Grit, determination & a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl

Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Soulo Theatre Festival, opening this year’s fest with an Opening Night Gala presentation of Savoy Howe’s Newsgirl. With direction and dramatury by Soulo Theatre A.D. Smith, Newsgirl ran for one night only at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in front of an enthusiastic, sold out house—and a standing ovation—last night. The fest continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight and throughout the weekend.

When Savoy Howe moved away from her home in New Brunswick in the late 80s to study theatre in Hamilton and later move to Toronto, she had no way of foreseeing what was in store—and the journey that would bring her the sense of strength, determination and empowerment that she would go on to share with women and trans people.

This is the story of Newsgirl, Howe’s autobiographical solo show that takes her from a tomboy growing up on a Canadian Air Force base, to her coming out, to training as a boxer and later passing on her knowledge as a boxing coach, starting the first women’s and trans-friendly boxing gym in Canada: the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. And, while it was a photo of a woman wearing boxing gloves that inspired Howe to take up the sport, it was a speed bag that made her fall in love with boxing.

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Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

Combining the physicality, strategy and philosophy of boxing with considerable stand-up and storytelling chops, Howe is an engaging, energetic and endearing performer. With Howe primarily telling her story from inside the boxing ring, the show is dynamically staged, moving her around the gym as she highlights discovery and work on the heavy bag and speed bag; and her rookie first entry into the ring is hilarious!

Newsgirls is a story of struggle, grit and a ‘don’t give up’ attitude that takes some rough, and sometimes violent, turns. Perseverance, a big heart and a curious, open mind—not to mention a hard-working, helping hand way of looking at life—make the wins and losses equal in value. Always learning, never backing down from a challenge, and enduring the deep-seated sexism and male aggression of this world, Howe is an inspiration. Newsgirl is a classic underdog makes good story. And it definitely packs a punch.

Grit, determination and a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl.

Check out this great interview in VICE Sports with Savoy Howe on how she got into boxing, opened Newsgirls, and how she and the gym are empowering women and trans people. You can also follow the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Facebook.

Howe is in the process of launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the gym alive and serving the community; stay tuned for details on how you can help.

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Soulo Theatre A.D. Tracey Erin Smith in the ring at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club—photo by Dahlia Katz

Newsgirl was a one-night only performance, but no worries—there are lots more life-changing, life-affirming true stories to come tonight and this weekend at the fest, which includes solo shows and panel discussions. The Soulo Theatre Festival continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till May 28; check out the full schedule and purchase advance tickets and get your festival pass.

Department of corrections: The original post for the show mentioned that Howe studied theatre in Toronto; it was actually Hamilton. The error has been corrected.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Fathers & sons on a journey of growth & forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt

Native Earth Performing Arts continues its 2016-17 season of compelling Indigenous theatre with Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, directed by Ron Jenkins, at Native Earth’s home in the Aki Studio.

Métis Mutt began as an eight-minute piece at NextFest 2001, inspired by teacher Ken Brown and the vocal masque style of solo show. Since then, it’s grown into a 90-minute feature, was a hit at Edmonton Fringe, subsequently adapted for high school audiences, and has toured Canada and New Zealand. The Native Earth production marks the show’s Toronto premiere.

A semi-autobiographical piece of storytelling that combines stand-up, music, monologue and multiple character vignettes, Métis Mutt is part memoir, part spirit journey. Searching for his authentic voice, a young Métis (have Indigenous, half white) man struggles with centuries-old cultural stereotypes and internalized racism as he finds his way out of a cycle of violence and self-destruction to healing and forgiveness.

Heartbreaking flashbacks to the young man’s childhood reveal a sweet boy torn between protecting his mother and younger brother, and running and hiding from his father’s drunken outbursts. A favourite of his father and thus escaping the beatings, he beats himself up for his failure to act and for being a coward. Later on, having moved away with his mother and brother, his conflicting feelings emerge in letters to his dad—love and fear, longing and confusion.

As a young man, he discovers a talent for stand-up and music, and finds chosen family on the road with his hypnotist performer friend Mark, and is later drawn to theatre school. And when years-old buried emotions erupt to the surface, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol, and cuts himself, to numb the pain.

His thoughts turn often to his father, a troubled man who struggled with demons of his own only to find them emerging from the bottom of a bottle to turn on his family. And the death of his father becomes a turning point. Not wanting to go down that same road, the young man finds his way back to himself, finding self-awareness in his struggle for identity and self-acceptance, and forgiveness for his father.

An engaging and versatile performer, Elter deftly shifts from comedy to tragedy throughout—a hilarious and stark reminder that pain comes from laughter and laughter comes from pain. Setting the tone off the top of the show with a set of stand-up, what starts off as a good-natured, self-deprecating series of stereotypical riffs on “Indians” becomes a biting commentary on hundreds of years of oppression and racism as joking around turns to rage, and entertainment becomes condemnation. The pain is turned inside out so others can see and understand. The title Métis Mutt is both a source of laughter and pain, poking fun at identity even as it grieves the damage of racist name-calling.

From cheeky stand-up and bawdy music bits, to poignant characterizations and startling scenes of violence, Elter’s storytelling is genuine, thought-provoking and frank—finding the light and the dark spots, and ultimately unearthing hope and redemption.

With shouts to the design team: Tessa Stamp (set and lights; she’s also the production’s stage manager), T. Erin Gruber (projection) and Aaron Macri (sound). Design elements are particularly effective during the young man’s mystic healing experience, when he’s taken to a native healer after traditional medicine doesn’t help him. The semi-circle of stones that delineates the playing space, and the semi-circular dream catcher backdrop that serves as a projection screen, create a sacred space that both honours and evokes the young man’s Indigenous heritage.

Fathers and sons on a journey of growth and forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt.

Get yourself out to the Aki Studio to see Métis Mutt, running to February 5; get your ticket info and online tix here.

Photos by Ryan Parker: Sheldon Elter

Wacky, trippy good times with stand-up, sketch, music & improv in The Dandies’ Holodeck Follies

Out at the Comedy Bar cabaret space last night for a big fun night of Star Trek-themed comedy with The Dandies and their season 5 premiere of Holodeck Follies.

Set up in a variety show format, the evening’s festivities were hosted by stand-up comic Hisham Kelati, and featured guests Northwest Passage and Leslie Hudson. The Dandies are: Chris Casselman, Danielle Cole, Alan Leightizer, Zach Mealia, Jamillah Ross, Dale and Andie Wells, and Jason Zinger (musical director).

hisham-kelati-tngHost Hisham Kelati (aka Black Riker) kicked off the night with a set, interspersing bits throughout the evening. A Star Trek fanboy himself, bits included a hilarious encounter in a bathroom during a fan convention and anecdotes about his Eritrean mother, illustrating how she’s a Klingon mom at heart.

northwest-passageSketch comedy duo Northwest Passage (Kat Letwin and Simon McCamus) served up some darkly funny—and socially apt—storytelling with a series of sketches about a Grade 1 overachiever (Letwin) and how an art class critique from her teacher (McCamus) changes her life. The far-reaching and lasting consequences of that fateful day come on funny and poignant at the same time.

leslie-hudsonSinger/songwriter Leslie Hudson is also a serious Star Trek fangirl—and she proves it with a set of soulful, blues-infused original songs inspired by the various series (included on a CD). With driving beats and heartfelt ballads, she sings of doctors, captains and strong Klingon women.

For the main event, The Dandies—who set up their characters at the top of the evening—returned to the stage for some Star Trek-themed improv. Company member Alan Leightizer schooled us on audience participation for sound effects: entrances/exits through ship doors, transporter beams and warp speed engagement.

Set on the USS Hummingbird, the crew is getting used to some new arrivals: a disgraced, demoted former Captain of the USS Albatross and his Borg colleague Nine of Ten; and an ambitious young first officer. The Hummingbird’s Captain is a fierce and unforgiving Klingon woman with a love of vintage Earth clothing and reputation for ritually killing those who displease her. And the new Commander’s attempt at ingratiating himself gets super awkward when she expects his shipment of bell bottom pants to ring.

The newly, and dubiously, promoted Doctor has no patients to practice on, so the Captain assembles an away team. Beamed down to the surface, the gang finds themselves on a planet inhabited by talking monkeys. The Captain decides to fight their leader to the death for possession of the monkey inhabitants; binge-watching the Rocky movies in preparation of the battle.

It’s silly, it’s crazy—and it’s 90 minutes of good fun Star Trek parody.

Wacky, trippy good times with stand-up, sketch, music and improv in The Dandies’ Holodeck Follies.

Holodeck Follies was a one night only show, but look out for a return of The Dandies in February and keep an eye out for them at Toronto Comicon (March 17-19).

 

Toronto Fringe preview(ish): Finding Funny

Daniel Stolfi 1

Another Toronto Fringe show I saw an earlier production of – and would highly recommend – was Daniel Stolfi’s hilarious and poignant stand-up origin story Finding Funny, which I caught in May during the 2016 Soulo Theatre Festival at Red Sandcastle Theatre. You and Me Entertainment’s production of Finding Funny runs during Fringe at St. Vladimir Theatre.

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs until July 10. Check out the Fringe website for ticket and pass info/advance purchase.

 

Hilariously scathing social satire in Jeff Cottrill’s This Album is NIT FENNY! spoken word CD

I’ve described Jeff Cottrill as a stand-up poet, his work an LOL funny mash-up of stand-up comedy and spoken word that pokes fun at individual and societal silliness – and this is in high evidence in his recent spoken word CD This Album is NIT FENNY!

This Album is NIT FENNY! features 12 tracks of original work, performed by Cottrill, with Mike Bryant joining him on two pieces. From the pointed send-up of mainstream movies and the cult of celebrity in “Pitches” and “Hallie Berry,” to extremist left-wing politics and activist posers in “How to Become a Deranged Leftist Reactionary” and “IAmSoOffended?” to Darwin Award-winning stupidity in “Safety Instructions” (one of my personal faves) and “Politics” – this is spoken word that neither suffers fools nor pities them.

Cottrill’s work has not been without controversy. He’s been accused of being offensive, and that he makes fun of social awareness, left-wing activists and feminists. Everyone’s entitled to his/her own opinion. I’ve seen him perform several times, including bits from this record, and my take is that what he’s making fun of is stupidity, extremism and intolerance. Basically, Cottrill is pointing out that anyone can be a jackass – which means we’re all capable of jackassery. And his tongue-in-cheek stand-up delivery results in performances that stay clear of mean-spiritedness.

Cottrill even sends up his own acquaintances, as well as himself, in the hysterical build up of bullshit excuses from a guy who claims he won’t be able to see a friend’s show in “The Jim Show,” and the sarcastic praise (from a female point of view) to his own personal quirks and shortcomings in “Dreamboat” (which I’d love to hear Dame Helen Mirren read sometime).

NITFENNY_FrontBack_01Jeff Cottrill’s This Album is NIT FENNY! is hilariously scathing social satire delivered via spoken word – and no form of wackjobbery is safe, no matter how well-intentioned.

You can catch Cottrill in and around Toronto at various poetry/spoken word events and open mics, including Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir; you can check out upcoming events here. You can also keep up with Cottrill’s shenanigans on Twitter and Facebook, and various other links.

Toronto Fringe: The lighter side of the Autism Spectrum in Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit

Poster design: Cory Falvo
Poster design: Cory Falvo

My last show at this year’s Toronto Fringe took me back to the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room for Autistic Productions’ run of Adam Schwartz’s Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit.

Highly entertaining, this is stand-up delivered from the point of view of someone on the Autism Spectrum. From coming to terms with his diagnosis as a kid – and school bullying and exclusion – to dealing with the challenges of being a socially awkward adult and struggling with meeting women, Schwartz delivers funny and insightful observations about the perceptions of someone living with autism, as well as the rules of engagement he lives by. Taking experiences of losses and wins, and turning them into bits, Schwartz really connects with the audience, making us laugh – and also gently educating us at the same time.

The lighter side of the Autism Spectrum in hilarious, informative stand-up show Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit.

Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit closed yesterday (as did the Toronto Fringe), but keep an eye out for Adam Schwartz. You can also follow Autistic Productions on Twitter.

Also be sure to check out The Best of the Fringe 2015, running July 15-29 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.