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What it means to be Out at School

U of T professor turns research project into play for Pride Month

What it means to be <i>Out at School</i>

The Nexus Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, is intimate in size but offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto. The room is encircled by large glass windows, which allow the sun to linger over the stage set in the middle of the space. In this setting, the stage itself feels closed off from the outside world, yet simultaneously above it.

At the Lounge, I recently viewed U of T Professor Tara Goldstein’s latest “performed ethnography,” titled Out at School and put on as part of Toronto Pride celebrations. According to promotional materials, Out at School is “a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families about their experiences in Ontario elementary and secondary schools.” 

The play took place on a hot Saturday evening in June, in the middle of Pride Month, and highlighted the narratives of 37 families interviewed by Goldstein’s team. This research project took the experiences of these families and wove them together into dramatized production, resulting in a story of hope.

When I first entered, the room was humming with the noise of multiple conversations amongst the various families, friends, and peers who had just finished watching the afternoon performance of the show. I was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity and welcomeness ⁠— it felt as though I had stepped into a family gathering. Professor Goldstein and her partner tended to a table of refreshments and chatted with attendees, and I was immediately greeted with hugs and multiple offers to grab a snack. 

Following the show, I inevitably realized that this was exactly how Out at School is supposed to make you feel: as though you belong. And although I did not know many of the people in the room, I noticed that the audience was largely composed of large groups of families and friends of the performers, which made the show all the more intimate. 

Goldstein and her team successfully built a safe and positive space for all, regardless of background, and invited the audience to simply listen to what her research had to say. What really fascinated me was how this play was a product of the intersection between scholarship and creativity: a product of Goldstein’s own academic pursuits but expressed in a way that is easily digestible by anybody. As simply put in the program for the play, this was “where theatre meets research.”

This was an intentional and tactful choice. As Goldstein told me, the play “is what we call a verbatim play because we only use the words [from] the interviews [with LGBTQ+ families].” They, of course, edit and thematize the interviews in the process of adding music and images. Nevertheless, she explained that “Every single one of those words [was] spoken by one of our families.”

In highlighting the voices of real Ontario students and families, this play offered a refreshing addition to Toronto Pride ⁠— one made all the more political in light of Doug Ford’s cutbacks to the Ontario education budget and changes to the sex education curriculum.  

When they introduced the play, the directors explained that it was a “relaxed performance.” This was an apt description. It felt like listening to a friend talk rather than a staged event: there were no microphones, and the stage was empty, save for chairs arranged in a semicircle and a slide show behind the cast that displayed original artwork for each scene. This also made each scene feel like a support group.

Performers sharing their stories on stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAR WELLS

I was fond of this idea because it reflected how personal the stories in the play really were, and emphasized that verbatim accounts were being used. Furthermore, the use of direct quotes from the interviews conducted in Goldstein’s research project powerfully conveyed the honesty and personality in the stories shared onstage. 

Out at School highlights the shortcomings of the Ontario education system in supporting LGBTQ+ students and families in a meaningful way. In an interview after the show, Goldstein explained how her research particularly reflects this. “We heard a lot of parents talk about making strategic decisions of when to come out or not,” she told me. “To be out means you can talk very directly with the school system about how to support your family. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to be rejected you may choose not to come out.” 

This means that the choice to come or not depends heavily on the school culture, which in turn is fostered by the educators and the curriculum they teach. For example, Goldstein explained, “We’ve had some students talk about how during elementary school everybody knew they came from a family with two mums, but when they changed to high school they would wait and see if there was a social cue that made it safe for them to talk about their family.” 

The stories I had the opportunity to hear were not just about hardship and pain, but resilience and advocacy. Although this kind of advocacy might work in small ways, the minute changes made can come together to make a real difference in the lives of many in the community. This is the message that Goldstein not only tries to convey in her writing, but also incorporates in her own way of teaching here at U of T. 

As she told me, “When you’re working with teachers, if you do this work with one teacher, you could have an impact, if they’re in elementary school, on 30 [students] and families, and if they are a secondary school teacher you could have an impact on 150 to 200 students and family lives.” She explained that although schools constitute the locus of her activism, she also wants “the issues to be talked about outside of schools and [her] own classroom.”

After all, she told me, that desire to reach a wider community informed their decision to stage the research project as a play, and is why they are considering putting the play on in Ontario schools. 

This demonstrates how the changes Goldstein and other LGBTQ+ advocates hope to see must begin with smaller, localized communities. Furthermore, safe spaces need to be a reflection of the population around us. From there, larger-scale reforms can be staged to make schools more comfortable places for everyone.

This is the kind of change Goldstein witnessed while teaching at U of T. When asked about the connections between the play and the university, she recalled the multiple progressive changes that have taken place at U of T in recent years. “I have watched the growth of the sexual diversity program at the U of T from the very beginning,” she told me.

“As the program grew and students started to join [it], they were the ones who advocated for more resources.” She smiled. “A number of people here today are looking out the windows of OISE, and noticed the Pride flag and the trans flag flying at Varsity Stadium; that meant a lot to people because they hadn’t realized U of T would celebrate Pride in that way ⁠— big and proud.”

“Big and proud” is the message of hope echoed at the very end of the play. Movingly, each member of the production stood up and said what they hope to see change in the future. A desire for change has been expressed in many different ways during the past few months, given the actions of the Ford government. With budget cuts that threaten the current education system, Goldstein highlighted the 2012 Accepting Schools Act as something more hopeful.

As she explained, “Despite Doug Ford’s ideas about curriculum, we still have the 2012 [Accepting] Schools Act, which requires all schools and all teachers to keep all kids safe.” Goldstein paused, then continued. “If that’s going to happen, we have to talk about LGBTQ+ lives.”

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2019

Another year of excellent student theatre

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2019

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The beginning: Hart House hosts the annual U of T Drama Festival

Ranking from best to worst: The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival took centre stage, with An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape and Jews in Baseball: The Musical following closely behind.

The U of T Drama Festival is a wonderful showcase of student talent, with one-act shows entirely written, produced, and performed by students, who give up whatever free time they have outside of classes to create dramatic art. But, as often as such restrictions produce incredible creativity, the three shows that kicked off this year’s festival did not rise to the occasion.

Jews in Baseball: The Musical — independent submission by Angelo O. O’Leary and Lenny Rosenbloom

The first show of the night and of the festival was Jews in Baseball: The Musical, an independent submission from audience favourites Tristan Bannerman and Leo Morgenstern, operating under the pseudonyms of Angelo O. O’Leary and Lenny Rosenbloom. The show functions in the realm of metatheatre, beginning with the musical’s ending, and morphing into a pseudo Q&A with the playwrights, led by New York Times theatre critic Noah Goldman (Funké Joseph), who does a good job of keeping his cool while Morgenstern and Bannerman play comedians. If it sounds a little messy, that’s because it is.

There are funny moments, certainly, but Morgenstern and Bannerman’s comedic efforts are overall hit-and-miss, and it is unclear what the show is ultimately about, if anything at all. Is there a comment on Judaism and Judaic identity buried somewhere within? If so, it is truly buried. A misplaced Holocaust joke that could have functioned as commentary on the lack of knowledge that millennials polled about the genocide display merely served as yet another attempt at generating rather inappropriate laughter. Perhaps the show is meant to be ‘theatre for theatre’s sake,’ in which case it has its funny moments, but even those feel forced.  

Morgenstern and Bannerman are clearly talented writers and actors who work well together, but this show fails to exhibit the full extent of their abilities. While Jews in Baseball can be funny and creative, it can also feel like a vanity project. Overall, it feels like the show needs more time in the workshop stage before hitting the stage stage. In terms of production, there are no notable elements; the set is sparse save for a few chairs, a table, and a carpet for the interview portion of the show. A brief shining moment is the appearance of Gianni Sallese as the charismatic mayor in the musical Jews in Baseball that opens Jews in Baseball: The Musical. I know — it’s confusing.

An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape — Ember Island Players

Following the attempt at metatheatrical comedy was the Ember Island Players’ drama, An Other Tries To Speak: A Theatrical Mixtape. This performance was composed of a series of vignettes, each of which seemed to question the grander theme of identity — particularly, Asian identity. Unfortunately, the Ember Island Players chose a very difficult form to portray on stage. Vignettes function well if there is a clear overarching theme that comes through, such as in Amazon’s TV series The Romanoffs, or if they are given a framework within which to make no sense. Of these vignettes, Nam Nguyen’s “F*ck the Ch*nks” and Sam Zhu’s “PTA” most clearly asked questions of how past experiences and other people’s actions influence our own identities while Wilfred Moeschter’s “Clean Whites” provided an amusing commentary on the often racist content available on networks like Fox News. Although their attempts to portray the intangible aspects of identity are appreciated, Priyam Balsara’s “Farramoor” and Shi Yi’s “Cafe au Lait” were the most confusing by far.

While An Other Tries to Speak is commendable for its attempts to embody the grand themes of identity and belonging, it falls short of this goal and leaves the audience in a state of confusion instead. The production does not clearly ask questions of yearning or discovery, thus failing to induce such self-reflection in the audience. Perhaps with some refinement, these questions could come through more clearly. Staging is overall strong, with a good use of sparse props. An enjoyable musical performance concludes the show, and perhaps most clearly articulates what it means to be Asian-Canadian: a phenomenon of both knowing and not knowing your own culture — the song is sung in an Asian language that the onstage narrator admits he cannot understand. A strong performance by Moeschter stands out, but is lost in the overall confusion of the drama.

The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival U of T Improv

Concluding the evening was a production by U of T Improv titled The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival. It must be noted that it is challenging to compare improvisational theatre performances with other productions that have been written and repeatedly rehearsed for the purpose of this festival. Improv is, well, improv. Nonetheless, this show managed to rise to the top of the evening. Another metatheatrical commentary, this time on the drama festival itself, the show was structured as an evening at the McGill University Drama Festival, where three dramas would be performed.

The show began with a welcome from the McGill Drama Festival coordinators, mimicking the very opening of this year’s U of T Drama Festival. As is typical of improv, the audience was enlisted to determine what the three performances would be. “Lesbian Speed Date from Hell,” “The Bottomless Pit in the Back Corner of Nick’s Speak Easy,” and “Arcadia” were selected from the six possibilities listed in the program, although none of these titles were in any way suggestive of their content. Regardless, each skit was quite funny, and the performers played off each impressively. Backgrounds were projected onto the screen at the back of the stage for a rough idea of location, although these settings were prone to change, as is the style of improv. Apart from these projections, the show did not make use of any props — again, in the style of improv. The performers mimed any necessary props, a tactic that functioned perfectly well and left no yearning for stage props.

Due to the nature of the show, nonsense was to be expected, and it overall worked quite well. The skits were followed by pseudo-adjudications, cementing their metatheatricality in a coherent and amusing manner. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine this production qualifying for any of the awards that will be presented to festival performances. Best direction? It’s there, but merely as a guiding framework for the performers. Playwriting? Again, pretty minimal. The reproducibility of this show is highly questionable. Best performance, maybe? No one is on stage long enough! It is perhaps ironic then that The 2nd Annual 2018 McGill Drama Festival still managed to rise to the top in terms of quality for the evening.

So, the Drama Festival began with a few bumps along the way, but what truly matters is that it exists as a platform for students to showcase their creative energies. There are strong elements in all of these shows that could find a better outlet in a different production.

— Hannah Lank, Varsity Theatre Critic


The middle: three new productions took to the stage Friday night for the festival

Ranking from best to worst: After Icarus, Statistics, Outstretched

The second night of U of T’s annual drama festival was held at Hart House Theatre on Friday, with three new one-act plays performed.

For one weekend every February, the drama festival provides a showcase for young talent to present original work by writing, directing, producing, and performing their own plays. It is an important and accessible way for students to see their ideas come to life and showcase them to an audience on a large stage. In this way, inspired young artists are able to create and share in a remarkable few evenings of art.

This year, the festival was adjudicated by Autumn Smith, an artist, innovator, director, curator, educator, and former adjudicator of the National Theatre School. As a professional in the industry, Smith was on hand every night to offer valuable feedback for each performance. Smith also conducted the awards ceremony after the final performances on Saturday night.

The shows are competing for a number of awards, including the IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement, the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance, the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction, the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award, the President’s Award for Best Production, and Awards of Merit. There is also a Viewer’s Choice Award, which gives the audience the chance to vote for their favourite production from each night.

The three hour-long plays featured on Friday were Statistics, Outstretched, and After Icarus, which covered a range of topics and themes, from scientific discovery and perseverance in Statistics, to loss and relationships in Outstretched, and resilience and the fight for freedom in After Icarus. Identity and memory played large roles in all of the plays.

After Icarus — the UTM Drama Club

Written by Max Ackerman and directed by Mackenzie Burton, this show is a parable on captivity and how it can be both a blessing and a curse. In After Icarus, the two main characters, Abe (Kael Buren) and Moe (Mo Zeighami), leave the dystopian regime that they’re living in to pursue a life of freedom in the outside world, while recalling the good and bad memories of their old home.

The show feels more like a movie than a play and is reminiscent of post-apocalyptic films like the Hunger Games. It portrays the struggle for power between people and government through war and death, and effectively demonstrates how, in some situations, we must leave the comfort of our homes to be safe. The actors were confident and comedic in their roles, while a moody set design and sound effects added interactive elements that made the audience feel like a part of the story.

Of the performances on the second night of the festival, After Icarus stood out as the most noteworthy show overall. The production was cinematic and captivating from beginning to end, with incredible performances by Buren and Zeighami. I believe it deserves to win the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance for its high quality in delivery, character development, interaction, and overall performance.

Statistics — SMC Troubadours

Where Shreya Jha’s script and gorgeous score were accompanied by Anastasia Liu’s direction, Statistics tells two interconnecting stories. At King’s College London in the 1950s, scientists work to discover the structure of DNA; the scientists are mostly male, apart from bright female scientist Rosalind Franklin (Violet Allmark). In 2017, U of T students Rose (Chloé Gétaz) and Angie (Elena Matas) are dealing with medical school applications and other university responsibilities. Rose looks to Rosalind as inspiration, as both are faced with the pressures of learning, growing, and pursuing science.

The show was performed as a musical, complete with a full orchestra at the back of the stage and characters singing for much of the dialogue. The storyline was a familiar one for university students, especially for those studying life sciences. Accurately reflecting the misogyny of the previous era, the script was smart and empowering, paying close attention to the details of its scientific subject matter while also proving that science students can do art too.

With its relatable story plot and musical components, Statistics was the second-best show of the night . I predict that this play will receive the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction for its achievement in artistic and technical quality of direction and transitions, as well as its clearly articulated storyline.

Outstretched — Trinity College Drama Society (TCDS)

Structured in five memory monologues, Outstretched was directed by Jennifer Dufton and written by Emily Powers. It follows Hyatt (Ezera Beyene), who delves into the past of his late sister Diana (Tuhi Sen) to learn more about her and find closure after her death. This leads him to Kate (Hannah Fleisch), Diana’s first love, and both characters are forced to come to terms with the death of their loved one.

Centring on loss and how we grapple with loss as human beings, the play was well-written and poetic in its use of language, although it could have integrated some more upbeat and lighthearted tones. While Outstretched was enjoyable and well done, it came in last out of the three plays for its repetitive scenes and overall lack of entertainment.

—  Khyrsten Mieras, Varsity Theatre Critic


The end: And just like that, it’s over

Ranking best to worst: Lone Island Lovers stood out alongside the magical Cordelia and the heart-wrenching Honey Lemon Green Tea

Alongside its clear skies, Saturday night marked the end of the trilogy of evenings dedicated to the showcasing of ambitious young talent eager to make their debut upon the Hart House Theatre stage.

Rather than the throat-cutting clash one might expect from the offspring of our university, the modest gathering of actors and audience assembled as a community in a commendable effort to support artistry.

Abby Palmer, one of the two festival coordinators, began with a land acknowledgment for the ground upon which Hart House Theatre stands. She spoke about the importance of the drama festival to encouraging students to find their voices and giving them professional tools to make their ideas accessible and understandable to a wider audience.

When asked in an interview by The Varsity afterward about the importance of the event, Palmer wrote, “Each show has so much heart bursting out of it, and that feeling alone is worth dozens of tickets. Additionally, shows that have been in the festival have gone on to have long and flourishing lives outside of U of T, so it’s actually pretty great theatre, too.”

Cordelia — UC Follies

Director Nicole Bell and playwright Lauren Lacey invite the audience on a journey of dynamic interpersonal relations where we encounter our first protagonist, Cordelia. A young woman with questions that come to burden every being endowed with reason, Cordelia is concerned with the burden of choice in the face of the inevitable tensions created by a culture of responsibility and agency constantly confronted by uncertainty and endless possibility.

Likewise, the minimalism of the setting as well as the easygoing humour both support the essence of the production to reflect the culture of a time when the fleeting nature of every moment propels one along, with eyes to the stars, all the while trapped on the ground with constrained motion. Perhaps it is from this that the necessity to appeal to perspective and constellations arises; it is an attempt to locate substance and depth upon the plane of reality.

Scene after scene, each is acted with enough presence to capture the audience’s attention for an instant, none endowed with the power to make them stay — intermission is almost reminiscent of a further installment of the play.

Lone Island Lovers — SMC Troubadours 

Following the short break, we come face to face with five figures seated before a self-designed space demarcated by white canvas tents, each a segregated island with a resident desperate to forge an identity of their own by establishing relations with the world outside themselves.

And yet, in spite of the relations we cultivate through ties of time and space, ultimately, we remain but islands of our own, loose clusters of sand drifting along the waves, yet never entirely in control of what is to come our way. Lone Island Lovers reflects this reality through the exploration of desire in the form of repressed sexuality.

Mick Robertson’s intricately woven writing illustrates our innate desire to extend our possibilities and surpass the limits of the individual. Through the collective, one hopes to inherit the abundance of the other as well. One after the other, through their rapport with one another and in passionate confession, Lady and her loved-ones unveil their longings and attempt to negotiate a space for themselves once unrooted from their dormant states.

Honey Lemon Green Tea — Victoria College Drama Society

The festival concludes with similar sentiments in Honey Lemon Green Tea, an exploration of mental illness and identity written by Bailey Irene Midori Hoy. Despite these sombre themes, the audience remains cheerful as warm applause fills the auditorium; the merit of the undertaking and the significance of its participants supplants that of the content itself.

Yet, beyond mere entertainment, if we are to notice the concerns addressed by each production and take into consideration their intentional selection, we may gain a clearer perspective into the concerns of the youth of today. Viewing these youth beyond the millennial imagery, a neat justification for symptoms that have only come to take shape from an environment over which they have little control and did not create comes to form.

Through theatre, we may amend the perceptions acquired from representation through representation itself, for art alone expresses the inexpressible and offers a voice to those who seek to convey that which goes beyond speech. Amid this shared language, perhaps we can at last begin to forge a path towards understanding, of both ourselves and that which lies outside us, to eventually establish new possibilities surrounding a reality in which we find ourselves in a constant struggle to find place.

AND THE AWARDS GO TO…

  • IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement: UC Follies’ Cordelia
  • Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance: Frosina Pejcinovska — Lone Island Lovers
  • Robert Gill Award for Best Direction: Will Dao and Ahlam Hassan — Lone Island Lovers
  • Robertson Davies Award Playwriting Award: Emily Powers — Outstretched
  • President’s Award for Best Production: Lone Island Lovers

The highlight of the night, Lone Island Lovers, directed by William Dao and Ahlam Hassan, brought home three of the five awards, including best direction, best production, and best performance to the electrifying Frosina Pejcinovska. SMC Troubadours’ triumph leaves little surprise, for the application of every aspect of the production suggests that they have much deserved their prize, instilling the audience with hope that one day we may recover some of the texture sacrificed in our everyday haste.

Past politics and theory, lamentation and ideology, the drama festival hosted by the university is the coming together of a community, an assembly of individuals from across the nation to pursue a shared passion for theatrical expression — a conglomeration of actors, directors, writers, and artists to whom a chance to speak is at last granted. In the end, the festival reflects the very necessity of establishing relations in a world that has come to prize individuality and offering spaces within which one may pursue one’s exploration of boundaries.

— Elaine YJ Zheng, Varsity Theatre Critic

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Importance of Being Earnest

Student theatre cleverly tackles the theme of identity in its second play of the season

Theatre review: VCDS’ <em>The Importance of Being Earnest</em>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) received resounding laughter and applause from pleased audiences with director Rachel Bannerman’s interpretation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Arguably one of Oscar Wilde’s finest plays, it is his playful response to William Shakespeare’s serious question to audiences: “What’s in a name?” Wilde’s answer? Everything.

In Earnest, Jack Worthing, our main protagonist, is in love with Gwendolen Bracknell, but he has been passing off as Ernest Worthing instead — a lie which, it seems, comprises a large part of Gwendolen’s love for Jack.

Meanwhile, Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff has plans to secretly go visit Jack’s ward Cecily in the country so as to woo her — a plan that ends up with him also passing himself off as Ernest, a name that Cecily, like Gwendolen, places much importance upon. What happens when their real names are found out? That, of course, is much of the fun of Earnest, as are its other characters, namely Lady Bracknell, a typical Victorian mother character exposing both the monotony and falsity of Victorian morals. Add in a black handbag, a lot of muffins, and a couple of diaries, and you have the wonderful play that is The Importance of Being Earnest.

What makes Earnest so hilarious is that it is a world where everything is inverted: characters say the opposite of what you would expect them to say, but with all seriousness. For example, Lady Bracknell, who has been visiting a friend of hers who is recently widowed, notes that the woman looks “quite 20 years younger.” The play is chock-full of such clever bits, and this comprises its hilarious nature.

Bannerman’s production understands that Earnest is ultimately a play of identity, where the central question is “Who am I?” It is a play that laughs at the absurdity of nothingness, of a purposeless existence, and fills that void with beauty and wit.  In assembling a cast of mostly women and changing the character of Mr. Jack Worthing to a Ms. Jack Worthing, Bannerman brings the play into the twenty-first century in a manner that is quite fitting for the play’s central question of human identity.  

The cast is, overall, quite strong, with some standout performances. Gianni Sallese as Algernon Moncrieff is an excellent decision, and his skill with the character often outshines Sylvia Woolner’s Jack, with whom he is often on stage.

Kara Austria’s Lady Bracknell maintains the veneer of Victorian high society while treating the character with just enough irony to result in a truly wonderful performance. Carmen Bezner Kerr’s Gwendolen Bracknell and Kenley Ferris Ku’s Cecily Cardew also both display the actors’ full awareness of the wit of the dialogue, which they play into very well.

A clever set design, which changes three times during the show, helps to keep the stage interesting and the audience engaged. Overall, Bannerman makes good use of the stage, and characters are constantly moving, sitting, running, and taking up space, which is very entertaining.

Some moments that could have been further emphasized include the classic encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen during tea, which is quite hilarious but could have been further drawn out. This is, of course, a minor detail, and is outweighed by the many other clever directions, including the very funny aside when Algy and his servant Lane plug their ears.

As is often the case, the VCDS offers audiences a well-rehearsed, clever production of a classic play that is well worth seeing. You’ll leave with many good laughs and an appreciation for the clever wit of Oscar Wilde that is not lost upon this production team.

Theatre review: A modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The retelling of this classic story captured humour, whimsicality, and dreamlike themes

Theatre review: A modern take on <i>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</i>

“Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer,” sang Nam Nguyen, a guitar-playing fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies.

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) opened its 2018–2019 season on Thursday night with a dreamy performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Directed by Abby Palmer, the play was adapted to suit a contemporary audience and ran for 2.5 hours with a 10-minute intermission. Some of Shakespeare’s original text is still used, but much of the convoluted words and language have been edited and translated into modern English.

More interestingly though, is that Palmer’s adaptation is set in 1968 America. The new setting is brought to the forefront with the inclusion of swapped gender roles, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour, as well as snazzy costumes, lively singing, and dancing. In multiple scenes, characters dressed in bold miniskirts, platform heels, and tie-dye break out into popular songs like the ‘60s hits “I’m a Believer” and “Stand by Me.” This specific directorial adaptation is more relevant than ever in today’s political climate of social movements and regressive leadership.

Midsummer focuses on four interconnected plots: the relationships between the characters of Hermia (Eiléanór O’Halloran), Lysander (Rachel Leggett), Helena (Mitchell Byrne), and Demetrius (River Oliveira). Against the law of Theseus (Devon Wilton), Hermia and Lysander intend to get married, while Demetrius attempts to win over Hermia, and Helena tries to win Demetrius.

In the forest and the realm of Fairyland, Oberon (Wilton), king of the fairies, and his assistant Puck (Nicole Eun-Ju Bell) concoct a special potion to set things right among the couples. Meanwhile, a group of hippie actors rehearse a play of their own that they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding. Things go wrong and chaos ensues, but everything seems to have a funny way of working out in the end.

This hilarity balances the commotion of the many different and deep themes and scenes in the play. Characters in serious conversations in the foreground are met with amusing moments between characters in the background. In one instance, Hermia and her father argue over her arranged marriage to Demetrius while Lysander and Helena secretly fight behind them. The audience was constantly having a laugh at these actions and other witty one-liners.

Visual elements helped to bring the dream world even more to life, with a colourful set design, hilarious sound effects like the characters’ car driving behind the audience, and lighting effects that featured prominently throughout the show.

The play was performed at the Emmanuel College Quad, which added to the ambience and fit seamlessly with the forest scenes on stage. Most of the seating was on tarps on the grass, although some chairs were provided.

Audience interaction was a large part of the show. It was a bit startling when characters suddenly walked up and down the aisles, and even across the tarps of people on their way to the stage. Puck spoke directly to the audience several times throughout the show, as if talking to a friend. For a small outdoor theatre, this truly enhanced the intimacy and sense of community, especially in the chilly fall evening.

Overall, the musical performances of the cast and the modern dream world setting made for a magical night.

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Scenes from the shadows

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.

PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.

Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

The cult classic tackles themes of rape culture, eating disorders, teen suicide, and gun violence

<i>Heathers: The Musical</i>: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

From September 21 to October 6, the dark teen comedy Heathers: The Musical will be performed in Hart House. Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; when it was first released in 1988, it was groundbreaking with its discourse surrounding contemporary topics.

The Varsity sat down with Justan Myers and Emma Sangalli to discuss character development, gun violence, and performing in the historic Hart House.

The Varsity: For both of you, this is your first time working at Hart House Theatre ­­— what is that like? It’s a historic space; how has the process been?

Justan Myers: Working in this space is incredible. I’ve been mostly in Toronto working in smaller blackbox­-esque theatres, so it’s great to have this wide open space. There’s so many different ways to use it, and with our incredible set, just finding so many cool ways to bring the audience into the world has been really fun.

Emma Sangalli: It feels like a real established theatre. It’s old, you can feel the history, and that’s beautiful ­­ just knowing there have been so many passionate artists in this building doing what we’re doing. And our director has been using it very creatively.

Justan Myers: It’s really cool to have that juxtaposition of how old and how experienced the space is versus how many emerging artists are in this production —­­ kind of that combination of youth and freshness, but then also this foundation.

TV: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you’re playing?

JM: So, I play Jason “JD” Dean. He’s the typical social outcast —­­ he’s moved schools a lot and he doesn’t have any friends, so Veronica sort of captures his attention. Little does she know that he has a lot of unresolved problems from both his childhood and the way he’s grown up that leads him to influence her into some bad decisions later on in the show.

ES: Yeah, Veronica is not popular at the start of the show —­­ she’s kind of dorky, very smart, a little bit of an old soul. She ends up becoming popular and her whole story is kind of discovering the cost of popularity, I would say, and realizing it’s not worth it.

Emma Sangalli. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This play is based on a film, the 1988 cult classic, Heathers, which many people say played a role in defining its generation. Are you looking to the movie, or past productions, to inform your rehearsal process?

JM: Yes and no. The characters are so much more fleshed out in the musical that it’s really its own work in a sense. I know my character changed a lot, because in the movie he’s a little 2D. ­They don’t give him a lot of super relatable moments. In the musical, they gave him more backstory, something for the audience to grab onto. So, in a sense, yes, because there’s so many of those iconic lines they took from the movie that you want to nail because the audience just knows them, but the character work itself had to come more from our own basis.

ES: At the end of the day, the part of you that’s an actor and the part of the character that you find through research just sort of come together, and you’re able to find the thread. It’s a little difficult, because the movie was quite a bit different from the musical in terms of, I would say, undertone. In the movie, there’s a little bit of ambiguity on whether [Veronica] is a good guy or a bad guy until closer to the end. Whereas in the musical, she’s kind of the belle of the show, as our director likes to say. ­­It’s pretty clear that she’s got a strong moral compass from the beginning. So definitely we had to look at as much source material as we could find, but you also have to dive into the text that the writers of the musical give you and flesh out the characters on the page, because it really is quite a bit different from the movie.

TV: Was there any moment during rehearsals when you had to really step out of your comfort zone or do something you’d never done?

ES: One of the most famous songs in the show is “Dead Girl Walking.” For me in terms of comfort it was definitely a step, because I have never played a romantic role and it’s basically a full, simulated sex scene onstage. So, it’s very much like, we had to come into rehearsal with all our guards down ­­— throw those fears out the window, be a professional actor, and just do it. But it’s so nice working with Justan, because I’m so comfortable with him.

Justan Myers. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This show deals with a lot of really pressing contemporary issues like bullying and suicide —­­ who do you hope sees this show? What would you want them to take away from it?

JM: I think it is very important for teens to see this show, especially with increasing gun violence and hate crimes and things like that. It’s so easy to become desensitized to that because of media and everything, so to just get a real —­­ I mean, ‘real,’ it’s a musical —­­ but [it’s] a more grounded perspective of what these issues are.

ES: It’s funny because when you think about Heathers, you wouldn’t think of words like ‘solution’ and ‘hope,’ but that was something I really took from the writers’ notes of the musical ­­— that’s really what it’s about, solutions and hope, and it really tries to answer all of the problems that it brings up. I think it’s important for anyone to see this show. There are people that maybe shouldn’t see this show, because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in it, but it is cushioned by humour and by good-­heartedness. I think it’s an important story for this day and age, and for this city specifically. For Toronto in the last year, a lot of stuff has happened and because of social media we all know about it right away. It’s hard when you go on social media and all you see is another shooting, another truck driver. We all care, and want to do something, but sometimes we don’t know what to do ­.­

JM: It feels bigger than us.

ES: I think the beauty of this show is that it boils it down to a very simple solution:­­ be kind to the person next to you, offer them a hand, and include them. That’s a big one in this show. Be a friend, you know? That’s something very tangible, that we can all do every day, that will hopefully help change the amount of bad things we see happening. So, in that case, I do think it’s really important for anyone who can handle this type of subject matter to come see it, because it really does give you some inspiration, and also some tools to go out into the world and make it beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you can’t make it to the drive-in, the sofa is a great place to spend a lazy summer evening

A perfect movie for capturing every summer vibe

When you can’t make it to the drive-in, the sofa is a great place to spend a lazy summer evening

Here’s a list of movies for all your summer watching needs.

For beach vibes: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Honourable mention: The Descendants

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is set in balmy Hawaii, amid palm trees and dreamy ocean waves. Between Kristen Bell in a pink bikini and Mila Kunis with a white tropical flower tucked behind her ear, this movie is sure to make you wish you could leave city life behind to join the characters in a warm haze of sand, cocktails, and bathing suits. Also, Paul Rudd as a surf instructor is officially my summer chillness guru.

For thriller vibes: Jaws

Honourable mention: I Know What You Did Last Summer

Famously featuring a great white shark devastating unwitting beachgoers, this movie is ideal for those of us who want to both get in the summer spirit and are in the mood for mystery and suspense. With its marvellously tense soundtrack mingled with a summer resort aesthetic, Jaws is a great way to add a surreal creepiness to an otherwise tranquil summer day.

For romance vibes: Call Me by Your Name

Honourable mention: (500) Days of Summer

Set in the small town of Crema in northern Italy, this movie is a delicious exploration of the ups and downs of summer love. Call Me by Your Name captures the salacious heat of summertime lust, the playfulness of a fast-paced friendship, and the excitement of pursuing someone forbidden. You can witness the blissful sensuality of falling in love against a technicolour backdrop of tall grasses and shaded ponds. It also isn’t a real summer romance film unless there’s a strange sex scene involving fruit, and Call Me by Your Name certainly delivers on that front.  

For innocent Disney vibes: Moana

Honourable mention: Lilo and Stitch

It’s an animated movie about a strong young woman embracing her passion for the ocean by defying the confining boundaries of her island — you can’t watch it without developing an unshakeable desire for adventure. Featuring a dazzling but deadly crab, a beautiful grass-covered goddess who finds her heart, and songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda at his finest — Moana inspires you to take the voyage across the ocean — whatever your own metaphorical ocean may be.

For horror vibes: It

Honourable mention: Friday the 13th

This coming-of-age movie about finding friendship during a time of adversity is often punctuated by characters groaning that it’s summer break, a time for relaxing and having fun, not fighting monsters. It is perfect for those of us who disagree and think the whole point of summer break is fighting monsters.   

For showbiz glam vibes: Almost Famous

Honourable mention: La La Land

If summer is the time when you repress all the biology facts you’ve been cramming in your brain and return to your childhood fantasies of living a rock-and-roll lifestyle, this is the movie for cultivating your delusions. Almost Famous is about a young hopeful journalist on the road with a bus full of washed-up rockstars and glamorous groupies — the summer road trip of your dreams.

For childhood nostalgia vibes: High School Musical 2

Honourable mention: The Parent Trap

This movie asks “what time is it?” for us to all yell back, in perfect unison, “SUMMERTIME!” High School Musical 2 has a song for every summer scenario: summer job doldrums, perfecting that fabulous poolside aesthetic, the inevitable breakup after a summer romance fizzles, angsty soul searching on the golf course, and, for some reason, a “pineapple princess” pining after a fish with a long, complicated Hawaiian name.

For ‘80s classics vibes: Dirty Dancing

Honourable mention: National Lampoon’s Vacation

With its iconic soundtrack and killer dance numbers, this movie will make you long for those days of family vacations. Except this time, instead of wasting your holiday sunbathing and begging your older sister to sneak you mojitos from the bar, you could be falling in love with the resort’s dance instructor to the tune of your favourite ‘80s pop songs.

For teenage revelry vibes: Meatballs

Honourable mention: American Pie 2

If summer makes you nostalgic for high school (shudder), then you probably spent your teenage years partying at your friend’s beach house, or drunkenly singing songs around a bonfire. Meatballs, however, will make you wish you had spent your summers as a camp counsellor — the main duties of which are apparently playing pranks and scoring chicks. This film will make you pine for the semi-innocence of those blissful teenaged summers.

For musical vibes: Mamma Mia

Honourable mention: Grease

Amanda Seyfried’s character is a makeup-free, beachy-haired goddess who always has a bathing suit on underneath her white summery blouse, in case she needs to frantically chase after a retreating boat. Spoiler: she does. She lives on a fictional Greek island called “Kalokairi” that is essentially a slice of heaven. The crystalline ocean and Mediterranean architecture of the island would also make me want to periodically burst into song. To me, the soundtrack to this movie is the soundtrack of summer.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.