Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

SummerWorks: Relationship wisdom from the mouths of babes in the playful, surprising & moving CHILD-ISH

Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Sunny Drake and the CHILD-ISH Collective present a work-in-progress presentation of CHILD-ISH, written by Drake, and directed by Alan Dilworth and associate director Katrina Darychuk—and running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Exploring the theme of relationships from various angles, CHILD-ISH is a piece of verbatim theatre created by an intergenerational group of adult and child interviewers, dramaturgs, performers and facilitators—putting the words of children aged five to 11 into the mouths of adults, with hilarious, surprising and moving, as well as playful and wise, results.

Entering with a flourish, the adult ensemble (Walter Borden, Maggie Huculak, Sonny Mills, Zorana Sadiq and Itir Arditi) acts out interview chats and scenes on relationships—love, consent, old age, losing a loved one and bullying—based on the kids’ shared thoughts, ideas, stories and feelings, with subject matter projected upstage as surtitles. Playful, wise and surprising, the kids express—via the adults—flexible and innovative ideas about marriage and family units (e.g., if you were allowed to marry more than one person, it would make the division of household and outside labour more efficient). Thoughts about love, kissing and consent are savvy, matter of fact and exploratory—and fearlessly so. One kid mentioned that they’re non-binary, stating a preference for they/them pronouns; and how, while misgendering bugs them, they make allowances for people to get used to it.

The dialogue is frank, open and surprisingly insightful—and the thoughts and ideas emerge as playfully as in any physical game. Hilarity often ensues in the juxtaposition of adults speaking the words of children, but then once in a while, something catches your attention that makes a lot of sense. And you may find yourself wishing that adults could think and be more like kids sometimes. In contrast, the harassment and bullying experiences/responses are heartbreaking as you recognize that, even though adults are relating them, these thoughts and feelings are coming from kids.

Joined by three kids at the end (I’m guessing these are young facilitators Sadie Kopyto Primack, Elora Gerson and Owen Ross), the actor/facilitator group movement piece is both beautiful and moving. Following this, the audience is invited to join in reading the Kidifesto, also projected upstage. It was during these moments that I was moved to tears.

Joyful, curious, authentic and open—in laughter, pain and uncertainty—we could all learn a lesson or two from the wisdom of kids in CHILD-ISH and in our everyday lives.

With shouts to Director of Child Engagement Jessica Greenberg; young dramaturgs Eponine Lee, Sumayya Iman Malik and Ozzy Rae Horvath; adult dramaturg Brian Quirt; and young co-interviewer Mia McGrinder; as well as the small army of child collaborators, consultants, development partners and champions who made this presentation possible. I look forward to seeing where this goes next.

Child-ish has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 14 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run and last night’s performance was sold out, so advance booking is a must.

Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.

Toronto Fringe: A moving, entertaining & eye-opening look at LGBT life in Salvador

salvador.web_-250x250Living in Canada, it can be easy to take our rights and freedoms for granted, and sometimes we need to be reminded that people in other countries are still struggling and fighting – and this is especially true for the LGBT community.

Salvador, written by Rafael Antonio Renderos and directed by Sam Graham, is one such reminder – on now at Toronto Fringe. A Young Man (Renderos) travels to his family’s homeland, El Salvador, to research gay rights violations. There, he interviews Joaquín Caceres (Jamie Johnson), an HIV+ gay man, human rights/LGBT activist and founder of Asociacíon Entre Amigos, and he learns of the history of horrors and routine rights violations suffered by LGBT people, all the while repressing his exuberant gay self.

Appearing throughout the play is the Spirit (Jaime Hernandez-Lujan), a stunningly beautiful and vivacious drag queen. Through verbatim theatre (the interview), storytelling and drag performance, the journey unfolds as the Young Man corresponds with his lover back home in Toronto. And he ends up learning much more than he expected – mainly, about himself.

Renderos is beautifully idealistic, curious and open-hearted as the Young Man, struggling with his own sexual and gender identity even as he hears about Joaquin’s fight. Johnson gives Joaquin a strong sense of passion and drive, tempered with good-humour and warmth; this is a good man risking his life in the fight for human rights. Hernandez-Lujan (also known as drag performer Lucinda Miu) gives a lovely performance as the Spirit, going from flirtatious, entertaining and whimsical to tender and melancholy throughout her various numbers, as she plays various characters, including Joaquin’s mother. It is as if the Spirit is the Young Man’s true self come to life – and when he puts his own internal repression and fear aside, he lip syncs and dances with such release and joy that I couldn’t help but be brought to tears.

Salvador is a moving, entertaining and eye-opening story of LGBT cultural and self-discovery.

The show continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times.