Why Not Theatre on the world premiere of Gimme Shelter

On stage at the Young Centre as part of PANAMANIA from July 13 – 25
For tickets visit youngcentre.ca

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It’s hard to explain (in a succinct way) what Gimme Shelter is about. At the centre of the show is one question: What can one person do to influence change? We at Why Not Theatre arrived at this question via a staggering statistic: by 2020 some 7 million Bangladeshis will be displaced by rising sea levels caused by climate change.

An early draft of Gimme Shelter tried to tackle this story from the perspective of a new category of migrants, the “climate refugee.” We started by creating an adaptation of the fable of the Three Little Pigs, in which the analogy was the pigs were refugees being driven from their homes by a coming storm instead of a big bad wolf. The first workshops focused on the story of a refugee (the pig), whose home has gone under water, trying to take shelter at his brother’s home. We soon realized that the fable didn’t give us the depth of story we needed to explore a very complicated issue. Why Not’s Artistic Director Ravi Jain found in his writing exercises that the stronger narrative was the perspective of the privileged Westerner, whose actions and luxuries are what ultimately lead to the suffering of millions on the other side of the world. He wondered, what can we do as a society when faced with the challenge of seeing ourselves in those who are being displaced because our actions? How do we actually make a change, when we feel so powerless?

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In grappling with these big questions, we looked to the ancient texts, in particular a segment from the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is a chapter from the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, and translates roughly to “Song of God.” It essentially contains a synopsis of the entire Vedic philosophy of life and the universe. Within its many layers of wisdom is a central concept of universal oneness, oneness in which everything in the universe and all its living creatures are interconnected. This is where we found our point of view for Gimme Shelter: the only way forward is for us is to really see the interconnectedness of all people, not just those we can see, but those we don’t see, whose lives we are impacting with our choices every day.

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To find a dramatic way to explore this we read the Mahabharata itself, and created a new adaptation that uses the epic ancient tale to examine where we are today. The character that Ravi plays has changed from that of the climate refugee to that of an old storyteller who guides us on this journey, playing himself and all of the story’s characters. The ending of the show is the most exciting part, as our goal with this new direction has been to find a way to engage the story directly with the audience, so that it can affect change beyond the walls of the theatre. To find this level of engagement we break some theatrical conventions with a radical shift best experienced first-hand.

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Post by Owais Lightwala, Artistic Producer, Why Not Theatre
Gimme Shelter rehearsal photos by David Leclerc

Designer Ken MacKenzie reports on Soulpepper at the Prague Quadrennial 2015

Soulpepper’s Dora Award-winning set and lighting design for Of Human Bondage created by Resident Designer Lorenzo Savoini was selected to represent Canada this summer at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, often referred to as the “Olympics of Scenography.” A team from Soulpepper attended PQ2015 this past June.

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There’s a question that seems to be in the cultural make-up of Soulpepper that hovers over everything we do: Is this the best way to do things? And invariably, is there a better way?

This organization, I think, tries not to take anything for granted and tries to make ‘what’s next?’ one of its self-reflective cornerstones. As a bit of acknowledgement of that ethos, one of Soulpepper’s recent successes, Of Human Bondage, was featured as a part of the Canadian Exhibit at the Prague Quadrennial (PQ2015): an international exhibit of performance design that takes place in the Czech Republic every four years.

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Lorenzo Savoini’s designs were amongst six other designs chosen by an Associated Designers of Canada panel that were looking for works that were on the avant-garde of Canadian theatre. So this became an irresistible opportunity for a contingent of Soulpepper directors and designers to head over to the continent and take in what the rest of the world is up to from a design perspective.

The PQ2015 consisted of professional and student exhibits from 68 countries, with lectures and workshops led by various international icons and luminaries in the field of design.

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Our experience was to immerse ourselves in equal parts quadrennial and beautiful eastern European city.

The quadrennial was a great opportunity to look at other ways of making design and engaging an audience. Some countries exhibited their best models, costume sketches, and production stills. Some counties created room-sized installations for viewers to experience and others brought performances that showcased a design idea. The overall experience isn’t so much about who does it best, as it is about looking at varying forms of cultural expression. The wild, political irreverence of the Brazilian production shots couldn’t be more different from the folk installation of Mongolia but both speak volumes about the culture they represent.

The PQ was the kind of experience that requires a lot of consideration and unpacking and I think I’ve only just begun to really consider all the things I’ve seen, but the one thing that is clear is that what we do here, at Soulpepper, is express our culture. It’s easy to forget the while we do produce some of the best work in Canada, it is specifically Canadian, and that as we become more inclusive, and more representative of our city and its inhabitants, we should be as open as possible to all of the different, international cultural forms of expression that should feed into what we do at Soulpepper.

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Photo credits: Ken Mackenzie, Albert Schultz and Leslie Lester, photo: Lorenzo Savoini. Shots from PQ2015 by Ken MacKenzie.

Staff Profile: LJ Savage – Director of Production

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How long have you worked at Soulpepper and tell us a little bit about what your job has consisted of lately.
I have been at Soulpepper for three and a half terrific years. Lately I have been keeping an eye on our hosting of the Para/PanAmania stay in the Young Centre with its many contributors, as well as Soulpepper’s restarted season after the Para/PanAmania departure and the 2015 Soulpepper Family Festival.

What kinds of productions have you been involved in outside of work?
Soulpepper brought me back to my first love, the performing arts, after a fifteen-year hiatus in corporate environments, exhibits & events across North America. Prior to that I toured the world with dance companies and rock bands. It had been twenty or more years since I stage managed my last production and I really needed to get back to my roots.

When you’re not at work, what are you doing?
My family comes first; whether I like it or not! But when given a chance, I lean towards gardening as my main leisure activity. My father was a gardener before he took on municipal government and I was his assistant from an early age. I was accepted to Niagara Parks Horticultural School but chose to political science and drama instead. Go figure.

What do you love about working at Soulpepper?
I love the people. Really. It’s fun to ride to work each day. Soulpepper is a super group of happy people with diverse interests and talents who want to work together in the arts. At the end of (mostly) a good experience you see a terrific product that is well appreciated. Our colleagues make that happen.

Staff Profile: Mary Koutsoubos – Director of Development, Major Gifts and Special Campaigns

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How long have you worked at Soulpepper and tell us what your job consisted of lately.

Well, this is my second time at Soulpepper. I was the Director of Development for several years before taking a 3-year hiatus, to work at the TSO and have my 3rd son! I’ve been back now for a year and a half in a perfect new role as Director of Major Gifts and Special Campaigns. I have been working with the Soulpepper team on our new $10 million Creative Capital Campaign, and yesterday at our AGM we announced that we are already at 77% of goal thanks to the many special donors who have contributed transformative gifts.

When you’re not at work, what are you doing?

My husband and I have three very lively and mischievous sons at home to keep us busy and on our toes. I love it! When I’m on my own I relish the quiet time – these days, I try catch up on sleep, mostly ;-)

What do you love about working at Soulpepper?

I love the pace and energy at Soulpepper. The big ideas that constantly challenge us and propel the team forward. The spirit of getting things done and doing them well. And, the special donors who understand this by supporting the vision and giving back – I learn so much from them about being a better human.

Look What They’ve Done To My Song!: Jazz artist Denzal Sinclaire talks about his Soulpepper Cabaret Series

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You’ve been exploring a very interesting concept with your Look What They’ve Done To My Song! Cabaret Series at Soulpepper. Tell us how that idea came about, and what it entails in concert.

I’ve always liked looking for new or different perspectives on things in life, which has been a blessing for me time and time again. Jazz music has, without a doubt, been a very important part of my life, but there are other genres that I’ve enjoyed as well. So, I decided to use this series as an opportunity/personal challenge to experiment with some of those other genres of music I like, but hadn’t explored for whatever reason. It was also a great outlet for my love of wordplay. Anyone who has spent some time with me knows I am given to puntification.

You have two upcoming Cabarets – Resetting the Standards (June 6), and Rock On (July 4). Can you tell us what songs you will be exploring, and what artists will be joining you?

I won’t give away any song titles, but I will say that Resetting the Standards will primarily feature songs from the Great American Songbook. We might also throw in a John Coltrane classic. Rock On! will feature songs from a broader variety of styles, and one might even hear a Marvin Gaye composition. Just sayin’.

Resetting the Standards will feature Davide Direnzo (drums), Devon Henderson (bass), and Jacob Gorzhaltsan (sax). Rock On! will feature Matthew Chalmers (drums), Devon Henderson (bass), and Nick Tateishi (guitar)

Tell us what you have uncovered as an artist during the creative process for your series:

I thought that people would perhaps enjoy a new spin on some of the songs they’re familiar with, and from the feedback we’ve been getting, my instincts were right. While preparing for this series, I’ve discovered a fair amount of untapped potential – and an even greater amount of bad habits! It has also been a reaffirmation of the importance of stepping out of – or expanding – my comfort zone.

Tell us what you enjoy about the Soulpepper Cabaret Series and why people should experience the Series if they haven’t already:

The Cabaret series is another great opportunity for people to experience the magic that is Soulpepper. The original Distillery may have long since gone, but the spirit of distillation lives on at the Young Centre as Soulpepper continues its groundbreaking trend of capturing the essence of live performance.

I really enjoy the intimacy of the TD Bank Studio, where the Saturday Cabarets are usually held. It’s one of the smaller spaces, and it doesn’t have a stage. So, both the performers and the audience are on the same level, with little separating them.

The combination of the award-winning Young Centre, its location, and the energy of the artists that express themselves there on a daily basis makes for an atmosphere unparalleled.

Look What They’ve Done To My Song! Vol. 4: Resetting the Standards takes place on Saturday June 6 at 8:30 p.m.
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Look What They’ve Done To My Song! Vol. 5: Rock On! Takes place on Saturday July 4 at 8:30 p.m.

Busy as a Beaver – Jordana Weiss talks Soulpepepr Academy and VideoCabaret

Q&A with Jordana Weiss – Soulpepper Academy Stage Manager & Apprentice Stage Manager for VideoCabaret at Soulpepper

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Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became part of the 2013-2015 Soulpepper Academy:

My name is Jordana, and I’ve been a stage manager in the Soulpepper Academy for the last two years. Before I was in the Academy, I was a stage manager in Montreal, and worked with a company called Players’ Theatre for over two years. I’ve been a fan of Soulpepper since I was about 14. I saw King Lear here three times, and when I accidentally sat beside Bill Webster at a performance of A Whistle in the Dark a few months later I was thrilled to death. When the Academy notice was posted, I almost couldn’t believe how good an opportunity it was. I interviewed with Albert Schultz, Leah Cherniak and Leslie Lester in Montreal and I shook so hard that I almost dropped the phone when Albert called to tell me that I had been accepted.

Tell us about your role in the Soulpepper Academy, and what you have learned over the past two years:

Over the last two years, my role in the Academy has been a mix of working as an apprentice on Soulpepper shows, and working with my fellow Academy members. It has been a really great experience to be able to do professional shows as well as smaller workshops, classes, and devised work with the Academy. I’ve been able to learn from some fantastic stage managers that I’ve worked with, as well as my fellow Academy members. I’ve really loved being able to learn such a variety of skills over the last two years. Our first six weeks in the Academy were spent doing scene work with renowned director László Marton, and since then I’ve been able to spend time in workshops for each discipline – acting, directing, designing and playwriting. It’s given me a great understanding of what each of those people contributes to the creation process of a show.

You’re currently the Apprentice Stage Manager for the two VideoCabaret shows happening now at Soulpepper – Trudeau and the FLQ and Trudeau and Lévesque. Tell us about that experience, especially working within their very specific kind of creative environment:

Working with VideoCabaret has been a fantastic experience. My job has mostly been to assist the ASM, Joanne Rumstein-Ellis, who doesn’t really need much assisting because she is fabulous. Together, we set the props for each scene (each scene usually has at least one prop, and there are around 100 scenes in each play), the costumes, wigs and make sure that the touch-up makeup booth behind the set is fully stocked.

Videocabaret is like no other company in the world. Their stage is a small forced-perspective black box, and their backstage is a tiny area built around the stage. Each actor has a ‘house’, where all their wigs and costumes are set. The actors have between four and 14 costumes per show (except Mac Fyfe in Trudeau and Lévesque, because he only plays Trudeau in that show), and each costume gets hung on a specific hook before the show starts. Things have to be exact because the plays move QUICKLY. Scenes average about one minute in length. A quick change isn’t classified as a quick change unless it has to be done in less than 30 seconds. I help Richard Alan Campbell for a quick change that must be done in 10 seconds, or he’ll be late for his next entrance. Oh, and we also operate in blue work lights, to avoid any light spills onto the stage. And when it goes black onstage, it goes black offstage. So we’re doing all this in the dark 50 per cent of the time. It gets hot and humid backstage with people running around, and with actors sometimes in three layers of pants (because of different changes coming up), we try and keep people cool by repurposing the big cardboard prop folders as fans, and refreshing ice packs at every break. These are easily the busiest shows I’ve worked on so far. It has been such a fantastic challenge.
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I think working at Soulpepper has been great training for working with most companies, including VideoCabaret. I’ve been given a great base of training here, and a lot of the skills I’ve learned from past stage managers I’ve been able to apply to my work with VideoCabaret. It was great to see Director Michael Hollingsworth and Associate Director Deanne Taylor working collaboratively with the actors and creative team. A lot of the actors working on these shows have been with VideoCabaret for many years, and have perfected the acting style that is required on their shows. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most talented, diligent and hilarious actors in the last two years, both at Soulpepper and VideoCabaret.

Both Soulpepper and VideoCabaret view the rehearsal process as a true collaboration between the creative team and the acting company.
I love this approach because you really get to see the show growing as a whole, not just in isolated parts. It’s really beautiful seeing how the actors influence the creative process, and vice versa.

The discipline required to be a VideoCabaret actor is truly spectacular. One of the comments that I’ve heard a lot from audience members leaving the theatre is “How do all those people fit back there?” They don’t realize that the 70+ characters brought to life every night are done by only 7 actors. That skill alone is worth coming to see.

The costumes, wigs and props are bigger than life, but a lot of Michael’s script is verbatim text, and those two things combined make for a style that emphasizes the ridiculousness of a lot of the dramatic situations, while still staying true to the nature of what happened in history. All of the historic events that you see onstage actually happened. Michael rewrote the script for this run, adding characters and plotlines — it was last performed 18 years ago, and new information has since come to light which affects the story. I think VideoCabaret plays should be part of the Canadian history curriculum.

And what’s up next for you?

After VideoCabaret closes, I move on to Soulpepper’s The Play’s the Thing, which is my first full Equity show as an assistant stage manager. After that closes in the fall, who knows! I’d love to stay with Soulpepper as long as I can. Whenever I come back to work after being away, it feels like coming home.

Interview compiled by Katie Saunoris. Trudeau and the FLQ and Trudeau and Lévesque from VideoCabaret have been extended to June 20. For tickets or more information visit Soulpepper.ca.

Leah Cherniak on The Dybbuk in rehearsal

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It has been a while since I’ve been on stage in a cast of this size. In The Dybbuk rehearsal hall we have Soulpepper Founding Members, actors from present and past Soulpepper Academies, regular company members and a few new faces. There are many different generations at work and it’s an exciting mix. I am also proud to be among the Jews in the cast. Although we rarely agree on anything, we provide pronunciations, lessons in history and customs, and Jewish jokes. And Albert Schultz, as our fearless director, brings unity and vision to the room.

For a show so dark and emotional, there is much laughter in the rehearsal hall. Albert allows for us to amuse each other and he also tells great stories. We are also ever-ready to explore with him his new staging ideas. For instance, at the end of last week we began experimenting with an original, exciting way to end the play. I’ll only say that light and dark are big themes in the play and every day we are finding more of this thematic resonance in the production.

As Associate Director of the Soulpepper Academy, it’s beautiful to watch some of this year’s Academy members, including Hailey Gillis and Colin Palangio, playing major parts and learning so much in rehearsal. Albert supports and directs them towards becoming the best actors they can be. It’s astonishing to watch them move from being young student actors to taking responsibility for big, powerful roles. I’m very moved by that – we all want to see them do their best. Somehow this seems to mirror themes in the play. Their characters are youthful, vulnerable and fresh; they’re the light in a story steeped in a dark and confusing world.

This play is strong in atmosphere and tone and so well-crafted by playwright Anton Piatigorsky. On the page it can seem strange, full of compelling mysticism and superstition. It doesn’t take long to become mesmerized by this world and the story of how a fearful and insular community struggles with destiny and justice. At its centre, The Dybbuk is a love story between two young people that haven’t spoken more than a few words to each other. But they feel a connection that we recognize as love at first sight, true love, and we also understand it as destiny.
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I love the arguments in the piece, the discussion that is being provoked between intellect and faith; the chafing of a younger generation in the face of a growing incomprehensible older one; the young are questioning the values of an increasingly old and weary community. This play also questions the validity of destiny and free will – like in a Greek play, or as in Shakespeare. So I find myself contemplating the concept of destiny. Really? A preordained future? A realizable purpose in life? Several times I’m reminded of forces beyond my control, and how frustrating that can seem. And yet at times it’s also comforting to surrender control to destiny!

With The Dybbuk we are performing some elegant, deceptively simple storytelling, and the play is deep and compelling. As we head into previews, I look forward to the experience of the audience, the inevitable transfer of a specific energy and pulse from the stage to the seats and back again.

Interview compiled by Katie Saunoris. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds is on stage from May 14 to June 18. Leah Cherniak, photo: Sandy Nicholson. In rehearsal, Colin Palangio and ensemble, photo: Nathan Kelly.

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