a self-confident swagger and fierceness to Grace; entertainingly vain and ferociously protective of Sugar—her polar opposite and perfect complement—Grace more than lives up to her nickname of Lion Queen. The world the sisters have created together is a poignant and unique combination of tender personal rituals and pragmatic harsh realities. For Sugar, the world is full of nostalgia, music and magic; drawn to the macabre, it’s the everyday moments that overwhelm her. Grace sees and smells the hardness of the world every day, but still manages to find wonder and beauty—even at the dump. Jackman-Torkoff is a playful, puckish delight as Trout Stanley; mercurial and impish, Trout is part wild man, part philosopher, part poet. He has big feelings and huge dreams; unflinching in his cause, his encounter with the sisters changes him too. As unexpected as his lost boy arrival is for the twins, what he finds is both new and surprising.

This fairy tale-like adventure plays out with memory, heart and singular individuality as all three characters reveal their secrets and find a way to move on with their lives.

Trout Stanley continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Shakura Dickson.

 

 

Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

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Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.

Love, family & home in the heartwarming, hilarious Bed & Breakfast

Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest. Set design by Alexandra Lord. Costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us on a heartwarming, hilarious gay pioneering adventure of love, family, community and belonging with its deftly staged production of Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast. Featuring a cast of nearly two dozen characters, performed by two exceptional actors, this poignant comedy directed by Ann-Marie Kerr is running now at the Young Centre.

City boys Brett (Gregory Prest) and Drew (Paolo Santalucia) long to get out of their Toronto condo and into a house they can call home; but despite the best efforts of their flamboyant real estate agent friend Ray (Prest), they continually find themselves on the losing end of cut-throat bidding wars. All that changes when they attend Brett’s aunt Maggie’s funeral and learn that she’s left her large small-town Victorian house to him. Brett, who works as an interior designer, and Drew, who works as a hotel concierge, decide to join forces professionally, go for a total lifestyle makeover and hatch a plan to move in, renovate and open a hip, contemporary B&B.

Easier said than done, as Brett and Drew are two gay fish out of water in a conservative small town. On the plus side, Brett has some knowledge of the town and people from his youth, having stayed with Maggie during the summer, and working with local contractor Doug (Santalucia). It doesn’t take long to find who their supporters are, but opponents are more cowardly and closeted. And, despite all efforts to engage with the community as they pitch in to help with the Santa Claus parade, there’s a cruel streak afoot in the town and the initial hostility they face escalates into something more disturbing. Soldiering on with the support of new friends and their commitment to the project, Brett and Drew persevere.

Chaos and hilarity ensue during the B&B’s opening weekend, when the guys host a Brit couple (Prest & Santalucia), a right-wing activist (Prest) and a pair of newlyweds (Santalucia)—plus deal with assorted emergencies and adopt a rambunctious puppy. They stumble through with a little help from their newfound friends—delightfully hippy dippy café owner Alison (Prest) and her Irish motorcycle-driving partner Chris (Santalucia), bubbly local real estate agent Carrie (Santalucia) and emo teen son Dustin (Prest), and even the tough, homophobic Doug and Brett’s sullen teen nephew Cody (Santalucia). But when Carrie informs them that she has a buyer willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the B&B, Brett and Drew have a tough decision to make—one that gets more complicated as family confessions and revelations emerge.

Outstanding, marathon performances from real-life couple Prest and Santalucia; creating a complementary pair of opposites with Prest’s more private, soft-spoken, circumspect Brett and Santalucia’s out, proud and extroverted Drew. And all this in addition to the sharply drawn, compelling, physically demanding performances as they each turn on a dime to deliver a cast of multiple characters in this tightly staged production. The design supports the story and staging both aesthetically and practically: Alexandra Lord’s multi-purpose airy set features Victorian architecture highlights; Ken MacKenzie’s spot-on, minimalist costume design; Bonnie Beecher’s magical, atmospheric lighting design; and sound design that features music by gay favourites, courtesy of John Gzowski.

The insightful, witty storytelling in Bed and Breakfast goes beyond the differences between gay and straight, and urban and small-town folks. It reminds us of the universal longing for a place where you belong, with people who accept you for who you are. Home is where your loved ones are; and the families we choose are just as potent—if not more so—as the ones we grew up with.

Due to popular demand during the first week of the run, Bed & Breakfast has been extended to September 8. Get advance tickets online or call the Young Centre box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Toronto Fringe: Trippy good times as philosophy meets stand-up meets storytelling in Graham Clark’s Not Here

Graham Clark returns to Toronto Fringe—or does he?—with Graham Clark’s Not Here, running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

Speaking to us via video from a small monitor mounted in front of a masked “surrogate” performer’s face, Clark gives a multimedia talking head performance—and the surrogate provides accompanying posture and hand gestures.

Going from riffs on parking at home in front of our screens, especially on Netflix, Clark shifts to the more up close and personal experience of travelling to his girlfriend’s hometown to arrange her father’s funeral over the Christmas holiday. Weaving death, family and small-town Alberta into the storytelling, Clark’s storytelling reveals a gift for sharp observation and a quirky sense of curiosity, making for a funny and at times poignant ride.

Trippy good times as philosophy meets stand-up meets storytelling in Graham Clark’s Not Here.

Graham Clark’s Not Here continues in the TPM Backspace until July 15; book in advance for this one, guys-last night was sold out. Book online on the showpage or get to the TPM box office early.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Interview: Lizzie Violet

Lizzie Violet—photo by Anna Lozyk Romeo

Happy International Women’s Day! Today’s post is an interview with an incredibly talented, hard-working, gutsy and generous woman in the Toronto arts scene.

Lizzie Violet is a writer, spoken word artist and horror aficionado—that “dark little girl with the crooked grin” who took her finely tuned, quirky sense of observation and love of zombie lore, and wrote it down. Evocative, darkly funny and sharply drawn, her writing ranges from hilarious and poignant personal storytelling, to socio-political observation, to chilling tales of the supernatural and deadly creatures from beyond the grave.

LWMC: You first become attracted to horror when you were a kid, staying up late with your dad watching old horror movies on TV. What was it that hooked you?

LV: Apparently, I liked to scare myself. Even as a young introverted kid, I figured out how invigorating an adrenaline rush felt. Even more so than watching the movies, the stories I would make up in my head scared me even more. I had an overactive imagination.  I was never afraid of the boogieman or the monsters in the closet. I was all about the bizarre versions of monsters and ghosts my mind would visualize or create and I would wonder if the creak in the stairs was a werewolf coming to gobble me up. I loved every second of it. Recently, my mom dug up some of the stories I wrote as a kid. You can see where it all began.

LWMC: You also became infamous around the school library for your interest in horror literature and biographies of serial killers. When did your love of the genre translate into wanting to writing horror-themed poems and stories?

LV: How that all started, was my Great Grandfather Bill died when I was 10 years old. I was really close to him. They took me to his viewing at the funeral home and to me, the man in the casket looked nothing like him. He had this weird heavy makeup on, including rouge and lipstick. At the viewing, I started asking a lot of ‘inappropriate’ questions about why he looked that way and what was going to happen to him now that he had ‘passed away’ (no one would actually use the word dead). No one would answer me. I had a melt down and then wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral.

After that, I would continually ask the librarians for books about death, eventually progressing to books on serial killers and hauntings. We used to get the Scholastic Book Club magazines and I would get upset when there weren’t books along that theme as an option. They (teachers and the librarian) became concerned about how morbid this young child had become. My parents were not pleased, to say the least. All of this pushed me further into introversion and a way for me to cope was to start writing. To everyone’s dismay… my writing was always horror themed. From that point on in my life I became death-obsessed. Not in a ‘wanting to kill myself way,’ rather needing to seek the knowledge about death. Why it happened, what happened to you and your body when you died. Why we had funerals. Did it hurt? Recently, I discovered a writer and YouTuber called Caitlin Doughty (her channel is ‘Ask A Mortician’); I wish I had known someone like her as a kid. She is open about death and death positivity.

LWMC: Over the years, you’ve written in a number of media, from poetry, to the story for I Hate Todd’s “Zombie Love” music video, to screenwriting, stage and radio playwriting, and blogging, including your new Not Vegan Now Vegan food/recipe blog. Do you have a favourite medium?

LV: Short stories. I am madly in love with short stories. It goes back to that adrenaline rush feeling. You have to get people pulled in and worked up in a short amount of words. The pressure to do that in under 10,000 words is exhilarating for me. If I had to pick a second, it would be screenwriting. I love storytelling in that format as well. When you read a book or a short story, the reader sees the setting or character differently. They create their own visual. When you put it on a screen, they get to see what you want them to see. They get to actually be in your head and that terrifying thought, is appealing to me.

LWMC: Last Fall, you bid farewell to Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and tapered off your event production work. And, most recently, you quit your day job to pursue writing full-time. What led up to that decision and how has it been, adjusting to the new routine?

LV: I realized I had my fingers in too many pies and, because of this, I wasn’t getting enough writing done. When I don’t write, I actually get depressed. I sat back and took a look at what I have accomplished; what I could accomplish and realized I needed to be all in. Life is too short and I don’t want to ever have regrets for not trying. You only fail when you don’t make the effort.

I’ve been adjusting well. I freelanced for almost 10 years prior to my last job, and am able to focus and be productive. There are days when you just can’t be creative, and my mantra for those days is to do something else. Go for a walk. Write a list. Have a dance party in the living room. Dig holes somewhere. Just don’t let frustration take over. Sometimes you need to shake the cobwebs out—then you will be fine.

LWMC: What have been your biggest challenges? Your biggest rewards?

LV: Other than things being tight financially at the moment, I don’t really have any challenges. I do have a lot of rewards. Being able to wake up every day and write is the best feeling in the world. I am also lucky to have a partner who is supportive of my dreams.

LWMC: You’re working on a novel right now. What can you tell us about it?

LV: Without give too much away—it’s semi-autobiographical, yet still fiction, a ghost story and set in small-town Ontario. The two main characters are teenagers who don’t fit into society’s ideals of what a teenager should be and, did I mention, it’s ghost story. The title of the novel is Freaks & Grimm. In the next month or so, I am going to start hitting up open mics and read parts of the novel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

LV: Oh yeah! Going back to your question about shows, though I am no longer producing shows similar to the Cabaret, I am still producing shows that showcase my work. Heather Babcock and I are working on a new format for our RedHead Revue. Hoping to have a date for this spring.  I am also working on a YouTube channel called Lizzie Violet’s Lair.  The content will be segments on horror, b-horror movies, talks about death and the dead. I will have regular guests to chat about ghoulish things such as hearses, graveyard tours, the paranormal, ghosts, zombies and more. Oh… and don’t worry, we will also talk about horror-based writing. I’m working on the set-up and scripts. I’m hoping to launch it this summer. You should all subscribe so you don’t miss the launch: https://www.youtube.com/user/lizzieviolet1313

The RedHead Revue page is https://www.facebook.com/redheadrevue/.

LWMC: I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

All of them!  If I had to just pick one, it would be gloomy or serendipity. Can I choose two?

What’s your least favourite word?

Moist. Why does that word even exist?

What turns you on?

When someone gets my weird and morbid sense of humour.

What turns you off?

Phoniness. Say what you mean. Say what you feel. Don’t pretend to be something or someone you aren’t. Being authentic is important. Oh… damn… I sounded like a hipster.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sounds of a thunderstorm rolling in. Nothing more soothing than thunder and lightning.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sounds of animals in pain. It breaks my heart.

What is your favourite curse word?

Motherfucker.

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

There isn’t any other profession. This is what I’ve dreamed of all my life.

What profession would you not like to do?

Veterinarian. When I was a kid, I had a brief moment were I wanted to be a vet, until I found out that they had to euthanize the animals.

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

You made a wrong turn. It’s the other gates you want.

Thanks, Lizzie!

You can also keep up with Lizzie Violet on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.