Toronto-based Dana Fradkin will participate in this year’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera long distance. (photo from Vancouver Opera)
Dana Fradkin is one of six participants chosen for this season’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera. The multi-talented stage director has multiple interests and occupations: she is an award-winning writer, actor, filmmaker, producer and opera director.
“As a young director in the opera world, I knew I needed more education before I could truly become the director I wanted to be,” Fradkin told the Independent about her desire to become a resident in the program. “Vancouver Opera is the only young company in the country that has a stage director as part of their program, so when I saw the submission breakdown last year, I applied immediately! I had an interview in Toronto a few months later and then got the news shortly after.
“Coming from a background in classical theatre,” she said, “my understanding of classical theatre repertoire is very strong, as is my understanding of the stage, but I am still lacking in my knowledge of opera repertoire. By being part of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, I hope to learn more about numerous different classical operas and develop a deeper understanding of the Fach system (the different vocal ranges). I want to practise my leadership and directorial skills in an educational and safe environment and be ready to think on my toes and adapt to any situation.”
Adaptation was necessary for Fradkin to even participate in the program. Based in Toronto, she originally was planning on moving to Vancouver from October 2020 to May 2021. But then came COVID.
“Initially, I was coming to Vancouver as part of the young company to do scene study work with the young singers and assistant direct all three of the main stage shows,” she explained. “I was very excited about this, as the original season consisted of Carmen, Cosi Fan Tutte and Falstaff, and I was to assist a female director on all three of these shows. Now, the program has changed: it’s only from January to May 2021 and it will consist of smaller scale concerts and scene study evenings, as opposed to large-scale productions. Although I am sad to not be part of these large-scale operas, I am very excited to be at the helm of these concert series and to have the creative freedom of working on something completely new.”
Looking at the wide range of Fradkin’s work – which includes being co-producer of ActionCan Films, which specializes in Canadian action films, and co-founder of Keystone Theatre – it seems that she is compelled to try new things.
“They all definitely feed a different part of me, yet, at the same time, they all feel like part of the same thing,” she said about her varied professions and areas of interest. “I chose this world because I love storytelling and what I find fascinating is pondering how to tell a story best. Is it through music, through word, through physical theatre and comedy or through action? As a writer, I ask, do I want to tell this story through cinema or on the stage? I love all types of stories: comedies, horror, romance, war stories, heartbreak, crime, inspiring stories, etc. And what I ask myself is how do I, as an artist, fit best to tell this specific story? I love acting in theatre, writing for film and directing opera, and usually I find the best discipline for myself to fit that story.
“I find cinema and opera quite similar actually, as they are both a very visual medium and it’s so exciting to bounce between the two. I’m inspired by artists like Atom Egoyan, Julie Taymor and others who use different genres to tell a story, using the different mediums to connect most with the audience.”
Fradkin grew up in the Ottawa Jewish community and it was there that her love of performance and storytelling was ingrained.
“I went to Camp Gesher for 10 summers and was deeply active in that community during my high school years,” she said. “The first large productions I was part of were community musicals put on by the Jewish community theatre company called JCC Theatreworks. Between Grade 10 and Grade 12, I did Peter Pan, Bye Bye Birdie, Babes in Arms and Fame with them. This was my first time performing in front of a live audience and I loved it! Connecting with all these Jewish artists at a young age really taught me about community and collective creation and embracing storytelling through community. Many artists I met at JCC Theatreworks are still working in theatre today and are still dear friends.
“I also love telling Jewish stories, and the mini-series I have been writing and working on for years is a six-part series about my father’s time working with war crimes at the department of justice. He [Arnold Fradkin] was the head prosecutor of the first successful case in Canada of having a Nazi war criminal deported and it’s a story I feel very passionately about sharing with the world. I love when I meet other Jewish artists in the industry, as I always feel an instant connection with them.”
Fradkin is joined in this season’s Yulanda M. Faris program by Toronto soprano Jonelle Sills; Cranbrook, B.C., native and mezzo-soprano Amanda Weatherall; tenor Ian Cleary, originally from Chatham, Ont.; Vancouver baritone Luka Kawabata; and Vancouver-based pianist Amy Seulky Lee. The program director is Leslie Dala, who will be part of the Chutzpah! Festival this year – as pianist in choreographer Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, danced by Racheal Prince and Brandon Lee Alley. (See the next issue of the Independent, Nov. 13.)
“I’m very excited and thrilled to be part of the 2021 Vancouver Opera season and I can’t wait to share our work with the community,” said Fradkin, adding a wish that many of us have – “May we all be able to meet and play in person soon.”
For more on the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program and Vancouver Opera, visit vancouveropera.ca.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
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Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
Wendy Bross Stuart accepted her GVPTA Career Achievement Award while playing the koto. (screenshot)
On June 29, the 38th annual Jessie Awards were celebrated virtually, with several Jewish community members among those being honoured.
The GVPTA [Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance] Career Achievement Award went to Wendy Bross Stuart, who gave her acceptance speech while playing the koto (a Japanese stringed instrument).
“Like most middle-class Jewish kids growing up in postwar New York City, I went to Broadway shows with my parents every few weeks,” she said. “I dreamed of conducting the pit orchestra and conducted many records in my living room on a regular basis.
“My first role was in Peter Pan – as Tinker Bell. I was 6 years old and three feet tall!
“I music-directed my first show – South Pacific – when I was 13, for a day camp in Tarrytown. I was given a script – no score – so I played it all by ear … in the preferred key for each of the teenage actors.
“Later, I went to a musical theatre training program in upstate New York, where I played scenes opposite a young man – named Stephen Schwartz.”
Bross Stuart did her graduate work in ethnomusicology, with a focus on Coast Salish music; research that was published, as was her later research on Northern Haida songs. She and her family lived in Japan for many years, where she continued studying traditional music for Japanese koto and shamisen, earning an advanced teaching licence.
“I’ve arranged and accompanied many Yiddish songs for voice and piano, producing four CDs with Claire Klein Osipov,” she said. “I’ve even arranged some Yiddish songs for koto and voice,” she added, noting “Yiddish was the language of my grandparents.”
“I love arranging and conducting choral music: 20 of my pieces have been published in the U.S. and Canada; most recently, an arrangement of my daughter Jessica’s composition,” she continued.
“For the last 15 years, we have co-produced and music-directed the annual Holocaust Commemorative Evening for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“In theatre, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you. Where? At Theatre Under the Stars, the Arts Club, the Electric Company, Touchstone Theatre, Famous Artists, Blackbird Theatre, Snapshots Collective, Presentation House, the Chutzpah! Festival and 25 years at Perry Ehrlich’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!
“My husband Ron Stuart – anthropologist and filmmaker – has been with me on this journey. Our most recent collaboration is our film company: Cultural Odyssey Films. All eight of our most recent films were shot on location in South Africa over the last 10 years.
“Thank you very much for this special honour. I look forward to working with you in the near future!”
In the small theatre category, Itai Erdal and Amir Ofek won for outstanding lighting design and set design, respectively, for the Search Party’s production of The Father, while Warren Kimmel was part of the cast of Raincity Theatre’s Company, which won significant artistic achievement: outstanding innovative and immersive storytelling.
Nominees for this year’s awards included, in the large theatre category, Erdal for outstanding lighting of Savage Society’s Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey (presented by the Cultch) and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg for outstanding choreography in Cipher, presented by Arts Club Theatre Company (in partnership with Vertigo Theatre); in the small theatre category, Stephen Aberle for outstanding performance by an actor in a supporting role for his role in Slamming Door Artist Collective’s The Sea; and, for outstanding original script, Deborah Vogt for Big Sister, presented by Rapid Pitch Productions.
One could be forgiven for thinking there was a Jewish dance festival coming up, as there are so many community members participating in this year’s Dancing on the Edge, which takes place July 2-11.
Adapting to the circumstances of the pandemic, which limits public gatherings, DOTE festival producer Donna Spencer recently announced that, while it won’t be possible to present the initially planned 30-plus live performances, the festival “will be offering instead some specially curated digital programming with live-streamed performances, premières of dance films, dance discussions, four outdoor live performances in the Firehall’s courtyard and one dynamic theatre performance at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre (all live performances for very limited audiences with safety precautions in place).”
Among the featured dance companies and choreographers are, in alphabetical order, Action at a Distance (Vanessa Goodman), All Bodies Dance (Naomi Brand, with Carolina Bergonzoni), Ben Gorodetsky, Ne. Sans Opera and Dance (Idan Cohen), Radical System Art (Shay Kuebler), the response. (Amber Funk Barton) and Tara Cheyenne Performance.
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Action at a Distance is presenting Solvent, a new work created in collaboration with musician Loscil (Scott Morgan).
“I have been incorporating video footage into my work for years, and the recent time at home has provided an opportunity to generate material and experiment with new editing techniques,” said Goodman. “In some ways, this is an extension of our previous work together. Our first video collaboration was for a song on his album, Monument Builders. Since then, we have built four works together for my company Action at a Distance, including Never Still, which was presented by the Firehall Arts Centre in 2018.”
When the pandemic hit, Goodman said, “At first, I found myself grasping for something substantial to hold onto and tried to reschedule all the tours and premières that were being canceled. It was challenging to let go of everything. Eventually, I came to terms with the downtime and embraced the slow pace as best I could.”
When the need to isolate began, she said, “I started making short dance films for myself and my 96-year-old grandmother to help us stay connected. At times, it has been tough to stay motivated during the shutdown, and this was a simple way to stay creative.
“There’s no way to compare these sketches to a staged dance performance,” she said. “However, when I shifted my frame of mind and started to approach video as a whole new medium instead of an altered version of an existing piece, I became more comfortable with the idea of sharing work this way. I am very grateful to DOTE for bringing the community together to share work right now.”
Even in such times, arts and culture are “absolutely vital,” said Goodman. “Without them, we’re living in the dark ages. It is essential to have creative outlets for expression. Right now, finding connections through creativity can help cut through the isolation. Art can provide much-needed escape and levity in challenging times, as well as reframing current issues and inspiring insight around movements of essential social change.”
* * *
All Bodies Dance Project (ABDP) is bringing Ho.Me to the festival. “The film was commissioned by F-O-R-M, Festival of Recorded Movement, last year … and is a collaboration between longtime ABDP company members Carolina Bergonzoni (choreographer/director), Peggy Leung (dancer), Harmanie Rose (dancer), Mathew Chyzyk (dancer) and Vancouver-based artist Gemma Crowe (cinematographer/editor) and Alex Mah (composer),” said Brand. “Ho.Me explores themes of belonging and comfort in relation to inhabiting one’s own body. The film is comprised of three personal solos shot inside the dancers’ own apartments. In the piece, we get to see these three very different bodies dancing within the privacy of their own homes among the objects that have meaning to them.
“While the film was created long before the pandemic, the significance of moving inside our homes feels really different now since we’ve all been spending so much time inside. Many dancers have been figuring out how to turn our living spaces into places where we can also practise, explore and move, as studios haven’t been an option.”
Since the start of the pandemic, ABDP has moved some of its community dance programming online.
“We also started a weekly virtual gathering for our community of dancers in order to prevent social isolation,” said Brand. “Many of our projects have been on hold. There is so much about what we do as a company that just isn’t compatible with the necessary restrictions of COVID life. Our work is based on bringing people with different bodies, backgrounds, experiences and abilities together to move, share and make in real-time. We’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of things translate into the digital space and what things just can’t be replaced.”
She said, “Now more than ever we need community and collective experiences, as so many have been isolated during these past few months. People with disabilities in particular have experienced a lot of isolation and so we are even more committed to our purpose at All Bodies Dance Project.”
She added, “Dance is about each of our essential relationship to our own bodies. During COVID times, many of us have learned a lot about our own physical experience of moving through the world and the social choreography of physical distancing. There has been so much choreography on the sidewalks, grocery stores and, of course, in the streets during the incredible protests during this pandemic.”
* * *
Gorodetsky, who is Russian-Canadian, is one half of the political comedy duo Folk Lordz, with Cree co-creator Todd Houseman. The pair tackle racism, among other social ills, and have created a 15-part series “[r]eflecting urban-Indigenous, immigrant and activist perspectives through the lens of biting satire.” A second series of sketches is on its way, but Gorodetsky is bringing a very personal work to this year’s DOTE.
“It’s a movement video piece honouring my grandfather, Dolik (David) Lutsky. He died on April 3, 2020, and, since we could not gather for his funeral due to the pandemic, we were left to sort through our grief alone,” he shared. “One small relief was my grandmother mailing me a box of his clothes. Using these garments as performance artifacts, I created a digital video piece reimagining grieving rituals in the age of COVID.
“I explore the ceremony of wearing Dolik’s clothes and reactivating the narrative, cultural and physical threads of his life. Spoken oral histories exploring my grandfather’s immigration (I was born 10 days after they landed in Canada), identity (he was the official communist ‘propagandist’ at the coalmine he worked at in Ukraine) and faith (he went from being an ardent anti-religious communist to a practising Lubavitcher Jew) provide textual counterpoint to the dance video. The visuals themselves were all created through aerial drone photography, creating a fluid visual style for this interdisciplinary new video work. Country roads, forests and lakes frame this physical score exploring grief, memory and family history.”
Gorodetsky said, “I think if I had been able to grieve, remember and connect with my family after Dolik’s death, I would have no need to explore these ideas artistically. But, since I have not, I have a nagging need to articulate this particular pain through movement, story and visual composition.”
Since COVID, Gorodetsky has become the fulltime caregiver for his 2.5-year-old son. “Time and energy have become scarce resources,” he said, “so I’ve had to get better at working furiously fast while he naps. Focused blasts of creativity.
“Also, my family has been displaced from our home and all our possessions in Brooklyn, N.Y. We were in Kelowna (where I was teaching on a one-term contract at UBC in the performance program) when the border closed and we could not return to our home as planned. So, we’re in Waterloo, living at my sister-in-law’s house, until [who knows when]. Honestly, my mental health is brutal right now. Anxiety grips me in a way I had never experienced before, and I have had to find tactics for replenishing my depleted stores of happiness and hope. One thing that really helps is long bike rides with my son Gus. We get out of the city and follow country roads – we live near Amish country! It’s a small way to feel free, alive and empowered in the midst of these deeply destabilizing times.”
For Gorodetsky, who grew up in Metro Vancouver – in Burquitlam – “dance is a way of moving your grief around. It helps me shake the weight and sediment of catastrophe off and meet my grief as an equal, rather than as a victim.
“Gus and I developed a habit of walking to a beach or body of water, finding a big tree stump, climbing on top and dancing to a playlist called ‘Klezmer Dance Party at Home’ (lots of Klezmatics, Michael Winograd, Frank London, Socalled and Di Naye Kapelye). It’s been a real lifesaver.”
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Ne. Sans Opera and Dance’s Trionfi Amore (The Triumph of Love) was commissioned by Peter Bingham for EDAM’s Spring Choreographic Series, April 2019.
“It is a trio created for three phenomenal Vancouver-based performers, Kate Franklin, Jeremy O’Neill and Ted Littlemore,” said Cohen. “Besides being excellent dancers, these three are also trained musicians, and the piece utilizes their many talents.
“The trio is inspired by the opera Orfeo ed Euridice and is a part of my ongoing research on the theme of Orpheus,” he explained. “It speaks of love, and of the power of music and art to move, entertain and touch us. It also speaks of the power of manipulation and control on the individual and, as we prepare it for DOTE during this time, we find that new meanings present themselves to us.”
Cohen said, “The act of presenting something as abstract as the notion of love in a dance performance is quite a challenge by itself, and nowadays even more so – how do you speak of love without being able to touch, to be close to one another? Instead of looking at this as an obstacle, we choose to look at it as a source of inspiration, a new adventure. As artists, we reflect what we experience and then monitor, or direct, those notions into our actions and creative choices. My responsibility here is to stay true to the origins of this piece, but also to protect the viewers and the performers while offering art that speaks of relevant issues and current experiences.”
It hasn’t been easy.
“Ne. Sans had to stop our season and rethink and rearrange our commitments,” said Cohen. “It has been painful to see how many creative ventures that have been in the planning for quite awhile have been postponed or canceled, and to realize the ensuing financial and emotional toll…. I believe in the value and presence of arts in our community and in our lives, in countless ways, and tackle issues that I find not just relevant for myself, but that reflect on many lives. At the same time, I recognize how privileged I am to be here, in Vancouver, and to be safe and healthy.”
Whether theatre, music or dance, one thing common to all forms of live performance, said Cohen, “is that they are alive.” They all involve the human body, both “the performing bodies and the ones watching.”
“As an artist who uses movement as a primary artistic discipline,” he said, “I have a huge love and respect for the human body in its most basic form. When you learn to love and accept your body, you can truly love and respect people. That love is also where my queer identity(ies) meet my Jewish ancestry. So much hate is being inflicted on the body; if we don’t learn to love and appreciate our bodies, how can we truly love and appreciate someone else’s? How can we heal? With so much violence in our history and in our present, in a world polluted with ignorance and hate, how do we learn to love and forgive our ancestors, our pasts? The arts bear a huge responsibility. Artists need to change our priorities, acknowledge our inherited racism and create new stories.
“Ne. Sans is an organization that is centred on Western European music and dance, and my origins are in Western Europe,” he continued. “Our main goal in Ne. Sans is not to present a notion of nostalgia, romanticism and artificial beauty, but to raise the issues of violence and inequalities created by that culture, recreate its narratives and bring those up into the surface.”
In Jewish teaching, there is the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. “We can all be involved in tikkun olam at any given moment,” said Cohen, “and we need to keep adapting and correcting our values, individual or systemic. We have a responsibility to help and support one another. We have survived horrible historical events. Looking straight at our bleeding past and present: in the face of injustice, we cannot and will not stay silent.”
* * *
Kuebler, who has performed at the Chutzpah! Festival and is connected to the Jewish community through his sister’s family, will be presenting Momentum of Isolation at DOTE. Started last year, he said, “This first chapter of research is a chain of solos, for seven performers, that was developed by company artists online and in isolation.”
Given the restrictions required to control COVID, this part of “the project has taken on a much more singular focus on each artist’s personal interpretation,” said Kuebler. “As these solos were developed in home spaces and in isolation, the artists are performing their solos in smaller performance spaces – averaging six-by-nine feet – as well as performing these solos in relation to walls and surfaces in their environment.”
Of COVID’s impacts, he said, “There was certainly sadness and stress from losing work and touring opportunities. The company was two weeks away from a European tour when all the social protocols came into place. We were fortunate to receive some support and, after assessing the financial losses, we were able to move forward with a different creative practice for this phase of this project.
“The new creation practice of working online and in isolation actually revealed some very interesting new approaches and beneficial tactics. This online format had us focus on different dance techniques and improvisation tasks that could both challenge our individual movement skills and develop more group unity in movement. It also opened a window for focused study around the social content in the project.”
Kuebler said, “For myself as an artist, this time has offered me some space to ‘fill the well.’ I have been creating, traveling and supporting multiple projects simultaneously for a solid amount of time. This time in isolation, although not in the form that I would have wished for, or for anyone for that matter, has offered me space and time to just research and train…. I’ve found that, with this space, I’ve been more creative and have developed further outlets to express my creativity.”
He said, “I think that art holds a very important place in society. It offers people an escape from certain stresses and can help inspire them to find their own creativity. I believe that being creative can help you live with greater curiosity, humility and awareness of the world around you, which can make you a better member of society…. From this standpoint, I believe that art and artists gain greater relevance during challenging times and times of change.”
* * *
Barton’s company, the response., will host a special-edition, two-day version of Dance Café, which will feature eight Vancouver-based professional dance artists during DOTE.
“Together with my administration assistant, Kaia Shukin, we have been presenting Dance Café since 2017,” said Barton. Originally, it was held once a year as an informal, free event in studio, but, since May of this year, they have been presenting professional dance artists online using Instagram Live, and did so in June, as well. Given the positive response, Barton would like to keep the free event going monthly until the end of the year, but it will depend on resources, and she hopes people will donate to help make that happen.
With the arrival of the pandemic, Barton said, “It felt like many of the things I do changed overnight. At first – and there are still many moments at present – I felt overwhelmed with the learning curve of teaching and rehearsing on platforms such as Zoom. I feel that the act of participating in these online platforms, whether you are ready to or not, forces you to be creative just by showing up. In many ways, the act of applying for grants and the typical administration side of what I and the company do haven’t changed, but the artistic side of it is what I find is in question. How can we continue and how can we share and create work in a safe environment? Those are my biggest questions right now.”
For Barton, “Art can be a reflection of what we are experiencing in the world and can act as a mirror. It can be cathartic. It can also help us escape. We are all listening to music, watching films and trying to make sense of what is happening and/or trying to make time pass by. No one can deny that their consumption of art is interwoven in the daily fabric of their lives.”
* * *
At DOTE, Tara Cheyenne Performance will share two films made in collaboration with Allison Beda/Amuse Productions and possibly a live online performance, said Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. “These works are a continuation of my solo I can’t remember the word for I can’t remember, which premièred at the Firehall in 2018.”
For Friedenberg, life during COVID has been “up and down.”
“Some days are good – home schooling actually happens (we have an 8-year-old), I might even take an online dance class and have a virtual rehearsal with my dramaturge Melanie Yeats. Other days, making lunch and trying to figure out Grade 3 fractions is too much,” she said. “I’m not loving the many, many Zoom meetings. I feel like our brains and bodies are compromised being in front of screens so much.
“Artistically, it has been invigorating and challenging – also very frustrating and often sad, to be honest – to try to reach my audience. I was recently working on a video of past work and noticed that, in every show, I literally climb into/onto the audience. My focus right now is how do I break the fourth wall when it is a virtual fourth wall.”
When asked the importance of the arts in such a stressful social and economic period, Friedenberg said, “We absolutely need to share stories and experiences right now. I feel like it is my duty to offer levity, commentary and my own feelings in order to facilitate those moments of community and recognition. My grandfather toured Europe playing piano for Maurice Chevalier leading up to the war, then here in Canada during the war. I feel like it’s in my blood to offer what I make, especially during difficult times. I’ve been making these very silly satire videos of my character Laura Lockdown, which people are enjoying I think because they allow us to laugh at the extreme situation we are all living through.”
Friedenberg also has been recording, for almost a year now, the podcast Talking Sh*t with Tara Cheyenne.
“I interview artists about their work, their lives and how they manage,” she said. “These interviews are even more interesting in the time of COVID-19. Creativity, and how we navigate its absence in the face of difficulty is so useful for all of us. Right now, I’m leaning towards interviewing artists of colour – voices, art and ideas that need to be heard.”
SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo from QAF)
“Since the very beginning, I said not doing the festival was not an option … because my belief is that they [the arts] are really, really important – I would say essential.”
Sharing their appreciation for the vital work being done by those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, said, “art is really keeping people alive, in different ways than the amazing health workers that are taking care of folks right now. Even people who say they don’t like art – if you read a book, if you watch Netflix, you take part in the art world.”
This year’s Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26, will happen mostly online. This is, of course, not what was initially planned.
By mid-May, Holman said, “we had to have a plan. And, right now, we’re still working on how the delivery is going to look because it’s not all digital. One of the things that was really important to us, to me, is that, not all people have computers, not all people have a stable wi-fi access, people can’t go to the libraries [now] if they don’t have computer, so how do people access it? If they’re not privileged enough to have this little box in front of them, how do we deliver a festival?”
One of the things being considered is billboard art. As well, there is the possibility of using parks as venues.
The planning of such a festival normally starts a year in advance, not the couple of months that COVID has allowed for a reimagined version. Some elements – such as the visual arts show – have been adapted for the new circumstances, while some will have to be postponed, as they do not lend themselves to online viewing, because they are interactive on some level, or the artists can’t make it to Vancouver.
When asked about the process for choosing festival artists, Holman said, “I talk a lot to people, I try and keep abreast of what’s going on. I always want to support local artists and also bring in folks from away, so that there are great conversations that happen of what’s going on in the world, as well as what’s happening here.”
The festival programmer does research and people can also apply to be part of the festival. As well, Holman said, “There’ll be people that talk to me about wanting to do something, and that usually percolates for two or three years before anything ever happens.”
Holman has been with the festival since its beginnings as a volunteer collective in 1998. “Two-spirit artist Robbie Hong, black artist Jeffrey Gibson were the main founders of Pride in Art [Society],” they explained. “I was an artist and then I became involved in the collective in 2005, when Robbie was wanting to step away … and I called in Dr. Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa because she had approached me about something and I said, ‘Come and join me on this.’ And we spearheaded making it professional, making it a festival…. It was a community visual art show up until that point…. As an artist myself, I wanted to pay artists – too often artists are expected to do stuff for free, and that’s impossible.”
According to the festival website, PiA became a not-for-profit in 2006, mounted its first festival in 2008 and rebranded to become the Queer Arts Festival in 2010, obtaining charitable status in 2012.
“Rachel has finally managed to extricate herself,” said Holman, “because we also both have our own arts practices and it’s very hard to run this organization and also have an arts practice; it might have fallen a bit by the wayside, but Rachel is a concert pianist. [She’s] no longer staff with us, [but] she’s still doing some contract work with us and passing over her organizational knowledge.”
While Holman is a photo-based artist, the festival remains their focus. It is the belief that “art changes people and people change the world” that motivates them, “because it’s important work” – “when a country is taken over, the first people they suppress are the artists.… You take over the media and you get rid of the artists because people can be completely destroyed – the first thing they start doing [to recover] is making art, whether it’s in a mud puddle, making a mud pie, they start, that is, expression; that’s what brings them back.
“Art reaches you on a visceral level,” Holman continued. “There’s this thing called confirmation bias, so we take in more what we already agree with, but art can get you in a way that can transform our ways of thinking.”
For Holman, being queer and Jewish are parts of their larger identity. Holman has self-described, for example, as “a queer pagan Jew” and “a Jewish, butch, bearded dyke.”
“I come from L.A.,” they told the Independent. “I was born and raised in L.A., and I have had several Jewish friends be, ‘Oh, you’re too much for Vancouver.’ And I’ve been here for a long time … [but] people are, ‘Why aren’t you in New York, why aren’t you in L.A.? Why aren’t you where you can be more?’ I always get this feeling here … that people are always trying to be, ‘Shh, could you just be a little bit quieter, could you just be not quite so much?’ There’s this too-muchness about Jews. And there’s kind of this too-muchness about queers, too. There’s this assimilation. My family assimilated – I got, from my bubbie and my great-aunt, I would get Christmas cards. We’re Jewish! But we assimilated because that was what was safe for us. And so there’s all this assimilation and erasure that happens with queers and Jews, because, also, many of us can pass; we can pass as straight, we can pass as not Jewish.”
Despite skepticism about the possibility of Jews being fully accepted – the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville a couple of years ago featured chants of “Jews will not replace us,” for example – Holman is completely out there in her Jewishness and queerness, in a seemingly fearless way.
“Oh no, I’m afraid of everything, that’s why I do it,” they said. “Although, that’s not true anymore. Since my wife died [in 2009], I don’t fear anything because the worst thing has already happened to me. But I used to be, I was quite fearful.… [However] I’ve never been able to be in the closet about anything really. And, I guess, for me, that’s kind of Jewishness, [being] more emotive and not afraid to debate, not always trying to please people. For me, it comes from my Jewish heritage.”
Despite the many accolades for their art and for their work with the Queer Arts Festival, including the 2014 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Arts and Culture, Holman said, “I have been a failure all my life.” Among their reasons for that description, Holman said they are dyslexic. They added, “I’m butch, so that’s a failure as a woman; feminists were called failures as women.” But, they said, they are working with that in their art and, on the positive side, being a failure “frees you up to make your own rules, so make your own rules.”
The theme of this year’s Queer Arts Festival is “Wicked.” The press release quotes Oscar Wilde: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”
“It’s always really multi-layered the theme and then people take different stuff out of it,” said Holman. “So, there’s also the book Wicked … because Wicked is about it’s not easy being green, it’s not easy being different. It’s not easy being a Jew, it’s not easy being queer. It’s not easy being butch, it’s not easy being an activist. It’s all actually about activism, the book Wicked.”
In addition, there is, as Holman writes in the press release, the question, “What do we lose – who do we lose – if we accept induction into the dominant order, and reframe ourselves as a ‘moral minority’?”
“It’s a bit of a double pun,” they explained to the Independent. “The ‘Moral Majority’ years ago, who were trying to say [what’s acceptable in society], the right-wing, and there’s the ‘model minority,’” the Asian community, whose perceived greater-than-average success and stereotypical politeness are used to downplay the existence of racism. “It totally ties in with what I was talking about ‘too-muchness’ and excess and how we, as queers, work towards justice and inclusion.”
While becoming “more acceptable,” Holman said, “it’s still, ‘please don’t scare the horses.’… So, it’s OK if you want to be gay and lesbian and you want to get married and you want to have kids and you want to buy a house and be part of the whole heteronormative [framework] … be part of society’s morals, but could you leave the drag queens and the leather dykes at home?… Even with gender stuff. We know now that it’s a real spectrum and people are getting [more accepted], trans are really out in the world [for example] and it’s OK if you want to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man,’ whatever that is, but people in between are still, ‘Come on, could you choose a side?’
“There’s this whole [feeling like], we’ve given you these things, we’ve given you marriage rights, you can have children, you can affirm your gender, you can do those things, but could you now just be nicer to us? And, I think, we have to be careful of that – being sanctioned by the state of what’s OK [because] then people get left behind, and that’s what we’re seeing right now … the more privilege you gain, you have to be really careful of that,” of remembering that not everyone is being treated well.
The QAF opens on July 16. “And we’re going to have a binge/party at the end, on the 26th, and there’ll be prizes,” said Holman. “We’re going to play the whole entire festival. I think it’s going to be 12 hours or something – we’re inviting people to get into their best dress jammies.
“Everything is going to be pay-what-you-can, by donation…. Pay as much as you can, please, because we want to support the artists.”
Among those artists are Jewish community members Avram Finkelstein, from New York, who helps open the festival (see jewishindependent.ca/political-art-of-living) and locally based Noam Gagnon, whose work This Crazy Show (July 25-26) is described as “a reflection on the quest for love, through revisiting the worlds of childhood, both real and imagined.” In it, he “choreographs and performs, pushing himself to his physical limit to explore and expose ‘the art of artifice’ in a culture obsessed with pretending authenticity. This Crazy Show explores just how precarious and ambiguous identity can be, through the evolution of the body and the self, as both are continuously morphing, unfixed and boldly celebrated.”
Those who missed the Vancouver performances of Deborah Vogt’s Big Sister, which is performed by her real-life sister, Naomi Vogt, can rent it online until June 11. (photo from JW3)
Former Vancouverite Deborah Vogt’s play Big Sister is available to rent on JW3’s website until June 11.
Vogt is the arts and culture programmer at JW3, which is described on its website as a “cross-communal hub for Jewish arts, culture, family programming, social action, learning and much more.”
“JW3 opened its doors in October 2013 with the mission to increase the quality, variety and volume of Jewish conversations in London and beyond,” said Vogt of the centre, which is located in north London, on Finchley Road.
“I grew up in Vancouver and lived there my whole life, but decided to move to London three years ago,” she said. “I miss the trees, ocean and sushi in Vancouver, but love the excitement and opportunities in London. I joined JW3 as an employee in September 2019.”
Big Sister is a one-woman show about Vogt’s sister’s 75-pound weight loss, told through Vogt’s perspective, but performed by her sister, Naomi Vogt. It played the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2018. At that time, Deborah Vogt told the Independent that writing the play was a challenge.
“First of all,” she said in that interview, “it was difficult trying to find the balance between Naomi as my real human sister and Naomi as a character. We wanted this show to be entirely truthful, while still presenting a piece of theatre. And this show touches on painful aspects of both of our lives (in a funny way, of course), so trying to write that without overstepping my place or lying to the audience about what actually happened (two sides to every story, right?) was difficult to manoeuvre.” (See jewishindependent.ca/fringe-mixes-drama-comedy.)
The video that is available via JW3’s website is from a sold-out production at the Cultch in February 2020, said the playwright. Being available online means that the work will be able to reach more people.
“The run at the Cultch sold out by opening night, so there may be people that didn’t get a chance to see it then now have the option,” said Vogt. “Putting Big Sister online in this form also expands on one of our themes: vulnerability.
“We never meant to share our work this way,” she explained. “We filmed it for archival purposes, not for public viewing. The show is meant to be live, and intimate, and present. That’s not an option right now, so, instead, we get to experiment with what it’s like for people to experience Big Sister in their living rooms.
“It also means the show lives on. For both Naomi and I, the show changes as our relationship changes. The filmed show captures our relationship in one specific moment in time. I’m interested to see what the next iteration will be.”
When asked to clarify what she meant by that, Vogt said, “I am speaking about our real-life relationship as well as our work, because the two became intertwined during Big Sister. The show allowed us to talk about things we never knew about one another, so it has affected, and strengthened, our relationship. If we decide to put the show on again, we may have to rewrite parts of it to reflect our current relationship. I have an idea for a sequel, but I haven’t told Naomi yet.”
JW3’s presentation of Big Sister is part of a season of streamed theatre through its virtual platform, said Vogt.
The first released was Wot? No Fish!!, which explores “the issue of the ‘outsider’ as artist, immigrant or disabled family member,” said Vogt. It is available for rental until June 4. Becoming Electra – “a heart-warming and original one-woman drag show about a queer Jewish girl trying to find her voice” – is available until June 21.
“The fourth piece is a West End show that had to end the run early, and more info will be released soon!” said Vogt.
About the online theatre presentations, she explained, “When JW3 had to physically shut our doors, the whole team worked incredibly hard to adapt and continue bringing programming into people’s homes. This means classes are online, we have a brand new website, and have had to come up with other creative ways to provide community during this difficult time. While we figure out the next steps for theatre and performance, we wanted to share a season of filmed versions of shows that have a special relationship to JW3. Big Sister is the first time I’ve been able to share my own theatre work with my programming work.”
While JW3 closed its doors to the public in March, Vogt said, “The building is now being used as a food bank, cooking and delivering meals to vulnerable people in Camden. The team has delivered over 5,000 meals already. So, while the building has closed to the public, the space is still being used to support the community. And that reflects the aims of the wider organization: everyone is working really hard to provide entertainment, education, community and connection during these isolating times.”
To find out more about JW3 and its programming, including various arts and culture rentals, visit jw3.org.uk.
The deadline to apply for Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver July 7-30 and Aug. 4-27 is April 1. With participants ages 9 to 19 from various parts of Canada and elsewhere in the world, director and creator of the program Perry Ehrlich will be joined this year by faculty including musical directors Wendy Bross Stuart and Diane Speirs; director Chris McGregor; choreographers Jason Franco, Keri Minty and Meghan Anderssen; acting coach Amanda Testini; and Mariana Munoz, set construction and costume co-ordination. The final production of each session will be Wild Wild West Side Story, featuring an original script and a repertoire from Broadway and movie musicals. Also being offered is the finishing school, for serious musical theatre students attending Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!, and a boot camp dance program. Scholarships are available.
Kyle Berger, left, and Scotty Aceman, co-producers of Rise of the Comics. (photo from Rise of the Comics)
The outer limits of the laugh-o-meter will be tested on Feb. 20 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre, when a group of Canada’s top funny people step on stage for A Night of Shticks & Giggles, presented by local comedy producer Rise of the Comics. This will be the third Shticks and Giggles show to raise money for the JCC Maccabi Games.
Headlining the event is Julie Kim, a two-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee for stand-up, who has performed at comedy festivals around the continent and appeared on CBC’s The Debaters and Laugh Out Loud. Her YouTube videos have amassed millions of views and, in 2018, she released her debut comedy album, Outside Voice.
Among other topics, Kim’s routine delves into modern parenting and various cultural issues, sometimes involving life seen from an Asian perspective. Yuk Yuk’s comedy club co-founder Mark Breslin called her “smart, funny, with enough self-awareness to deconstruct her life in a very sophisticated way.”
Other acts in the show, which Rise of the Comics describes as its “best line-up to date,” include Robert Peng, who bills himself as “an unemployed engineer who turned to stand-up comedy out of desperation”; New Zealander Sophia Johnson, “the one who keyed your car but probably shouldn’t have told you that”; Sean McDonnell, who Canadian comedy star Norm MacDonald has praised as “a fantastic talent”; and Brett Nikolic, a maven on Mountain Dew-flavoured weed.
Rise of the Comics is the brainchild of Vancouver stand-up comedian Scotty Aceman, who will also be on stage at Shticks & Giggles. Starting off as a weekly 30-minute program on Shaw Cable with the same name in 2015, the show has highlighted the work of many stand-up comedians who got their start on the local scene, such as Dino Archie and Ivan Decker, who has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Aceman, a University of British Columbia and B.C. Institute of Technology graduate, switched to comedy five years ago, after a 20-year stint in a sales job with Rogers in the corporate wireless phone department.
“Leaving the cellphone business after 20 years was a tough call,” he said. “But you have to chase your dreams. People would ask me, ‘What about my dignity and respect?’ I’d say dignity and respect went out the window the minute I had a Thursday morning bar mitzvah!”
In 2019, Aceman brought in Kyle Berger as co-producer of Rise of the Comics. Berger, sports coordinator at the JCCGV, will be the master of ceremonies for the Feb. 20 Shticks & Giggles.
Before joining the crew, Berger, in his role as JCC Maccabi Games delegation head, had hired Rise of the Comics for a fundraiser. He credits Aceman for allowing him to get his stand-up feet wet, with a debut performance at the Charqui Grill in Kitsilano in 2018.
“Stand-up was one of those things on my bucket list to do by the time I turned 40,” Berger told the Independent. “Scotty (and my then-girlfriend, now fiancée) were both big helpers in getting me up there on stage for a five-minute routine. My fiancée had had enough of me saying I was going to do it.”
Berger said, “Scotty’s reputation within the local comic community is a great asset. Nowadays, Rise of the Comics does all sorts of things, including parties in people’s living rooms. And, last year, we were hired by the Chutzpah! Festival to put on a show.”
Rise of the Comics currently works with a roster of more than 50 stand-up performers of all styles and experiences, and tailors its shows to any situation. They have created performances at such diverse venues as Hy’s Steak House, the Jericho Arts Centre and Ronald McDonald House, among others. Their gigs can cover everything from clean to dirty, social commentary to observational, but always, they say, with an emphasis on the funny.
Berger promises that he and fellow Shticks & Giggles comedians are likely to make mention, in one way or another, that their show is backed by the foundation created by Dr. Neil Pollock, a leading Vancouver male sexual health and circumcision expert, and his wife Michelle.
Esther Povitsky performs at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 22 as part of JFL NorthWest. (photo from JFL NorthWest)
Chicago-born comedian, actor and writer Esther Povitsky is one of several Jewish community members performing in the Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival, which takes place around Metro Vancouver Feb. 13-25. Her credits include being co-creator and star of the show Alone Together, a recurring role on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, parts on programs such as Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreation, stand-up on The Late Late Show and Comedy Central, as well as host of the podcast Glowing Up. The Jewish Independent spoke with her in advance of her Feb. 22 show at the Biltmore Cabaret.
JI: When did you first start doing stand-up and what motivated you to do it?
EP: I love comedy. I love watching it, I love laughing and making people laugh. I also liked the idea of being able to do something creative where I only relied on myself.
JI: Before you started stand-up, what were you working toward education- or career-wise?
EP: I thought I was going to be a professional dancer, and majored in dance in college.
JI: What is it about performing that you most enjoy, in stand-up and in acting?
EP: Having an excuse to drink too much coffee.
JI: When did you move to Los Angeles, and was it for a specific job or more opportunity for work in general?
EP: I did not have any specific jobs lined up! I moved here to pursue stand-up and worked as a babysitter, worked at a gym, a juice bar, and other random gigs.
JI: You describe your stand-up as just being you. Being Jewish on your dad’s side, where/how/does Judaism, Jewish culture or community fit into that, or your comedy series?
EP: I feel that I was raised very culturally Jewish and it’s a big part of my personality and who I am.
JI: In an interview you talk positively about the immediacy of seeing what works and what doesn’t onstage. How do you handle the highs and lows of comedy?
EP: I try to keep busy, stay active, spend quality time with friends and family, do puzzles, watch TV. I try to really focus on doing as many “normal” things as possible.
Povitsky’s Vancouver show is 19+. For tickets and the JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
Jessica Kirson and Big Jay Oakerson are part of the Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival lineup in Vancouver Feb. 13-25. (photos from JFL NorthWest)
The Just for Laughs NorthWest comedy festival takes place around Metro Vancouver Feb. 13-25. Among the performers are several members of the Jewish community, including Andy Kindler, Jessica Kirson, Big Jay Oakerson and Esther Povitsky. The Jewish Independent recently spoke with Kirson and Oakerson.
Kirson is an award-winning comedian. She has appeared on several talk and TV shows, and has her own podcast, Relatively Sane. She was a consultant, producer, writer and actor in the Robert De Niro film The Comedian and will play herself on the HBO series Crashing with Pete Holmes. As part of JFL NorthWest, she will be at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 17, 9 p.m.
JI: Since the JI spoke with you in 2016 ahead of your Chutzpah! show (jewishindependent.ca/gonna-be-a-fun-night), a lot has happened in your world. Could you share some of your professional highlights over the last few years?
JK: So much has happened. I have done a ton of television and movie appearances. I’m loving traveling all over the world doing stand-up. I am executive producing a movie for FX, a documentary about female comedians; it will première this summer. I had a special come out on Comedy Central called Talking to Myself, in addition to a bunch of other projects.
JI: You’ve been in the podcast world for a long time now. What do you particularly like about the medium?
JK: I started Relatively Sane because I wanted to create a podcast that wasn’t just funny and silly. I wanted it to get real also. I wanted to talk about anxiety, depression, etc. I love it. It’s one of my favorite creative mediums now.
JI: What is the difference, if any, performance or prep-wise between working on a radio show versus a podcast?
JK: It’s very similar. I don’t do a ton of prep work with my guests. I love finding things out while I’m talking to them. It’s more real that way.
JI: Can you tell me a bit about your Comedy Central special, how it came about and what it has meant to you career-wise?
JK: I had felt like I deserved a comedy special years ago. It was the one thing I felt I deserved that I didn’t get. I got a call from Bill Burr. He told me he wanted to produce my special. He shocked me. I feel very grateful to him. When comics do things like that for other performers, it’s amazing. We should all do it for each other.
JI: Similarly, The Comedian and Robert DeNiro. How did that happen?
JK: DeNiro saw me performing at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. He was looking for comics to be in his movie. We met up that week, we connected and I became his right-hand person. I ended up being in the movie and getting a producer credit. The hardest part was showing up every day, giving my opinion and not caring what the producers and director thought. It was very intimidating but I had him by my side so it worked out.
JI: Is getting your own television show still something you’d like to achieve?
JK: Yes, I would love to have a talk show.
* * *
Oakerson has appeared on many television shows. He has recorded two specials, one for Comedy Central in 2016 and one for Netflix in 2018, as well as three albums. He was the host and creator of What’s Your F#$king Deal?! and currently co-hosts the podcasts The Legions of Skanks, The SDR Show and The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder. For the JFL NorthWest festival, he will perform at the Biltmore Cabaret Feb. 19-20, 9:30 p.m.
JI: When did you first start doing stand-up and what motivated you to do it?
BJO: I started doing comedy in 1999 at the urging of a friend who caught up with me after high school and expressed her disappointment in me never trying it before.
JI: In what ways has your stand-up style changed since you first started?
BJO: First of all, my level of nerves is significantly down. I think I’ve evolved it into a very comfortable style of storytelling and interaction versus joke writing/telling than I started with.
JI: Did you grow up in a household where you were encouraged to form and express your own opinions?
BJO: I don’t recall anyone in my household being highly opinionated about anything.
JI: Were you a witty or mouthy child?
BJO: 30% mouthy, 70% witty.
JI: What role, if any, does being Jewish, Judaism, Jewish culture or community have in your life and/or your career?
BJO: I thought I’d get a bump in this business because I’m Jewish, and nothing. I guess I’m not that kind of Jewish.
JI: What is it about pushing the boundaries that you most enjoy, and to what purpose do you do it?
BJO: “Edgy comedy” was generally the comedy I was drawn to growing up, so it’s just sort of how my humour developed. If I can make you question things or think about a different perspective on something, great, but, ultimately, I’m just trying to make people laugh.
JI: Are there any red lines you won’t cross?
BJO: Not if I think I can make the subject more funny than offensive.
JI: What do you enjoy most about doing podcasts?
Both Oakerson’s and Kirson’s shows are 19+. For tickets and the full JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
In next week’s JI: an interview with Esther Povitsky.