Theatre Review: VCDS’ Mamma Mia!

Gimme Gimme Gimme another run of this fun show

Theatre Review: VCDS’ <i>Mamma Mia!</i>

Mamma Mia! is canon of musical comedies, rocket-fueled by sheer thrum and pulse of toe-tapping, sing-along-tempting ABBA. It’s fun. Whether it’s Sophie’s impossible goal to bring together three men, any of whom could be her biological father — strangers Sam, Bill, and Harry — the idyllic Greek island setting, or any of the flamboyant supporting characters, this is a fun musical. And above all else, beyond its foibles, the Victoria College Drama Society’s (VCDS) production of Mamma Mia! was fun in turn.

VCDS’ production, which ran from March 7­–9 at the Isabel Bader Theatre, was directed by Ronan Mallovy. On March 9, the theatre was packed with the usual audience composition of parents, friends, and theatre fans — likely jealous that they weren’t themselves members of the chorus. The audience’s tone was upbeat as the musical began slightly late, and there were occasional cheers and shouts as fan favourites and friends took to the stage.

The production was largely carried by a few standout performances. Lisean Henry brought a palpable vibrancy and momentum to her performance as Donna, Sophie’s fiercely independent mother and former lover of her three potential fathers. Alexandra Palma as the seductive, vain, and reliably lively Tanya had an unmistakable energy and stage presence that proved a nice foil to the performances of Lisean Henry and Elizabeth So, who played Donna’s other friend Rosie.

Gianni Sallese, a familiar face in campus theatre, played one of Sophie’s potential fathers, Sam Carmichael. His recognizable physical presence and movement, as well as natural humour, was on full display. Kody McCann (Bill Anderson) and Leo Morgenstern (Harry Bright) were also excellent additions to the named cast. The chemistry between the three fathers was amusing and they maintained high energy throughout their time on stage.

Special mention must also go to Carter Holmes as Pepper, staff member at the small hotel Donna owns. He brought a spring and comedy to the stage that managed to stitch together the scenes we all wished would hurry up a bit until the next big number.

The music direction, led by Emma Wallace, kept the tempo of the show moving along at pace and brought a swollen sound in all the right places for the big numbers. The tight proximity of the band to the actors on stage, at a close stage left, added to the casual tone of the performance generally.

However, while the set design was on theme and the fly-set window panes and plants were a nice touch, the cast’s interaction with the set pieces was lacking overall. When they did interact heavily with the set, there was a sense of clumping and some issues with voice projection in the conversational elements of the musical. In the more dramatic scenes, there was little interaction with the set at all, and the space taken up by the set could have been better used by the well-choreographed cast.

In addition, perhaps to the end of showcasing the admittedly solid vocal talents of the leading cast, the fact that some of the greatest tunes of the musical, namely “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen,” were performed by a small ensemble was a real and regrettable shame. Whenever the cast and chorus at large were on stage as one, the energy in the room was tangible and electric. When they were absent, there was a real question of how there could be so little energy on stage with so many people waiting in the wings undoubtedly wishing they could join in.

The performance largely underused the cast and chorus for the big vocal performances. While the leading cast were impressive, songs like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” are meant to be belted aloud and put the crowd under a spell. Instead, the energy in these teasingly low-tempo performances fell starkly flat.

The best part of Mamma Mia! was the end — and this isn’t meant in a snarky, holier-than-thou critical sense. The finale of the show is well-known: a full-ensemble performance of the biggest show tunes to, usually, a standing ovation, as was the case on March 9. The end felt like the very first time the energy level in the room was absolutely cranking, and songs like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” had me mouthing the lyrics, whereas their performances during the core show had me somewhat distracted.

All in all, it would be a good wager that most, if not all, of the audience left Mamma Mia! having had fun. And beyond careful and persnickety critiques, if that isn’t a worthwhile goal of campus theatre, then what is?

Theatre Review: Hart House’s Hair

As their 2018–2019 season comes to a close, Hair graces the stage

Theatre Review: Hart House’s <i>Hair</i>

In 1968, the musical Hair took the Broadway stage by storm with its representation of the counter-cultural, anti-war, hippie movement. Featuring powerful rock anthems, crude language, fluid sexuality, and of course, the infamous nude scene at the end of “Where Do I Go?”, it seemed to be almost as controversial as it was likeable. Now, on its 50th anniversary, Julie Tomaino’s directorial take on the show is as moving today as it was back then.

Hair, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermont, takes the audience into the “Age of Aquarius,” following a group of long-haired, love-loving, drug-consuming teenagers in their fight against the rising political conservatism of their time. As high-school dropouts, these teens fight against conscription into the Vietnam War — joining the resistance through the anti-war peace movement of the 1960s. The central conflict of the show follows Claude (Christian Hodge) as he wrestles with the decision of whether or not to resist the draft as his fellow hippie friends have.

Though tentative at first, Hodge’s depiction of Claude was breathtaking; Claude transformed from a young, selfish boy to a complex man before our very eyes. His goofy movements in “Manchester England” vastly differ from the contemplative young man questioning “Where Do I Go?” by the end of the first act.

There truly was not a weak member of this cast. Berger (Andrew Perry) hilariously kicked us off with “Donna” removing his pants and breaking the fourth wall, making the audience feel strangely comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable scenario of being seen in a crowd full of people. Marisa Dashney’s portrayal of Sheila, a political activist and lover to Berger, was beautiful and heartbreaking. Her moving performance of “Easy to Be Hard” resonated with the audience on a whole other level in the shadow of the #metoo movement.

But what makes this show stand apart were the smaller pieces of the puzzle; the ensemble. This “tribe” brought the energy of the room up with their colourful costuming, hilarious depiction of drug use, and their nailing of intricate harmonies in songs like “Aquarius” and “Hair”—  I have to take a moment to mention Kevin James Doe’s show-stealing depiction of old woman, Margaret Mead in one of the most memorable scenes of the show — the audience will be thinking about his long note in “My Conviction” until the end of time. Although the content of this show is inherently political, it is also jam-packed with comedic moments thanks to the supporting characters’ high energy, literally.

Thinking about the message of the show, it’s strange how a show about hippies and the Vietnam war can speak to a contemporary audience. Hair stripped all of the modern fear of offensiveness away — again literally — to say something unfiltered. With songs like “Coloured Spade,” “I’m Black/Ain’t Got No,” and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” this show speaks to the realities of its time period in the most authentic way it can – proclaiming “I’m black,” “I’m pink,” and “I’m rinso white” in an entirely unapologetic manner.

The audience literally jumped when Claude made his pivotal entrance in full army getup and short hair, and when he is repeatedly shot by a gun on stage. Hair is striking in the risks that it takes, but I think those risks paid off. I know they did.

This short escape into the “Age of Aquarius” may be just what we all were looking for: a little more peace and some good old fashioned legal marijuana.

Theatre Review: A Perfect Bowl of Phở

From U of T’s Drama Festival to Factory Theatre, Nguyen’s play doesn’t miss a beat

Theatre Review: <i>A Perfect Bowl of Phở</i>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Halfway through fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s production of A Perfect Bowl of Ph, actress Kenley Ferris-Ku appears onstage as a waitress in war-era Vietnam. She delivers a monologue that is informative and sincere, telling of how she served ph to American soldiers by day and hid Vit Cng soldiers in the attic by night. It is a monologue about the Tet offensive and the legacy of the restaurant that hid those soldiers. It is also a monologue about ph itself. For this reason, it serves as a good entry point to the show, and it is as near to perfect as this ‘ph show’ gets. Ferris-Ku’s performance is confident and firm, and playwright Nam Nguyen’s dialogue is no less powerful.

The scene is also unlike anything else you’ll see in a show filled with meta-theatrical gags, lightning-fast rap numbers, and dialogue that jackhammers at the fourth wall.

Ph is not so much a distinct narrative as it is a variety show honouring the eponymous dish, with every cast member skillfully juggling several roles, occasionally even trading places with one another. Tying it all together is the arc of the playwright himself, played — mostly — by a wry and witty Kenzie Tsang, as he works out the show from its inception to the final product.

The audience is made to feel like what it is seeing is a work in progress, which isn’t entirely false. First showcased at U of T’s 2017 Drama Festival, fu-GEN’s production is the third iteration of the show — each one markedly different from the last. Questions of what the show is even about and whether it’s getting its message across are discussed openly onstage.

Yet, rather than bringing in new dimensions, these moments can read as overly didactic lessons on dramaturgy and do more to bar the audience from engaging fully and critically with the show. As someone who knows admittedly very little about Vietnam, I think the show would benefit from more scenes like Ferris-Ku’s, and fewer tangents into self-doubt.

In a show that does a brilliant job of being simultaneously entertaining and educational on the subjects of Vietnamese culture and history, Ph triumphs when it is sure of itself.

Watch as an extremely outgoing little girl (Meghan Aguirre) unleashes a lyrical torrent about bringing ph to school for World Cultures Day and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Watch as a white devil of a trendy ph chef (Brendan Rush) tears off his shirt to squeeze lime juice over the pentagram on his chest and you’ll be peeing yourself with laughter. Watch — or more accurately, read — an unflinching experiment in exposition as a gruesome story of Vietnamese refugees set adrift is projected onto an otherwise motionless stage and you will marvel at the risks that this show is willing to take with its material.

Despite its occasional missteps, there is no denying that A Perfect Bowl of Ph is a compelling piece of experimental theatre that you don’t want to miss. This latest iteration is the strongest yet — a good sign for the future if it’s as much of a work in progress as it claims to be. This show may indeed be well on its way to becoming a perfect bowl of phở.

A Perfect Bowl of Ph and Fine China are playing as a double-bill at the Factory Theatre until February 10.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Art

Friendships are akin to art: they help fill the voids within us

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Art</i>

Rating: 3/5 stars

Last weekend, the Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) performed Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play, Art. The play, set in Paris and written in French, premiered in 1994 and was quickly adapted and translated, before making its way across the Atlantic and onto Broadway in 1998.

Performed at Trinity College’s George Ignatieff Theatre, curator Liana Ernszt made a conscious effort to integrate the performance with a gallery of boundary-pushing student artwork, providing an altogether more interactive experience.

By presenting opportunities for more direct engagement, Ernszt encouraged audiences to step outside of their comfort zones and provided a more visceral account of the play’s major themes: drifting friendships, weak bonds, senses of taste, and identity. This challenged audiences to consider the value and purpose of art and greatly enhanced the communication of Reza’s message in art.

Art follows three friends, Serge (Ezera Beyene), Marc (Kody McCann), and Yvan (Brendan Rush), who’ve unwittingly grown apart and suddenly find their friendship under considerable tension. Catalyzing the end of their friendship is Serge’s wildly exorbitant purchase of a painting that, rather humorously, is just a completely white canvas with white lines.

Marc disparages the painting, and it is this disagreement in taste between Marc and Serge that forces Yvan in the middle. Naturally, this devolves into a no-holds-barred contest of mockery, cynicism, and disillusionment, ultimately spiralling out of control and into referendums on taste, character assassinations, and a pervasive mood of indifference. Just when it’s most important for them to pull together, they instead push themselves even further apart.

The play, directed by Ryan Falconer, brought out a unified and true-to-form communication of Reza’s Art. The production was well-orchestrated with timely, effective lighting and use of the stage to entwine the audience in an intimate affair of theatre and drama. The band, with Shreya Jha on keyboard and Mira Riselli on bass, helped execute seamless transitions of scenes, building and releasing tension to complement the mood of the cast.

The cast succeeded in captivating the audience by effectively conveying the emotional rifts between their characters. Beyene’s performance of Serge as an eccentric art connoisseur left the impression of a focused approach to his role, by projecting his emotions not impulsively but sincerely. This was nicely juxtaposed by McCann’s performance of Marc, whose condescending demeanour and language really broadcast a sort of austerity that reached beyond the confines of the stage and into the minds of the audience. This contrast worked especially well in heightening the tension between the two characters. Rush’s performance of Yvan was ambitious and intense, though certainly not lost because his character was the most difficult to portray. Rush successfully supported the unfolding interactions between Serge and Marc, which would unravel even more to crash down like a game of Jenga.

The more salient point in Art and the blank canvas is not the trivial senses of taste, but the understanding that friendships are to be nurtured and not taken for granted. As with anything that is abandoned or neglected, if we lose sight, we also stand to lose clarity and, ultimately, the confidence of our friendships.

Friends are a sort of artwork in themselves; like art, friends help us overcome times of adversity and suffering by making light of dark situations. They fill the voids within us to cure our emptiness.

Ultimately, I wish to congratulate Falconer and the TCDS on a great show and laud their commitment and passionate dedication to storytelling, art, and the audience.

UC Follies’ B-Side rocks the Stage at Hart House this November

The show’s creator discusses making a show about records in the digital age

UC Follies’ <i>B-Side</i> rocks the Stage at Hart House this November

From November 30 to December 1, the UC Follies will be at Hart House for a two-night performance of B-Side: A Rock Cabaret. The show is a grand musical experience that will take you back in time with classic rock records you love and lesser-known songs for you to discover and fall in love with.

The Varsity wrote to Jocelyn Kraynyk, the show’s creator, about her inspiration for the show, nostalgia for rock music, and listening to records in the world of online streaming.

TV: So many people listen to music digitally, on Spotify and Apple Music — why did you decide to create a show about records instead?

JK: The simple answer as to why I created a show inspired by records is that I find digital means of listening to music passive. Don’t get me wrong, I am in love with my iPod and I might actually die without my Apple Music, but I think it’s important to acknowledge how easy it is to become complacent about listening. Many a time, I have found myself in a playlist loop where I don’t realize I’m listening to music that I don’t really like or care about. With records, the act of listening becomes so active. You carefully choose what record you want to listen to. You engage with the music in the ceremony of putting the record on and the needle down. If your mind is focused on other things, the record waits for you to reengage at the halfway mark. I think that level of immersion lends itself well to a theatrical endeavour.

TV: Where did you get your inspiration for B-Side?

JK: I was so thrilled when the Follies asked me to create a show and I celebrated by going to my favourite record shop and picking up a heap of new music. When I got home, I put on my new Pat Benatar and rocked around my living room basking in the amazing vocals and bopping tracks. Two things happened while I listened to that record: 1. I found a couple songs that I had never heard before but fell totally and completely in love with, and 2. I heard songs that I forgot that I loved and it felt like coming home. That is how I found the concept for this show — thanks Pat. For me, B-Side is all about celebrating the songs of amazing artists that don’t get the same amount of play as other classic rock, as well as celebrating better known songs that were put on the B-Side of their record. Some of the songs in this show are ones few people will know — but everyone will love — some are songs everyone will know and can sing along to, and some are songs that people will hear, be flooded with memory, and fall in love [with] all over again. 

TV: How did you choose what songs to include in the show and why did you choose rock music?

JK: Listening to hundreds of classic rock songs to find the perfect setlist was torture — just kidding, I was in my glory. I love that shit. I ended up deciding to centre this show around songs that explore young love and relationships – the good, the bad, the ugly, the horny. It connects every song and performance and reined me in — if I didn’t have that connecter, the show would be hours long instead of the sleek 55 minutes it is now. B-Side has an unclockable flow and energy. It’s dynamic. It’s energetic. It’s magnetic and it demands to be seen!

As an artist and a consumer, I love the feeling of nostalgia. For me, it serves as escapism and when I perform or listen to music from or reminiscent of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The flow and intensity of it allows me to let go and live in its palpable energy. That feeling is what I want for my audiences and that is why I gravitate towards rock. 

TV: What is a song or performance in the show that stands out to you? 

JK: As far as what song or performance stands out, I’m going to give a pageant answer: every single song and performance stands out. When creating this show, we wanted to make sure that every performer got their moment to shine, and shine they do! We have been incredibly fortunate work with this incomparable group of people. Every single one of them owns the stage and I challenge anyone watching not to be warmed to the core by the joy and energy that radiates off of them when they sing. They are a beautiful unit. Hart House is an intimidating space. It is huge and can be daunting for performers — I say this from experience: that stage is scary — but we don’t fear the stage, we dominate that stage. The passion and excitement from our cast fills the theatre from the dressing rooms to the very last row. 

 

Theatre review: Hart House’s The Penelopiad

Atwood successfully captures the unheard voices of Homer’s The Odyssey

Theatre review: Hart House’s <i>The Penelopiad</i>

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Since 2002, Hart House Theatre has staged a Shakespearean production every winter, alternating between a comedy and a tragedy each season. This tradition was replaced, or simply suspended, this year, but it is a loss that is noticed minimally, if at all, if only for the reason that Shakespeare has been replaced by a more contemporary bard: Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a drama on the level of Shakespeare. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from a female-centric lens: that of Penelope, wife of Odysseus and the titular character. In typical Atwood fashion, audiences receive the story of The Odyssey through Penelope’s voice and experiences.

The Penelopiad is composed of an all female-identifying cast of 13, and a mostly female-identifying production team. They are a wonderfully large and diverse troupe, who tell the story of Penelope’s life, her marriage to Odysseus, his absence for 20 years, his eventual return, and its implications.

At the beginning of the play, Penelope, who often speaks to the audience in a painfully honest fashion, reveals that her 12 maids were murdered and that she is to blame. The remainder of the play seeks to expose the culmination of such an event, in turn questioning female agency and the importance of female narrative, and perhaps most importantly, the silencing of women. This play is saturated with typical Atwoodian motifs and themes; it is a wonderful replacement for the often male-centric drama found in Shakespeare.

Apart from Amanda Cordner, who plays Penelope, almost all members of the cast play multiple characters. Each is both one of Penelope’s maids as well as a male character, such as Odysseus himself, or a minor character, such as Helen of Troy. The multiplicity of roles for each actor not only challenges typical gender stereotypes, but reinforces the multiplicity of narratives that Atwood emphasizes in her feminist retelling of this myth.

Director Michelle Langille’s staging of The Penelopiad is unsurprisingly exciting and inventive. Soft and dreamy background music can be heard almost constantly throughout the play, an unusual detail that perhaps emphasizes the uniqueness of the female voice. The set itself is mystical and well-occupied by the large cast, who move about frequently, employing props, such as large ropes, which at one point are used to mimic Penelope’s famous weaving.

Hart House Theatre productions almost always make excellent use of the entire theatre, not just the stage, and this production is no different. Even the lighting is memorable and even physical at times, used to blind the audience in an unusual and powerful effect.

Ultimately, The Penelopiad is an excellent production and well worth seeing. Stand out performances include Cordner, whose strength and dedication to her character truly carry the show. Much of the rest of the cast are appearing in their Hart House debuts, and one can only hope that they will be on this campus stage again soon.

Of course, one can also hope that the U of T alum herself has seen this excellent production. As a U of T student myself, it is particularly exciting to see such an epic work written by an alum and staged in a campus theatre. If such pride is not enough for you to enjoy the show, its own merits should do the trick.

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.