David Bloom (photo from Theatre Plexus)
There are a few remarkable things that one notices when looking at the press material for Scratch, which is being presented by Theatre Plexus at Havana Theatre until June 13.
First, the play itself. Part of the story is in its title, which refers to the protagonist, a teenage girl who loses her mother at the same time as she is dealing with an egregious case of head lice. The other part is in the script by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman: the original mounting of the production by Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2008 was nominated for the Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding new play.
Second, Theatre Plexus. A relatively new company, it has gathered a small but experienced cast and production team for this show, its third.
“Theatre Plexus started somewhat organically, born out of the necessity of having an umbrella under which to put my personal projects,” explained actor and producer Caitlin McCarthy. “The first show I produced in Vancouver was 8 Girls Without Boyfriends in 2013, but it wasn’t until the following year when I applied for the Vancouver Fringe that I came up with the name. I was performing a show I had written, called Saudade. It occurred to me that I had a mandate (personal and professional): it was important to me to produce work with a strong female voice, and I preferred intimate theatre spaces. I know a staggering number of talented female actors who just don’t get stage time in Vancouver as often as they should, and I want to help remedy that. Scratch has four women in it out of a cast of six, and these women have scenes together that aren’t just related to a male protagonist. In fact, it’s a young, female protagonist.”
McCarthy plays that young protagonist, Anna, and it was one of the aspects that drew her to the play.
“I picked up a copy of Scratch because I liked some of the monologues – as an actor, I am always looking for good Canadian monologues, and Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman is based in Toronto. I was struck by how tender the play is – and how it presents grief from multiple angles. I also like that the play has a sense of humor and, though it is a play about loss, it is ultimately uplifting. Also, as I mentioned, there are four women in it (and, of course, two wonderful men) and I am an unapologetic feminist when it comes to choosing and casting plays.”
The co-producer of Scratch is Stephanie Izsak, who is also playing the character of Madelyn. Izsak is one of the many members of the production team affiliated with Langara College’s professional theatre training program, Studio 58. This is another remarkable aspect of the local production.
“Steph and I knew each other from Studio,” explained McCarthy of the connections, “and we approached the incredible Genevieve Fleming to be our director – I had gone to school with her…. Eileen Barrett did go to Studio, but I knew her from a playwriting group, Genevieve had seen a lot of Markian’s [Markian Tarasiuk] work while he was a student, we all knew David Bloom as the solo show teacher, and Jeff [Elrick] was recommended by the faculty as he’s still a student. So yes, there is a Studio 58 community to easily draw from, but we didn’t exclusively cast from a Studio pool. I feel so lucky to have Tamara McCarthy and Flo Barrett on board – now that I know them, they will definitely be part of the community I try to work with!”
The process from idea through casting to opening night on June 4 has taken some time, said McCarthy. “Steph approached me two years ago to work together, and I thought of Scratch as a project we could do. It took us a long time to find a venue we liked before we decided on the Havana. I wish there were more independent venues in Vancouver! The lack of space in this city has certainly given rise to some very creative site-specific theatre, but I wish there were more small, traditional theatre spaces to do plays.
“Once we booked the Havana (back in November), it all started to fall into place. We assembled this wonderful group of like-minded artists who felt like the play resonated with them, and we got everything in order for rehearsals to start.”
One of those artists is the aforementioned Bloom, who is a playwright, director, actor, producer and teacher, with a wide range of theatre and television credits, and a Jessie award for Palace of the End with co-directors Katrina Dunn and Mindy Parfitt.
“When Genevieve Fleming asked me to be in Scratch, I said yes very quickly because I liked the writing, and I knew that several scenes would be challenging to play,” Bloom told the Independent. “The other reason I said yes, though, was that I like and admire all the people involved in the project. Four of them are former students and our stage-manager/lighting designer is still one of my students. Theatre Plexus is a fledgling theatre company whose mandate is to do intimate plays with a strong female voice, in small spaces. I’m working with a great group of smart, talented people. How could I possibly say no?”
Bloom said he got into acting “by accident” in Grade 10, as a favor to a teacher.
“In elementary school, I had written and performed sketches with friends,” he explained, “but by high school, I had decided to be a writer; acting was not on my radar. Our drama teacher was short on men for a production of Twelfth Night and he asked me to take on the small role of Sebastian. I was not a popular kid, and I got laughs and applause. It was like catnip to me. I felt a rush during those two performances stronger than any drug. The truth is, I got into acting for exactly the wrong reason: ego gratification. I’ve never had that feeling quite like that again, and it’s no longer what I look for from theatre.
“At a certain point in my 20s, I came to believe in theatre as a spiritual/humanist practice. (The history of the art form has often been deeply entwined with various societies’ religious practices, as well as a way of channeling difficult, dangerous and thrilling ideas.) One of my more embarrassingly naive statements in my early 20s was, ‘Acting is like a priesthood. It’s like practise for being human!’ I understand how ridiculous and self-important that sounds. Luckily for my mental health, I’m also drawn to theatre’s ability to skewer pomposity, especially in myself. There’s something very freeing about being willing to look like an idiot in front of thousands of people.”
“There’s a sense of community that happens when a group of people with limited resources decide to work together to make a performance. It’s intimate and intoxicating.”
Bloom produced his first production at 17. “Nobody had told me that I couldn’t do it, so I did. I’ve continued in that vein ever since. I’d fall in love with the idea of a show, invite friends to my house to talk about it, and the group would create its own momentum that drove us to produce shows in crappy little spaces (the Firehall before it was a theatre, on the set of other people’s shows at midnight, whatever was available). There’s a sense of community that happens when a group of people with limited resources decide to work together to make a performance. It’s intimate and intoxicating. The people involved develop a sense that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Like most human endeavors, it’s an illusion,” he said, referring to Waiting for Godot, which examines human beings’ need to try to “create meaning for themselves in a meaningless universe.”
This need led Bloom, among other things, to start his own company. “Humans are social animals and we crave a sense of belonging; we need to believe our lives are meaningful. As a result, we’re easily manipulated (street gangs, political parties and xenophobic movements all manipulate that need). It’s also a source of community, sacrifice and some of the best qualities of humanity. I bonded with a group of people who shared my obsession and formed the Grinning Dragon Theatre Company in 1991. We changed our name to Felix Culpa about 15 years ago. Latin for “happy fault,” it is a reference to eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge (my co-director Linda Quibell is a very lapsed Catholic). The focus of the company’s work is the power of language and its unique ability to explore complex subjects such as morality, beauty and the subjective nature of truth.”
Bloom said he has been teaching since 2000, and it suits him “to a T.” The students have to create a one-person show and perform it before they graduate from Studio 58. “I feel blessed to have this job,” said Bloom. “It means that once a week, eight months a year, I have to think about what theatre is, how many different forms it can take and also how to solve specific challenges brought up by the imagination of wonderfully talented young minds. They regularly do work that astounds me. Then they go out into the world and, within a few years, many of them are far more successful than I am. I guess there’s a kind of legacy in that. Also, for awhile, they think I’m really smart, and that brings me right back to the egocentric pleasures that got me into the profession in the first place.”
A member of the Jewish community, Bloom described his family as “secular, intellectual, socially conscious.” He said, “My father is one of Canada’s great physicists. His sisters are, respectively, a mathematician who devoted most of her career to studying how math is taught (not well, in her opinion) and a school principal who pioneered methods of working with disabled children. They grew up on St. Urbain Street and other streets in that Montreal neighborhood, and they all went to Baron Byng High School.
“My father doesn’t remember Mordecai Richler from the school, but when my aunt met him, Richler remembered my father, something I get a kick out of. Long before I read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, my father had told me all the stories in the first chapter about ‘Flanders Field’ high school (for example, the teacher who would start each year asking the students, ‘How does a Jew write the letter S?’ and then draw a $ on the blackboard).
“Much of my work is an attempt to understand how human beings can treat each other so vilely. I am often attracted to artistic work that goes to very dark places. I’m also drawn to stories about people who are not accepted by mainstream society, whether they be Jews, queers, radical thinkers, dissidents, melancholics, eccentrics, Muslims, the list goes on.”
“It’s a little morbid,” continued Bloom, “but I first felt deeply Jewish watching an episode about the Holocaust on the amazing BBC documentary series World at War. I realized that Hitler wouldn’t care that we weren’t religious, didn’t follow the dietary laws, that my mother had converted when she married my father. Something about being the ‘other’ landed for me that afternoon and I was stricken. On many levels, the rest of my life has been colored by that. Much of my work is an attempt to understand how human beings can treat each other so vilely. I am often attracted to artistic work that goes to very dark places. I’m also drawn to stories about people who are not accepted by mainstream society, whether they be Jews, queers, radical thinkers, dissidents, melancholics, eccentrics, Muslims, the list goes on.
“My father told me that his mother sent him off to school every day with the admonition, ‘Ask some good questions!’ He explained to me that you would get the best out of your teachers if you challenged them and their ideas. It was acceptable, even essential, to challenge intellectual (and other) authorities because it would make them work harder. I was often a trial to my teachers, as you might imagine, but the best of them had a deep impact on me.
“There is a long history (one might say a talmudic history) of Jews being argumentative, especially with people we love. I consider myself part of that tradition. I love that about us as a people, and I love our love of literacy and our tendency to be stubborn and tenacious. But my instinct to challenge extends to challenging actions of myself, my fellow Jews, the state of Israel and the whole patriarchal, monotheistic basis of the religion…. There are probably many Jews who would not consider me a ‘real’ Jew,” he concluded, “but I believe myself to be true to our culture and the values of intellectual and spiritual inquisitiveness that have made us simultaneously unpopular and essential around the world for thousands of years.”
Tickets for Scratch are $18, with Saturday matinées $10, and are available at brownpapertickets.com. Partnering with Theatre Plexus on the production is the Living Through Loss Counseling Society of British Columbia. “All of the proceeds collected will go to counseling and group therapy for women at risk,” said McCarthy. “It’s very important for me as a producer to question what my contribution is to society – larger than just the theatre community. Grief is such a central part of this story and an inevitable part of human life and I believe this play has the potential to unite people in processing a very universal experience. Because what else is theatre for than to witness our own humanity and bring us closer together?” LTLCS will be holding a talk-back on Tuesday, June 9.