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.”
From Nov. 12-15, Rumble Theatre’s Tremors presents three different plays – Trainspotting by Harry Gibson, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide by Sean Graney and This is War by Hannah Moscovitch. They will take place simultaneously in different parts of the Russian Hall. After each night’s performances, the entertainment will continue, with an after-party to which everyone is invited.
Part of Rumble Theatre’s mission is to foster “meaningful interactions between emerging and established artists,” and Tremors does just that. From start to finish, each of the plays is mounted by a group of relative newcomers to the professional theatre world. Knowing Rumble Theatre either directly or indirectly through colleagues, both Andrew Cohen and Naomi Vogt leapt at the opportunity to be involved when the call for artists went out.
“I have been interested in music composition and sound design for a long time,” said Cohen. “When I watch – or hear – a show, the moments I can connect to most are the ones where the sound is used to mirror the action onstage. I’m excited to have started exploring and establishing myself as a composer and designer in addition to performing.”
Cohen will be in charge of sound design for Trainspotting. “I submitted to Stephen Drover, artistic director of Rumble Theatre not knowing which plays were being mounted,” he said. “When we all submitted, we were asked which types of shows we were interested in working on and why. They paired all the designers and directors with their respective shows based on similar theatrical esthetics and tastes.”
Rumble’s mandate to mentor newcomers means that “all Tremors artists are assigned mentors, who are helping us to navigate this challenging material,” said Vogt, who was a student ambassador for the organization in her final year of theatre school.
“I promoted Rumble Theatre’s work, especially their phenomenal show Penelope, and co-produced a 48-hour play-building experiment called The Crockpot, which featured one representative from Vancouver’s theatre training facilities: UBC, Studio 58, Douglas, Capilano, Trinity Western and SFU. The goal of the project was to inspire students at these schools to connect with each other. There’s a tendency among theatre students to work only with their peers, even after graduation. It’s important to maintain those contacts from school, but it’s also important to expand into the larger community of Vancouver artists.”
Vogt will be acting in The 4th Graders, which “is about a class of fourth-grade students who honor their classmate Johnny with a play he wrote, following his suicide,” she explained. “The play details Johnny’s version of the series of events that led to his suicide. I play Rachel, an unpopular 10-year-old who is bullied for being overweight. Rachel and Johnny were ‘boyfriend/girlfriend,’ but Rachel ends the relationship because she believes she’s not deserving of Johnny’s love. The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide is dark, but it’s so hilarious, too. It explores serious themes of love, betrayal and revenge, but through the lens of a 9-year-old, which I hope resonates with audience members of all ages.
Her past experience should help in her portrayal.
“I started performing in elementary school,” she explained, “when I was given special permission to dramatize Shel Silverstein poems during ‘reading hour’ with a friend. We weren’t popular girls, but our classmates thought our skits were funny – plus, we got out of reading hour! We kept going, eventually developing a sketch series of Oprah Winfrey Show parodies, which we’d perform almost daily to our Grade 4 classmates. I, an overgrown poofy-haired 8-year-old, played Oprah. My friend Allison, a tiny bespectacled thing, played our various idols: Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Shania Twain and others. We were a hit.”
It was then that Vogt knew she wanted to be an actor. “It offered some respect and acknowledgment I otherwise didn’t receive in the social arena,” she said. “I knew it was a job grown-ups had, so I thought, ‘Perfect, got that whole what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up business sorted. I’m going to take acting classes, hang up some Destiny’s Child posters and things are going to fall into place for me.’ Obviously, a career in the arts is different than my fourth-grade mind dreamed it would be. I’ve only just transitioned into the professional world, and things are difficult sometimes, but my grade school dream is still alive!”
Flourishing, actually. Vogt just completed the bachelor of fine arts acting program at the University of British Columbia, where she won the Evelyn Harden Award. “It’s an award that the UBC theatre faculty gives to a graduating theatre student and, happily, it accompanies a cheque,” she explained. “It’s made available annually through the generosity of Dr. Evelyn Harden. I was so grateful to be the recipient among my class and it helped me make it through my final year.”
Vogt also expressed gratitude for her connection to the Jewish community. “Like theatre,” she said, “my affiliation with Judaism gave me a cultural anchor. In the rocky seas of adolescence, I knew I was a Jewish theatre nerd and, whenever I felt lame, ostracized or unusual, I could feel confident about those two things. It’s still a big part of my life, and so it features pretty largely in my improv and sketch comedy. I often find myself muttering broken Hebrew prayers or referencing Jewish holidays or practices onstage.”
Describing herself as a “‘character’ type within a pool of ingénues,” Vogt said she “often played one of the following roles: old women, very old women, and men. And, I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m unusual, so I get to play interesting people. For example, in my final show at UBC, I had the fantastic opportunity to play the murderous king Pere Ubu in an all-female version of Alfred Jarry’s masterpiece Ubu Roi, and I couldn’t have asked for a weirder, bigger, more joyful undertaking.”
Cohen, who has been featured in the Jewish Independent on more than one occasion, is also engaged in several interesting and meaningful undertakings. He was in the JI just a few months ago, when he was interviewed about his involvement as part of the faculty of Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past summer.
Over the last couple of years, Cohen said he has spent most of his time out of Vancouver, performing in plays and musicals in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax.
“I spent several months traveling around the Americas to work with the Broadway organization Artists Striving to End Poverty. They commissioned me to direct and musically arrange an international music video featuring some of the students from their schools around the world, and some of their celebrity teachers (like cast members from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, HBO’s Looking, Wicked’s Kristin Chenoweth and others).
“Most recently, I have been working on re-imagining and rearranging the Joni Mitchell canon for a new show co-created with my beautiful, talented fiancé Anna Kuman. Our show, Circle Game, for the Untitled Theatre Company, was developed as part of the inaugural residency with Capilano University. Anna and I are excited to have been granted another development residence, this time with a professional theatre company in the city. We are also very excited to have New York and Stratford director Robert McQueen helm our next workshop.”
Cohen is part of the tech team for Firehall Arts Centre’s presentation of Urinetown, which runs until Nov. 29. This month, he also “will be workshopping a new musical with Axis Theatre that tours around Western Canada in the new year. Following that will be the next development phase of my show Circle Game…. And then, next summer, I will be playing Judas in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Godspell. After that, I’ve booked the biggest, most exciting gig of my life: marrying the incredible Anna Kuman!”
As for Vogt, she said about her future plans, “It’s scary to be released out of the safety of theatre school, but it’s exciting to work in the professional community, too. I’m teaching with the Vancouver Youth Theatre right now, which is especially fun because I took their classes as a child. I’m also experimenting with physical theatre and puppetry and, right now, I’m taking a clowning class with the remarkable Gina Bastone. Traveling is a big part of my immediate plans, too – I’m hoping to go to Israel in the spring. But, until then, feel free to hire me!”
Tickets for Tremors ($15 for each play) can be purchased via rumble.org. Since the plays take place simultaneously, it is only possible to see one play per night.