Thursday, March 27, 2014

world makers

i’ve long wondered about how it is that designers for theatre end up so much relegated to the sidelines. this isn’t true across the boards, but if you look at publicity for most theatres, whether it’s a poster or a flyer, the designers are seldom listed, never mind featured. this has always baffled me.

some reading this know i am very much in love with a great designer. andy moro has created some of the most striking lighting, innovative sets, evocative and haunting sound designs and mind-blowing video/projection. he used to do costumes, too, but the direct contact with actor egos made him grumpy. andy’s considerable gifts are not why the regard - or seeming absence thereof - for designers has puzzled me for so long. it may be a big contributor to why i flipped my lid for him, though. i’ve always found myself trying to see the design, and his is so... well. refer to previous adjectives.

as a playwright, the first time i realized i could create a show that would not be at all disappointing was after i had seen andy’s work with the daniels, macivor and brooks. i say “create” because i began to understand that with the right collaborators, directing might be a possibility as well.  i had the chance to meet andy at buddies in bad times that night and learned immediately that he is a warm and beautiful soul. so, here was an artist who is not only wildly talented, but he also has a rigour in his work that renders it almost invisible. by this i mean he weaves so artfully with the storytelling that we understand his work as being integral to the show - we don’t see it as a flashy show-off feature in a show. mind you, his work with the daniels is one platform in which andy was enthusiastically
commended in reviews, and where he was appreciated by his collaborators.

Migrations at Banff, lighting my Moro, costumes by Jeff Chief. A Red Sky Performance and Black Grace collab.

so. i understand that sometimes when a designer’s work is remarkable, we fail to clock it as such. rather than becoming a standout, it serves to deliver the experience in a way that non-theatre workers can’t completely understand. those of us who work in theatre, though - surely we appreciate their skills?

a quick survey of actor friends who i regularly text demonstrates that this is partly true. most of them could come up at least with a first name of one of the designers they’ve worked with on recent shows. i understand some people aren’t good with names - but i have also stood at the side of many a designer on many an opening night and had people congratulate me, and all but ignore them. and these are theatre people.

yet we KNOW! we know we are playing make believe in our sweats in a dusty room under fluorescents without them. so, where are their kudos? do they want them? i recall ben chaisson remarking on the absence of a video/projection dora some years back, from the stage. this hasn’t changed. what frigging year is it anyway?

i’ve had to fight for designer credits in show propaganda, many times. (easier when serving as a.d. of a producing company.) i seldom see designer’s names listed on juries that have accepted or rejected my grant proposals, and we rarely see interviews with them. yet they know so damn much.

there are designers who work so closely on the creative process that they become indispensable to directors. yvette nolan and michelle ramsay. nina lee aquino and cami koo. christopher morris and gillian gallow. michael hollingsworth and andy moro.

at video cabaret, andy inherited the lighting reigns from jim plaxton. andy is always quick to say how key jim was to developing the video cabaret aesthetic with hollingsworth and deanne taylor. videocab has been a unique world of wonder for years. this “mad dollhouse”, as hollingsworth has often referred to it, is a place where performers know how spectacular the designers make the work - in the past, andy has been in the room from very early on. most processes only have designers implement their elements at the final week. so nuts!
with their current production, Trudeau, videocab had to go it mostly without andy, who could not be with the team due to a shift in production schedule. andy's role was consultatory - yet he still spent two full weeks with the brilliant cast, writer, directors, and designers.

if you ask any actor who has worked on a video cab show, they will tell you that they understand the world they’re in because of the importance of andy’s gentle guidance. let’s end with those good words, yeah?

“I have worked 7 shows with Andy. Nothing but big love for the man.
Great energy. Great artist.” Linda Prystawska

“Praises to be sung to the uttermost” Mac Fyfe

“In a show where the lights are scene partners, it is integral to have the lighting designer there for the entire process. While Michael and the actors were figuring out characters and story, Andy was there. Listening. Andy was ready with ideas and suggestions by the time the first attempt at blocking happened. Michael would have a rough idea. The actors had ideas. And Andy could implement them all. Immediately. And throw in some of his, ultimately better, suggestions. It's the designers job to help clarify the picture that's happening on stage.  I learned from working with Andy early on, that having his eyes and voice in the room only strengthened and supported the vision of the director. Not to mention his never wavering support of the entire creative team. Hearing Andy's laugh would make my day!! Michael trusted and respected him so implicitly. And everyone in the room knew they could trust Andy with their creative lives. And we did. And those that are working with him now still do.   And I hope that I'll have the opportunity to work
along side him again and again.” Kerry Ann Doherty

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Andy. As good of a designer as he is, he's a better guy. But to speak professionally...I know Andy in that most unique enviro: videocab, where design, script, story, and character are very tightly interwoven.  As you know from day one we are making 'tech' aware choices as well as acting choices.  So when Andy would show up and start popping those lights on us the real fun would begin. His vision for how to make the story and acting more vivid is of the highest expertise.  He really gets it.  He's not trying to impose some predetermined vision. But rather see what's in front of him, get inspired, and really chisel away like a master sculptor, not to mention his energy and demeanor in the room, a true pro, he's a positive energy, full  of life and passion, and a consummate team player, never dismissive to others creative offers.  I wish other companies would try and integrate design into the creative process and not keep them as separate art forms.  It's all about the play! Andy is a true artistic warrior.” Paul Braunstein

“I've worked with Andy Moro many years
On many shows with VideoCabaret
Through on-stage blood and backstage sweat and tears
There's so much 'bout his work that I can say.

It wasn't just his lighting that was key 

He nuanced every scene, but even more

Creatively, his input guided me 

And our collective trusts him to our core.

Of VideoCabaret's exquisite style 

The writing and direction get top praise 

Exquisite wigs and costuming beguile 

About the acting, people rave for days.

But, rarely have I heard after a show 

Discussions 'round the lighting, though it's key 

Apart from on and off, people don't know 

It shapes each moment so intricately.

Of all the elements Black Box draws upon 

The lighting seems to get the shortest shrift 

His brilliance wasn't only light that shone

But, his illuminations gave us lift. 

I fear this sounds too much like an obit 

Suffice to say, I love him like my kin 

The man's A-One, and with these words I'll quit 

As In another playing area, his lights fade in.” Anand Rajaram


Friday, March 14, 2014

when blood speaks

cousins addy, trevor and sharon, myself, and one great auntie hazel
The journey with In Spirit has been a long and challenging one. It began, for me, a creative partnership that anchors my being today. In Spirit (then alternately titled) debuted at SummerWorks ’07, and marked my first collaboration with Andy Moro. Our tireless drive to work and work more until something feels closer to what it should be has been getting on peoples nerves ever since. At the time of In Spirit, Andy’s son was eight years of age - the story of In Spirit is that of a twelve year old girl. The content resonated with Andy, and his commitment to the work has never wavered. On my side, the content related directly to my own blood.

My mom (and all her kids, of course) is Ntlaka’pamux from the Coldwater Band, and I am happy to say our annual summer holiday trips brought us to B.C. to hang out with cousins and lovingly torment aunties. It was on one of these trips that I learned, for the first time, that young people on reserve were just as likely to be victims of abductions as us kids from the big city of Lethbridge. Not until I was an adult did I begin to understand the real level of violence perpetrated against our women and girls.

When I started working, in earnest, through the stories of our missing and murdered women and girls, the story that kept calling to me the strongest was one close to home. My mom and I had some conversations about this very real, very heartbreaking story, and that led to a phone call. The mother of one such missing, murdered girl is a cousin to my mom. They spoke and caught up over a series of calls. That led to my own relationship with this strong woman, and permission from her to write of her late daughter.

The writing came, as through ancestors, in a mighty current of words and images. I tend to take this as an indication that I’m doing the right thing. Five days after beginning the writing, I was in a studio with Andy and the wonderful M├ętis actor Michaela Washburn. The work ran deep, and Washburn, a true empath, carried a great deal of the spiritual burden in this piece. Her self-care had to expand when we went into full rehearsals. Her performance at SummerWorks was breathtaking. When that brief run closed, I began to work with my contact (and cousin!) to bring the play to B.C. In spite of best efforts, the granting bodies didn’t support our proposed community tour. We agreed we'd try again.

Meanwhile, the work was growing in a good way, and with the support of the OAC’s TCR program, through recommenders Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA), and then through a residency at Cahoots Theatre. This development led to another public workshop session, with Factory Theatre’s now defunct CrossCurrents Festival.  For this round, actor PJ Prudat brought a new approach to the work that further illuminated its path, and with such gentle grace. It was this time that Andy introduced video.

As ever, life takes its many complex turns. My own path led me to a multitude of other artistic pursuits, and in 2011, into the chair of NEPA’s AD. My time serving in that position clocked in just under three years, yet somehow I have aged thirty. I used to laugh when former AD Yvette Nolan would ask “What fresh hell is this?” to the tone of the office phone ringing. Of course, in Yvette’s storied era, there was also lots of laughing and frequent dance breaks. This was something I did not do enough of during my time.

In Spirit was programmed for 2013/14 in response to a trying though bright transitional time at NEPA. None of this is private information - NEPA issued a press release postponing Kenneth Williams’ play, Deserters back when the difficult decision was made to do so. The move into Daniels Spectrum and the Aki Studio Theatre took a toll on the company in every way. It was a risk worth taking, no question, and I applaud former GM Donna Michelle St. Bernard for her courage, as well as the board for believing it was all possible.

In Spirit is a strong work, and affordable, with one sole actor - perfect for then struggling NEPA. NEPA was also blessed for the coming 2013/14 season by the partnership Aluna Theatre offered with their Rutas Panamericanas festival. Seven years after its SummerWorks debut, In Spirit would make its full production debut. With originating actor Washburn and ensuing actor Prudat pursuing other artistic and alternative paths, it was our good fortune that we were gifted with a bright new talent, in shape of Sera-Lys McArthur.

Sera-Lys is an immaculately skilled and astonishingly talented actor, who trained in NYC and the UK, returning to her roots with stage work on Where the Blood Mixes (Western Canada Theatre, Theatre Aquarius and Theatre Network) Smoke (Mixed Phoenix) and now In Spirit.

The consummately patient Mike Lewandowski has completed our foursome, and traveled with us, camera in hand, to B.C. and back again. The public debut was at Full Circle’s Talking Stick festival in Vancouver. Our team fell in love with the festival,  the Roundhouse Theatre and their space tech, Terry. This experience was classy, inclusive, respectful, organized, and warm - a proverbial blanket enfolding us in the chilly west coast rain.

The night that moves me to write today is the night a particular group of twenty came to see In Spirit. This group included my mom’s cousin and my contact throughout this writing process - more about that night in a moment. As the debut approached, this woman, mother and grandmother, who has endured more than anyone should, became concerned about the impact of this play on her family’s right to hold memory as they wish. I offered to change details of this already fictionalized play, as well as its title, in service of this right, and to demonstrate to my friend that I move from a place of good. In addition to this, my cousin Sharon, who booked our anchor tour date, offered to cancel the presentation of In Spirit in the interior - a generous act of good will. The revised script was given to the concerned family, and passed along to investigating officers who actively work on cases included in the Highway of Tears. It was decided, unequivocally, that the play was in no way harmful to the investigations, and some opined that the play illuminates the all too many unresolved cases in a good way.

On the night of the group of twenty, Margo Kane very wisely asked Elder Shane Pointe to welcome the audience, and offer a protective song at the show’s beginning and end. This is reminiscent of the Maori practice of beginning and ending a session of artistic mahi with a karakia. People are invited to come into the story and then restored in the present moment when the telling concludes. The group of twenty included sixteen family members of one missing and murdered girl, and four investigating officers who work intimately with this family and others. This group braved a journey into this work with us. Talking Stick, Native Earth and I all worked together to ensure their attendance when it was decided they should like to attend. They came. Some wept. Some spoke of it as a healing experience. Above any review, beyond any acclaim, this validated our long and laboured journey.

Yours in profound gratitude,