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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Coming soon: SOULO Theatre pop-up show The Return of Superlady!

Hey, kids! A new superhero is coming to town. It’s Superlady!

A pop-up show hosted by SOULO Theatre presents a new dark comedy (with hints of light): The Return of Superlady. Written by Katie Ford and directed by Anita La Selva, the show features Tracey Erin Smith, Christopher Sawchyn, Caitlin B. Driscoll and Savoy Howe.

I asked playwright Katie Ford how The Return of Superlady came about. Here’s what she had to say:

The Return of Superlady, I wrote about eight years ago originally. A friend of mine, Andrea Bendewald, showed up to lunch wearing aviator sunglasses. She struck me as looking like a superhero. And, in that moment, I wrote the play—of the everywoman as superhero. Superhuman strength and human weakness… and a cool pair of aviators.

Andrea and I worked on it, but never developed it fully. Then … I was meditating about a month ago and it came to me to give it to Tracey [Erin Smith]. The goddess and superhero, and gal’s gal. Tracey is so electric onstage, and her work is full of humor and compassion—I thought she is the superhero for our times. A super lady in comfortable pants.

Here’s the synopsis from the production:

Superhuman strength and human weakness, it’s a screw over, says Cherie (Superlady). Born into a small town with no idea of her destiny, Superlady has been fighting foes, evil and her own neurotic family for years—and now she’s done. She longs for home but fights for humanity. One more quest before she can go back—if a major super villain or working on intimacy with her family doesn’t kill her first.

The Return of Superlady runs March 29 to April 2 (Wed – Sat @ 9pm and Sunday @ 4pm & 8pm) at Red Sandcastle Theatre; advance tix available online.

What are you waiting for? Get your cape and aviators on—and fly on over!

 

 

The humanity & commonality under the vestments in funny, moving, eye-opening The Clergy Project

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Father Daniel in The Clergy Project

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

Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre remounted The Clergy Project at Revival Bar for a one performance only show to a delighted sold-out house last night.

I caught the premiere performance of The Clergy Project back in May – and loved it just as much the second time around in this revised version, played out in front of an audience of friends, family, colleagues and congregants.

Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbi Elyse are back again, sharing their stories of how they were called and the challenges they face doing this deeply human, intimate work. And wait till you get a load of the light bulb jokes! Part storytelling, part confessional, part love letter to their respective congregations, these three clergy get up close and personal, speaking candidly and bravely – and with humour – about their lives in religious service. And while they treat their jobs seriously, they’re not too serious about themselves.

During the post-show talkback, Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbit Elyse talked about the joyful moments of ministry; the common thread that emerged was being present in their congregants’ lives, often from cradle to grave, and witnessing their milestones and moments of growth. When it came to doing Smith’s soulo workshop, each expressed a desire to take a moment to break away from their daily duties and be themselves during this process of creating a show (they did a 10-week workshop with Smith, specifically set up for clergy). As Reverend Shawn remarked, it can be a lonely role and it was good to spend time with other clergy to talk about their day-to-day experiences. In doing so, they became siblings in ministry, finding much in common despite their different faiths – and the love, respect and camaraderie show on stage.

The hope is that the show will shine a positive light on clergy and religion; and show that religion doesn’t have to be fundamentalist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic or narrow-minded. That religion and clergy can be there to show the way to depth and meaning, and be a positive force in the world.

The humanity under the vestments and commonalities that transcend religion in the funny, moving and eye-opening The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but keep an eye out for future productions, as well as Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre’s upcoming projects, including soulo class shows and Trans Canada.

You can keep up with SOULO Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

SOULO Theatre Fest: Four personal, poignant journeys told with courage & humour in Soulo Salon

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SoulOTheatre kicked off its fourth annual SOULO Theatre Festival on Thursday night at Red Sandcastle Theatre, hosted by the super positive, energetic and welcoming A.D. Tracey Erin Smith.

Last night’s early evening performance Soulo Salon included four solo shows by performers who’ve done Smith’s 10-week soulo show class – short, personal stories of adversity, growth and hope, told with candor, trust and humour.

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Morgan Joy

The Life Boat. Morgan Joy brings a playful, kid playing dress-up vibe complete with alter ego puppets: the child-like, positive Dot and the abrasive, negative grown-up Gloria as she plays captain, cruise director and entertainer in her life boat. Filled with artifacts of her family history, the life boat is a metaphor for her life – and as the water gets higher, the positivity becomes increasingly desperate just as hard truths are avoided. Until. Let go. Float. A beautiful, poignant journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Bedazzled. Silvi Santoso arrives in Canada as an excited newcomer with her husband and two children, with another on the way, taking on the challenges of learning a new language, searching for a place to live as doors close in her face and eventually getting a dream job as a federal food inspector as she works a can-do attitude. And when a double personal tragedy becomes too much to bear, despite all her positive personal milestones, she tackles that as well. The storytelling is part autobiography, part stand-up comedy – and Santoso brightens up her darkest moments, using comic songs and narrative, bedazzling her life and her outlook. Taking depression and blinging up its ass so it doesn’t hide her inner light.

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Silvi Santoso

Fat Shamed by My Mom. Amish Patel makes lemonade in his story of struggling with body image. A funny, engaging and warm storyteller, his personal history tour includes conflicting and confusing cultural takes on eating and body fat: in India, it’s a good thing, a sign of health and prosperity – but in Canada, it’s a source of disdain and disrespect. A chubby tween with boy boobs, his dream of being an actor is snuffed out in a moment of body shaming from his mother, and as he grows into adulthood, he adopts some unhealthy means of coping. Part confessional, part stand-up storytelling, Patel is frank and courageous as he trusts the audience with his revelations and personal evolution.

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Amish Patel

#grateful. Nicola Elbro’s story of love, loss and gratitude as she makes her way from heartbreaking break-up to post-break-up sexy times with an “amenity” in her new apartment, aka hot Brit dude in her building, and getting back out on the dating scene (in a hilarious dance club scene) while she works with young superhero cancer patients at Sick Kids Hospital as she pursues an acting career. And even harder than the conflicting emotions of meeting her ex to clear out their shared storage unit are the moments when the kids are not okay – and some of them don’t get to go home. As you’re struggling with trying to keep it together, falling apart may be just the thing to help you mend. A lovely, tender and sharply funny performance.

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Nicola Elbro

Four storytellers. Four personal, poignant and funny journeys. Four brave, engaging and committed performances.

The Soulo Salon was a one night only performance, but no worries – there’s more SOULO Theatre Festival happening at Red Sandcastle Theatre this weekend (May 28-29). The fest includes solo show performances and workshops, see the full schedule here; and get your advance tickets/passes online here. Advance tickets strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue and a very popular festival.

You can keep up with SoulOTheatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Come back to the cowbell blog this afternoon – I also saw Daniel Stolfi’s hilarious Finding Funny at the SOULO Theatre Festival last night.

Faith, hope & taming dragons in the funny, brave & moving Soulo Clergy Project

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Father Daniel D. Brereton, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein & Reverend Shawn Newton in The Soulo Clergy Project – photo by Adam Large

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

Two years in the making, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith’s dream of gathering professional clergy from diverse faiths together to share their stories came true yesterday, when The Soulo Clergy Project gave its debut performance to a sold-out house of friends, family, congregants and supporters at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

With its genesis in a workshop that originally had six students signed up, Anglican priest Father Daniel D. Brereton, Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein are the three who showed up on the first day and stuck it out. And as the workshop progressed, they discovered they had lots in common, and the three individual stories became a dialogue of shared experiences – this gave Smith the idea that, instead of having three separate solo shows, to weave the three stories together into one show. The result is an entertaining, engaging and insightful piece of storytelling.

Entering the theatre, we are welcomed as part of the respective congregations, and the space buzzes with conversation, last-minute service planning – the excitement and anticipation of community, meeting once a week in a holy space. When the show begins, the three clergy storytellers enter in their respective vestments, highlighting the theatrical quality of religious ritual and tradition. And wait till you hear the three variations on the light bulb joke.

Then, something truly wonderful happens. They each remove their clerical garments, revealing black clothing underneath; personalized t-shirts have their first names on the front, and their respective roles and a simple, humourous description of their guiding principles on the back. Daniel: Priest – What would Jesus do? Elyse: Rabbi – What would Moses do? Shawn: Minister – What would Sartre do? Setting the tone for what’s about to come, it’s a reminder that these three members of the clergy are not only defined by their roles, they’re people.

Daniel, Elyse and Shawn share their stories of how they were called to ministry and why they decided to go into the clergy, the challenges faced within their congregations, and life-changing moments of service in the midst of deep sorrow and pain. Told with candor, humour and compassion, they are frank about their personal joys and struggles in faith, some unusual circumstances where they just had to wing it – and even bend the rules – and the navigation of societal prejudice and inflexibility (Daniel came out to his congregation a week after he got married, and Elyse became a rabbi when there were no female rabbis in Canada). Living lives of service and community, they don’t take themselves too seriously and are aware that even tradition has room for change.

While each comes to the storytelling process from different religious beliefs and traditions, they have much in common: faith, hope, charity and a drive to serve their community and build relationships. They are brave, engaging and warm storytellers, each with his/her own flavour: Daniel with his boyish charm and twinkle in his eye; Elyse’s dry humour and chutzpah (and she does a mean Jackie Mason impersonation); and Shawn’s philosophical and introspective vibe.

When asked during the post-show talkback about why they decided to do this workshop and performance, the common thread that emerged was a desire to take a break from the routine of ministry and get in touch with why they chose to heed the calling and do this work. The workshop (which included writing and assembling the show – with dramaturgical support from facilitator/director Smith) provided a safe and respectful place for them to not only explore their lives as clergy, but also as human beings. In the end, The Soulo Clergy Project isn’t just about their roles as priest, minister and rabbi – it’s about their humanity.

Faith, hope and taming dragons in the funny, brave and moving Soulo Clergy Project.

The Soulo Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but Smith and the three clergy storytellers are hoping for a remount. Keep an eye out for this remarkable piece of theatrical storytelling.

In the meantime, there’s lots more to come. Please join SoulOTheatre for more fabulous upcoming shows this month:

Project Drag Queen: Sun, May 22 at 8 p.m. at Church on Church.

The fourth annual SOULO Theatre Festival: May 26-29 at Red Sandcastle Theatre, including solo show performances and workshops, see the full schedule here; and get your advance tickets/passes here.

You can also keep up with SoulOTheatre on Facebook and Twitter.

Raw, honest & irreverently funny with no apologies – Troublemaker @ SOULO Fest

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Rebecca Northan is a big ‘ole Troublemaker

You can’t say you weren’t warned. Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre opened the 2015 SOULO Theatre Festival last night at Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum with a gala performance of the Toronto premiere of Rebecca Northan’s Troublemaker. And what a celebration it was!

Opening to a packed house with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” blasting from the speakers, Troublemaker is Northan’s first autobiographical piece, taking us from her childhood and young adulthood in Calgary ‘hood Rundle to present day by way of memory, personal anecdote, family history, and pop culture and fairytale-inspired storytelling. Her brother’s cat Misty becomes her own personal Mr. Miyagi in her pursuit of bad-assery, she finds a kindred spirit for neighbourhood shenanigans, and discovers her inner dragon – the instigator, the heart of troublemakery – and finds a way to embrace it.

Northan’s performance is brave, frank and without apology. Engaging and entertaining, yet vulnerable and truthful, the audience can’t help but be her partner in crime on this journey.

Troublemaker is a raw, honest and irreverently funny piece of storytelling, full of magic, sardonic whimsy and sharp insight. Keep your eyes open for future productions.

A bit of SOULO Fest trivia: Northan directed Smith’s solo show mega hit The Burning Bush (Toronto Fringe 2006).

While you’re waiting for the return of Troublemaker, Northan’s own mega hit improv show Blind Date returns to T.O. this season at Tarragon Theatre (Sept 8 – Oct 4). I saw the show once, eight years ago at the Spiegel Show at Harbourfront – and loved it! I fell in love with Mimi and with Northan’s work. I’d love to go on a date with Mimi sometime. Sadly, she only dates dudes.

You can keep up with Rebecca Northan’s shenanigans on Twitter. And you must check out her humourous, insightful and honest TedxYYC talk examining state of fear behaviour, the rules of improv, her eureka moment connecting her experience performing Blind Date with how we behave when we’re madly in love, and the value of the arts in society:

SOULO Fest continues until May 24, with workshops and panels, and the remainder of the solo shows taking at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

SOULO_2015_POSTER-FINAL-668x1024Here’s the line-up:
A Tension to Detail (Gerard Harris)
A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare (Zabrina Chaves)
Fractured (Nicola Elbro)
The Archivist (Shaista Latif)
Love with Leila (Izad Etemandi-Shad)
Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl (Rebecca Perry)
Lost in Lvov (Sandy Simona)
Killer Quack (James Brian Judd)

The solo show schedule also includes a PWYC Masterclass Showing.

Check out the Shows page for details on dates/times.

Advance tickets are available online. Reservations are strongly recommended – these shows get only one performance each, so book ahead to avoid disappointment.