Katherine Matlashewski and Tanner Zerr in Fast Foward. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Since COVID-19, we have been learning how to relate to one another from a distance, as well as how to use the technologies, like Zoom, that have allowed us to retain a more personal connection than we could have if we had experienced the pandemic even a handful of years ago. While our reality seems stolen from the script of a futuristic sci-fi horror film, playwright Rosamund Small’s visions of love in the future and how technology affects it, TomorrowLove, are “hilarious, snappy, moving and refreshingly fun in these times,” according to Shekhar Paleja and Lauren Taylor, co-directors of Studio 58’s production of Small’s playlet collection.
Jewish community members Samantha Levy and Katherine Matlashewski are among the cast members of the production, which will be released online on Feb. 28 and available to watch individually or collectively until March 7.
Studio 58 is Langara College’s professional theatre training program, and this spring’s lineup – which TomorrowLove launches – is the first under the direction of Courtenay Dobbie. Both Levy and Matlashewski are in their second year of study.
“I was finishing up my first year when the pandemic began in earnest here,” Levy told the Independent. “COVID-19 has forced me to be more isolated from my school community through Zoom classes, but it has not taken away the care and dedication of my professors, or the support of my peers. We are still a family, even though we are distanced or online.”
It has become a hybrid program since the pandemic, with some classes online and others held in person with social distancing, said Matlashewski. “Since Studio 58 is a hands-on conservatory program, the transition to online studies was challenging at first,” she admitted. “The faculty and staff, however, have been extremely supportive during these uncertain times. They have all worked tirelessly to adapt our training while also prioritizing our safety.
“That being said,” she added, “as a result of COVID, students are now required to commute to and from the college quite a bit … [and] the hours of online Zoom classes are exhausting. Despite these challenges, I appreciate the continuation of our small in-person classes.”
Prior to her post-secondary training at Studio 58, Matlashewski appeared as Mopsy in King Arthur’s Court (Metro Theatre), where she received the Community Theatre Coalition Award for best supporting actress. Other select credits include Alana in Dear Evan Hansen (Laughing Matters), Luisa in The Fantasticks (Stage 43) and Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods: In Concert (Royal City Musical Theatre). Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Cheryl Hutcherson Award by Applause! Musicals Society.
“I have been a part of the Vancouver theatre and dance community from a very young age,” said Matlashewski. “I feel incredibly blessed to live, create and play on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.”
In TomorrowLove, Matlashewski said, “I have the pleasure of acting in the playlet called Fast Forward, alongside Tanner Zerr. This playlet explores themes of love, abandonment, age difference, time travel and the consequences that come with it.”
Levy plays the role of Jessie in the short play Take This Soul. “In Take This Soul, Jessie’s ex-partner, Rylan, shows up at her doorstep after having disappeared for four days,” explained Levy. “He tells an outlandish tale of an experiment in a distant country that has allowed him to return and present her with his literal soul.”
In addition to this Studio 58 production, Levy’s acting credits include Love, Loss and What I Wore (Centaur Theatre), Fancy Nancy: The Musical (Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society, Segal Centre) and It Shoulda Been You (Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Segal Centre). Her TV and film credits include Annedroids and 18 To Life.
“I’ve been performing since the age of 5, when my parents signed me up for an extracurricular theatre troupe in my hometown, Montreal,” said Levy. “Little did they know that I would fall in love with performing! Since then, I’ve acted on stage and on screen, trained at the Stratford Festival’s Theatre Arts Camp, and dabbled in directing both plays and musicals. Now, I am so thrilled my love of acting has led me to Studio 58!”
But the experience is not what it normally would be, of course.
“During the pandemic, the lovely production team has been working extra hard to keep us all safe,” said Levy, “and that includes managing our schedules closely to avoid contact between folks. So, I have come to value the time I have with others in person even more. When we are in person, we are also wearing masks and social distancing at all times. This often means coming up with innovative new ways to express ourselves without proximity or touch on stage, which has been a wonderful challenge. It is incredibly uplifting for me to have the privilege to be able to continue to create with others, be vulnerable and connect.”
Acknowledging that the “pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone,” Matlashewski said, “One of the challenges that I have faced is navigating acting while wearing a mask. Prior to COVID, I did not realize how much I relied on the non-verbal cues and facial expressions of my scene partners. However, now that two-thirds of the human face is covered by a mask, I find that I have to listen more closely to fully understand my scene partner. With that in mind, we all have had to adjust and be patient with ourselves and others.
“My biggest take away from acting during COVID is the importance of human connection,” she continued. “We have had to find new ways to connect and communicate while maintaining physical distancing. During the rehearsal process of Fast Forward, I discovered how social distancing impacted my acting choices. Since I had to maintain a two-metre distance from my scene partner, each movement that I made on stage had to be carefully considered. Our fantastic director, Lauren Taylor, guided us through this process and helped specify our blocking.
“Although we are required to maintain physical distance and wear masks while we are acting, I am thankful that I get to act in person for my first mainstage show at Studio 58.”
Reflecting on her connections to Jewish community and culture, Matlashewski said, “Within Judaism, community is a value that is held with the highest importance. Although we cannot gather in person, I invite you all to find the light where you can and share it with those around you.”
For her part, Levy said, “As my parents are across the country in Montreal and my brother (he’s a doctor!) is in St. John’s, Jewish culture and art are an anchor to the family who love me. Seeing Jewish representation in art is healing and beautiful.”
She then added a “non-performance-related anecdote.”
“I walked into a Jewish bakery during Chanukah to get a few latkes,” said Levy, “and I left with tears in my eyes and a bag full of items I had not planned to buy.”
To see one or all 13 of the TomorrowLove playlets, visit studio58.ca.
Matthew Tom-Wing, right, dressed as Elvis, was one of the participants in the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival finale. His mother, Elizabeth Tom-Wing, recalled it as a “standout moment for our community and for our son!” (photo from JCC)
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). It offers a wonderful time to look back at some of our community achievements in fostering inclusion at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver; in particular, the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival’s Inclusion Project.
Mary-Louise Albert was artistic and managing director of Chutzpah! and the Rothstein Theatre for 15 years. Before she retired, she and I had many spirited conversations about the importance of creating access for local community members in all areas of Jewish communal life and at the JCC, which is the home of the festival and the theatre, and where I am the coordinator of inclusion services.
We believed that the arts are an important avenue for personal growth and skills development, and that they also bolster visibility and foster true belonging. We hoped that the JCC’s inclusion services and Chutzpah! could collaborate in some way and, through our conversations and Mary-Louise’s vision and expertise, the Chutzpah Inclusion Project crystalized.
After months of planning, in November 2019, members of the local community took to the Rothstein stage to participate in a first-ever Inclusion Project performance – an evening of dance and comedy with international inclusion advocate Pamela Schuller and professional dancers Troy Ogilvie and Rebecca Margolick. The event was the finale of the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival and a highlight of Albert’s final year with Chutzpah!
In preparation to take to the stage, participants had a yearlong introduction to theatre, including low-barrier and free classes with a specialist through the JCC’s Theatre Lab program. Participants attended many local productions through the JCC’s social club, and spent hours rehearsing and co-creating with Ogilvie, Margolick and Schuller over a series of workshops that would not have been possible without community partners and friends.
The 2019 performance received a standing ovation from the audience. The feeling of solidarity and acceptance between the audience and the performers was palpable. What was most amazing, Elizabeth Tom-Wing recalled, is that her son had the opportunity to “train and perform on stage with the professional dancers, along with his friends, and close off the three-week-long 2019 Chutzpah! Festival.” She recalled it as a “standout moment for our community and for our son!”
This project demonstrated that artists of mixed ability and skill can create a powerful and moving performance. Moreover, it reminds us that it is only through equity and action that belonging can be fostered. As diversity, equity and inclusion strategist Arthur Chan explains: “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is the outcome.”
Leamore Cohenis inclusion services coordinator at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Jack Zipes gives the lecture Resurrecting Dead Fairy Tales on Facebook Feb. 17. (photo from MISCELLANEOUS Productions)
Some fairy tales are timeless in that they still have lessons to impart. For example, The Pied Piper, a story dating back to the Middle Ages, “is a tale of plague, greed, betrayal, conformity/confinement with allusions to child abuse,” explained Elaine Carol, co-founder and artistic director of MISCELLANEOUS Productions.
MISCELLANEOUS’s Plague project will have participating youth, along with professional artists, interpreting the Brothers Grimm’s The Pied Piper “from an intersectional, anti-racist, anti-oppression, queer feminist perspective.” In preparation, Carol told the Independent, “we have been reading our way through the mountain of brilliant writing by Jack Zipes, asking him many questions – even our film editor of Resurrecting Dead Fairy Tales is now reading two of his hundred or more published books.”
Zipes’ recorded Facebook Watch talk, Resurrecting Dead Fairy Tales, will be streamed Feb. 17, followed by a live Q&A with Zipes. Some of the lecture will be part of the documentary being created about the youth-centred theatre project, which will include various workshops and an eventual stage production at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in 2022.
“I have also been working with young professional artists Tiffany Yang, who was a youth in our Monsters production, national and international tours, and Julia Farry, our production assistant/outreach worker,” said Carol. “Tiffany has translated four indigenous Taiwanese folk tales that are stories of plague – mostly in coastal communities, including animal wonder tales of fantastical fishes and other fascinating narratives. Julia has translated three Japanese folk tales focusing on plagues. There are many plague stories that we still hope to collect, including the facts of disease spread by European settlers to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, as research materials for our project-in-development.
“We are currently collecting these tales to bring to our youth cast after it is deemed safe to work with them in person,” Carol continued, “as we will be using theatre, hip hop/streetdance, contemporary dance, marimba and world music, urban music, performance art, etc., to co-create a new play. This play will be used as a vehicle for the youth to discuss their own experiences of living in a world pandemic.”
Zipes’ lecture was filmed in Minneapolis by MISCELLANEOUS Productions’ professionals. The professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota is an expert on folklore and fairy tales. He is a storyteller himself and the founder of the publishing house Little Mole and Honey Bear.
“My parents and grandmother always told me tales of different kinds,” Zipes told the Independent. “When I began studying for a PhD at Columbia University, I wrote my dissertation on ‘The Great Refusal: Studies of the German and American Romantics in the 19th Century.’ My interest in fairy tales grew as I realized that these imaginary tales hold more truth than the so-called realistic future. And I also was angered by Bruno Bettelheim’s book about fairy tales in which he imposed a Freudian interpretation on readers. Since then, I have been trying to reveal how relevant fairy tales are to our lives.”
The examples given in the lecture’s press release are from two books Zipes has translated and published: “For example, in Yussuf the Ostrich, well-known political caricaturist Emery Kelen tells the story of a young ostrich who helps defeat the Nazis in northern Africa during World War II. In Keedle, The Great, first published in 1940, Deirdre and William Conselman Jr. sought to give Americans hope that the world can overcome dictatorships. To the authors, the title character Keedle represented more than Hitler, but all dictators then and now.”
Zipes said, “I don’t think that my being Jewish accounts for my interest in fairy tales. My Jewishness makes me a bit meshuggah, and this is why I try to think out of the box and have developed a storytelling program for children without sanitizing the fairy tales. The best of folk and fairy tales have never been sanitized, and I use tales to tell so that children will be enabled to tell their own miraculous tales.”
“My Jewishness is complex,” said Carol, “because I am mixed-race Sephardic-Romani and Ashkenazi. One of one million reasons I love Jack Zipes and think his work is crucial is his lucid critique of the Disneyfication of fairy tales and folklore.”
Resurrecting Dead Fairy Tales starts at 5pm on Feb. 17 and is intended for older youth and adult audiences. On the day and time, click here for link to watch.
Josh Epstein and Amanda Sum in do you want what i have got? a craigslist cantata, written by Veda Hille, Bill Richardson and Amiel Gladstone, and presented by the Cultch and Musical Stage Company. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Welcome back the cast of wild and wacky characters from the Craigslist community as they attempt to buy and sell online, all the while longing and searching for human connection – this time with a fresh, new perspective on social isolation, and livestreamed from all around the Cultch. The production features the original songs “300 Stuffed Penguins,” “Chili Eating Buddy,” “Decapitated Dolls,” and more. Joining actors Epstein and Sum in the cast are Meaghan Chenosky, Kayvon Khoshkam and Andrew Wheeler. Showtimes are Feb. 5-6, 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 7, at noon. Tickets ($25/$29/$58) can be purchased from 604-251-1363 or thecultch.com/event/a-craigslist-cantata.
On Jan. 28 and 29, Music on Main hosts the world première livestream of Graveyards and Gardens, co-created and co-produced by Caroline Shaw (composer and recorded sound) and Vanessa Goodman (choreographer). A PuSh Festival Partner Presentation, the performance takes place among 400 feet of orange sound cables and an arrangement of plants – nature and technology being another synthesis the artists explore. Things begin with a long passage featuring an array of sounds – some come from tape decks, some from a record player, some from old Edison wax recordings – and this production is, among other things, a powerful display of the creative process.
New York-based vocalist, violinist, composer and producer Shaw, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner, was Music on Main’s composer-in-residence from 2015-2016. Vancouver choreographer Goodman is the artistic director of Action at a Distance Dance Society.
David Adams as Scrooge and Scotia Browner as Tiny Tim in Metro Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play. (photo by Nicol Spinola)
Metro Theatre was all set to provide socially distanced, safety-first live performances of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play this month. But then the provincial restrictions on gatherings came down, and the struggling theatre company had to cancel its in-theatre run. But the production team used what holiday spirit it had to film the show and an online version will be available for viewers to watch from Dec. 21 through Jan. 3.
“We are fortunate to have our talented friends Nico Dicecco and [playwright] Erik Gow film the show and put together a beautiful digital stream of it that is available by donation,” stage manager Kat Palmer told the Independent.
Palmer has had a few shows canceled since the pandemic hit. “Right at the beginning of COVID,” she said, “I was in rehearsals for a sweet little concert Wendy Bross Stuart put together called With a Song in My Heart. I was also looking forward to Hello Dolly! at Theatre Under the Stars. And, most importantly, my company, Raincity Theatre, was gearing up for our production of Cabaret. Obviously, intimate, site-specific theatre is not possible during COVID.”
But A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play was created with COVID-19 protocols in mind. The theatre is a large space, enough for patrons to be distanced from one another. “Even the set was designed to keep actors more than six feet apart at all times,” said Palmer. In rehearsals, every cast member arrived masked and wore their mask until they were in their show spacing, she said. For the stage show, they were ready with two understudies, prepared to go on, lest “any actor wake up with any sort of tickle in their throat.”
But those plans went for naught when, last month, large public gatherings were prohibited and the show, which was to open Dec. 3, was delayed to organize the online version.
“It is no surprise that COVID has deeply impacted our arts community,” said director Chris Adams. “The Metro Theatre is a not-for-profit theatre company that relies on ticket sales to get by. Once a thriving arts hub in a former movie-house, Metro has been hit hard by COVID restrictions that have seriously impacted their revenue. The Metro also rents out their space to schools and dance companies over the quieter spring/summer months but, due to our new reality, that was also impossible this year. The Metro Theatre is at risk of closing its doors.”
Nonetheless, the show is also raising money for the charity Backpack Buddies.
“When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, charitable giving soared overnight,” said Palmer. “The story has forever changed how we celebrate the holiday season and reminds us of the importance of generosity. It is in this spirit that the Metro always selects a charity to support each year at Christmas.
“Early in the show, we meet Abigail – an orphan who speaks of food insecurity. It is shocking to find parallels between children today and the Dickensian era. British Columbia has one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada, with 20% of children living below the poverty line. The Backpack Buddies program provides backpacks of food to children in need so that they do not go hungry over the weekend.”
A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play is an original work by writer Gow, based on the Charles Dickens novel, of course.
“With Christmas Carol, there is an expected order that ghosts appear. Erik has decided to shake it up,”
said Adams. “There are also some scenes that do not appear in the book that add an extra level of character development.”
The radio play stars David Adams as Ebeneezer Scrooge, who meets all the characters in A Christmas Carol, “from Bob Cratchit to Jacob Marley, but with only six actors creating and voicing over 40 of the beloved characters,” reads the play’s description. Joining David Adams “on stage” will be Roger Monk, Jill Raymond, Chris Ward, Emilia Michalowska and Scotia Browner. The COVID covers were Jim Stewart and Courtney Shields, who is also the assistant director of the production.
“All of our actors have created a character for their narrator in addition to playing every character in the piece,” said Palmer. “For the majority of our performers, they play four or five characters each. For the simplicity of the storytelling, David plays Scrooge but has also created a very unique and distinct character for his narrator. While David has played many Jewish characters, like the Merchant of Venice, Tevye and Fagin, he is not Jewish himself. Although, he has had to learn some Yiddish for roles from time to time.”
As for being a Jewish person working on a Christmas play, Palmer said, “At this time of year, I sometimes feel like Scrooge. I despise the commercialism of the holiday season, how it seems to consume the entire month of December and don’t get me started on cheesy Christmas movies. But, as a Jewish person working on this show, it is easy to see Jewish values on every page of the script. Yes, A Christmas Carol takes place at Christmas but, in many ways, A Christmas Carol is really a story of teshuvah, tzedakah and tikkun olam…. It’s a story that celebrates kindness, charity and human transformation – ideals that all parents hope to instil in their children – ideals that have deep roots in Jewish tradition. Don’t we all want to believe even the worst among us has a core of goodness?”
The filmed version of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play is available by donation at metrotheatre.com.
Shoshana Litman, Canada’s first ordained maggidah (storyteller), kicked off Kolot Mayim Reform Temple’s 2020-21 monthly lecture series on Nov. 1 with a talk entitled Building Jewish Culture Through Stories and Song.
“We humans are a storytelling species,” Litman told the Zoom audience. “That’s what we do. Whether it’s the conversations we have with each other about what’s going on in our lives or the stories we tell ourselves in our own minds, whether they’re true or false, we are always doing this.
“And we Jews are a storytelling people,” she said. “This is what we do, too. If you look at our core text, it is full of stories. The first two Books of Moses are full of stories.”
Litman’s path towards being a maggidah began as her children grew older and she rejoined the workforce. At the time, she started to become ba’al teshuvah (a secular person who “returns” to Judaism). Based in Victoria, she attended conferences run by the Mussar Institute, which was founded by Vancouverite Alan Morinis, and, ultimately, located a program that trains maggidim.
In the mid-2000s, Litman connected with maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, a student of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in Brooklyn, and she embarked on a two-year program that was taught via conference calls and semi-annual workshops. Upon completing the program in 2008, Buxbaum said to her, “Shoshana, I see how good you are. Now go, save our people.”
Litman regaled attendees of the Victoria synagogue’s event with a story about the Baal Shem Tov from Buxbaum’s Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism. It happens in the time just before the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, when he told his disciples what they should do when he was no longer with them.
To his follower Rabbi Yaakov, the Baal Shem Tov advises that he go off and become a storyteller. Rabbi Yaakov is skeptical. How can someone make his living as a storyteller? he wonders.
After two-and-a-half years as a peripatetic purveyor of tales following his teacher’s death, Rabbi Yaakov gets wind of a magnate in Italy who would give a gold coin for each story of the Baal Shem Tov he heard.
When Rabbi Yaakov arrives at the gate of the rich man’s villa, he says to the servant, “Tell your master that the personal assistant of the Baal Shem Tov has come, and I have many wonderful stories to tell from experience and not from hearsay.”
The rabbi is invited in and, after a week of good food and relaxation, Shabbat comes. Following a festive meal replete with songs, it is time for stories. But, just then, something peculiar takes place. All recollections of the Baal Shem Tov evaporate from Rabbi Yaakov’s memory. Every trick he tries to elicit the stories fails. The host tells him not to worry, to go to sleep and try again the next morning.
The next day arrives and nothing has changed. Shabbat passes. The other guests at the magnate’s home grow increasingly doubtful. As it comes time to leave, still no tales have sprung from Rabbi Yaakov’s mouth, yet the magnate gives him a bag of gold anyway.
When the rabbi suddenly recalls everything, as he enters his carriage, the magnate asks him to return and Rabbi Yaakov tells the story of a journey he had taken with the Baal Shem Tov.
The group ended up in a town where angry crowds were drawing lots to carry out violent acts against Jews. Everyone was scared, except the Baal Shem Tov. They came to their lodgings in the town and the great Chassidic master went upstairs and opened a window looking out to the main square. The Baal Shem Tov pointed to a house across the square and out of that house walked a bishop, the man responsible for inciting the townspeople against Jews. The Baal Shem Tov told Rabbi Yaakov to bring the bishop to him.
Rabbi Yaakov went to the stage where the bishop was speaking and told him that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to talk to him. At first, the bishop refused, but, after much pressing, the bishop relented and went to see the Baal Shem Tov.
Rabbi Yaakov admits that he doesn’t know what the bishop and his master discussed. Nonetheless, as he finishes his story, tears are streaming down the rich man’s face.
“I can tell you exactly what the Baal Shem Tov said, for, you see, I was that bishop,” says the magnate. “Fortunately, I had holy relatives who convinced the Baal Shem Tov to save my soul. To do so, I had to do many mitzvot. He said I would know when I had been forgiven when someone comes to me and tells me my story.”
During non-pandemic times, Litman performs at schools (from nursery to university), libraries, senior facilities, theatres, houses of worship and other local, national and international venues. To hear her recent talk in full, including the entire Baal Shem Tov story, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com/shoshana-litman. For more information on her, visit maggidah.com.
The next Kolot Mayim lecture, which takes place Dec. 6, at 11 a.m., features Jonathon Orr-Stav on the topic Arabic Hebrew: An Introduction to How Modern Israelis Really Speak. For more information, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com/lectures.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Ryan Beil, left, and Mark Chavez. (photos from Studio 58)
Studio 58’s 55th season continues with the world première of Theatre: The Play, a comedic love letter to the art form, written and directed by Ryan Beil and Mark Chavez.
The Nearlake Theatre Festival & Bar & Grill faces certain closure, unless it can produce a hit show. Dudley, the festival’s intrepid artistic director, throws out all the stops in an attempt to stage a masterpiece the likes of which the theatre world has never seen: Macbeth, War on Christmas. But, can the cast and crew deal with their personal demons before the punters show up? Theatre: The Play is both an homage and a sly middle finger to the world of theatre, asking, “Why would anyone work in this unforgiving and unstable field of make-believe?”
Studio 58 students in their fourth term will perform the play, which will be filmed and then offered online to viewers, who can watch from the comfort of their homes Nov. 29 to Dec. 6.
“We are so excited to push the boundaries of what it means to produce a play online,” said Beil, a member of the Jewish community, and Chavez. “To go beyond just setting up a camera and pressing record, instead making the experience for people watching at home just as electric as it [would be] for those watching in the theatre.”
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
* * *
Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
Livona Ellis rehearses for the DanceCentre performance of Mary-Louise Albert: Solo Dances/Past into Present. (photo by Sylvain Senez)
Mary-Louise Albert: Solo Dances/Past into Present at the Dance Centre Nov. 19-21 features Livona Ellis, Vanessa Goodman and Rebecca Margolick performing works that were created for Mary-Louise Albert. Albert herself returns to the stage, at age 65, after a 19-year hiatus, to perform the first phase of a solo work commissioned from Serge Bennathan.
The three solos being reimagined were created during the last six years of Albert’s 20-year professional dance career (see jewishindependent.ca/generations-combine). They have not been performed since.
“When Mary-Louise first approached me to share her ideas about this project, I was transitioning out of a company,” said Ellis, who is performing Woman Walking (away) by Peter Bingham. “It seemed like the perfect work to describe the state of transition I was about to enter. I was leaving something behind and going towards the unknown. For me, the piece deals with a lot of questions and conversations we have with ourselves; reflecting on memories and being curious about the future.”
Ellis is a dancer with Ballet BC. She is on the faculty at Arts Umbrella and is the programming advisor for BC Movement Arts Society, which was founded and is directed by Albert. The rehearsal process for Woman Walking (away) started with Albert teaching Ellis the solo before COVID hit.
“It was great to have her insight and point of reference,” said Ellis. “I then worked with Peter Bingham where, in particular, he talked a lot about the intent and physical and theatrical sensations. It was very much an open dialogue, my input with Peter was very welcome.”
Recently, Ellis started rehearsing again with Albert. “She is really interested in melding our two interpretations and finding more ways for me to fully embody the solo in my own way,” said Ellis, mentioning her excitement to be sharing “the evening with these other talented and strong women – Vanessa, Rebecca and Mary-Louise – and to experience again performing in front of a live audience.”
Making the dance her own has been something that Goodman also has been working on with Albert, and with choreographer Tedd Robinson, who created oLOS.
“The work is a journey and allows me, as an interpreter, to transport myself into an embodiment that is both full of form and deconstruction. This is a beautiful place to experience the work, which is both deeply intuitive and dichotomous,” said Goodman, who is a choreographer herself, as well as artistic director of Action at a Distance Dance Society. She first worked on the piece more than a year ago, in May 2019, spending time with Albert and Robinson reenvisioning it.
“We worked in Sointula, where Mary-Louise lives, visiting what the solo meant to all of us; examining the process physically and mentally of passing along a living archive,” explained Goodman. “Every time an artist embodies a work, it transforms with their system – this work continues to transform with, and for, me each time I inhabit it.
“oLOS has been a tremendous opportunity to be able to learn from both Tedd and Mary-Louise,” she continued. “They both have an incredible amount of information to share. Both of these artists have helped to shape dance on a national level, and it is a gift to be able to experience oLOS now with them.
“Both Tedd and Mary-Louise have been a part of my development for the last 18 years,” she added, “with Tedd teaching me in my last year of high school at CCDT [the School of Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre, in Toronto] before moving out west and then providing me with great insight into my solo Container in Ottawa in 2015. And, Mary-Louise has supported me in so many ways as a creator over my professional career, allowing me to develop and share work…. These two artists have shared so much with me, and it is an exciting intersection to be able to work on this project all together.”
For Margolick, who is performing Allen Kaeja’s Trace Elements, the intersection is even more personal. The solo was created in 2000, she said, and she remembers watching her mother dance it at the Rothstein Theatre – Margolick was 9 years old at the time.
“Fortunately, Allen and I had our creation period prior to the pandemic,” said Margolick about the piece’s latest iteration. “We rehearsed without Mary-Louise during the remounting/creation process in Toronto. We had another week to finish the piece in Sointula, B.C., with Mary-Louise coming in to watch runs and sharing her thoughts and expertise on the work, past and present. As she is also my mom, she made sure to facilitate the space needed, with great sensitivity, for the work to become personal to me.
“Allen made space for me to experiment and try things out and his process can be summed up in three words – generous, kind and courageous. Every time I run the piece, it feels different emotionally and my reactions to the text vary day to day … it makes the work always feel alive. We say ‘reimagine,’ as we were all interested in how I can bring myself into the solo and give the tools needed to make it my own.”
Margolick is based in Brooklyn. A dancer and choreographer, she was a 2020 New Directions Choreography Lab Fellowship at the Ailey School and is a 2020 artist in residence at the Dance Deck here in Vancouver. As well, she is artistic associate of BC Movement Arts Society.
When Margolick worked with Kaeja in Toronto on the solo, she said, “We had many in-depth conversations around the subject of the piece, and Allen shared with me his experience around learning and researching his father’s story. Allen’s father was a Holocaust survivor, and creating work around the Holocaust became a way for Allen to process his dad’s experience. What came about from reimagining this solo was this merging of past and present with my movement and Mary-Louise’s movement, and a linking between different generations of the Jewish experience and family.”
Since Albert is her mother, Margolick said there is an “inherent natural connection I have to her movement and expression. It’s a beautiful way to explore this connection between us.
“This piece speaks to me on many levels,” Margolick added. “The text is a conversation between a young German man and woman, 22 years ago, referencing Nazi Germany propaganda and the apathetic, yet unfortunately relatable, responses from the young woman about her mother’s experiences during the war. It is eerily relevant to what is happening around the world, as we reckon with the ongoing oppression of systemic racism, colonialism, greed, antisemitism and the rise of fascism and the alt-right. This piece for me is an eerie reminder of how quickly things can change, and how easy it is to fall into apathetic thinking, which dangerously leads to losing one’s empathy.”
Mary-Louise Albert: Solo Dances/Past into Present is part of the Dance Centre’s Global Dance Connections. In addition to the Nov. 19-21 live-stream shows, a recorded performance will be available online Dec. 3-17. For tickets and more information about both offerings, visit thedancecentre.ca.