The case for theatrical experience

Theatres need our attendance, but they also need to earn it

The case for theatrical experience

Much has happened since the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, was delayed a couple of weeks ago due to escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. As avoidance of mass gatherings grows, venues like restaurants and movie theatres are shutting down, either by recommendation or order. In the case of movie theatres, many studio films that were poised for release within the next few months have either been heavily pushed back or delayed indefinitely.

Movie theatres have been suffering for a while. With the ubiquity of streaming services — and pirating — making just about everything very easily accessible, it’s no surprise that one might prefer settling into their couch to watch something over taking themselves to a theatre and committing to pure movie-watching time. 

Going to the theatre is something you organize in advance and form plans around, and consequently, people are a lot more likely to watch movies when they are events themselves. Hence, the real victim of the death of theatrical releases would not be the blockbusters. 

People — including me — show up to new Star Wars movies partially because of a sense of being hooked on a series. This kind of draw can’t be exploited as much in a film without an established place in viewers’ memories. The average American sees one movie a year in theatres, and in all likelihood, that movie is going to be part of a known franchise.

It doesn’t help that theatres lack the glamour and sparkle that they might have once had. Now, given the other ultra-convenient options we’re presented with at every moment, going to a theatre can be a hassle. 

The theatre can be too hot or too cold, or you might find yourself walking on floors that are sticky with four-hour-old spilled soda. One bad audience member talking a little too loudly or checking their phone in the row in front of you can ruin the whole experience.

On top of all of this, they’re also expensive. Since theatres are dependent on big releases, studios are able to strongarm them into taking smaller portions of ticket sales in exchange for the rights to their films, so they have to find other ways to make a profit. 

Ticket prices seem to be constantly rising, and concession prices are crazy. Stalls selling actual food in addition to popcorn are becoming standard in multiplexes. One Cineplex Entertainment theatre in Toronto is fitted with a pricey virtual reality (VR) area. Cineplex itself also owns arcades and other social and entertainment venues.

Nevertheless, I still like going to theatres. Under the right circumstances, when you’re able to give yourself over to watching the movie without any distractions, it’s far more immersive and rewarding than watching on a TV. Furthermore, the screens and sound systems are usually of higher quality than anything you can buy for your home. 

I remember seeing Blade Runner 2049 in theatres and feeling the room tremble with the bass of the soundtrack — even if I could replicate that in my living room, I don’t know if I’d want to. The isolation of the theatre lets the viewer’s experience become focused and nuanced in a way that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere.

I also somewhat enjoy how active the theatre-going experience is. It usually doubles as time to hang out with friends, some of whom I don’t get to see very often otherwise. Not all of the chains’ developments are pointless either. 

Having in-theatre options for buying food is convenient, even if they aren’t fine dining. I also tried out the VR area once with a few friends, and it was really fun — I’d do it again in a heartbeat if it wasn’t so expensive.

The crowds can even be fun sometimes, too, especially for big tentpole movies on their opening nights. For movies like Avengers: Endgame or Mission: Impossible — Fallout, it’s easy to feel palpable energy in the room, especially when they do a good job of ratcheting up the tension and excitement of the release, as those ones did. Cheering can be grating when done in abundance, but it can also add to the group experience — especially if you’re not watching an introspective art piece.

Furthermore, the plethora of issues that accompany a theatre experience don’t apply universally. Specialty venues like the Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox or Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema rely on a loyal audience to support their programming. This programming is more niche though, so the audience is smaller, even if the movie-going experience there is more pleasant than a trip to a Cineplex. 

The Bell Lightbox, for example, has a very comfortable members lounge and is tied to a big and accessible international film festival. These theatres are changing and expanding their repertoire as time goes on, striking a healthy balance between playing emerging new films and established older ones.

So, while theatres are not always attractive to potential movie-watchers, they’re now poised to suffer even more as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it dangerous and irresponsible for them to stay open. Amidst film delays, some studios are putting out some of their spring releases early, encouraging viewers to watch them while trapped at home. 

If this becomes a trend, and continues past the eventual subside of the virus-induced measures, it could damage motivation to make a trip to a theatre. Although this recent wave of problems might leave us with fewer theatres in the long run, the theatrical experience will most likely endure.

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2020

William Dao and company take home President’s Award for Best Production for the third year in a row

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2020

A tradition dating back to 1936, the U of T Drama Festival is back for the 18th time this year, presenting plays written solely by U of T students. For three nights in a row, various U of T theatre companies perform three 45-minute plays. At the end of the festival, at least six awards are announced, including Viewer’s Choice Awards.

The First and the Last Teen Mayor of Davenport Ontario ­— SHAKEN WALLS!

In the performance by SHAKEN WALLS!, 15-year-old Charlie Thomson (Davide Sallese) lamented being voted out as mayor a mere two months after he was elected. Though his love for the small, rural Ontario town is genuine, he has failed to reach both of his political goals of moving Christmas to the end of February and making the hills of Davenport bigger. At the same time he must admit that skipping school and hanging out with adults all day has not been as exciting as it first seemed, and he misses his friends.

The scenes are divided up by several monologues, with Charlie at the front of the stage speaking directly to the audience. While the contrast between monologue and interaction with other characters serves the play well, it’s unfortunate that Sallese doesn’t connect more with the audience — most of the monologues are delivered with his eyes closed or him looking down. When the only thing happening on stage is one character talking, and everything around them is dark, a detail like that matters.

The audience loved this performance — especially their fan club, seated near the front left of the theatre — and rewarded it with burst after burst of laughter. Still, there were plenty of jokes in the dialogues that passed by largely unnoticed. If the cast would have slowed down just a tad, I think that even more punchlines would have landed and paid off.

In his closing remarks, festival adjudicator Aaron Jan pointed out how impressed he was with the use of bikes on stage, which were set up on specially fitted stands that let the actors cycle without turning the wheels. This was a great part of the stage setup, one that would have been a worthy winner of an award for technical achievement at Saturday’s awards ceremony.

Further, the rest of the furniture on stage allowed for smooth transitions between scenes on various locations. However, I wish they had made more use of the stage’s background, which had a huge, white screen that for the most part just hung there — huge, white, and without meaning. Why not have backgrounds signal different locations, such as the fields during the bike ride, the place of the pie contest, or at least projecting different colours on the screen?

I also wish that the actors would have made more use of the stage. The first half of the play went back and forth between Charlie’s monologues, with him standing still, and dialogues with the characters sitting down. This lack of stage use made the play start to feel more like a read-through than acting. It was a relief when Brendan Rush entered and used his body and the space to portray meat pie enthusiast Tony Conigliaro. The same could also be said of incoming Mayor Lucy Laramie, played by Kenzie Tsang.

This was my least favourite of Thursday night’s performances, but SHAKEN WALLS! still presented an appealing and humorous play, with a closing dance that was wonderfully hilarious.

The 3rd Annual McGill Drama Festival — UofT Improv

UofT Improv let the audience choose three titles out of six suggestions, all framed as part of The Annual McGill Drama Festival. This year, the chosen plays were Captain of My Soul, Under Pressure, and Lifeboat.

The first improvised play turned into a story about early European explorers who set sail for the new world “with all the best intentions.” After having figured out how to cast loose, set sail, and make the ship go in the right direction, the vessel was visited by a siren who became the crew’s new captain. Once they arrived in Québec, they discovered the beauty of the land and all lay down to die. Aeden Taylor’s interpretation of Jeremy won her the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance at the festival’s concluding awards ceremony.

The second play, Under Pressure, was about love and trust, as newlyweds Mary Jane and Jeremy struggled to figure out their relationship — all the while being both disrupted and cheered on by Mary Jane’s sister and Jeremy’s mother. In the end, love persevered, despite the discovery of Jeremy’s occupation in the esports industry.

The final improvisation of the McGill Festival, Lifeboat, became a parody of incomprehensible modernist dramas with the words “birth,” “life,” “death,” and “boats” blurted out repeatedly as shoes were either thrown around or placed very carefully at the front of the stage.

Jan was greatly impressed with the improvised plays overall, but especially with the irony that Lifeboat offered, which led to his Award of Merit for Most Complete Play –– an award he just had to create for this occasion especially.

As someone who enjoys sitting in the dark in a theatre house and who would rather die than be forced into the spotlight without a clear plan of what to say or do, I have the utmost respect for all improvisational actors. Watching them figure out how to move forward together or try to push each other to reveal the next step of the play was pure joy.

After the SHAKEN WALLS! performance, which sometimes lacked a connection with the audience, the interaction at the beginning of UofT Improv’s McGill Festival was both refreshing and engaging. It would have been even nicer if the audience had been involved more throughout the performances and was asked to offer names or characteristics, or choose directions for the plays in some other way.

I do wonder why they did not come up with a new framing concept? The idea of staging the McGill festival is funny and allowed them to play on the rivalry between the two universities, the neighbouring provinces, and the two language communities of Anglophones and Francophones. But after having done that two years in a row, was there really no other framing concept worth exploring? 

Boy Who Cried — UC Follies

The last performance of the night was the strongest. The actors — and this play had a lot of them, 26 in total — performed on a professional level. The casting of Eileanor O’Halloran as Kelsey Winslow, the assertive summer camp manager who was outfitted in suit, high heels, and a narrow mind, was particularly commendable.

In this great team of actors, the one who stood out the most was Margaret Rose as the main character, summer camp volunteer Soren. From the first opening, when she sat alone at the front of the stage, through scenes where she moved around the entire cast, she inhabited the stage with a presence so natural that I forgot that I was in a theatre, because it felt like I was there at that camp — even though I’ve never been to one in my entire life.

The play began when the summer camp opened, and Soren joined the team of volunteers, including her best friend Harper (Frosina Pejcinovska), who had just been promoted to lead volunteer. As you may have immediately suspected, this new power imbalance between the two caused tension. Even though the development of this part of the plot was more predictable than exciting, the escalation of the conflict was built nicely into the narrative and worked quite well.

The dramatic arc, however, was primarily built around one of the kids at camp: Soren’s favourite camper Jayce, a kid who started acting out and causing trouble and eventually ran away.

One major detail about how this play was constructed was that none of the children at the camp were actually on the stage. While the actors interacted and conversed with the kids — accompanied by extremely sparse props — the audience was made to imagine the children’s presence, speech, and actions. The fact that it’s easy to forget that we never actually see or hear the children only goes to show how strong both the script and the acting of UC Follies were.

Overall, a great round of applause was deserved, not just to the cast but also to playwright Brad Gira, director William Dao, and the entire production team. Unsurprisingly, the Follies were showered in awards at the end of the festival. The Boy Who Cried was the audience’s choice for Thursday night. Playwright Brad Gira, Director William Dao, and stage manager Beka Morrison each received awards for their respective fields, and the whole company won the President’s Award for Best Production. In fact, this is the third President’s Award that William Dao and company have won — having been awarded it in 2018 for The Rhythm Method and 2019 for Lone Island Lovers.

UC Follies were the only theatre company to appear twice during this year’s festival. Although their Friday performance was delivered by a completely different team, I couldn’t wait to see what more they have in store for us after their strong finish of the festival’s first day.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly ­— UTSC Drama Club

The second night of the Drama Festival opened with the UTSC Drama Club’s depiction of the Holocaust. Their play was set in the small northern Czechoslovak town Terezín in the years leading up to the May 1945 liberation by the Red Army. During World War II, this historic military fortress town became a stopping point for thousands of children, many of them on their way to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The script is based on photos, drawings, journals, letters, diaries, and poems documenting the stories of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezín. The script handles the serious subject matter respectfully.

Though the story is both engaging and heartrending, the acting is unfortunately a bit stilted. The great exception is Sam Nada’s interpretation of Honza Kosek. His presence is energetic and natural all the way through, and this was duly noted by Jan, who gave him an Acting Award of Merit.

Despite the traumatic setting, the love story between Raja and Honza is brilliant. The conditions for the children in the ghetto, of course, are horrifying, and the audience is aware that the children have little odds of a future. Therefore, the fleeting moments of love: when Raja and Honza exchange poems that they leave for each other, and when Honza gives Raja the flowers and butterflies he sees by the town tower — these moments spark true joy on stage because it is something that no one can take away from them.

The stage setup serves the various scenes well, yet instead of using all of the space that the stage offers, the play does have many of the actors stand stationary whilst delivering lines, and essential information is often delivered through the voiceover. The strongest scene of the play serves as an exception to this, seeing Honza and Raja speak to each other through a wall — a very real wall, though not visible to the audience — as Honza discovers that he has been ordered to leave the ghetto. They both realize that this is most likely a death sentence.

It is a play that rests heavily on the spoken dialogue, along with voiceovers. Surprisingly, it makes almost no use of sound effects or music. While an overall engaging story, there was potential to evoke even more narrative and emotion through sound.

Northrop Frye has an Existential Crisis in McDonald’s ­— UC Follies

The most professional of Friday evening’s performances was, again, UC Follies’. On the festival’s second night, they gave us a play where Northy (Isobel McDonald) — also known as Northrop Frye — goes through an existential crisis like only a dead person can. Yes, this is the same McDonald that we saw on Thursday night as part of the UofT Improv company, performing in both Under Pressure and Lifeboat

A dead man, Northy finds himself in a rather deserted McDonald’s, and he turns to the audience for advice on how to make the place more popular even though he’s out of “hamburgers and fries and everything.” In swooshes energetic Bertolt Brecht (Molly Dunn) on a kick scooter, who tries — without success — to persuade Northy to lighten up. Northy seems lost now that he has abandoned both sentence structure and deadlines, and is unable to just accept things as they are, as Brecht does.

The play is wonderfully absurd and it brought many laughs. Funniest of all was Bennett Steinberg as a Jerzy Grotowski, who cannot stop dancing and even succeeds in making the stiff Northy try to follow his example.

While this was the strongest play of the evening, I still think it would have been improved with a stronger dramatic arc. Jan pointed out the importance of bringing out each character’s desires and allowing them to motor the play, and I also think this would have added an extra force that would have lifted this play to the next level.

UC Follies’ amazing performance of Boy Who Cried on Thursday night had heightened my expectations of the theatre company’s second play during the festival. While I was not as swept away by Northrop Frye has an Existential Crisis in McDonald’s, it was still a play that was both amusing and insightful, and Jan gave McDonald an Acting Award of Merit for her interpretation of Northy. Also, just giving me a reason to keep referring to Northrop Frye as Northy is worth something.

Lady Margaret ­— St. Michael’s Troubadours

Friday’s last performance was Lady Margaret by St. Michael’s Troubadours. The evening’s third play was based on a poem, and began with a romantic yet innocent encounter between Margaret (Hannah Spracklin) and William (Kasey Belding), though this was soon interrupted by Margaret’s grouchy, bullying father Joseph (Robert Fletcher).

Enraged by Margaret’s interest in William, Joseph locked her up in the attic for six years. William was unable to wait for her release, despite having promised Margaret that they would always be together and would one day marry. Eventually, William marries another woman, and on their wedding day, Margaret opens the attic window to get some air, and she falls out and dies. She visits William later in the night as a ghost.

William, not fully understanding the strange dream he’s had, goes to Margaret’s house and learns from her brothers what has happened. As he goes to see her body, which has been laid on the bed in the attic, Joseph arrives and they start fighting ­— a fight which ends with both William and Joseph also falling to their death out the window.

Though this was my least favourite of Friday’s performances, I enjoyed the stage setup, particularly the use of only a window and a few other set pieces to create different rooms in various houses. Another effective element of the stage design was the green background screen with a tree for the opening scene. It was a great choice to return to at the end, as it created a sense of closure — though the tree was not visible enough in the ending scene.

Though only a short play, there were many moving set pieces and props, and while the play would have needed fewer scenes for the narrative to work better, the stage setups and their changes could have worked if the transitions had been more practiced and ran more smoothly. Nevertheless, the judges were impressed enough to award the set designer and Tech Team Head Emelia Findlay the IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement.

Jan called this play “gothic,” which allowed me to see it in a new way. It would have been interesting to see if this idea could have influenced more of the colour, costumes, and stage setup, and how that would have enhanced the play as a whole. Overall, though, the main problem was that we were not getting to know the characters enough to really care enough when they die, one after the other.

However, most of the audience seemed to really enjoy this play, giving audible gasps during the performance and awarding the play Friday’s Audience Choice Award.

Father Figures ­— Victoria College Drama Society

The penultimate show of the festival was the Victoria College Drama Society’s Father Figures. It had an inventive, clever, and superb script — one of the strongest of the entire festival. It was also the only one of all the plays to begin with a lot of people moving around the stage, which threw us straight into the action.

Fyodor (Sanjay Pavone) grew up with his mother while his father was away fighting in the Cold War in the Soviet Union. Why, yes, history is somewhat rewritten in this play — it’s one of its quirky benefits. While his father was gone, Fyodor missed him terribly. When his mother Emily (Alyson Doyle) received news of her husband’s death, she didn’t have the heart to tell her son the truth, and instead, she started acting as the father in the form of a hand-held puppet.

His puppet skin is blue, but he told Fyodor it was because it was so cold in the Cold War. His puppet nose is purple, but he explained this by saying that the military had run out of Purple Hearts, so he received a purple nose instead. Did I mention that this play is quirky? Jokes were built in on multiple levels and you just have to go along with it.

The puppet-father reunited with the mother and Fyodor and they lived happily for many years — until one day Fyodor discovered his father seemingly dead under the bed when his mother was out, having left the puppet there.

Pavone forgot his lines a few times, but this didn’t really matter because his energy and connection to the audience was always present. The true star of this performance, however, was Tuhi Sen as Ova. She played the girl Fyodor fell for, who helps him realize that having a puppet dad is not an entirely bad thing. She herself happens to have a mom who’s a sailor’s hat filled with beans.

Sen’s interpretation of the character is certainly funny ­— but it is the kind of funny that is still able to keep a seriousness underneath. Having beans in a sailor’s hat as a mom is certainly meant to crack us up, but a human being longing to connect with a parent is something real. At the awards, Sen received an Acting Award of Merit, and Jan pointed out the way that her performance especially enhanced the play as a whole.

This was the play with the most ambitious use of set design. On stage were three white screens, which they used to display shadows — sometimes by moving behind them, and sometimes through the use of overhead projectors with toys and cut-out figures. Yes, overhead projectors. Who even remembers those? What a magnificent idea for a set. That idea alone should have earned them an award!

However, sometimes the amount of creative set pieces pulled the audience’s attention in different directions and not always toward the direction of the play as a whole. Sometimes, a little less is more — even in an absurdist play.

The possible overload in design creativity, however, was a minor detail, and the audience really enjoyed this show, and chose it as their favourite for Saturday night.

TWEP ­— Trinity College Drama Society

Last, but certainly not least, the Trinity College Drama Society gave us TWEP, which was a series of semi-connected monologues used as dialogues that centred around different shades of racism.

The Keeper (Katherine Delay) spoke with a coworker and the Initiate (Elizabeth So) with friends at school. The Confidante (Ben Liao Gormley) talked to his mother who came to his house unannounced, while the Soldier (Kenley Ferris-Ku) spoke with their dead brother.

The Advocate (Megan Campbell) talked to a prisoner on death row, and the President (Jean Kim) spoke with a new member of their Vietnamese organization. It was unclear who the Surveyor (Isabella Gillard) and right-wing extremist the Candidate (Reece Gerhardt) spoke with, but nevertheless each character performed their dialogue facing the audience as if we were that other character who they were speaking with.

In other words, each part of this play consisted of one character performing a dialogue where we only got to hear the lines of the character on stage. It was never hard to follow the dialogue, though, because the lines of the speaking characters on stage made sure to repeat anything essential — “Oh, so you’re asking ‘X’?” or “You’re saying ‘Y’?” In fact, the script could have even pulled back on this and had faith that the audience would have been able to follow anyway; the dialogue would have also felt more natural without some of the repetitive language.

The acting in this play was good overall, and the unique structure of a series of monologues as dialogues was intriguing, something that the well-chosen sparse set design supported.

In his comments at the end, however, Jan pointed out that, despite of the engaging subject matter, it was not until toward the end that he was really drawn into the play because it was in the last two scenes — the Candidate and the President — that the characters’ wants and desires clearly came out, thereby making those scenes particularly engaging.

While Trinity did not receive the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award, playwright Nam Nguyen did receive the adjudicator’s Award of Merit for Playwriting.

And the awards go to…

IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement: Emilia Findley — Lady Margaret

Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance: Aeden Taylor — Jeremey in Under Pressure

Robert Gill Award for Best Direction: William Dao — Boy Who Cried

Robertson Davies Award Playwriting Award: Brad Gira — Boy Who Cried

President’s Award for Best Production: the company of Boy Who Cried

Janet Bessey Award for Excellence in Stage Management: Beka Morrison — Boy Who Cried

Editor’s Note (February 15, 2:53 pm): This article has been updated to correct Jean Kim’s name. 

A chat with the cast of Hart House’s Legally Blonde

Yeah we got an interview — what, like it’s hard?

A chat with the cast of Hart House’s <i>Legally Blonde</i>

You have definitely watched the 2001 Hollywood cult-classic Legally Blonde. And we’re completely and totally sure that you saw Kim Kardashian’s Halloween spoof of Elle’s admission video. And, even if you deny it, you’ve guiltily enjoyed Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)…more than once. But, have you seen the musical? Join The Varsity as we ask Paige Foskett, playing Margot, and Moulan Bourke, playing Paulette, all about Hart House Theatre’s newest musical, Legally Blonde.

The Varsity: As actors, how was it bringing the world of Elle Woods to life? Is stepping into the shoes of such iconic characters a struggle?

Paige Foskett: It can sometimes be hard stepping into roles that have been done — and loved — so many times before, but ultimately you just have to find the heart of who these people are, and really bite into the text as actors. The more you do it, the more you find new and exciting ways of being this person that have maybe never been done before.

Moulan Bourke: As an actor I love bringing what people know as a movie to life. Many individuals who are not normally patrons of the theatre will come to this show. I believe it is important to respect our predecessors in these iconic roles, but to also infuse your own portrayal of the character. Every creative team and actor will have a different interpretation of this show and I’m proud to share this version of Legally Blonde with audiences!

TV: The movie has become a seriously iconic part of contemporary North American culture. Entire dissertations have been written about its place as a piece of feminist media. Has this cultural legacy and feminist lens affected your characterization or acting?

PF: I think if anything it just makes you really lean into the honesty of the story. It’s been really important for us to not make it a joke because the writing already lends to the comedy. We have found the power in who Elle is, and what she is fighting for. I think it’s so powerful to get to embody all the people in her life who rallied behind her or pushed against her and made her stronger. She is a total badass.

MB: Even though 20 years have passed, this story is still so incredibly relevant today. Elle Woods inspires everyone in this show by the power or her love. Absolutely, my characterization of Paulette was influenced by the heart of this story. This show is iconic and its lessons are prominent. Elle reminds Paulette to never give up and the importance of self-love. These women display strength, power, love, and sisterhood which I strive to have as a performer and as a person.

TV:  Even though it’s only been a little more than a decade since the debut of Ms. Woods’ foray into litigation, a lot has changed in contemporary culture. Did you feel the need to, or have you had to contemporize any aspect or the play?

PF: Saccha Dennis made the really smart choice of setting our production in the ’90s where a lot of these references and the writing makes more sense. I think it’s more truthful to the text to set it in a time where all of these references and the circumstances we see play out are actually really accurate. I think to set it in modern day there has to be a lot of changes made, and you have to go about it from a different lens.

TV: Many theatrical productions feature localizations, especially for comedic and dramatic productions. Is Hart House doing anything to localize Elle to a ‘foreign’ Canadian context, well aware of its setting in Harvard and are the actors doing anything to assert their Canadian identity through these iconic Americans?

PF: For Saccha it was actually quite the opposite. We put a lot of importance on figuring out who these American people are, and really leaning into that. There’s nothing Canadian about this version of the show. And Saccha made sure to catch us every time we said “Sowww-ry!”

TV: If you could distill your production to a few remarks about its significance, plot, or really whatever you’d like, what would you say? What is your production, in essence?

PF: I would say that this show really is spectacular because it is so fast paced, funny, and honest. Every character we meet in this story totally reels you in, from the lead roles like Elle or Paulette, to the store manager, to Elle’s dad. Everything is so cohesive and honest. And in our production especially the costumes, set design, lighting design, and choreography are so out of this world.

MB: I think this production’s essence is the power of love. Elle literally gets into Harvard to follow who she believes to be the love of her life. She finds the love and power of law through helping her sisters. She reminds us of the importance of self-love. This show is women empowerment.

Catch Legally Blonde at Hart House Theatre until February 1, with discounted student tickets on select nights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

U of T alumni direct and take their play, zounds!, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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

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

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

The Varsity: Firstly, what is zounds! about? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV: Why is community in theatre so important? 

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

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

TV: And what about the cast and crew? 

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

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

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

VG: What he said.

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

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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.”

Disclosure: Hemrajani is a St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). 

Editor’s Note (July 30, 1:00 pm): This article has been updated to disclose the author’s affiliation with the UTSU. 

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.