Three years ago, Kevin Matthew Wong and Nathaniel Rose founded Broadleaf Theatre, a student-run company with a focus on environmental issues. It seeks to make important issues more accessible and relatable than the average petition. Rose has since left the company, but Wong continues to be the artistic director and producer.
“A lot of the exposure you get towards environmental issues, it’s the petitions, it’s the sad video on your news feed,” Wong said. “We’re not that and we want to give you something that those can’t do.”
Broadleaf uses a technique called ‘devised theatre’ and they rarely begin with a set script. Instead, they use a communal process — such as watching documentaries and discussing current events — to create each play. Wong pointed out that the environmental movement does not have a single president or leader, and that Broadleaf operates similarly. By opening up the creative process to all performers, the actors also become the creators.
“The scary thing for us, too, is telling a story that is not ours,” Wong said. “There are a lot of questions of ethics about that. We want to talk about the Boil water crisis on First Nations reserves. How do we do that? …I don’t think we can say this is our experience, because it is not.”
Born out of brainstorm sessions at the Kruger Hall Second Cup, Broadleaf Theatre’s Bite-Sized will come to life once again at Factory Theatre during the Toronto Fringe Festival, which runs June 29 to July 10. It is a collection of 15 plays addressing environmental issues, each three minutes or less. It was first performed at the U of T Drama Festival in 2014, where it won the Viewer’s Choice Award and the President’s Award for Best Production.
“In 60 minutes, we hope to give everybody a sense of where they exist in the world – intense, fun, wacky, and all the things,” Wong said.
The Varsity sat down with Wong to discuss everything from the evolution of Broadleaf to advice for theatre enthusiasts.
The Varsity: You’re taking evolution and distilling it into a three-minute act of interactive seventies aerobics dance? I would love to see that.
Kevin Wong: Come on by! I think it is also understanding the demographic. I think we are under-served as a demographic… I didn’t realize a few years ago that the art wasn’t really connecting with me fully because it wasn’t made for me. We’re trying to make theatre that is made for people who are realizing this is the world that they will have to contend with – these are the issues that are nascent now, but they are going to be with them their entire lives, and how do we make that not a great tragedy but a great comedy?
TV: …I’m so amazed you took inspiration from a U of T prof.
KW: Dan [Dolderman]’s concept is a concept called “everything you love,” and I really love it because it is about thinking about all the things that you value, even in a small way, and realizing that not only does that thing probably affect the issue of environmental issues of climate change, it is also threatened by climate change. It is something at stake, and if you think about everything you love and don’t want to lose, that is exactly why we are doing this. I think that is a great concept by a U of T prof that really personalizes it.
TV: How has [Broadleaf] enriched your U of T experience? You said you were in International Relations — that’s pretty different.
KW: I am so grateful for the theatre community. I wouldn’t have been in the theatre community if I didn’t catch a Facebook post out of high school for auditions for somebody who dropped out of King Lear with the [Trinity College Drama Society]. I swear that changed the entire trajectory of maybe my life. It’s super wacky to think about how a Facebook post could change your life, or meeting the right person. Nathaniel Rose, he’s no longer with the company, but he was my co-founder. He was in the same class. There were a few of us that were interested in these issues, but it was finding the person at the right time, the right wavelength, with similar theatre practices and interests, and how that shaped my experience.
Performers of Abandoned City
Courtesy of Rusaba Alam
TV: Did you say you co-founded it? Can you give us a little more of the history of Broadleaf Theatre?
KW: Broadleaf Theatre happened because we were in performance class at the [Leonard Common Room], it’s in the basement of Morrison Hall, in the theatre program. We really loved all the things we were doing in the class and we were really challenged, in terms of being actors. But there was part of us, a few of us, that felt that the work wasn’t really yet about what was really at the core of us, what we really cared about.
TV: You mentioned initiative – if you want to be seen, you have to do it yourself. Do you have any other advice for students in theatre, students looking to get more involved in theatre, or students looking to start their own productions?
KW: Sometimes the best help isn’t the people that are five steps ahead of you, but the ones that are one step ahead of you… If you’re working with your instructor, they are [five steps ahead] – you’re really grasping for something you are not sure about. If you take a look at your TA or something, they’re like two steps ahead of you. That is something that is sort of attainable and you can reach for that. It is just steps, especially in your theatre practice or as an artist. It is what is the next step. Sometimes I see artists that are everywhere in the city. I can’t be them tomorrow. Humility is really important. Self-awareness is also really important.