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All the world’s a stage: from campus theatre to New York, and now across the pond

U of T alumni direct and take their play, zounds!, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
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Poster for zounds! designed by Akili Brown./IMAGE COURTESY OF VERONIKA GRIBANOVA.
Poster for zounds! designed by Akili Brown./IMAGE COURTESY OF VERONIKA GRIBANOVA.

Veronika Gribanova and Jacob Levitt are both U of T alumni, and were heavily involved in the theatre scene during their years on campus. Now, they are transferring their love of the arts and their directorial skills across the pond this summer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ⁠— the world’s largest festival for arts and culture. 

They sat down with The Varsity to discuss their show, zounds!, their directorial relationship, and the jump from campus theatre to New York. 

The Varsity: Firstly, what is zounds! about? 

Veronika Gribanova: zounds! is a comedy about the Greek gods during the Trojan War, set in the present. In the ninth year, when Aphrodite is injured in battle, Zeus puts the gods under house arrest on Mount Olympus.

Jacob Levitt: Think Big Brother: Greek Gods edition. It features 13 gods, Helen of Troy, and a Greek chorus, and is a political comedy about power, love, and (literal) sacrifices.

TV: That sounds brilliant. I bet it was fun to write. Can you expand on the creative process of how zounds! ended up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

VG: I wrote it for my company in New York, Floor Five Theatre Company. We knew we wanted to put on a show with a large cast, because the company had 27 people at the time, so I wrote this 18 person play — which was a bit insane. I mean, everyone kept telling us this was a stupid thing to do. But our company is nothing if not strong-willed, so, against all odds, we premiered the show in the Atlantic Stage 2 and had a sold-out run. Then, because that wasn’t difficult enough, we said: “let’s take it abroad.”

TV: You are both co-directing zounds!. Did you know that you would be taking on this massive project when you first met on the U of T campus stage?

JL: We knew from the moment we first worked together that our dynamic was of a nature one might call “productively dysfunctional.” So we pushed that dynamic to its logical limit and did as many shows as we could together.

VG: With Jacob and I, it was hate at first sight. So we thought it would be funny to keep working together. I directed Jacob in Trojan Barbie for the Victoria College Drama Society, then we directed Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion for The St. Michael’s College Troubadours. 

JL: Then we took our talents to the Toronto Fringe Festival with Veronika’s own piece, Lover Lover.

VG: And now we’ve arrived at my play zounds!. I’ve since moved to New York and mostly work there, so I had to convince Jacob to not only come to Edinburgh but to come to New York for the rehearsal process.

TV: Other than U of T campus theatre, what else have you done to help get you ready for the Fringe?

VG: I’ve actually worked on a few shows for the Toronto Fringe. Those were a good warm-up for this… although I don’t know how much we can really be prepared. The Edinburgh Fringe has over 3,000 shows each day and is the largest arts festival in the world. That’s a bit daunting.

JL: It is truly massive, and trying to find our foothold in it all will probably be our biggest challenge, second only to the rehearsal process itself! But it is an occasion to which we are willing to rise. So yes, daunting, but also exciting.

TV: What has the transition from campus theatre to theatre in the big, real world been like?

VG: People don’t yell as much in the professional world. That’s something that surprised me when I left university. Campus theatre has a lot of stressed-out people yelling. At one point, I was one of them! My lovely stage manager Shashwat Sharma told me to stop freaking the actors out. Everyone is quite calm on professional productions and on shoots. The other big difference is that now I have to fund my own work. I miss that campus funding, yo!

JL: It’s also refreshing to work with a cast and crew that is almost if not entirely made up of people dedicated to establishing their own career in professional theatre. Also funding.

TV: Can you describe your directorial journey? What steps have you taken from directing campus shows at U of T to directing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

VG: Well, besides our show Lover Lover in Toronto, I’ve been working on productions in New York for the past few years. I’ve mostly been writing, acting, and producing, but doing a bit of directing as well, primarily on film. 

I wrote and directed a web series called Art is Dead that’s now being released (also co-produced with Berenice Odriozola), and wrote and directed a short called November Burns Red that’s now in post. And I recently graduated from Atlantic Theater Company’s 2.5-year conservatory program ⁠— the training and teachers there were really spectacular. So I feel as prepared as I can be for something as big as this.

JL: For me, it started with a job at a summer camp as a creative and cultural director, where I had to help write, produce, and direct half a dozen shows over the course of a summer term. Throw in some directorial roles with Veronika, a few avant-garde performative murder mystery events, and one might call me a bit of a directorial journeyman.

TV: How did taking zounds! to the Fringe Festival come about?

VG: After I finished the Toronto Fringe in 2017 I said, “I’m never doing another Fringe Festival!” And I actually don’t remember how this happened. I know someone in my company suggested it sometime last year. Then, when we closed our production of the show in December, we felt it wasn’t the end and wanted the play to have another life. So our team of three producers ⁠— including myself, Berenice Odriozola, and Ana Guzmán Quintero ⁠— applied this winter, and were accepted by theSpaceUK to perform in one of their venues.

TV: Why is community in theatre so important? 

VG: In our individualistic and ego-driven culture, collaboration and connection are rare. I’ve been blessed with these challenges in my artistic life. And it is a challenge. Collaboration, connection. It is sitting in a room with the 25 other artists in your company and remembering why you decided to come together. It is remembering to meet each other again. It is listening. It is killing your ego. Every day is a new chance to fail at all of the above challenges, and I feel lucky to have this chance.

JL: The size of an ensemble production like this one can in a way form its own microcosmic theatre community. The characteristics of a successful production can then mirror the characteristics that one should want and expect in a theatre community as a whole. Trust and respect, while buzzwords, are at the heart of any good production. I know I like to see bravery in the decisions actors make, while in equal measure seeing their restraint and support of the cast and crew around them.   

TV: And what about the cast and crew? 

VG: As for our cast and crew ⁠— we have a talented pair of sisters in our cast! Ana Guzmán Quintero plays Athena and is also one of the producers, and Luisa Guzmán Quintero joins the cast as Helen. Ana studied alongside me at the Atlantic Acting School and Luisa studied at The Lee Strasberg Institute, which teach pretty much opposing acting techniques. I’ve always found it funny that they chose such vastly different schools. I’m so excited to have both of them on the team! I’m also especially grateful for Berenice Odriozola, who is acting as Demeter, for producing the show and acting as Head of Marketing for the whole company. She’s the busiest lady I know but wears all her hats so well. 

TV: Are you nervous for the Fringe? Excited? Awestruck? Tell me all of your feelings… but only in three words.

JL: Only three words. That’ll be tricky. Three words? Okay. Got it. First word: “Inspiring.” Second word: “Huge.” Third word: “Once-in-a-lifetime.”

VG: What he said.

TV: How can tickets for zounds! be bought? When is it being performed?

VG & JL: Tickets can be bought here! It’s being performed from August 2 to 10 (blackout August 4) in Edinburgh at theSpaceUK.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.