Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.

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Strength, struggle & identity in funny, brave & poignant HERStory Counts

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Top (l to r): Kelly Wilk, Tennille Read, Sundance Nagrial & Evangelia Kambites. Bottom (l to r): Janet Romero-Leiva, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Susan A. Lock & Jennifer Neales (photo by Jenna Borsato)

Seven performers. Three nights. One theatre project just getting started.

 

Artistic producer/project founder Jennifer Neales had been frustrated about the lack of diverse voices in theatre – particularly womyn of colour – for 10 years; that is, until she decided to do something about it. And that something is the HERStory Counts theatre project, which opened its inaugural performance at Red Sandcastle Theatre for a three-performance run last night.

Neales joined forces with some kick-ass creators and actors to put together a show featuring seven autobiographical monologues, where the actors were also the playwrights. Along with Neales, the creative team includes Jenna Borsato, Melanie Hyrmak, Franny McCabe-Bennett and Melissa Major.

Each monologue transitioning seamlessly into the next, this HERStory Counts program moves like a game of theatrical tag – playful, challenging and inclusive. The actors remain seated onstage throughout, participating with active listening and engagement – and an occasional declaration of sisterhood. Here’s a taste of the program, in order of appearance, including the unofficial (and very fitting) monologue titles, provided by Neales.

Tennille Read – Oranges are Green in Trinidad. Part memoir, part journey of discovery, Read takes us on a series of childhood and young adult visits to Trinidad, where she has a close bond with her grandfather. When she’s a child, he teaches her the alphabet, and instills in her an appreciation of education and curiosity; as an adult, she finds they have very different, culturally-informed views of education as she struggles with his response to her decision to study theatre at university instead of science. Her challenges continue as an actor, with casting choosing to only see the “exotic” possibilities of her appearance, while ignoring what makes her a unique individual. Oranges in Trinidad are green on the outside, but still orange on the inside – and it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Kelly Wilk – Captain Grief. Finding herself a widow in her mid-30s with young son to raise, Wilk takes us on a heartbreaking and hilarious journey of loss, grief and acceptance as she finds a unique way of coping – one that includes a cape. Bold, irreverent and outspoken, Captain Grief says what Kelly cannot say, faces what she’s reluctant to face and goes boldly forward into life without a beloved wife. Learning to be her own hero, Kelly finds she is Captain Grief.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson – Focus, Balance, Priorities, Selflessness. An actor, wife and mother of two daughters, Stephens-Thompson ignores the naysayers and doesn’t doubt that she could be an actor and a good mom as she breast-pumps during rehearsal breaks and takes calls from her kids during auditions. The constant rejection and racial stereotyping in casting (she’s Black) are discouraging, though – enough to make her quit acting for a while. Then, a breakthrough moment of encouragement and clarity changes her perspective and brings her back to a career she loves.

Evangelia Kambites – Strong Black Womyn. The title says it all. Kambites was brought up to be a strong Black womyn, and finds that identity challenged when she’s faced with a fight or flight choice in a confrontation with an aggressive and racist attacker, where verbal assault becomes physical. Living with PTSD and depression, she finds compassion and empathy for her assailant, who she learns is mentally ill himself, and discovers that she can still be a strong Black womyn in spite of it all.

Janet Romero-Leiva – Perfect Baby-making Body. Romero-Leiva and her female partner wanted to have a baby and decided to do it the old-fashioned way – with sperm in a cup. What follows is a frank, funny and moving journey through the IVF process of sperm donor selection, hormone supplements and pregnancy. The doctors told her that she embodied perfect baby-making conditions – but, then, nothing is ever really perfect, and she and her partner have a hard decision to make.

Susan A. Lock – Good Hakka Daughter. Lock is a smart, hard-working, good Hakka daughter with smart, hard-working, good Hakka parents. As a teen, she finds herself anxiously, but bravely, coming to terms with her high school course nemesis, chemistry, which despite her best efforts, she is unable to get. Intrepid and self-aware, she realizes her limitations and breaks it to her dad so she can get permission to quit the class. Academic pressures become more serious in university, where she must choose between her health and the possibility of disappointing her parents.

Sundance Nagrial – The Birthday Club. In elementary school, Nagrial is a bright, happy ray of sunshine and the chief party planner for her classmates’ birthdays. At home, there is no birthday party for her, but an ongoing battleground where she fights to protect her brother and mother from her abusive father, as her mother bears the brunt of the family violence. A startling and heart-wrenching reminder that you can’t always judge a book by its cover – you never know what’s going on beneath the larger-than-life personality that someone reveals to the world.

The storytelling is engaging, entertaining, deeply honest and moving. In facing personal obstacles and tragedies, each of these womyn finds reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. On the road to self-discovery, each finds what’s really important and what she’s capable of.HERstoryCounts

With shouts to multitasking stage manager Jenna Borsato and Neales’ wife Helen Tweddle, who worked front of house.

Strength, struggle and identity in the funny, brave and poignant HERStory Counts.

HERStory Counts has two more performances at Red Sandcastle: tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Tonight is sold out, but there may be some seats left for Sunday’s show. Please note the early curtain time.

Keep an eye out for future productions. Like I said at the top of this post, this is just the beginning.

You can keep up with HERStory Counts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And check out my interview with Neales.

Here’s the promo video from this production’s Indiegogo campaign:

 

Interview with Jennifer Neales on #HERstoryCounts theatre project

Jen Neales
#HERstoryCounts Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales – photo by Dahlia Katz

Actor/Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales has assembled a company of talented creators, producers and mentors to create an exciting new theatre project, set to premiere at Red Sandcastle Theatre April 22-24. #HERstoryCounts is an indie Canadian production, presenting a series of autobiographical monologues that bring to life personal stories of “endurance, strength, loss, survival, and love that push the boundaries of what is often expected of womyn on stage. . . Real stories told from each of our different perspectives.” I asked Neales about the project and the team behind it.

LWMC: Hey, Jennifer – thanks for taking some time out to talk about #HERstoryCounts. What can you tell us about the genesis and inspiration for this project?

JN: It’s such a pleasure for me to talk about #HERstoryCounts. It is absolutely my most favourite project to date. The project began to take form at the end of 2015. I had just come back from tour as an actor in trey anthony’s play ‘da Kink in My Hair: Girls in Red Lipstick Tour, which taught me about standing in my truth even in the face of adversity, and trey, her partner Janet, and I went to see an incredible piece of theatre called Nirbhaya #endthesilence curated by Nightwood Theatre. This piece of theatre sparked in me something that I didn’t know was there. It ignited a fire in my belly so hot that I had to create something. #endthesilence. Wow. Womyn’s voices are still being silenced all over the world. Here. In Toronto. In our families. Within our educational system. In judicial institutions. EVERYWHERE.

In the middle of January, Matthew Jocelyn announced the 2016-17 season for The Canadian Stage and there was not one person at the creation level (creators, writers, directors) who identified as a person of colour. And, the response to the outrage that so many of us felt was that they would be “casting diversely.” For myself, and so many other theatre artists, that was no longer good enough. What we REALLY need is diversity of perspective. That’s when I knew my production would be #HERstoryCounts. Our inaugural production features womyn from all different backgrounds writing their own stories. Real stories from lived experiences.

LWMC: And what made you decide to choose a monologue format?

JN: I chose to use a series of monologues because in this way, each of the womyn, who are all so wonderfully different, could tell their own stories. I wanted this production to be more than just one voice, to have more than just one writer.

LWMC: You have an impressive group of creators, producers and mentors for the launch of this project. Who’s onboard with you – and how did they become involved?

JN: I am so grateful to every single womyn who is on board with #HERstoryCounts. Creating their own work is Evangelia Kambites, Susan A. Lock, Sundance Nagrial, Janet Romero-Leiva, Tennille Read, Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Kelly Wilk. I have worked with or have seen these womyn on stage, and have always been impressed with their talent and their commitment to telling the story in front of them. I personally asked for these womyn. The mentors I have on board are trey anthony, who has hired me on a number of occasions to act in her shows in Toronto and on tour, and is a very dear friend; Anusree Roy, whose work has always inspired and excited me, and someone who has always been so kind to me; and finally, Melanie Hrymak, (also a creative over-seer) who I have worked with only once before, but whose work I have followed since that time, and someone I consider a friend. My Stage Manager and fellow artistic over-seer is the accomplished Franny McCabe-Bennett, my Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Producer is the fabulous Jenna Borsato, and my last artistic over-seer is Melissa Major, an accomplished playwright, theatre company owner, and performer.

LWMC: #HERstoryCounts gets its inaugural production April 22-24 at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Is this going to be the first of many such productions?

JN: Yes, I see #HERstoryCounts as a movement. Here in Toronto, all over Canada, and hopefully on tour internationally. My goal is to have different voices on stage, different perspectives on stage for each production.

LWMC: You’re crowdfunding for this production on Indiegogo. Are there any other ways folks can support #HERstoryCounts?

JN: YES!!! Word-of-mouth is how most things get done, and for #HERstoryCounts it is no different! Spread the word! I would be so honoured if people would share the link with their networks – reach out to anyone and everyone who has any sort of pull and knows the worth of supporting womyn in theatre.

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

JN: I would like to give a massive shout out to screen-writer, director and producer Kate Johnston, who offered her assistance in preparation for the Indiegogo Campaign video pitch script. I would also like to acknowledge my amazing friend and digital producer Meg Norton, who made the filming and editing that much easier by offering her advice and know-how.

Finally, I want to say thank you to each of the incredibly brave and astounding womyn working on this project with me. Their courage and enthusiasm has caused such beautiful things to happen already. This is not a show you want to miss. These are womyn everyone should know, and work with.

LWMC: I’d like to finish with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire. What’s your favourite word?

JN: Bugger-face (my wife is British 🙂 )

LWMC: What’s your least favourite word?

JN: The mispronunciation of supposedly – “suposably”

LWMC: What turns you on?

JN: My wife. 😛

LWMC: What turns you off?

JN: Accepted ignorance.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you love?

JN: The two gentlemen playing the violin and the accordion so often at Yonge and Bloor station.

LWMC: What sound or noise do you hate?

JN: Metal scraping across flooring.

LWMC: What is your favourite curse word?

JN: Asshole.

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

JN: Professional horseback rider.

LWMC: What profession would you not like to do?

JN: Any profession where you have to carry/use weapons.

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

JN: You did good, girl.

LWMC: Thanks, Jennifer. All the best with #HERstoryCounts. Look forward to seeing it at Red Sandcastle.

JN: Thank you so much!

 

Keep an eye out for #HERstoryCounts at Red Sandcastle Theatre (Apr 22-24); in the meantime, give the project a like on Facebook.