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.
Naomi Vogt performs in Big Sister, written by her real-life sister, Deborah Vogt. (photo from Fringe)
The Vancouver Fringe Festival has started and there are (at least) a few shows that readers should try to fit in around the High Holidays. Jewish community members Deborah and Naomi Vogt, David Rodwin and Gemma Wilcox are presenting very personal works that examine issues with which we all deal, such as self-esteem, family relationships, finding and losing love, and the search for meaning. And they do it with humour and energy.
Local playwright Deborah Vogt and her sister, actor Naomi Vogt, “are still making tweaks” to Big Sister (Revue Stage), Deborah Vogt told the Independent. “However, I’m not sure if there will ever be a ‘final version,’ given that the script is a reflection of our ongoing conversation as sisters attempting to learn more about each other. Additionally, Naomi loves to ad lib and so the play will be slightly different every evening depending on who is in the audience. However, the dream would be to take it to other Fringe festivals, especially Edinburgh (the world’s largest Fringe Festival – and my personal dream). There is something very special, however, about premièring this show in the city that we grew up in and the community that we know and love.”
The idea for the show came up last summer at the Edinburgh Fringe. “Over there, I saw so many beautiful, personal solo shows that tread the line between monologue and standup. I thought, ‘I would love to do this, but I can’t act. Who do I know that could perform a solo show that I could write?’ The answer was obvious: my sister. We spent two weeks traveling together shortly after the Fringe, where we brainstormed ideas for shows in between hikes and wine bars. We abandoned most of those ideas when we realized the only story we could honestly tell was that of our relationship as sisters, and specifically how our relationship has changed over the last few years in the wake of Naomi’s 75-pound weight loss.”
Camp Miriam makes an appearance in Big Sister, said Vogt, “because my sister Naomi went there for a few summers as a preteen and our mother went there for many, many years when she was younger…. The show focuses on Naomi’s weight loss, and talks about what being a fat kid at camp was like. Naomi loved Camp Miriam, but we also acknowledge that no camp experience is easy if you don’t look like the other children.”
Naomi Vogt performs the whole play. “For the most part,” said her sister, “she is playing herself, but the version of herself that I have written through my perspective. And, on occasion, she plays me as well. I just have to sit in the audience every night and hear the ways she’s manipulating my words. Part of the joy of the show is the various power dynamics at play – as a playwright, I have shaped Naomi’s personal story but, as an actor, she is able to change my words at any moment.”
There were many challenges to writing Big Sister, said Vogt. “First of all, 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.”
In a nutshell, the show is about weight loss. “It touches on how being heavy can affect all aspects of life, and particularly sibling dynamics,” said Vogt. “Both of us have lost weight … but Naomi’s journey was far more significant than mine. Through telling her story of weight loss, we’ve learned a lot about each other, our childhoods and the community we live in.”
* * *
“F* Tinder is 100% autobiographical,” said David Rodwin. “Only the names have been changed. But I only have 75 minutes to talk about dating 120 different women over two years, so there’s a lot I have to leave out. But every story I tell, I do so as accurately as I can recall – with a theatrical flourish.”
F* Tinder: a love story (Performance Works) began as a book, when a friend who was writing his first book challenged Rodwin to do the same.
“I’d moved to San Francisco after my last serious relationship ended in L.A. and, over a year and a half on Tinder and other apps, I’d experienced some bizarre and noteworthy experiences in the lawless dating wilds of the Bay Area,” he said. “So, I had an unorganized collection of short stories I’d been developing…. Around that time, I met the one woman I truly fell in love with. That inspired me to write like crazy. But (spoiler alert), when she dumped me, I got writer’s block for the first time in my life.
“Though I wasn’t able to continue sitting alone at my desk typing out these tales, I couldn’t stop telling them to friends and in storytelling shows like The Moth, which I’ve done for years. Finally, it became clear that, rather than just a bunch of short anecdotes, this was a full evening of stories with its own narrative integrity…. And though I’d written half the book, I threw out everything and started over because I find that writing with my mouth creates a more natural, humorous and vibrant live performance than when I type something, memorize it and recite it.
“It’s a thrilling and terrifying process for me each night, not knowing quite how it’s going to go and I hope it creates a more visceral, authentic and deeply intimate experience. And it’s a technique I inherited from my mentor Spalding Gray. But it’s meant that the show has changed a lot over time. The first version was 60 minutes long, then it grew to 90 minutes. Now, it’s 75 minutes. But there have been multiple versions of each one…. I’m also able to adjust certain sections to fit specific audiences. I’ve even added a curling joke for my Canadian audiences, making fun of Americans’ inability to understand the sport.”
Rodwin continues to work on the book F* Tinder and, later this year, he said, “I’ll begin directing a web series of F* Tinder set in San Francisco, and also a feature film of my previous show set in Los Angeles, called Total Novice. That one has an even edgier narrative than F* Tinder, if you can believe. Let’s just say I was a ‘nice Jewish boy’ who went to Princeton and I was a very late bloomer who became fearless (and occasionally stupid) in my pursuit of things that I considered off limits when I was younger.”
F* Tinder includes Jewish elements, said Rodwin, “because they directly affected how I look at relationships.”
In the show, he shares how, on one Shabbat, while chanting prayers he’d said for 30 years, he stopped midway through the V’ahavta, “when I said, ‘And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’ It suddenly hit me that I didn’t have children, and I couldn’t fulfil this prayer in a literal way. I always thought eventually I would. But, at 45, when I read that, I fell silent, contemplating how I’d lived my romantic life in such a way that I was childless. And what it meant for me. And what I should be doing with the woman I was in love with. And it directed my next choice in how that relationship went.”
Rodwin shared another touching, and Jewish, element of his show.
“The woman I fell in love with told me she could tell I was falling for her and I shouldn’t do that because she’d already decided we weren’t going to work out in the long term, and she didn’t want to hurt me. So, she told me to build a wall around my heart, or she wouldn’t see me again…. I agreed to do so because I was afraid if I told her the truth, that I was already hopelessly in love, I’d never see her again. Now, I’m not a biblical scholar, but the next morning a piece of Torah came to my mind, out of the blue, while she lay sleeping next to me. Deuteronomy 30:6 – I’d studied it eight years earlier with Rabbi [Sharon] Brous and I didn’t understand it, so it stuck in my mind. The phrase, ‘You must circumcise your heart … so that you may live,’ baffled me. But, that morning, it suddenly made sense to me, and I decided I had to circumcise my heart and careen it against the wall around her heart until I either broke through or I broke. And people can come see the show, to discover the surprising ending.”
* * *
There are many twists and turns in Magical Mystery Detour (Studio 1398) by Gemma Wilcox. Set in the United Kingdom in 2012, the action is prompted “by a letter from her dead mother, [and] the protagonist, Sandra, and her dog, Solar, take an unexpected car journey from London to Land’s End, Cornwall, at a pivotal and sensitive time in her life.”
Created in the summer of 2012, Magical Mystery Detour premièred at the Boulder, Colo., Fringe Festival that year.
“It is a semi-autobiographical piece, heavily based on aspects of my life at that time,” Wilcox told the Independent. “I wrote this show very shortly after the death of my mother and the ending of a very significant love relationship with a man I thought I would marry and have children with. It was inspired by the tender and vulnerable process of dealing with and letting go of my mother’s death, the getting over and releasing this powerful love relationship, as well as some of my magical journeys through the sacred, beautiful landscape in the southwest of the U.K.
“The show reflects some of the themes I was fascinated by and exploring at that time in my life,” she continued, “such as learning how to trust and surrender to the detours that happen in life, when we think our life is going in a certain direction, but then it dramatically changes. I was also interested in exploring how we can find and trust our own centre when those we love are not there anymore, and when we feel lost or that life is too chaotic or not going the direction we want it to.”
Wilcox was born and raised in London, and moved to the United States in 2001. She has been based in Boulder since 2004. “I moved to the U.S. to explore yoga and embodiment practices, was in the Shakespeare Company in Austin, Tex., for a couple years, and found my theatrical/creative family in Boulder, as well as touring across the U.S. and Canadian Fringe festival circuit every summer for the past 11 years,” she said.
Magical Mystery Detour is one of a handful of shows that Wilcox and director Elizabeth Baron have worked on together. In creating it, said Wilcox, Baron was incredible, advising “me on how to stay both open and vulnerable as a performer, whilst also staying protected and safe and able to show the many shades and subtleties of a character.”
Wilcox writes comedy-dramas. “I find that it is highly important to balance the ‘light’ material with the ‘darker’ material, humour with seriousness – for me as a performer, and also for the audiences,” she said. “It is easier to receive and digest more poignant or shadowy material when juxtaposed in appropriate moments with humour and lightness. Humour is a huge aspect of my work – humour that comes from identifiable and sometimes embarrassing situations or honest admissions.”
Jolene Bernardino is among the cast of Deborah Vogt’s Carry On: A Musical. (photo by Landon Shantz, graphics by Braden Neufeld)
How many hours do you think you’ve stood around baggage carousels waiting for your luggage? Were you able to do something productive with your time? Or was it luggage limbo? Waiting for luggage becomes the backdrop of one of several plays with Jewish connections at the Vancouver Fringe Festival this year.
When Deborah Vogt and her team in Smackdown 2015 (a 24-hour musical theatre competition) picked “YVR Baggage Claim” out of a hat last year, the brainwave was immediate.
“I think that we were all inspired by the limbo of baggage claim: the idea that you’ve finished your flight, you’ve gone through customs and you just want to finish your journey, yet you’re stuck and powerless while waiting for your bags,” she told the Independent.
“As emerging artists, this feels unsettlingly close to home. We’re at different stages of our careers, but all somewhere in between school and working full time as artists. Do we commit, with the hope that eventually what we’re waiting for will come true? Or do we acknowledge that maybe our bags are lost and go home? And, more importantly, how do we stop and breathe and enjoy our surroundings in the meantime?”
Thus, Carry On: A Musical was born, in which the audience gets to examine the type of people we encounter in baggage claim areas; their physical and emotional baggage.
“Each of our characters is dealing with one kind of baggage or another – the fun part is watching how different people cope with what is lost, damaged, deep-seated or brand new.”
While this is intended to be a fun, silly show, it also addresses real conflicts that people live with every day, Vogt said.
“An important theme for us is the idea that there is no ‘right’ way to live life. Everyone has baggage, and that’s OK. Just like in an airport, there are many directions to take. It’s OK to make mistakes or accidentally get on the wrong flight, because that’s all part of the journey.”
* * *
Enjoying the journey is a key message in writer/performer Randy Ross’ The Chronic Single’s Handbook. In it, Ross addresses the issues of relationships, examining why he’s single, whether some people are meant to be single and whether we should always hold out hope for that oxytocin-creating state we call love.
Based on a book that he’s been working on for seven years, called God Bless Cambodia, Ross places his quest amid a world tour where he strikes out with women on several continents but gets lucky (in many different ways) in Cambodia.
The play is not without its controversy. Because of its raw sexual exploration, some critics have called the work “misogynistic,” while others sing its praises. (It’s rated 18+.)
“The narrator’s trying to figure out why he’s still single,” Ross explained. “He tells stories of past relationships that failed. One is a domination scenario/date. Another is with a sex tourist in Cambodia who gives him a tour.”
In the end, you won’t please everyone, he said.
“My mother has seen the show – twice. She just says, ‘Boys will be boys,’ and we’re New York Jews, so this is our sense of humor. If you look at the whole Clinton/Lewinsky investigation, you could call most of the United States hypocrites.”
In the end, one key thing Ross discovers is that being single may be who he is. It’s a story of acceptance.
In the 35- to 54-year-old crowd, he said, one out of seven has never been married, so marriage is no barometer of mental health.
“Where I live in Boston, most of my friends are in their 50s and have never been married. And that number was comparable for women. You have 70 good years in your life, get on with your life.”
At the same time, Ross believes we are actually meant to be in some type of relationship – whether it’s marriage or not – and that everyone should experience the effect of the “cuddle drug.”
* * *
Following from her previous Fringe performance Uncouth, San Francisco–based Windy Wynazz (aka Wendi Gross) is back as co-writer, producer and performer in Rich and Famous, co-written and directed by Deanna Fleysher.
“I’ve built on what Uncouth was last year, but I’ve made it more personal,” said Wynazz. “I make a deal with the devil and undergo a transformation through the play. The theme is similar to making it in showbiz.”
Wynazz said she was interested in exploring what success is at different times of our lives.
“I’ve reevaluated what ‘making it’ looks like,” she told the Independent. “It was even reflected in the intense creation period with Deanna. She prods and provokes to bring out the most juiciest and most enjoyable. But, at one point, she said to me, ‘Well, you didn’t make it, Wendi. How does it make you feel?’ I feel tied up in performing, it’s what I love to do. So, that’s success as well. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
While Rich and Famous is more linear and verbal, as well as less raunchy, than Uncouth, the audience might still expect some coarse moments, given that Wynazz describes the character as a mix of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Lady Gaga.
“People will be dancing with delight when they leave,” said Wynazz. “The idea is that it’s positive and uplifting.”
* * *
Continuing with the theme of self-discovery, Vancouver’s Theatre Terrific jumps into the mix with The Hidden Stories Project.
Inspiration for the play comes from the poem “We are These” from the book In Honor of Our Grandmothers: Imprints of Cultural Survival, authored by Garry Gottfriedson and Reisa Smiley Schneider, with artwork by George Littlechild and Linda Dayan Frimer.
“With Hidden Stories, we used a Cree medicine wheel,” said artistic director Susanna Uchatius. “Each actor is put in a process determining which direction they are connected to. Whenever you start to build something like this, it’s a bit of chaos and a lot of fog. We walk through everyday life and the face we give to the public is actually our mask. Working through the medicine wheel, identifying our animal spirit … and putting on a mask allow the actors to really express who they are.”
Setting this play apart are a number of features.
First, it’s site-specific, taking place outside near the lagoon on Granville Island – rain or shine.
Second, Theatre Terrific includes actors of all abilities. “We have in our group people with autism, cerebral palsy and Downs syndrome,” Uchatius explained. “We bring people together who would normally not come together and unite as ensemble to speak in a common voice.”
It’s also very accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as there is a lot of imagery but not as much verbal communication.
“What they’re doing refers to hope and fear. It’s a lifecycle: you’re born, you eat, you speak, you love, you dance, you die. Many people will be surprised to identify with what they see. We deal with basic issues that matter to everyone.”