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Donor Profile: Matthew and Mondy Stevenson and family

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Donor history:  I donated to Soulpepper at the end of 2016, and it was my first donation to the company. However, I have been donating to various charities since I was a child. Philanthropy, although it was never referred to as such, was encouraged and supported by my parents for as long as I can remember.

How did you first learn about Soulpepper/What is you first memory of Soulpepper?

I have a memory of an acting company formed by Canadian actors in Toronto; I had never seen a production by Soulpepper until we went with our nephew from France to see The Sunshine Boys in 2012.

My sister who lives in the Maritimes was actually a catalyst to sparking my interest in Soulpepper. She mentioned to me that there are so many opportunities in Toronto to see live theatre and other cultural events. She used to travel here once or twice a year to see a play.

What inspired you to support Soulpepper?

My wife and I became season subscribers last year and enjoyed the plays very much. I have a true sense of an acting company at Soulpepper with actors appearing in different productions. I am also impressed by the encouragement offered by Soulpepper to other companies such as the Storefront Theatre’s production of Chasse Galerie and Why Not Theatre’s A Brimful of Asha.  Above all else, we have seen some amazing productions: Jitters, Happy Place, The 39 Steps, Spoon River, and Of Human Bondage just to name a few.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about giving to Soulpepper? And, why do you think the arts should be a priority for philanthropy?

Please donate now, don’t wait. The arts in Canada are underfunded so every little bit helps. Artists need a space and a place to express their creativity. Soulpepper nourishes that creativity through their many youth programs, the Soulpepper Academy, and their artist residencies. Plus Soulpepper is a not-for-profit theatre company.

How do you imagine Soulpepper in 10 years?

Extended footprint but still in the Distillery District.

More Canada-wide touring initiatives.

Well received in-house developed productions.

Albert continuing to sing and tour Frankly, Sinatra (as  he does without the use of Old Blue Eyes’ teleprompter).

On Returning to The Last Wife, by Bahia Watson

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It’s always new. With theatre, with great writing, it’s always new. Old choices have to be reconsidered, new choices have to be made. Every moment has to be navigated through; feelings found again. This is a good thing.

It’s been over a year since we premiered and closed The Last Wife at the Stratford Festival and a lot of evolution (or devolution) can happen in a trip around the sun. While we are blessed to be reunited with almost the entire star-filled company, the truth doesn’t stay put, that’s what I’m learning. Truth moves as context widens with time, for those who pay attention. The world is different today than it was when we first dove into the court of the Tudors and the life and often neglected contributions of Katherine Parr. For myself, I can say that my relationship to, and understanding of, power structures have broadened (for one, I’ve been introduced to Noam Chomsky). The fact that a man named Donald Trump has become president-elect of “the most powerful nation in the world”, winning against the most qualified presidential candidate in US history – who also happens to be a woman – changes the exploration of oligarchy and monarchy and patriarchy. I continue to be awakened to the diverse and persistent forces that seek to suppress the female half of our species, and alienate them from power.

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And then there’s Bess, the princess I have become very acquainted with and will continue to grow within this summer in the subsequent piece to this play: ‘The Virgin Trial’. Elizabeth I, future Queen of England, who ruled well and long and, ignoring precedent and resounding advice, chose not to marry because she knew that a man at her side would only serve to undermine her power and destiny. What a fascinating amount of self-confidence and self-assuredness she must’ve held to defy those expectations – especially considering this was five hundred years ago. At the same time, I can’t help but see how little has changed since then. She is still, in many minds, an exception to the rule of women, which is, according to patriarchy: being less capable and deserving than men at holding and wielding power.

It’s so funny though – in the perplexing (and vexing) and not haha way – because all I see around me are women who seriously rule. And then I find myself back where I was when I first read this play: in a refreshing imagining of history according to Kate Hennig, the playwright. Alongside her we continue onwards, lit with a determination to break through, to make change, to rule, and to resist any assumptions to the contrary.

The Last Wife is on stage January 20 – February 11. Learn more here.

Bahia Watson, photo supplied. The Last Wife illustration: Gracia Lam.

Alexandra Lord and the creation of Functional/Nostalgic space

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It has been so interesting to work with Lorenzo as he designs a recording studio from the 1940s as the set for the radio-drama version of It’s A Wonderful Life. We are working on a functional yet nostalgic space where this timeless Christmas story can come alive in the mind’s eye of every audience member. Each prop that you will see on the stage will be used by the actors to create live sound affects along with some incredible voice acting which will transport you to the Bedford Falls of your imagination.

I have been building the model for Lorenzo and assisting him with sourcing practical lights and choosing paint colours for the set. We have started collaborating with the sound designer on the show, John Gzowski, making sure we have all the specialized props we need for the actors to start making radio magic as soon as rehearsals start. The incredible fun of this show will be witnessing the wacky ways certain familiar sounds are made. My favourite so far is a pillow case full of corn starch being used for footsteps on snow.

One of the best things about my time in the Soulpepper Academy so far is the chance to work with specialists such as John and Lorenzo. This is my first time working on a show with such detailed foley and it is my first time building a box set model. I am really enjoying learning Lorenzo’s tricks of the trade.

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Here is a sneak peak of the preliminary model. The final one will be presented on the first day of rehearsals, in just over a week. Bring on the holiday production season!

It’s a Wonderful Life is on stage December 9. Learn more here: soulpepper.ca. Alexandra Lord, photo: Bronwen Sharp.

Peter Fernandes on The Just

Soulpepper Academy Graduate Peter Fernandes shares his insights on The Just, a world premiere translation of Camus by Bobby Theodore opening this March.

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The Just is about a group of revolutionaries planning the assassination of a Grand Duke during the Russian Revolution. The play and its characters are based on real people and events carried out by the Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1905. At its core, it is an intimate look at the moral toll of being a terrorist or revolutionary and standing up for one’s ideals when confronted with the task of taking another person’s life. Camus gives the audience opposing perspectives centered on the forces that motivate people to want change, what it really takes to instigate change, and the moral consequences of revolutionary action.

Many of the artists in our production of The Just, including myself, have been involved with the piece for over a year and a half. Director Frank Cox-O’Connell has long worked with Bobby Theodore on this new translation and we’ve had the benefit of several readings and explorations of the text prior to rehearsal. Being given so much development time to dive into the large ideas of this work has been incredibly rewarding: just when you think you’ve got a handle on these characters, something will shift, opening up a whole new series of questions. So between our in-depth look at the piece last fall and the beginning of this run, we’ve been allowed to digest and interpret our questions, returning to rehearsal with a more well-rounded perspective. We continue to discuss the moral complexities of this play, making the world we’re playing in clearer and more vivid.

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A word I have heard a lot of recently is “Slacktivism” which is an act of showing support for a political or social cause (usually on the internet) that requires little to no effort. There is a lot of talk about wanting change, but discussions will stop at the actions required to instigate that change and at the ramifications of those actions. We rarely consider the injustices that push people who want change so passionately they feel forced to resort to violence. We rarely consider the moral, physical, and psychological toll that committing an act of revolution or terror would have on our loved ones and ourselves. This play sheds a light on a radical idea and challenges the audience to come face to face with its questions and uncertainties.

See Peter in The Just from March 5 to March 26, 2016.

Peter Fernandes photo: Daniel Malavasi. Illustration: Gracia Lam.

Five Questions for Miquelon Rodriguez

Five Questions for Miquelon Rodriguez, making his Soulpepper debut as Chester in Cowboy Versus Samurai

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How does it feel to join the Soulpepper Company?
Being a part of this show and this company has been unreal, so far. To say that “it’s a dream come true” wouldn’t even be accurate because I’ve never dreamed I’d get a chance to work with a company like Soulpepper. As an actor of colour, an opportunity of this magnitude is very rare for me and to be doing this show with this company definitely makes me feel the self-pressure to bring work that’s better than my best. But coming to work every day, knowing that this show IS my every day is amazing.

Tell us about your character in Cowboy Versus Samurai:
Chester is an oddball, to say the least, but he is passionate about his beliefs, even if they are controversial. And that translates into a very fun character to play. There are definitely some aspects to him to which I personally relate, and others that I couldn’t disagree with more, but all of it makes sense to this person trying to discover his identity. He’s described as militant and “Che Gueverran” and we’ve definitely explored that aspect of him, but we’ve also discovered a different, slightly unexpected edge to his demeanour and voice that has been hilarious and exciting to play. No spoilers though, you’ll have to see for yourself!

Tell us more about Cowboy Versus Samurai:
Ins Choi (Director of the show) and Jenna Rodgers (Artistic Director of Chromatic Theatre, Calgary) invited me to read this play almost three years ago and I fell in love with the script. I love the humour, the discussions about love and being the “other” and, of course, that it has a 75% Asian cast of characters! (Seriously, when’s the last time you saw Asian leads on stage in a rom-com?)

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What is it like working with Soulpepper Resident Artist Ins Choi?
Once upon a time in 2011, I was in a Toronto Fringe show called Shotgun Wedding. It was so popular that people lined up hours in advance to try to get tickets at the door. But the hype of it was a distant second to this other Fringe show called Kim’s Convenience. And that was my introduction to Ins: the guy who made the show that was outperforming my show. (In fact, patrons called us “Kim’s Convenience, Jr.”) But later that year, I was lucky enough to briefly work as an actor under his direction for another show. He’s a mentor I want to work with and learn from as much as possible. And I want to be Ins when I grow up! (If I ever grow up, that is.)

But seriously, Ins is so insightful, kind, and helpful, and it’s easy to work with him. He makes the process feel so inclusive and I think the way he conducts rehearsals really draws out the best work from all of us. Bringing this show to life truly feels like a collaborative effort with Ins. He has helped pave the way for actors like Rosie, Jonathan, and myself, and to be able to work with him is the actual dream come true.

What else do audiences need to know about Cowboy Versus Samurai?
Cowboy Versus Samurai is quirky, subversive, humorous and a lot of fun. It taps into some very real conversations about love and attraction that I think everyone has had at some point (especially those of us who have ever thought that they would never have a chance with that out-of-their-league “crush”). It explores how race affects love (and how it doesn’t) but in ways that are real and not preach-y.

And if you’ve ever wanted to see a big, goofy Filipino dude try to do his best Bruce Lee impression, this is the place to see it.

Cowboy Versus Samurai is on stage from January 26 to February 20. For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca.

Miquelon Rodriguez, photo: supplied. Cowboy Versus Samurai illustration: Gracia Lam.

The Inside Scoop on Alligator Pie

Soulpepper Academy Grad & Alligator Pie Ensemble Member Qasim Khan gives us the inside scoop on Alligator Pie at the Family Festival:

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This remount has an entirely new cast, and the cast and the directors are all Soulpepper Academy graduates. Tell us what rehearsals have been like, and what it’s like working with other Academy peers.

You know that feeling of going to a family dinner after not seeing the entire clan for a while? For me it’s a combination of excitement, nerves, and a bit of giddiness, and that’s what returning to Soulpepper to work on Alligator Pie feels like. This is my first show back with the company since graduating from the Academy in 2012, and I am having a blast.

This version of the show is the ultimate Academy experience because it was created and performed originally by five Academy graduates, and now those same five are teaching it to another group of Academy graduates. Working with four generations of Academy peers feels like I am working with the coolest, most talented members of a kind of family, even if most of us have never actually worked together. There’s a creative language, sense of humor, and an ability to play that ties all of us together, even though we are all so different. We all learned the same kind of storytelling skills at the Academy, so it’s way easier to trust each other in rehearsal right off the bat.

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Tell us about your character, and the things you have to do, or have had to learn for this production. 

Alligator Pie is centered on five people who arrive at the ultimate playroom – a theatre – and who happen to all love playing with each other, almost like kids with their best friends. I play the role of *drumroll please* Qasim Khan…. In past productions, that character was called Gregory Prest, and I would argue that this is the most challenging, complicated, and intelligent character in the piece – think Hamlet crossed with a Muppet.

Each character in the show was tailor-made by, and for, the original creators. Gregory is not only an amazing actor, but he’s a really gifted musician, which came in handy for pieces like “Penny In My Purse,” a number where he plays an accordion, or “The Cat and the Wizard,” where he accompanied the story on clarinet. I played the clarinet in high school, but never in my life have I touched an accordion. That is until two weeks ago! So far I’ve learned the accordion, and played more clarinet than I have since I was 14.

There are some similarities between each original creator and each new actor, but there’s a new energy that the five of us are bringing to this year’s show, and that has been fun to explore.

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What is your favourite piece in the show and why? 

Every time we rehearse the piece I get excited and fall in love with different parts. Today, my favorite piece in the show is called “I Remember” and I love it because it encompasses everything I felt about the show when I first saw it. It’s a beautiful song that recalls the simplicity of friendship, and it’s staged in the simplest way: using a few umbrellas. Children are mesmerized because of the staging and the action that they are seeing, and adults are moved because of the message of the song. The piece is powerful and resonates on some level with everyone in the audience, and it reflects the core of Alligator Pie.

Why should families come down to experience this show at the Young Centre? 

Alligator Pie strikes a chord with everyone that watches it. Our younger audience members will sit in wonder at some of the magic that we create on stage, and adults will fall in love with the touching poems of Dennis Lee. It’s a celebration of friendship, play, and childhood, and that’s what makes it the perfect piece to bring your family to.

Alligator Pie runs until January 3 as part of the Soulpepper Family Festival. Hear a preview of the show here.

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Images: Alligator Pie ensemble. Qasim Khan. Alligator Pie ensemble. Qasim Khan. Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Concert in Magic

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Although magicians are fond of saying that a magician is really an actor playing the part of a magician, I believe that magic – at least fine sleight-of-hand – has a greater kinship to music than it does to acting.

Sure, one is playing a character onstage even if that character is one’s self – or, in my case, a “likeable eccentric.” But for magic to really shine, that is, to resonate, I believe it should have a lyrical quality that manipulates emotion, just as a melody does for music. Timing, pacing, rhythm and dynamic range not only enhance the experience, but they also add layers of texture to the deception.

Tricks is a concert of magic in other ways.

As I have alluded to previously, the very pieces that I have elected to perform represent the magic equivalent of the “Great American Songbook.” But, instead of being works by Gershwin, Arlen and Cahn, I turned to magical “composers” such as Alexander Herrmann, Charles Bertram, Dai Vernon and Robert Harbin for my inspiration.

I’ve cherry picked the great compositions from hundreds of years of magic history, and arranged them – working on some of these “charts” for decades – for Tricks. So, if the work shines, it is because I’ve built upon work created by unheralded “composers.”

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Another way Tricks is like a concert is that it features a lot of music composed and performed (largely) by John Lang. I enjoy the creative process that we go through together to bring a piece of magic to life. I choreograph the magic, and from there, John composes “on demand” – adding yet another dimension or layer to the look and feel of the show. So, when I wanted a piece that sounded like a Nelson Riddle arrangement of a tune performed by Count Basie for Sinatra at the Sands circa 1963 – he delivered. John Lang is a real magician!

So come and see (and hear) for yourself this December.

– David Ben

Tricks is part of Soulpepper’s Family Festival and is onstage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts from December 5 – January 3. Click Here to buy tickets.

David Ben, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.