Left to right: Stephen Aberle, David Bloom, Suzanne Ristic and Gustavo Fabres are among the cast of Western Gold Theatre’s production of Seventeen, which opens Nov. 4. (photo by Javier Sotres)
None of us can go back in time and relive – or revise – our lives. But Matthew Whittet’s play Seventeen, which opens Nov. 4 at PAL Studio Theatre, offers audiences an idea of what that journey might look and feel like, with veteran stage actors playing the roles of present-day teenagers. Two of those actors are members of the Jewish community and they spoke with the Independent about some of the memories the show has roused.
Stephen Aberle plays the character of Tom, and David Bloom the part of Mike, two of the “kids” hanging out at a school playground after the end of the last day of school. One description of the play states, “It is the casting that gives the play its original twist. Older actors bring to it their own life experience and invest it with an extra layer of hope and sadness, striking the ideal balance between imitation of the freewheeling exuberance of youth and intimations of the future that faces these carousing teens.”
“There’s no improv in the show, but we are – with the playwright’s permission – adjusting some of the vocabulary,” explained Aberle. “The play was written and first performed in Australia and subsequently adapted for a British production, and now we’re readapting it to set it in East Van.
“It’s written to be performed by senior actors, with the stipulation that the company engage a youth advisory council of teenaged consultants,” he continued. “The three young folx Western Gold has found have been invaluable in helping us old codgers get into the bodies and minds and culture of being teenagers in 2022, working with us on everything from cussing and slang to clothing choices, hairstyles, posture and movement – and how to hold our phones.
“We’ve all of us been 17 … however many decades ago, and I think we all bring our memories of those days to our work. I know I’m personally finding lots of moments that snap me right back to the heady, emotionally buffeting, thrilling, infuriating days of high school: understandings, misunderstandings, love requited or unrequited, and nights in parks with like-minded friends in various altered states.”
“This show has me thinking a lot about my two closest male friends from high school,” said Bloom. “With both of them, the friendship came with spikes. One was weirdly competitive with his close friends and the other had a sharpshooter’s ability to be acutely nasty – and his nastiness usually contained a precise awareness of your greatest weaknesses and insecurities. It was like you had to keep proving your love by putting up with some really abrasive behaviour. They were also both brilliant and witty and incredibly fun to be around. I feel like I’m channeling a lot of their teenage bravado in my performance as Mike, as well as my own teenage (and continuing) insecurities and often spectacularly inappropriate behaviour. Pain and love come out in weird ways in this show, and that feels really human to me.”
Bloom said he’s known several people involved in the production for decades. “I first worked with Stephen Aberle on a touring kids show when I was 15 or 16, 1976ish,” he said. “There’s an ease and generosity in this cast of pros that makes going to work a real pleasure.”
As interesting and fun as recalling the teen years may be, Aberle said he’d probably decline any opportunity to be so young again.
“Leave youth to the young and let us silverbacks go to our deserved rest and make way for the next cohort,” he said.
On a more serious level, he shared a meditation by Rabbi Chaim Stern from the old Reform Gates of Repentance Machzor (High Holiday prayerbook).
“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others – could the answer be in doubt?” Aberle quoted.
The meditation includes the plea for divine help “to fulfil the promise that is in each of us, and so to conduct ourselves that, generations hence, it will be true to say of us: the world is better because, for a brief space, they lived in it.”
Western Gold Theatre’s production of Seventeen previews Nov. 3, opens Nov. 4 and runs to Nov. 20. For tickets, visit westerngoldtheatre.org.
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.
Susan Coodin as Carol and Anthony F. Ingram as John in Bleeding Heart’s Oleanna. (photo by Adam Blasberg)
David Mamet’s controversial play Oleanna set up home in Vancouver this spring. By coincidence, two small theatre companies programmed the two-actor drama for around the same time and the result is several weeks of heated conflict, on stage and off. For more than 20 years, audiences have argued about the play, about what really happened to Carol in John’s office. Possible answers continue to turn up as the play is produced over and over again around the world.
The Mamet on Main production ran from April 19-27 at Little Mountain Gallery. The second production, by Bleeding Heart Theatre, runs from May 6-18 at Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive.
Recently, Mamet is better known for his books of essays, polemics against antisemitism (The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred and the Jews, 2006) and against the American left (The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, 2011), but he remains one of America’s greatest 20th-century playwrights. Oleanna is among his most successful and frequently produced works, along with Glengarry Glen Ross (Pulitzer Prize 1984), American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. Oleanna remains current because actors and directors love to engage with the challenging piece and audiences can still be electrified by the emotional battle for power.
In the play, a young college student named Carol visits her professor, John, in his office looking for help. She’s failing his course and doesn’t know what to do. John offers to tutor her and puts a reassuring hand on her shoulder. In the next scene, we are back in John’s office but Carol is no longer looking for his help. She has filed a written complaint accusing John of sexually harassing her. He beseeches her to see reason and to withdraw the complaint. John’s job and entire future are at stake.
Was she harassed? We, the audience, were there when it happened, but nothing is clear.
According to theatre legend, back in the early 1990s when this play premièred, arguments broke out in theatre lobbies over what John had done and what he meant by it. Many saw the play as misogynistic, and an attack on feminism. The taint of that accusation remains, which may be one reason actors and directors today are eager to reconsider the play and see what is really there.
“Mamet obviously believes this is a balanced argument, a dialectic about the nature of power in our educational institutions,” said Evan Frayne, director of the Bleeding Heart production. Frayne’s other directing credits include The Verona Project and The Foreigner for Pacific Theatre. He said one big challenge with Oleanna is choreographing the moments of physical contact between the two characters.
… the only stage direction for one such moment is: “He puts his hand on her shoulder.”
“The nature of how he touches her,” said Frayne, “becomes the crux of the play.” He notes that the only stage direction for one such moment is: “He puts his hand on her shoulder.” So, the director must decide how chaste or sexual or ambiguous the touch is to be. “It’s how far and how long,” he says of the simple touch. “Can that be something more than just a hand on the shoulder, or someone comforting someone else?”
He said he regards the historic controversy around the play as specific to those earlier productions. “My interpretation of what the controversy is about is a lot of people think that the character of John is more fully realized than the character of Carol. People say she’s simply trying to take down this good professor, which I think is not true.”
To Frayne, language itself is the source of the trouble. “I see this as a language play about education,” he said. Both characters are “stuck” with English, which is full of traps, he suggested. Male dominance is built into the language, he said, especially in a university setting.
The Mamet on Main production, which has closed, made the characters equal combatants. Director Quelemia Stacey Sparrow gave us a powerfully intelligent Carol and an insecure, clueless John. Pandora Morgan played a young woman temporarily overwhelmed by the demands of first-year university. Her confidence shaken, she looks for advice and reassurance from her professor. David Bloom’s John was a nervous man more at home pontificating than speaking plainly. He wants to help his student, but is too self-absorbed to treat her with respect. Instead, he regards her as something damaged that he can fix. This insults her and gives him licence to treat her like his own child and so to inappropriately touch and console her.
Bloom, who played the professor, is a seasoned local actor who teaches on faculty at Capilano University and Langara College. He said by telephone he was initially reluctant to take the role because the production he had seen 20 years ago made the play seem pretty one-sided and he had no interest. Upon reading the script, however, “I found Carol’s arguments more compelling than I remember from when I saw the show,” he said.
He said both characters behave badly. “Both are deeply flawed human beings who do some pretty horrible things,” he said.
Mamet on Main would like to remount its production at some point, said Bloom. “We don’t feel like we’ve explored the whole thing and we’re interested in working on it further,” he said.
Susan Coodin, Carol in the current Bleeding Heart production, had never seen or read the play before embarking on the current production. The University of British Columbia graduate who has many theatre credits, including Bard on the Beach performances, said by phone she was drawn to the script by the character of Carol. She identified, she said, with Carol’s life as a young person in a university setting. She was aware that in past productions Carol has been portrayed as heartless and vindictive, but Coodin said she took a fresh look at the role.
“I knew that there was more to her than what was on the surface,” she said, “and I was really interested in finding her truth and what she believes to be true.”
Coodin sympathized with the character who needs John’s help and validation so much, but who never properly receives it. “It’s hard to come to terms with what she has to do to find herself. I wanted to find her sensitivity and her compassion and her desire to connect with John, with her professor, and she seems to be consistently denied that.”
In the end, she said, Carol finds security and a new maturity through the work she does with her “group,” an amorphous organization never fully defined for the audience. Carol is “a sensitive person, but she also comes to realize that there is a cause bigger than herself and her relationships, that gives her confidence and she comes to find herself through her cause,” said Coodin.
The artists involved with both productions agreed that Oleanna is a sophisticated, well-written drama that can support a variety of readings. This is the sign of great dramatic literature and Vancouver has been fortunate to see two different interpretations of this classic script by one of America’s greatest playwrights.