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.
Kelly Sheridan and Peter Wilson in The Realistic Joneses. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
The unfortunate truth is that we are all going to die some day. How we cope with our mortality defines our approach to life. Playwright Will Eno encapsulates this concept in his award-winning play The Realistic Joneses, produced by the Mint Collective and currently running at the Vancouver Culture Lab at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre until Dec. 17.
The New York Times has called Eno, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” His life view comes through an intellectual lens of verbal dexterity and abstract projections that, at first blush, seem disjointed and oddly out of place, but eventually morph into a revelatory and provocative perspective on death and dying. Eno is a wordsmith but it takes some time and mental effort to understand exactly what is happening on stage.
The play had its debut at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and then went on to a successful Broadway run in 2014, including a Drama Desk Award Special Award.
Next-door neighbours, both with the surname Jones, live in smalltown America. Bob and Jennifer, middle-aged longtime residents, are the foils for the newly wed 30-somethings John and Pony, whose lives intersect through the tragedy of the male side of each couple having the same degenerative neurological condition that affects memory and speech. Both men are undergoing experimental treatments from a local specialist. Each knows there is no cure and deals with this reality in his own way. Their coping mechanisms define the play and expose the vulnerability and pathos of those with terminal conditions.
The action is portrayed in a series of vignettes, snapshot moments in the lives of these two generationally divided families as they forge an uneasy friendship in the dance towards death. These people are real, albeit a little weird. The dialogue is witty and fast-paced – in this play, “the words are the thing.” Despite the dark nature of the subject matter, there are some very funny moments.
Joan Bryans is brilliant as Jennifer, the long-suffering and brave wife who has given up her career to become her husband’s caregiver and tries to give his deteriorating life a sense of normalcy. Community member Charles Siegel plays Bob with an almost childlike, naive demeanor as his memory slowly fades. As the younger couple, Peter Wilson plays John, the quirky doting husband, in a maniacal sort of way and Kelly Sheridan is the scatterbrained Mrs. Jones Junior.
The intimacy of the black-box Culture Lab adds to the audience experience. The divided set is simple: one half is the backyard of the older Joneses, the other half is the kitchen of the younger duo. Lighting and sound design complement the simplicity of the production. It is smalltown in anywhere America on a summer’s eve, replete with chirping crickets, hooting owls, barking dogs and chiming church bells.
There is no easy resolution at the end of the play, no happy ending tied up with a shiny bow to send audiences on their merry way out into the night, just the thought that this is the reality of life, with all its complications, and maybe, just maybe, that’s OK.
Tickets and more information can be found at thecultch.com or by calling 604-251-1363.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Left to right, Aaron Roderick, Paul Beckett and Adam Grant Warren in Creeps, which is being mounted at the Cultch by Realwheels Theatre, Dec. 1-10. (photo by Tim Matheson)
David E. Freeman’s Creeps premièred in Toronto in 1971. Forty-five years later, it could still be considered radical, and most certainly remains relevant.
The 75-minute one-act play takes place in the washroom of a sheltered workshop, where the main characters – four men with disabilities – take refuge. Freeman, “who lived with cerebral palsy, was one of the first writers to put his own voice – a Canadian voice – on the stage in the early ’70s,” reads the description by Realwheels Theatre, which is mounting the production at the Cultch Dec. 1-10. “Tired of the way they’ve been treated, [the men] rebel and barricade themselves in the washroom. The brutality and hilarity of Freeman’s uncompromising and sardonic dialogue drives the show and expresses the tension of the oppressed with a raw ferocity and clarity.”
Realwheels’ mandate includes providing “respectful and accurate representation of disability, with a vision for full integration of people with disabilities in the performing arts.”
“We’ve cast three fabulous actors who live with disability in Creeps,” producer/dramaturg Rena Cohen told the Independent in an email interview. “They’re working alongside four of Vancouver’s top professional, able-bodied actors. To accommodate the stamina of the PwD [people with disabilities] cast members, we’re extending the rehearsal period to six weeks of part-time (four-hour) days – rehearsal duration for a professional show typically runs three weeks, full-time.
“As happens virtually anytime accommodations are made for accessibility, everyone in the company is loving and benefiting from this accommodation. The creative, interpretive process is given more time to germinate, allowing ideas to be explored and tested, and busy actors appreciate being able to take other gigs or auditions that come up during their free hours.”
The local production includes Jewish community members David A. Kaye and David Bloom.
Kaye plays four characters: Michael, Puffo the Clown, a chef and a carnival barker.
“Michael is a young man with cerebral palsy, which presents in him as both a physical and cognitive disability,” Kaye explained. “Michael works at a sheltered workshop, what the characters refer to as the ‘Spastic Club,’ a place where people with disabilities used to go to perform mundane tasks for pennies a day. For Michael, I’m doing a lot of textual sleuthing, because there’s more information about Michael between the lines than in the lines themselves.
“My preparation for Michael has taught me about the many ways that CP can present,” he continued. “Each case is unique, like a fingerprint. To prepare for Michael, I’ve interviewed and observed people who live with CP, watched documentaries and then, in rehearsal, I’m responsive to the other actors who are also making their way through the interpretive process. We’re also all learning about the history of sheltered workshops for people with disabilities.”
As for the characters of the clown and the chef, Kaye said they “live in a heightened reality that engages with the perceptions of people with disabilities through an ableist perspective,” whereas the barker “provides an ironic commentary, almost an infomercial or sales pitch for the worst-case scenario option for people with disabilities.”
Bloom plays what could be called the bad guy.
“I play Carson, the guy responsible for the facility,” said Bloom. “He doesn’t appear until the end, but he is talked about a lot before he arrives, mostly with disdain.
Carson is a representation of the patronizing, suffocating ‘support’ these guys receive at the hands of the institution they’re stuck in. During rehearsals, I’m learning a lot about my own lazy thinking about people with disabilities.”
Bloom has known of Realwheels’ work for many years and of Cohen’s involvement in the company, but only met her on the first day of rehearsals. Kaye became connected to Realwheels through Creeps’ director Brian Cochrane, with whom he has worked before.
”When Brian told me he was working with Rena and Realwheels, I was excited to come on board,” said Kaye. “It’s a unique experience! I can’t wait for audiences to witness the late, great David Freeman’s exposé on the lives of this fascinating group of guys.”
For her part, Cohen joined Realwheels in 2009, she said, after meeting its founder, James Sanders.
“James – along with two other Vancouver-based theatre artists, Bob Frazer and Kevin Kerr – had created and produced Skydive, one of the most successful productions to ever come out of Vancouver,” she said. “You couldn’t help but be struck by its technical innovation (in which a person with quadriplegia flies!), plus it had considerable impact on perceptions of disability. I’d been working in arts management and as a speech/presentations coach when James invited me to discuss the company’s next steps.
“Skydive’s remarkable triumph had been supported by a fairly rudimentary start-up company infrastructure. James needed help, and I saw an opportunity to bridge Realwheels’ early success to a more stable future.
“I was also drawn to the opportunities that come through greater insight into the lived experience of disability. Through James – who lives with quadriplegia – and his considerable network, I was exposed to the vitality and dynamism of the disability demographics. It didn’t take long for me to become passionate about Realwheels’ mandate: ‘to create and produce performances that deepen understanding of disability.’
“We’ve since mounted three more amazing professional shows, and built up our community practice – under the Wheel Voices banner. Our most recent community project was SexyVoices, an exploration of sexuality from a disability perspective. SexyVoices was created with and by the community participants, working with acclaimed director Rachel Peake. It offered incredibly funny, daring and moving performances, received national attention, and sold out its three-evening run!”
Last year, noted Cohen, Realwheels received the City of Vancouver Award of Excellence.
Though technically a part-time position, as with many who work in the nonprofit sector, the professional and volunteer lines blur and Cohen’s “efforts in any week are often significantly greater than a full-time job.”
“Embedded into my professional capacity at Realwheels is the need to authentically reflect the values of disability culture, and to serve as a liaison between the disability community and the theatre community,” she explained. “After James took leave of Realwheels due to medical reasons, I assumed responsibility for both management and artistic direction. I challenge myself to understand and to internalize the diverse voices of the disability community, and to convey those voices through the decisions and choices that we make with regard to projects, casting, mentorships, etc.
“My pure volunteer life in Vancouver has almost completely been centred upon Temple Sholom. I served as board president during the leadership transition planning years (2010-12), and before that I oversaw Temple’s strategic planning process. I’d co-chaired the religious school committee and, earlier, I served on Temple’s security committee, which was formed after 9/11. These days, I’m chairing the communications committee for the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project, and otherwise just enjoying our Temple community.”
Of what she has learned from her years at Realwheels, Cohen said, “The PwD experience is the human experience. By that I mean that the state of ‘disability’ is not binary with a simple on/off. There is a scale or a ‘continuum’ of sorts. We are all challenged on some level and the human experience is defined by how we manage those challenges and how we optimize as a broader community to ensure everyone has the opportunity to self-actualize. I’ve learned that attitudinal barriers are far more challenging for PwD than physical barriers.
We need to challenge both, but attitudes and preconceptions about disability are the hardest to modify. I’m certainly continuing to work on challenging my own ableist privilege.
“I’ve learned that whenever accommodations are made to serve PwD, everyone benefits. One of my proudest achievements as board president at Temple Sholom was the Accessibility and Inclusion Project, which resulted in the installation of an interior ramp to the bimah. Overall, I think Temple has become safer, more inclusive and more accommodating to the diverse range of ages and abilities of all people who participate in Temple life. As I’ve said, I believe that disability exists across the broad spectrum of society, and that most of us are actually TAB (temporarily able-bodied).
“I’m continually learning about the tremendous diversity in the disability sector,” she added. “I attended the Cripping the Arts Symposium in Toronto a few months ago. One PwD artist there insisted, ‘I can’t possibly explain what [having a disability is] like, but I can show you through my artwork, and maybe you’ll get a better understanding of the struggle for survival.’ Yet another expressed: ‘How we experience the world is all based on who you are as a human being, not about being a PwD.’ Those are two nearly opposing positions.
“I’ve learned that, in Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognized equality for those who live with disability in 1982, but there is still a great deal of work needed. The U.S., through the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), is far more advanced than we are. The U.K. by far leads the way in terms of disability arts practices and inclusion.”
In addition to her involvement with the Temple Sholom community, Judaism and Jewish culture have influenced Cohen’s outlook on life and the work she pursues in other ways as well.
“My Jewish upbringing exposed me to critical thinking, to appreciation for the individual and for community, and provided me with exposure to the arts and theatre,” she said. “We have a rich storytelling tradition in Judaism, and a particular way of using humor to cope with life’s challenges. Exposure to that, combined with having a large, extended Jewish family when I was growing up in Montreal, definitely informed my worldview.
“The aching stories of the Holocaust, and the enormous victory of the establishment of Israel, also feel very personal to me. My parents (z”l) would tell you that, from the time I was little, I was a champion of the underdog, always ready to speak truth to power. I’m not so brave today, but I do feel very strong moral imperatives, whether about equality for PwD, or standing up to BDS [boycott, divestment and sanction] bullies, who are either misinformed about Israel or covertly antisemitic.
“My Jewish education also involved a lot of text analysis, including as a student at parochial school in Montreal. The shift to analyzing scripts was a natural segue for me.”
Cohen encourages people to join Realwheels “for an evening of savage wit and uncompromising truth-telling as we present Creeps, the award-winning dark comedy by David E. Freeman that changed Canadian theatre forever!”
And Bloom echoed her sentiments, “I feel very lucky to be part of this show,” he said. “Not only is it a seminal Canadian classic, but I’m working with a great company and an ensemble with real integrity.”
Tickets for Creeps, which previews Nov. 30 before its 10-day run, are $18-$40 from 604-251-1363 or thecultch.com/tickets. Tickets are only two for $20 on Dec. 3, which includes a post-show reception in recognition of International Day of People with Disabilities. There are also post-show discussions Dec. 4 and 6, and ASL and audio description on Dec. 4. Warning: mature content and offensive language.
The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth comes to York Theatre April 30 and May 1. (photo from Jason Neulander)
The story takes place in 1933. And, were it not the full-color cartoon panels being projected onto a large screen, you might feel as if you were also back in 1933 while watching the live performance of The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth at York Theatre April 30 and May 1.
Target Earth is the first instalment of a trilogy that follows “Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid research assistant Timmy Mendez,” as they “team up with a mysterious librarian … named Ben Wilcott. Together, they travel from Romania to Scotland to the Alps to Tunis to the Robot Planet and finally to Imperial Zygon to defeat a terrible threat to the very future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from the planet Zygon!”
The dozens of characters are voiced on stage by three actors. They are joined by a Foley artist, who creates all of the sound effects, and a pianist/organist who provides the music soundtrack. The full-color comic book is projected onto a movie screen. In Vancouver, the actors will be Rachel Landon, Brock England and Jeff Mills, with Kelly Matthews in charge of the sound effects and Harlan Hodges on piano and organ.
The series – comprised of Target Earth, Robot Planet and Twin Infinity – is produced and directed by Jason Neulander.
Neulander grew up in New Jersey and went to college at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he majored in theatre.
“Right out of school, I founded a company called Salvage Vanguard Theatre in Austin, Tex., where we developed and produced new plays. The Intergalactic Nemesis came out of that company, originally as a radio play,” he told the Independent.
“I ran Salvage from 1994 to 2008 and built the company up to a point where it’s now something of a local institution. They’re still going strong without me. In 2008, I decided to focus entirely on The Intergalactic Nemesis and got invited to bring the show to the Long Centre for the Performing Arts [in Austin]. The venue there was 2,400 seats and I felt like that was too big to house my little radio play. So, I came up with the idea of projecting comic book artwork to create a visual spectacle to fill the room. That version of the show premièred in 2010 and we’ve been on the road with it ever since.”
Based on an original idea by Ray Patrick Colgan, the touring show was adapted from the radio drama by Colgan, Neulander, Jessica Reisman, Julia Edwards and Lisa D’Amour. The comic-book artwork for Target Earth is by Tim Doyle with Paul Hanley and Lee Duhig; the sound effects were created by Buzz Moran; and Graham Reynolds was the composer. Others, of course, helped bring the whole production to fruition.
For his part, Neulander said his biggest inspiration for The Intergalactic Nemesis was his kids. “I wanted to make something that I could enjoy with them,” he said. “That’s actually worked out pretty well! Artistically, this show is all about pushing my own inner-kid buttons. I was 7 when Star Wars came out (the first one) and 12 when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and I love that kind of storytelling.
“One of my favorite memories as a kid was watching the old Flash Gordon serials and the old Ray Harryhausen movies on TV with my dad on Saturday mornings. When I was a little older, I got really into golden-age sci-fi short fiction, like Bradbury and Asimov and those guys. When I was a young adult, I discovered golden-age Hollywood movies for myself – His Girl Friday hugely influenced our script. I kind of backed into both radio drama and comic books, so maybe those are actually a little less influential on the show than those other things.”
While there is no overt Jewish aspect to the story, Neulander said his sense of Jewish heritage played a role in its creation.
“This show is all about the heroes defeating the bad guys more through smarts than through violence,” he explained. “The main male character is a librarian, so I feel like there’s got to be some Talmud in there somewhere. But, more than that, I think my upbringing taught me that if you work hard, you can succeed against all odds. I’m not sure if that’s solely a Jewish thing, but it’s definitely what the story of this show is all about.”
And Target Earth won’t just take you to another time, but place.
“It’s so much fun!” said Neulander. “It’s like getting to watch an animated movie and seeing how they do it all at the same time. The visual images are just beautiful to look at and then you have three voice actors playing so many characters, often in the same scene, you have one person using all these unusual objects to make sounds you never thought they could make (my favorite is a trail from a box of mac and cheese), and the music just soars. You really do get taken to another world.”
While Neulander is taking a creative break from the Intergalactic world – “I’m just wrapping up a script for a thriller, which will be my film directing debut” – the series’ shows keep touring. This summer, said Neulander, “we are taking Twin Infinity to the fringe festival in Edinburgh in what we think will be a very splashy U.K. première.”
But first, Target Earth and target Vancouver.
“We’ve been itching to get to Vancouver for a few years now,” said Neulander. “I think that your city really is one of the ideal places for this show. I just think audiences are going to eat it up! Can’t wait to get there!”
Shows are April 30, 4 and 7 p.m., and May 1, 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25 from tickets.thecultch.com or 604-251-1363.
A screenshot of Dr. Gabor Maté and Rita Bozi in The Damage is Done, from video by Patrick McLaughlin.
The Cultch often presents non-traditional shows that confront uncomfortable questions. This year, one such show, The Damage is Done by Rita Bozi, brings to the stage an examination of trauma and its psychological impact on individuals and families.
The Damage is Done combines theatre, dialogue, essay, video, music and dance. It features two performers: Bozi, and physician and author Dr. Gabor Maté, who has written on various psychological issues, including addiction. Bozi plays several characters in the show, while Maté plays himself.
“I comment on Rita’s actions on stage, like a Greek chorus,” Maté said in an interview with the Independent. “We are trying to find some meaning to the trauma endured in the past, the traumas our families went through, and to learn from it. If we don’t process trauma, it will control our lives. The after-effects of trauma influence how we see ourselves: either as victims, or it makes us overcompensate, try to appear more powerful than we are. Sometimes, people try to get away from the pain with drugs – that’s where addiction comes from.”
Maté explained that deep trauma is often transmitted through generations. It affects social units and families as well as individuals. “The children of Holocaust survivors often have elevated stress hormone levels. When a young mother is depressed, her baby suffers, even though everyone loves the baby and nobody wants it hurt…. The play is an exploration of how trauma works and how we can find liberation from it. Before we heal, we must find the problem, acknowledge it.”
He accepted this project despite a busy schedule and multiple speaking engagements because it touches on issues about which he has been advocating for years. “Medical schools don’t teach students about trauma and its psychological impact. When the young doctors start working, they feel the lack of that knowledge. They want a guidance of how to connect physical and emotional healing, and not many people talk about the subject.”
So, many professionals turn to Maté. His seminars are in such demand across North America that sometimes he spends days on the road. “In the last week, I had eight speaking engagements,” he said. In various American and Canadian cities, addiction workers, trauma specialists, therapists and educators, as well as family members and others, comprise Maté’s audience.
“I’m trying to answer the question, ‘Why?,’ the same question Rita asks in her play, so I provide the framework for her story. I think it’s very important. So many people suffer from trauma, physical and psychological. It’s impossible to separate the two. I’m not going to launch a second career as an actor, of course,” he added with a smile, “but it was an interesting challenge, something different. Besides, I like Rita.”
Bozi also spoke with the Independent. She explained that the show was years in development. Its most recent version premièred in Yukon last year. “This show is ultimately about compassions for ourselves and others,” she said.
Maté’s involvement in the project was paramount to her. “I attended several workshops with Gabor and I read his books. He once said, ‘We need to be asking not why the addiction but why the pain?’ As a therapist and a child of immigrant Hungarian parents who lived through the war, the Soviet occupation and the revolution, I have long been concerned with inherited historical trauma and its effect on families and offspring.”
She continued, “I wanted Gabor a part of it. Why mention him if I could have him? I had already been making a connection with Gabor through email over our shared Hungarian backgrounds…. He felt like kin. We were speaking the same language (apart from Hungarian) and we both felt the power of the mind-body connection affecting our lives.”
It took Bozi 12 years from the seed of the idea to the show itself. “I play out my family drama, and Gabor plays the poetic counterpoint. He helps my character come back to ‘self.’ He helps her understand her own experience of the family situation, her part in it and how to begin to transform the inherited pain. He brings his razor-sharp insights to the show and his ability to be concise about what is happening. He sees what is hidden, cuts to the chase and helps guide one to the pieces of self that were lost when trauma occurred.”
According to Bozi and Maté, healing comes from the ability to look at traumatic events from infancy and early childhood with humor and compassion – even though the damage is done, we can defuse its impact.
The Damage is Done will be performed at the Cultch from Oct. 20-24. Before that, Bozi and Maté are taking the show to Banff, where both their evening shows are already sold out. For more information about the local production, visit thecultch.com/events/the-damage-is-done-a-true-story.
Left to right: Playwright Vern Thiessen, composers Anton Lipovetsky and Ben Elliott and novelist Terry Fallis, whose The Best Laid Plans will see its musical première at York Theatre on Sept. 19. (photo from terryfallis.com)
It’s going to be a busy fall for author Terry Fallis. Already working on his sixth novel, his fifth is due in bookstores this October. And his first novel – which saw a CBC television adaptation in 2014 – will have its première as a musical at Vancouver’s York Theatre Sept. 19-Oct. 3.
For anyone who has dreams of being a successful author, Fallis is a beacon of hope. While the best laid plans of mice and men may often go awry, or “gang aft a-gley,” as wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns, Fallis’ rise in publishing is a tale about the good places to which awry can lead you. Many in the industry point to the internet as the main cause of publishing’s demise, yet that’s where Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans (McLelland and Stewart Ltd., 2007) – and his novelist career – got started.
A public relations professional, Fallis and a colleague created a podcast in 2006 called Inside PR. It occurred to him, he said in a phone interview from his office in Toronto, that, “in this emerging world of social media, where we are our own program managers … I would try that in the publishing world. When I couldn’t find anyone to take an interest in my first novel – I didn’t even get rejection letters, I was greeted with a deafening silence, perhaps because I’d written a satirical novel of Canadian politics – I decided to try and build an audience for it on my own. That’s when I decided to podcast the whole thing for free and give it away on iTunes and on my blog, just as a way to gather some kind of a following and to see whether or not I had written a novel because I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written a novel, so I was looking for objective feedback from anybody I could interest in listening to it.”
McLelland and Stewart Ltd. have since published every one of Fallis’ novels, all bestsellers, critically acclaimed and award nominees or winners. He remains loyal, he said, “to the podcast listeners and blog readers who were there right at the very beginning, who gave me that feedback and were encouraging. Without that support, it’s an open question of whether or not I would have self-published the novel. And, if I hadn’t self-published the novel, none of the rest of these wonderful things would have happened.”
In his continued appreciation, Fallis still shares content for free and listens to what people think of it. “Now, generally the book is finished by the time I podcast it,” he said, “so, to be clear, when I’m looking for feedback, it’s not so much that I want advice on how to change the novel, it’s more that I think it’s important for authors to be accessible to their readers. When the reader’s interested, you can actually have a contact, and I find that an important part of being a writer.”
Fallis said he loves both the “isolated solitude that comes when you’re in writing mode” and also gets “a charge out of traveling around and meeting readers and talking about the books, and talking to other writers. And I teach as well,” he added, “at the University of Toronto, in the writing program, and I like all of that stuff and I feel lucky that I happen to have both sides of that working for me.”
With more people reading these days than ever before, Fallis has hope in the publishing industry’s future. Acknowledging that people are “finding their content in many more places than were available 20 years ago,” he said, “I think this new world opens up a whole bunch of opportunities for writers and for publisher alike, and the ones who are surviving have embraced that which is new…. So, I think there are real opportunities, and writers can get their work in front of more eyes than ever before, even if they’re not published. There are websites and apps available, and communities online that will welcome new writers, and it’s sometimes a route to traditional publishing as, in a way, it was for me.”
When Touchstone Theatre’s Katrina Dunn contacted him and his agent about the possibility of adapting The Best Laid Plans into a musical, Fallis said, “We were really quite impressed with Katrina and Touchstone and Patrick Street Productions and what they had done in the past, and their vision for the musical, so it seemed like the right way to go – and we’ve been thrilled ever since.”
While he has yet to see the show, he has heard a few of the songs and read a portion of the script. Last fall, at the Vancouver Writers Festival, Fallis participated in a session with Dunn, playwright Vern Thiessen, composers Anton Lipovetksy (a member of the Jewish community) and Ben Elliott and director Peter Jorgensen of Patrick Street Productions. “They had a singer as well, and Anton and Ben both sing,” said Fallis. “And, for the first time ever, while I’m sitting on stage in front of this packed hall, I was hearing the songs for the first time, at least a few of them, and that was strange. I was very conscious of – people are watching you now as you’re reacting to the song, make sure that you’re polite, and I loved the songs, there was no need to be concerned, they were terrific. It was a great experience, and quite surreal to hear someone singing about characters I had created and carted around in my brainpan for so many years.”
While many of Fallis’ characters do indeed face challenges that arise from plans gone wrong, his novels are humor-filled and uplifting. He said that he is, by nature, an optimistic person.
“I think I see the world through relatively clear eyes,” he said, “but, I figure, if we have some choice in the matter, of crying or trying to find the thin, little sliver of goodwill somewhere in the story, I will go there. I don’t usually have much trouble finding humor in it. I grew up in a family where humor was just a daily staple.
“I think there’s a certain engineer’s logic in how I think about things, as well,” added Fallis, who got a degree in engineering before being lured into politics, where he worked in various capacities before entering the PR world, eventually co-founding Thornley Fallis. “If something happens and it can’t be changed, and we have no control over it, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering why it happened. You just move on, and I try not to dwell on it.”
Fallis credits growing up with an identical twin for helping form this positive attitude. He also has a younger sister – “We all get along wonderfully,” he said, “It’s rather an idyllic little family” – but “having someone you’re exactly the same age as and [who is] exactly like you, there is always someone to goof around with … having a twin brother to trigger that at every moment of every day was part of that, for sure.”
As is his innate curiosity. “I’m fascinated by so many things,” he said. When he was interested in something as a boy, he “would read every book around” on it and his mother would say, “’Terry’s on one of his kicks’ … you can’t imagine how many things I was interested in for short bursts of time, and I’ve maintained an interest in most of them, but not with the same intensity. The library became my friend and I find it stimulating and fulfilling.”
Curiosity is something, he said, that he and his wife have encouraged in their sons, now 23 and 20, who will be joining them on the trip to Vancouver for the première. “Curiosity is a wonderful gift,” said Fallis, “and I feel sorry for those who don’t have it in the same amount that I do.”
Now in the midst of plotting out his next book, which is going to be about twins – though the protagonist “doesn’t know he’s an identical twin until some ways into the book” – Fallis explained his creative process. Describing himself as “a heavy outliner,” he said, “The last thing I ever do is write the manuscript, and that’s right at the tail end of the process. The last four months I spend writing the manuscript, the previous year I spend thinking about it, mapping out the story, plotting it, developing the characters, and then doing a chapter by chapter outline. That’s the engineer in me – I need a blueprint for my novel before I can build it.”
For tickets and more information about The Best Laid Plans: A Musical, visit tickets.thecultch.com or call 604-251-1363.
Leanna Brodie plays spinster Ms. Fitt (and the boy Jerry) in Blackbird Theatre’s Canadian première of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, at the Cultch until Jan. 24. (photo from Leanna Brodie)
She is an actor, playwright, librettist, feminist, social activist – bilingual on top of all that – and just landed a coveted role in Blackbird Theatre’s Canadian première of Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, running at the Cultch until Jan. 24. Leanna Brodie is one talented person.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, she sat down with the JI to talk shop during a rehearsal break.
Born and raised in rural Ontario, Brodie said, “I am a bit of an odd duck as far as Judaism goes, my father was Jewish but my mother was not. She came from rural Ontario. My upbringing was secular but I have a Jewish soul. My family always communicated through jokes, something that I see as being steeped in Jewish culture. I also see curiosity as part of my Jewish heritage, which is a good thing because you understand thought processes better, which I think I bring to my work.”
She went to drama school at the University of Guelph and was able to support herself as an actor in her first years at the job. As she got older, however, there were fewer roles available and she reconsidered her future. She had never before pictured herself as a playwright. “I was chatting with a bunch of girlfriends one day and we were complaining that there were no acting parts for women in their 30s and 40s. So, I thought, I am not going to sit around, wait by the phone until I get called for a part, I am going to write something for women. I finished my first play in five weeks. Since that time, I have written over 50 roles for women.”
Brodie now has three successful plays and one opera to her credit. Her topics are often motivated by contemporary social issues – homophobia, fundamentalism, the environment, to name a few. In The Book of Esther, she explores some of these issues through the eyes of a young country girl coming to the big city. “I think that play was the most autobiographical for me even though there is a little bit of you in everything you write. Here I was coming from rural Ontario to Toronto and I had a phobia of subways.”
She actually took on one of the roles in The Book of Esther. “That was like an out-of-body experience for me. Once you are in a scene, then it is like any other gig and you do your bit and walk on and off, but, when not in a scene, I could not resist the temptation to be in the wings and listen to the audience reaction to my play.”
As an actor, she has appeared across Canada and, in one of her first jobs in Vancouver – a role in Pi Theatre’s Terminus – she was nominated for a Jessie award.
Her writing is done in her down time from being on stage. “Acting is all-consuming, all your antennae are out for anything that will help your performance, any creative juice. During rehearsal, you are entirely focused. You can act in more than one show at a time but you cannot write at the same time.”
Brodie is on a temporary hiatus from writing as she hones her thespian skills with All That Fall, a bucolic play – a perverse combination of comedy and tragedy – that Beckett wrote for radio audiences. He wanted the words to come “out of the dark,” to be an auditory experience, not a visual one. He resisted attempts to have the play transformed into a stage production (even Sir Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman could not get his permission to produce the play on stage). It was only recently that his estate, at the urging of British director Trevor Nunn, allowed a London production, which played to critical acclaim and ultimately crossed the pond to Broadway. Now, Canadian audiences are in for a treat from this Irish wordsmith.
The story is as follows. A 70ish, garrulous, overweight Mrs. Rooney trudges the Irish country roads to meet her blind husband’s train at the station. On the way, she encounters an assortment of quirky characters who are using various modes of transportation – a cart, a bicycle, an automobile – to go about their daily business. Against this backdrop, they pass the time exchanging droll comments that border on the absurd, reflective of Beckett’s existential angst. The train is late. On the walk back home, as the old couple verbally spar, the audience begins to sense that there is a mystery lurking behind the dialogue.
This is the first Beckett work that has a woman as the main character. That, along with the radio format, drew Brodie to the play. “Beckett is on every actor’s bucket list,” she said. “There are so very few opportunities in his repertoire to land a female role.”
Brodie actually plays two characters: a religious spinster, Miss Fitt, and a young boy, Jerry. “This play is fresh and interesting and full of Irish humor. Usually with Beckett you have those unforgettable stark images, like two trashcans or a dead tree. Here, the dynamics are different. There is more lushness than in any [other] Beckett play because of the demands of radio, and there is more of a sense of a real place. You get the impression that Beckett sees the traditional Irish life dying around him and he uses very black humor to protect himself from this perceived dark abyss.”
She added, “Unlike Beckett’s iconic Waiting for Godot, where they say nothing happens twice, in All That Fall, something is always happening and what the person, the protagonist, is waiting for actually appears.”
“Part of the allure of the format is the fact that the audience becomes the collaborator with you and creates the world, it becomes a cooperative venture between the actors and the audience.”
Brodie has the radio bug in her blood. Her father had a morning show called Breakfast with Brodie and was a voice artist. She has worked in radio drama for the CBC. “I was wistful about losing the radio show format in Canada and was atoning for the fact that I feel like I killed radio drama in this country, as one show I worked on, The Seeds of Our Destruction, was the last stand-alone radio show CBC aired. So, I really wanted to do this show to sort of redeem myself. Part of the allure of the format is the fact that the audience becomes the collaborator with you and creates the world, it becomes a cooperative venture between the actors and the audience.”
About why Vancouver audiences should see this play, Brodie said, “Beckett is arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century and this play is done from an aspect never seen or heard before and who knows if we will ever have this chance again. Also, you get to see an extremely talented professional cast [William Samples, Lee Van Paassen, Adam Henderson and Gerard Plunkett], who get it right.”
This writer had the good fortune to sit in on the first read-through of the play. Director Duncan Fraser put the five actors through their paces, scripts in hand at separate microphones on the stage. The actors also are responsible for all of the sound effects, the rattling wind, a bothersome wasp, the opening and closing of doors, the crunching of feet on gravelly roads, the whistle of the train. Just watching the props used to create the noises was an experience. However, the real experience is being immersed in this lost world of radio drama where for 75 uninterrupted minutes you can let your imagination soar.
In Late Company, Kerry Sandomirsky and Michael Kopsa are a couple who has lost a son to bullying. (photo by David Cooper)
“One year after a tragedy, two couples sit down to dinner. Far from finding the closure they seek, the dinner strips bare their good intentions to reveal layers of parental, sexual and political hypocrisy.”
So begins the promotional material for the award-winning play Late Company, being presented by Touchstone Theatre later this month. It continues, “Loosely based on the true story of the son of a Tory politician who killed himself after being extensively bullied, Late Company imagines what a restorative justice dinner held a year later might have looked like between the parents of a dead gay son, his chief tormentor and that boy’s parents.”
Kerry Sandomirsky takes on the role of the grieving mother. She spoke with the Jewish Independent about the part – and other topics – via email.
JI: The subject matter – and small cast – of Late Company combine to make what seems like a very heavy, intense role. How do you prepare for such roles in general and this one in particular, especially as a mother yourself?
KS: I put my attention on the things that are important to the character, and the world starts to inform you via synchronicity. I was riding on a bus to Kerrisdale and I saw an ad above me for the Josh Platzer Society. It’s for teen suicide prevention and awareness. I contacted them and I’m now communicating with a mother who lost her son. I am also using their recommended reading list for research.
At the same time, my character is a sculptor so I’m reading a biography of Barbara Hepworth.
Earlier this year, I did a similar maternal role in Clybourne Park for the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. When it comes to intense parts, your nervous system doesn’t know that the grief on stage isn’t real, so there’s a cost. Your adrenal system gets depleted. Being a mom, you have to guard against the play contaminating your life.
I got through Clybourne Park by exercising every day and not drinking any wine. Maybe for this one I’ll have to do the opposite.
JI: The last time the JI spoke with you was in 2011, before The Philanderer. At that time, you were returning to the stage after a two-plus-year hiatus to recover from a head injury. In what ways did that period of being away from theatre change your work/life?
KS: I became a teacher at Studio 58, I accepted an offer to direct, and I decided to take more holidays! I also gave myself permission to be a writer. I turned down playing Cleopatra for Bard on the Beach and instead attended SFU Writers Studio to work with Ivan E. Coyote. After that, I was chosen to go to the Banff Playwrights Colony to work on my one-woman play called Wobble.
JI: Your directorial debut (… didn’t see that coming) was a Pick of the Fringe this year. What were some of the highlights and challenges of directing? Can you see yourself doing more directing?
KS: It was a delight to direct one of my favorite people on the planet, Beverley Elliott, and we had Bill Costin doing our music. So, it was a privilege being in the same room with that much talent for almost a month. I’d definitely do it again. I loved not having to learn all those lines.
JI: When I met you at a recent Museum of Vancouver event, you mentioned having just filmed with Denys Arcand. Is there anything about that you can share?
KS: When you work with someone that gifted, there’s no fear on the set. There’s no ego. There’s just creative collaboration. Denys Arcand and the director Adad Hannah both welcomed input from their actors. Denys is quick to laugh. He was a joy to be around.
JI: What are some of the projects on which you’re currently working?
KS: I want to finish writing Wobble. And, of course, doing another new Canadian play is always fulfilling. I dream of collaborating with Crystal Pite. I’m not a dancer, but I did a workshop with her anyway. I was a troll among the whippets. And I’m hoping to work with Jovanni Sy, the new artistic director of Gateway Theatre. I met him at the Playwrights Colony. He’s a great addition to our Vancouver theatre community.
JI: In what part of the process from idea to stage is Wobble?
KS: Katrina Dunn, the director of Late Company, came to Banff and helped me workshop it. We’ve got a solid first draft. I value her intelligence, her feminism and her compassion. As the artistic director of Touchstone Theatre, she champions new Canadian work. The playwright for Late Company, Jordan Tannahill, just got nominated for a Governor General’s Award, but Katrina chose do a play by him long before that. Her instincts are superb. This will be our fifth production together. It’s a treat to be directed by her.
Late Company is at the Cultch, Vancity Culture Lab, 1895 Venables St., from Nov. 21-30, 8 p.m. (Tuesdays to Sundays), plus Nov. 22, 29 and 30, 2 p.m. There is a two-for-one preview Nov. 20, 8 p.m. Tickets ($27/$22) are available from the Cultch, 604-251-1363 or tickets.thecultch.com.
Co-creator Andy Thompson directs the sci-fi musical that is being remounted at the Cultch’s York Theatre Nov. 12-22. (photo from the Virutal Stage)
Broken Sex Doll is back. A hit at the Cultch in 2013, it ventured out to Halifax for the 2014 Magnetic North Festival, and returns to Vancouver Nov. 12-22, where it will play at the Cultch’s York Theatre as part of a national tour. The production will then head to the Yukon for four shows, returning to the Lower Mainland for a run at Coquitlam’s Evergreen Cultural Centre (Dec. 16-20).
Produced by the Virtual Stage, the sci-fi musical is the creation of Jewish community members Andy Thompson (director, book, lyrics) and Anton Lipovetsky (composer). The new production is being billed as “bigger and better.”
“We have a new set. A new lighting design. New costumes. Re-tooled songs. Some new performers. And the script has been tinkered with a little bit,” the award-winning director and writer Thompson told the Independent. “Refining a show is not something you always get to do, so the process feels somewhat luxurious. Rolling up our sleeves together and chiseling out details on a show like this is a lot of fun. Just today we were refining choreography and songs to a level of detail rarely explored in the rehearsal process. Often in the past I have found myself relieved just to get a show on its feet, but where we are currently at with Broken Sex Doll is altogether different. And installing it at the gorgeous York Theatre has been such an honor and delight.”
About the challenges and benefits of remounting a production, Thompson said, “This has been a wonderful opportunity to take another look at the show and make refinements, with the experience and knowledge gleaned from previous incarnations of what worked and what could be improved upon. The challenges vary from the artistic to the technical. My aim with this production is to raise the bar as high as I possibly can and produce as close to a Broadway-calibre musical as possible. Making the show tourable has also been a significant challenge.”
Broken Sex Doll comes with a content warning, and the evening performances are for audiences 19 and older. But is it as risqué as the title makes it sound?
“I think that depends on your perspective,” said Thompson. “It could be ‘too much’ for some and ‘not enough’ for others. For example, I chose not to include any nudity in excess of a male bum or two. Female nudity was off the table. I knew anything more than what we’re doing could cause discomfort within some audience members, ‘taking them out’ of the experience of the story. It’s a fine line that I’m walking. In the world of the show, social morality as we know it has more or less collapsed. And, while that’s been freeing to me a playwright to explore, I know that there are certain lines that, when crossed, are counterproductive. Pushing the boundaries in the rehearsal process was a hoot, to say the least. There’s a lot of simulated sex in the show. And, if done ‘tastefully’ on stage, sex can be entertaining. And even hilarious.”
The 2013 incarnation of Broken Sex Doll garnered seven Jessie Richardson Theatre Award nominations, including outstanding production and outstanding direction for Thompson, who is also an award-winning actor, filmmaker and teacher.
Born and raised in Chillwack, the Studio 58 graduate is founder of the Virtual Stage. Another of his sci-fi (and Jessie-nominated) creations is The Zombie Syndrome, “in which audience members with smartphones are endowed as elite agents on a mission to save the world from a deadly zombie plague.” The Virtual Stage-produced annual event, which began in 2012, generated a 2013 sequel called The Zombie Syndrome: On Death Island.
Broken Sex Doll opens at York Theatre, 639 Commercial Dr., on Nov. 12, 8 p.m. It runs Nov. 13-16, 18-22, 8 p.m.; and Nov. 15, 16, 22, 2 p.m. All 8 p.m. performances are 19+ only. There are Q&A sessions after the Nov. 13, 16 (2 p.m.) and 18 shows. Tickets (starting at $19) are available from 604-251-1363 or tickets.thecultch.com.
Deanna Fleysher as private eye Butt Kapinski. (photo from Deanna Fleysher)
Think you’re going to go sit and watch Butt Kapinski at the Cultch next month? Think again. You’re going to be an integral part of the show.
An award-winning hit at last year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival, Deanna Fleysher is returning to Vancouver with her alter ego, Elmer Fudd-meets-Philip Marlowe private eye Butt Kapinski. It is funny, raunchy, unpredictable humor that involves the audience. In her expert hands, they become a crime boss, a femme fatale, a prostitute, all participating in the telling of a unique-every-time murder mystery.
“We humans crave that feeling of spontaneity, of witnessing and being part of something that has never happened quite this way before and will never happen quite this way again,” Fleysher told the Independent about her preferred type of performance.
“I am convinced that theatre will become increasingly interactive, as theatre practitioners realize that the best way to entice people to put on pants and leave their homes is to include them in the experience somehow. We can’t let flat screens and underwear win the war!”
Fleysher is on the front lines, so to speak, having made interactive theatre a focus of her career. In addition to performing as a clown, in improv and in other capacities, Fleysher is a teacher, writer and director. Among the interactive and clown/bouffon shows she has created or co-created is the erotic production Foreplay, which ran for a year at the People’s Improv Theatre in New York City, as well as at the Chicago Improv Festival, and she created, produced and performed in Kill Me Loudly: A Clown Noir, and directed and co-wrote Red Bastard. She started the Naked Comedy Lab, in which participants learn how to perform interactive comedy and clown/bouffon, and she teaches labs in Los Angeles and around North America.
“My parents are both creative people, although they did not pursue the arts specifically,” shared Fleysher about her background. “Nonetheless, I was in theatre classes from probably 6 years old onwards. My sister is also a performing artist and teacher, specializing in Middle Eastern dance. So, two nice Jewish people ended up with a belly dancer and a clown for children. So it goes.”
Butt Kapinski, however, is not for children. The character is described as a “noir-loving, gender-troubled little fellow-gal who wears a trench coat and a streetlight strapped to his/her back and goes into crowds and solves mysteries.” He/she has appeared in previous Fleysher creations.
“I found Butt Kapinski on a street corner in the East Village, but also, Butt has been with me my whole life,” explained Fleysher about his/her origins. “I used to have many speech impediments as a child, so speaking that way is very natural for me. Also, I am a huge film noir buff, a lover of Raymond Chandler novels and spontaneous poetry and trench coats. Butt is just me without my ‘Normal Disguise.’
“I used to wear a nose, partly because I was worried about being too ‘pretty’ or ‘normal’ (or, hell, ‘feminine’) without it. But Butt is quite different than the me everyone sees, and losing the nose [that Butt used to sport] was the best choice I could have made.
“The streetlight that I wear came into the act once I decided to go solo. What I wanted was a true interactive experience with the audience, but I do not like when performers bring people up on stage. My light lets me take the show right into the audience, where everyone can stay comfortable, and still be a part of things.”
Asked about what attracts her to Kapinski, to the private-eye genre in general, Fleysher responded, “I have always delighted in the dark side. Butt allows me to share that delight with others, to make a community ritual out of a usually private kind of fetish for the sicker shit in life.”
In a 2012 interview with LAFF! (Ladies Are Funny Festival), Fleysher is quoted as saying she once heard Fran Lebowitz say, “Every Jewish woman wants to be a private eye.” About that comment, Fleysher explained to the Independent, “My mother found the first guy I ever slow danced with on JDate. How did she even remember his name? I went steady with him at sleep-away camp for about a week, and she found out all about who he is now … you know … just in case. That is a kind of sleuthing I tip my hat to.
“Fran Lebowitz was introducing some mystery/crime fiction writers at a reading in N.Y. many years ago, when she said, ‘Every Jewish woman wants to be a private eye.’ In that moment, my mother’s passionate curiosity was united with my noir world.”
Fleysher has always been a writer/actor at heart. “I was always more interested in creating my own theatre rather than reading/interpreting someone else’s words,” she said. “It’s not my thing to sell hand soap or be Battered Wife #3 in a cop drama. All of this means that I’d much rather be poor and creatively empowered than poor and at the mercy of casting agents.”
As for her interest in physical comedy/theatre versus more “serious” fare, Fleysher said, “My first theatre teacher was a clown, and I think I always had a strong bent toward comedy. Of course, the root of comedy is despair – so you get two for the price of one!”