Ergo Pink Fest: Character is fate & sisters start doing it for themselves in The Women of Casterbridge

Ergo Arts Theatre opened the Ergo Pink Fest at the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace last night. A three-day festival of new plays by female and non-binary identified playwrights, script criteria includes: “at least two women/non-binary people, who both have names; 2. These two people talk to each other; 3. They talk about something other than a man.” So these are Bechdel-tested works!

The festival opened with Claire Ross Dunn’s The Women of Casterbridge, a feminist retelling of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, directed by Diana Leblanc.

Sold in the market to a kind sailor (David Storch), by her drunken brute of a husband Michael Henchard (Patrick Galligan)—who blames them for his lack of social and financial opportunity and advancement—Susan (Catherine Fitch) and her four-year-old daughter Elizabeth Jane (Laura Schutt) leave England to live with the sailor, Richard Newson, in Newfoundland. Years later, after Newson is declared dead in a ship wreck and they’re evicted from their sailor’s lodgings, Susan (who is now quite ill) and Elizabeth Jane have no choice but to return to England in search of Henchard, in hopes that he will lend them some assistance and secure their survival.

In the intervening years, Henchard has quit drinking and sorted himself out, eventually owning a successful grain business and becoming the Mayor of Casterbridge. A miraculously changed man, when Susan finds him, he asks her forgiveness and plans to make things right. Elizabeth Jane is unaware of the circumstances that sent her and her mother away, so Henchard hatches a plan to woo Susan anew and marry her; in doing so, he must break off his understanding with his lover Lucetta (Kat Gauthier). He also has big plans for innovation with his business, convincing young Scot Donald Farfrae (Sergio Di Zio) to stay in Casterbridge and work with him. Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane, who is an unusually independent and strong-willed young woman for her time, are drawn to each other.

When Susan dies, Henchard decides to renew his relationship with Lucetta, newly returned to Casterbridge a wealthy heiress. She takes Elizabeth Jane, a like-minded independent woman, on as her companion; she also catches the eye of Farfrae, who favours her over Elizabeth Jane. Henchard’s inner demons of greed and pride rear their ugly heads; jealous of Farfrae’s popularity and charm, and of Lucetta’s interest in him, he fires him from the company and returns to the bottle, setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy that rolls out over the subsequent years. Turning his anger upon Lucetta, Henchard has letters from her that reveal their prior relationship, spelling her ruin if released. A group of townspeople (Marium Carvell, Stuart Clow and David Storch) catch wind of their earlier affair and make a public spectacle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane, hungry for knowledge and “enlargement” herself, works hard and overcomes the heartache of losing Farfrae to Lucetta, who’d taken her on as a companion.

Excellent work from the entire—and mostly multitasking—cast. Chock full of melodramatic (and comedic) twists and turns, startling revelations and heartfelt confessions, Susan’s motto “character is fate” plays out for all.

Ergo Pink Fest continues in the Small World Music Centre this weekend, closing tomorrow (March 25). Coming up next at the Fest:

March 24 @ 1:30 pm: Being Helen by Laurie Fyffe, directed by Andrea Donaldson

March 24 @ 4:00 pm: The Sister Op by Shelley M. Hobbs, directed by Susan A. Lock

March 24 @ 8:00 pm: Witts: Ballad of the Queer Cowboys by Calla Wright, directed by Anna Pappas

March 25 @ 1:30 pm: The Next Mary by Mairy Beam, directed by Rebecca Picherack

March 25 @ 4:00 pm: Sol by Araceli Ferrara, directed by Anita La Selva

March 25 @ 6:45 pm: Manners by Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, directed by Sue Miner

The Fest also includes two free panels:

March 25, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm: Bridging the Gap: The Value of Mentorship and Relationships between Artists (Room 106). Mediator: Thalia Gonzalez Kane. Panelists: Tamara Almeida, Angela Besharah, Martha Burns, Erin Carter, Marcia Johnson, Heath V. Salazar.

March 25, from 5:00 – 6:30 pm: Colour. Culture. Curtain. Cross-racial Casting on Contemporary Stages (Room 106). Mediator: Nicole Stamp. Panelists: Dian Marie Bridge, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Tanisha Taitt, Paula Wing.

Check the full line-up details and book advance tickets. It’s an intimate venue, and last night was sold out and then some, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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

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#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.

Life, love & faith in all its messy glory – Eating Pomegranates Naked

Eating-P-N-367x500I was back at the Lower Ossington Theatre main stage again last night, this time to see Andrea Scott’s Eating Pomegranates Naked, directed for the SummerWorks production by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu.

A group of 30-something friends unearth personal loss, sins of omission and secrets, and struggle with various crises of faith. Scott (Eli Ham) and Sera (Marci T House) navigate the cultural and religious differences that at times challenge their marriage as they struggle to have a baby, while Rushton (Awaovieyi Agie) and Anaar (Cherissa Richards) work out their lives as a new couple, and come to realize that they haven’t had a clear discussion on the baby question and may not be the match they thought they were. For all her tough-talking bravado and comparatively bohemian lifestyle, Cassidy (Susan A. Lock), the single gal in the group, longs for intimate connection and wonders whether a baby is in the cards for her. Connection, family – whether birth family or a chosen family of friends – and a desire to leave some sort of legacy are foremost in the minds of these characters.

Really nice work from this ensemble cast. House does a lovely job balancing Sera’s strength and vulnerability, assuredness and doubt; and Ham’s Scott is a good complement, the other side of Sera’s coin, bringing support and love, especially during the most fragile moments in their relationship. Agie brings a nice sense of cocky, but congenial, confidence to Rushton, a handsome and accomplished man who must come to terms with the fact that he may not be getting what he expected from his relationship with Anaar; and Richards rounds out Anaar’s pretty, dumb girl exterior with a deep longing for acceptance, fearful of rejection if she reveals herself. Lock is sharply funny as Cassidy, gradually revealing that, beneath all of Cassidy’s smart-ass quips, there lies a lack of confidence that she’ll be able to change her life for the better.

Eating Pomegranates Naked is life in all its loving, fighting, believing – and messy – glory. This is another play I had the pleasure to see in an earlier draft – in this case, as a reading at Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival 2012. During the Q&A that followed that reading, the audience learned that the title was inspired in part by friends of Scott, a couple who eat pomegranates naked for easy clean-up/stain avoidance – plus its colourful, erotic, and even biblical, reference (was an apple or a pomegranate that figured in Adam and Eve’s downfall?). In French, it’s “grenade,” a fitting word for the gasp-inducing emotional bombs that get dropped throughout the play. Revelations have the power to relieve or destroy relationships, and revealing oneself takes courage and can result in the discovery that what was wanted most, even as it slips through one’s fingers, is maybe not what was needed – or wanted – after all.

You have two more chances to see Eating Pomegranates Naked during its SummerWorks run at the Lower Ossington Theatre main space: tonight (Fri, Aug 16) at 10:00 p.m. and Sat, Aug 17 at 7:30 p.m. If you’re one of the first 25 audience members for this show, you may get lucky like I did last night and receive a gift bag with some tasty Cobs bake shop goodies.