At the beginning of October, myself and my fellow Soulpepper Academy artists had the chance to complete a week-long masterclass in design dramaturgy with Michael Levine. Michael is a renowned Canadian scenographer based in London, England, but his work in theatre, dance and opera can be seen all over the world. I was familiar with Michael’s work having seen his designs for the COC’s remount of Götterdämmerung (the 3rd in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and the National Ballet’s production of Le Petit Prince, for which Michael was credited as ‘Set and Costume Designer’ and ‘Creative Concept’, alongside choreographer Guillaume Côté.
I was fascinated to meet Michael, having heard that his design practise was uniquely holistic, possibly due to his experience with London-based company Complicité who is known for their rigorous devised creations. I was excited for what insights Michael could share with our group about the potential of design to shape storytelling. From what I had seen of Michael’s designs, his work is less concerned with literal representation than with invoking the imaginations of the audience. This masterclass also marked a coming together for our Academy. It had been several months since all of our artistic disciplines had worked together in the same room.
Over the course of the week, we dove into analyzing the libretto for the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg. Michael knew the libretto inside and out having designed it himself several times. Wozzeck is regarded as one of the first 20th– century ‘avant-garde’ operas because it utilized dissonance and atonality to express the tragic and often deranged inner worlds of the characters. Its libretto and score were an ideal jumping off point to discuss different kinds of space that exist in the theatre.
Beyond literal space, we discussed emotional space, psychological space, dream, fantasy, metaphor, etc. After establishing this shared language to discuss space, we experimented at length with how design elements could evoke different kinds of space.
We discussed power dynamics within scenes, and asked ourselves how could these power dynamic manifest themselves physically. It became much easier to understand how the placement of one set piece might amplify a power dynamic between two people in space.
We spent most of the week on our feet, working with choral movement and exploring how the physical relationships between bodies can create dramatic tension. I think it was surprising to most how movement-oriented Michael’s work was with us! I believe this work is at the heart of what scenographers can provide; dynamic space that provides strong opportunities for performers.
We also took time to look at simple objects in the room, and discover how they could be transformed in a theatrical context. This kind of transformation has always seemed like magic to me. It was breathtaking to witness how the power of our imaginations can transform an object as unassuming as a table into a boat, a gurney, a canvas, a prison cell (and on and on), or how a few sheets of paper can transform into a soaring flock of birds.
Michael also facilitated skype calls with several of his London-based colleagues throughout the week. It was fantastic to get a sampling of so many artists’ unique perspectives on theatre making from different disciplines. Finally, we were able to look at the different properties of theatre lighting and what emotional qualities they bring. It was an incredible week, and I feel that we grew as an ensemble as a result of it. The lessons that Michael taught us left me feeling empowered and inspired to continue creating with this bright group of artists.
As September comes to a close, it is really hard to believe that we are half way done our Academy journey. We all often reflect back to our callback in April of 2016 and how the excitement we felt that weekend really hasn’t gone away. We’ve gone through a lot and grown so close as an ensemble.
This summer I got the opportunity to visit NYC and witness “Soulpepper on 42nd Street” at The Pershing Square Signature Center. I got to catch up with all of the artists and see Spoon River, Of Human Bondage, and Kim’s Convenience. It was so exciting to sit in an audience of New Yorkers and listen to them chat about how moved and inspired they were by the work Soulpepper was doing. I met one woman who was seeing Of Human Bondage for the third time!
When the Soulpepper family returned from NYC, we jumped right back into work. We spent six weeks working under the direction of Alan Dilworth, Soulpepper’s Associate Artistic Director. We worked on both Anne Carson’s Antigone and fellow Academy Member Sina Gilani’s adaptation of Iphegenia by Euripides. We took a group trip to Stratford to see Bakkhai and had a talkback with some of the cast.
In Soulpepper on screen news, I’m just finishing up a Cross Canada promotional tour for Kim’s Convenience season 2! We went to Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal, and capped it off in my hometown, St. John’s, Newfoundland. We spoke with theatre students at my alma mater, Gonzaga High School. I got to chat with them about my journey to Kim’s through meeting Albert and joining the Academy and share what we have been working on for the last year.
Moving forward, I’m practicing to truly take in every moment… we are so fortunate to be among Canada’s great theatre artists and I’m trying to sponge everything I can. As I walk into the building each day, I pause to acknowledge the opportunity Soulpepper has given us to learn and grow.
Soulpepper’s yearly City Youth Academy is a paid, intensive program, providing 10 young people (ages 16-19) with performance training, led by Soulpepper Artists. The young artists have five weeks of artistic skills training and development, and are paired with an Artist Mentor from Soulpepper’s artistic company. Over the course of the program, their instruction includes scene study, devised creation, and training in movement, music, ensemble, writing, rehearsal and performance. The program is designed to inspire personal creativity, artistic discipline, and to support young artists in the development of their own artistic practice.
This is one day in the life of the 2017 City Youth Academy:
Photo Diary by Soulpepper Marketing Intern Mia Tionko, recorded onsite at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in August, 2017. Visit Soulpepper.ca/youth for more information.
I am writing this on the train from Stratford to Toronto, whizzing past farmland. Three months ago I came to Stratford with my mentor and Soulpepper Associate Artistic Director Alan Dilworth to work on The Virgin Trial, premiering in few weeks. It is a sequel to Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, which premiered at Stratford two years ago and at Soulpepper this winter.
I’ve spent most of my time as a director in new play territory. Working to give life to worlds that have yet to come to the stage. While these processes have similarities, there is a constant presence of the unknown. How do you embrace it? Dance with it? Make it a part of the piece? Working as an assistant director on a new show is fascinating as I am privy to a team in ‘reveal’ mode. Every choice in terms of action, design, or new text, reveals more of the inherent nature of the play.
Something inherent in developing new work is that you must be open to the element of surprise. Even after workshops, and readings, the life of a new play isn’t revealed until weeks into rehearsal. Just as everyone starts to think they know what it is, it wants to be something else. New plays are delicate. The creative team shares their genesis in a very intricate way. There is no original to look back on; there is no precedent to compare to.
Years ago, a colleague said, “You can only polish dead things”. As with many quotes in theatre, the author is lost but it is wisdom I hold dear. What is most thrilling for me about new work is its infancy; it’s innate life that is trying to find its way into the light. Not to be polished, but be offered for the first time.
Katrina Darychuk – Directing Student in the Soulpepper Academy
Katrina Darychuk, photo: Bronwen Sharp. Maev Beaty & Joseph Ziegler, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann. Cast & Creative team of Stratford’s The Virgin Trial, photo supplied. Katrina Darychuk & Academy members, photo: Daniel Malavasi.
April 15th marked one year since the final audition stage for the 2016-2018 Soulpepper Academy. There were 30 of us, from across the country, selected from 1400 applications and 400 auditions! Most of us barely knew each other at the time. We were genuinely interested in getting to know each other, oh so polite, and annoyingly courteous. After 9 challenging, exhaustive months (working together) those sentiments have pretty much all gone. We know far too much about each other, and are constantly challenging and teasing one another. Recently, a Soulpepper company member referred to us as a “family” because of how boisterous our energy is when we’re around each other!
As I mentioned, the past 9 months have been CRAZY BUSY! Here’s a rundown of some highlights:
- We explored speaking Shakespearean text, specifically Romeo and Juliet, with Albert Schultz
- We sung O Canada, from a boat, while people watched and instagrammed us on Toronto Island
- We explored Greek Tragedy, specifically The Bacchae by Euripides, with Alan Dilworth
- We participated in one of Soulpepper’s most successful fundraising events ever
- We explored Vocal Masque with Dean Gilmour, one of the founders of Theatre Smith-Gilmour
- We contributed skits, songs, and story time to the 2016 Winter Waves festival, the highest attended WWF ever
- We explored Chekhov, particularly Three Sisters and The Seagull, with Daniel Brooks and Diego Matamoros
- We collectively devised a number of pieces, using Chekhov as the launch pad
- We currently are exploring Commedia dell’arte with Marcello Magni, one of the founders of Complicite
With our first year quickly coming to an end I wanted to share some photos, to give insight into how we manage as a group.
To learn more about the Soulpepper Academy visit soulpepper.ca.
Michelle Tracy, Hunter Cardinal, Danel Mousseau , Ellie Moon & Rosamund Small, photo: Marcel Stewart. Christef Desir, Marcel Stewart, Daniel Mousseau & Hunter Cardinal, photo: Marcel Steward. 2016/2018 Soulpepper Academy, photo: Ryan Emberley. Ghazal Azarbad, Marcel Stewart & Hunter Cardinal, photo supplied. Daniel Mousseau, Ghazel Azarbad, Nicole Power, Christef Desir & Hunter Cardinal, photo: Marcel Stewart. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Daniel Mousseau, Hunter Cardinal & Rose Tuong, photo: Marcel Stewart. James Smith, Marcel Stewart & Michelle Tracy, photo: Daniel Malavasi.
Here are a few highlights of where you’ll find Soulpepper Academy members and alumni making news.
Alexandra Lord (2018) is assisting Astrid Jansen with her design for Soulpepper’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange, directed by Djanet Sears.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (2012) is working with the Paprika Festival as a training day facilitator and as an Associate Producer on Paprika’s Intersection Conference. She is involved in ongoing projects with The Howland Company, and in May will be in Public Recordings’ Other Jesus, a new play by Evan Webber directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell.
Frank Cox-O’Connell (2015) is performing in the Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre, running March – April, and will be directing Other Jesus for Public Recordings.
Hailey Gillis (2015) and Peter Fernandes (2015) will be in The Musical Stage Company’s Onegin this May.
Ins Choi (2011) is head writer and co-show runner for CBC’s Kim’s Convenience TV show. Season two premieres September 2017.
Jennifer Villaverde (2008) is in YPT’s James and the Giant Peach, and will be at Soulpepper as Lead Instructor for the Soulpepper City Youth Academy, July 24 – Aug. 25.
Ken MacKenzie‘s (2011) set design can be seen on stage currently in Kim’s Convenience, and recently George Brown’s As You Like It and Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Katherine Gauthier (2015) has been working on the web series Running With Violet.
Marcel Stewart (2018) will be performing this March in Brock University’s re-enactment of the August Wilson vs Robert Burstein debate as August Wilson.
Michelle Tracey (2018) is set designing for Crawlspace a Soulpepper Solo Series production, and assisting Academy graduace Lorenzo Savoini (2008) with the upcoming Cage. She is also designing the set and costumes for University of Toronto’s opera Imeneo, by Handel in the Macmillan Theatre, directed by Tim Albery.
Mikaela Davies (2015) is one of Canadian Stage’s 2017 RBC Emerging Artist in their Director Development Residency, developing her solo show Facebook Anonymous. She is also creating and directing Mars Interviews with Polly Phokeev, and will be at the Stratford Festival in The Changeling, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Timon of Athens.
Nicolas Billon‘s (2008) X-Company is in its third season on CBC. His adaptation of Treasure Island will be premiering at Stratford this season and the award-winning Butcher, directed by Weyni Mengesha (2008), returns to Toronto as part of the Mirvish season.
Qasim Khan (2012) has been workshopping new work with Theatre Passe Muraille, Studio 180, Common Boots and Soulpepper. Upcoming, Qasim will be at Stratford Festival in Timon of Athens, The Changeling, The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Producer and performer Sascha Cole‘s (2018) HROSES: Outrage à la raison is in Toronto at the Waterworks running February 22 – March 4.
Shannon Lea Doyle (2015) has designs up with The Company Theatre (John), upcoming design with Crow’s Theatre for Breath in Between, and both I’m Doing This for You and Vimy at Soulpepper.
Thomas McKechnie‘s (2015) 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths will be touring to Victoria this May for UNO Fest.
Weyni Mengesha‘s (2008) direction can be seen on stage now in remounts including Kim’s Convenience at Soulpepper, and Butcher at Mirvish. This spring she will be directing Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots from the Sun at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.
We caught up with Soulpepper Academy designer Michelle Tracey, fresh from working on It’s a Wonderful Life, to tell us about upcoming projects she is engaged with:
I am very excited that the Soulpepper Academy has led to my involvement in the development & production of new work. I’ve had the opportunity to assist my mentor, Lorenzo Savoini with his design work for Cage, a new devised piece he is creating alongside Soulpepper resident artists Diego Matamoros, Richard Feren, and Shannon Litzenberger. It’s inspiring to see Soulpepper’s contribution to Canadian theatre move beyond re-envisionings of the classics into new work and new theatrical forms. I’m excited for a non-traditional, non-narrative piece like Cage to be shared with the theatre community in Toronto and in New York this coming summer.
Watching Lorenzo’s process of creation, development & realization has been a huge learning experience. Cage encourages audience members to re-experience space, sounds, feelings instead of filtering out things that are often a given: Engaging with so called ‘silence’ for instance, or paying attention to otherwise innocuous objects through Lorenzo’s design that essentially creates a laboratory… of sorts…for the creators to experiment in. For this project: I have built a detailed scale model of Lorenzo’s design… which by the way, was exhibited at Artscape Youngplace in the exhibit Toronto Design Offsite Festival: Performance Design (curated by Shannon Lea Doyle) … it’s new, it’s odd, it’s crazy!
Meanwhile, I’m designing two other pieces as part of my Academy curriculum. I’m designing the set and costumes for Imeneo, an opera by Handel that is being put on by U of T Opera Division. I am stoked that Soulpepper allowed and encouraged me to bring this contract into my Academy experience. For Imeneo, I am collaborating with director Tim Albery to create an intimate theatrical experience. We’ve taken a site-specific approach to the design by placing the audience onstage at the Macmillan Theatre to bring them as close as possible to the performers.
In addition, I’m designing the set for Crawlspace by Karen Hines, a Soulpepper Presents production in the Tank House Theatre (another new work!). Crawlspace is a one woman show about Karen Hine’s real experience buying a house in Toronto, and the grave impact it has had on her life. It was first produced at Videofag and has since been performed in peoples’ homes. I am collaborating with Karen on a design that will maintain a similar sense of immersion and intimacy. Stay tuned for more details to come!
By Sina Gilani
*Michelle is a Graduate of York University 2013 (Toronto), Design Intern with Tarragon Theatre 2013-2014 (Toronto), and a Member of the 2016-2018 Soulpepper Academy.