We sat down in Montreal’s MainLine Theatre MainStage for a conversation with (left to right) Sara Meleika, Keith Waterfield, Sehar Manji, Adam Capriolo, Tranna Wintour, Kate Hammer and Tatyana Olal, to talk about comedy in Quebec. The group brings a breadth of knowledge of Quebec comedy from standup, improv, sketch, theatre, producing and improv to the table. The chat touched on funding their craft, diversity in the industry and really, what makes them laugh!?
The Spotlight feature on The Drama of Comedy sheds light on the intersection of theatre and comedy. The cover stars venture into a dialogue on the audience experience and where we’re going in Canadian comedic arts. MainLine Theatre proved a natural backdrop for the feature as a staple in the Quebec theatre community hosting community, independent, and professional theatre productions regularly and of course, annually producing the epic St-Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival.
SARA MELEIKA: I started Colour Outside the Lines (a diverse improv comedy ensemble) while the election was happening in the United States. That was definitely a moment where I felt this is serious so I need to do my part to try to reach as many people as possible to just break down walls, create connections and community.
SEHAR MANJI: I was in the audience(s) of these people who I, even when I went to stand up shows, I’m like, that material-it’s not what I would do. I don’t find it funny. So then I thought ‘oh, I’ll just try improv’. Then when I started, there’s spaces like Squad Laughs and all these new shows that are coming up, they are open to whatever anyone is. If you’re funny, you’re funny, you kind of can’t teach funny. You just are. There’s no book, there’s not one kind. I think it’s thanks to the producers that are going to create a space. ‘Fine. You guys won’t take me, but I’m going to find another stage’.
ADAM CAPRIOLO: The audience can tell if a performer is not trying to connect or if they’re not trying to entertain in some way. I think, in terms of connection, that stand-up is only really successful when the performer engages with the audience – it doesn’t matter what way they do it.
TRANNA WINTOUR: There’re so many things that I feel much more comfortable talking about live, onstage versus writing a Facebook status. There’s something about verbal communication and the nuance that comes with the way we speak, the tone and our body language that is just so lacking in most of our daily interactions. If we were to ever lose live-performance, if we do reach that point in time where we’re all just living in pods and watching our Netflix or even just like watching a live-show through the internet, I can’t handle that. The end of live-performance will be the end of humanity.
KATE HAMMER: Performance, of any type, is chasing after truth. We want new ways of exploring our truths, of being human and connecting to others. That’s why I love mixing storytelling in with stand-up because to me that’s what gets to the root of who I am, in hopefully hilarious ways. I was once told by a comedian that I wasn’t actually a stand-up comedian, I was a storyteller. It felt like a weird way of saying, “You don’t fit into the box of comedy that I have spent years learning to develop, and that scares me. Take up space somewhere else.”
The most personal is the most universal. You can tell when something strikes honestly right on the nose, you feel it in your bones. I love hearing different ways of looking at things, the absurd, the way out-there messes. Because no matter how far away from reality you get, if you can find resounding truth, relatable emotion, or just, like, how phone companies suck—I’m on board.
KEITH WATERFIELD: Empathy to me is when I’m watching performers and as an audience member, I have the ability to empathize with the performers struggle. Whether it’s theatre or comedy it’s just such a beautiful thing to relate to somebody. That’s why with Life Lessons, I try to get as many different stories and experiences on the show that the audience can relate to. It just feels like such a nice little hug.
TATYANA OLAL: I think after the show is very different from an audience standpoint. Sometimes after a comedy show like Squad Laughs, I’ll go for drinks or get pizza with some of my friends who came and attended the show. They’ll somehow feel funnier. Everyone will kind of just be riffing with each other and feeling really good! It’s just like, ‘Oh, okay! You want to do comedy too! You had a really nice time and now you also want to do this.’
SEHAR MANJI: I think at the root of comedy is truth. Whether you laugh because you’re scared or you laugh because you’re happy- it’s a cognitive response. Laughter seems to be the only sound you can produce when you’re in a seat. Even with theatre, it’s the universality of truth and emotion. You’ve had all of these different experiences you can distinguish like with taste buds. You know what’s spicy, bitter, sour and sweet. Even if you’ve never lived the horrible or amazing experience that someone else has, you can empathize with it
TATYANA OLAL: I am a grant writer, that’s mostly my job. So I process and understand (usually) what gets funded and what doesn’t. I think that if you do something at a certain skill level, you should have an ability to be able to live off of what you are good at. So maybe it’s a matter of considering certain things artful, and maybe not putting that capital A for Art on anything really. There’s some comedy that is artful, but like there’s also some comedy that isn’t.
There’s a change in comedy. Who’s able to get onstage? There’s also a change in what’s happening in funding. A year ago, Canada Council completely revamped their funding model, they made equity considerations for the first time. There are funding bodies that are shifting and turning towards minority communities, funding artists and arts organizations with an effort to represent larger numbers of marginalized identities. There are all of these ways in which funding is slowly moving towards targeting groups that have been overlooked. I think that could coincide really well with comedy being included. I like the idea of people who are doing something that is artful, and challenging, getting funded. However, then I worry about who makes those decisions. Who is the jury?
SARA MELEIKA: Marginalized audiences have had comedy that’s been so oppressive to them for so long. That’s why a lot of people I know have totally disengaged or don’t want to partake because going to a comedy show would leave you feeling upset rather than actually having a fun night. I think there’s also that process right now of people discovering people who are like them also doing comedy and feeling like, ‘Oh, there is comedy for me’. I think that will take time, but it’s happening.
TRANNA WINTOUR: As producers going into Stand Back with Nancy Webb and Rachel Gendron, a part of our mission was damage control because we have been hearing people feeling left out or just so repulsed by some of the people they were seeing onstage and that they would disengage and feel like comedy was not for them and stopped going. For us, it was really a focused effort. We want to bring these people back. I want to show them that there is comedy that is considerate. What blows me away is that so many of the more old school comedians think that they’re being silenced. No, you’re not being silenced. We’re not even saying what you can and can’t talk about. We’re just saying evolve, be considerate and come at it from another point of view.
KEITH WATERFIELD: I don’t know. I watch stand up comedy all the time. I watch funny movies. Consistently, I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s funny’. But I’m not laughing. To give a better answer: I would say my mom, and the way my mom texts. She makes me laugh. Her texts are hilarious. Yeah, the way my mom texts.
ADAM CAPRIOLO: The things that I take seriously.
TRANNA WINTOUR: I like authenticity- it’s a major one, but I also feel on the opposite side of the spectrum, what also equally makes me laugh is out of touchness, you know, people that are just, or concepts that are so out of touch. That kills me. That makes me laugh so much. So I draw a lot on on that.
Kate Hammer is a writer, producer, actor and improviser based out of Montreal, QC. You can find Kate at her monthly show, Infemous, weekly doing stand up through JOKES at Crobar. Kate will be a part of Sketchfest and can be seen in this upcoming Festival St-Ambroise Fringe de Montréal and Toronto Fringe with her production, The Peers. Kate is also Editor-in-Chief of the new comedy journal, Hindwing Press, which is to get more legitimacy for comedy in a published arena.
Sehar Manji is an improviser, improv teacher, actor, writer, standup, and sketch comedian based in Montreal, QC. You can find Sehar performing regularly around the city. Up next? Sketchfest with her sketch duo Damsel Washington.
Tatyana Olal is a comic and performer based in Montreal QC. She primarily does stand up and sketch comedy. Tatyana produces a monthly comedy show called Squad Laughs with her co-producer James Brown.
Tranna Wintour is a comedy writer, singer, songwriter, producer based in Montreal, QC. Tranna produces two monthly comedy shows including Stand Back, which is a monthly showcase for LGBTQ and female talent and Trannavision which is a pop culture commentary, film screening show. Tranna is also coproduce cabaret shows with my collaborator Thomas LeBlanc. Tranna is currently working on a musical album debut and first comedy album.
Adam Capriolo is an actor and writer based in Montreal, QC. Adam can be seen on Freeform’s The Bold Type now on its third season. Adam is also currently working on a film project that will be released this summer! You can find Adam performing regularly around Montreal at events like Trannavision.
Sara Meleika is an improviser, sketch comic, performer based out of Montreal, QC. Sara produces a show called Color Outside the Lines; a show to uplift people from marginalized backgrounds and ethnicities. She also works as the Inclusion Coordinator at Montreal Improv. Through Montreal Improv, she tries to equip marginalized people by teaching workshops, to supporting people who are trying to produce their own projects and give them the tools or support that they might need.
Keith Waterfield is a stand up performer and host of a comedic talk show called Life Lessons at MainLine Theatre for over six years. Keith is also a writer for video games, scripts and short films.
Five years ago on a Monday afternoon Mike Payette asked me what has since proven to be the most significant question of my career: Who are you, and what do you do? On the surface there isn’t much to it, questions like these are often the standard opener for engaging in small talk with any stranger in North America. But this wasn’t a stranger asking me, it was a friend and artist who I admire deeply and who also has an uncanny way of always being there whenever a major artistic door opens in my life–thank heavens. On the other hand, is any conversation about theatre in Montreal complete without reference to the “Mayor of Theatretown?” I think not. There are just certain artists you interact with who affect you much like iron sharpening iron, whose strength as an artist comes from the kind of self-awareness and questioning that inspires their collaborators to do the same. Certainly it’s a question that I’ve either asked, been asked, or have answered more times than I can count. Yet the answer has the potential to encompass so much: one’s identity, career, passion, lineage, community, values, and more. And so on that particular autumn, as a part of the first year of the AMP program at Black Theatre Workshop maybe for the first time in my professional career I really began to consider the import of what that could mean for me.
I’ve seldom been able to answer to the question of who I am without speaking to where I come from and what has made me. Whenever I tell people that I was born in Canada, I generally have to explain further why because of the way I look. Brown skin and curly hair aren’t traits that are typically associated with your everyday Canadian. When I choose to answer the question in detail, I explain that one of my parents was born here and the other was born in the West Indies. My ethnic heritage is West African, Indigenous, Asian and Caucasian: I’m of Mohawk, Malaysian, German, Chinese, Irish, Scottish, Italian, French, Trinidadian, and Venezuelan descent. Although I identify primarily as a queer Black woman, the fact is that the bulk of my history and cultural heritage has been lost to me through the legacy of this country’s involvement with transatlantic slave trade as well as because of past and ongoing colonial policies of Indigenous genocide in this land since First Contact. I am the kind of Canadian whose story is only beginning to emerge on stages and screens for the general public: the seventh generation of my family “name,” both a descendant of the First People rooted very much in the soil of this land while equally being a child of the world. Chief Joseph Brant is my forefather, and so I feel fortunate knowing that my family is native to this land while also being the child of an immigrant. I believe that my identity and experience gives me a uniquely inclusive perspective as a storyteller that I too can add to the chorus of incredible artists of colour in this country.
I’ve come to realize that in everything that I do I’m always a storyteller: whether as an actor, singer, educator, or poet, and more recently as a director and playwright. I particularly love the Jamaican expression I an’ I. It means so many different things to me at once: you and I, I am you, and you are me. It also sounds like Eye in Eye, which speaks to me of perception and observation. I am the Other, and yet this Other is alien. Exploring the paradox of how a multitude of experience and understanding can exist within one person is endlessly fascinating to me and is what most fuels my quest to further understand, relate, and connect to the world. Ancestrally speaking, the Yoruba worldview of sacred polarity, one that embraces a both/and approach as opposed to an either/or way of thinking is what most frames much of my point of view and the way in which I seek to live, think, and work.
In the same way that I continue to learn how to reconcile and balance the many ingredients that flavour my worldview, through the arts I seek to bring people to a common ground of exchange through the sharing of culture. I believe in the urgency of injecting into the art that we produce the objective that with our storytelling and creative process we continually seek for bridges to reconcile the world to one another. I suppose if the playground scuffles of my childhood are any indication, I’ve never been unconcerned with justice, equity, and the importance of the witness or unwilling to fight for what I believe is fair, regardless of the outcome. But as an adult I’ve since channeled that drive and now I believe that the best contribution to my community I can make is as an artist, educator, writer, intellectual, and social advocate.
To me there is nothing more universally human than stories and personal narratives in their many and varied forms. They help to mirror and contextualize the human condition for us, and also have the potential to be the shortest distance between two people–indeed, it’s difficult to hate and fear someone once you know and can relate to their story. It has been said that the more specific a story is the more universal it is as well, often the most intimate and personal things that shape us also unites us all in the commonality of human experience. Micheline Chevrier recently spoke about the fact that the objective of entertainment isn’t only to divert, but also to invite the audience to entertain new ideas and perspectives. As artists when we present to audiences the many sides of a story that can coexist and offer a plurality of perspectives, we can advocate for greater understanding of the Other based on personal observation rather than assumption. It’s exciting to seek out the windows that will help the audience to encounter something alien but then discover in themselves something that makes the alien familiar to them in the hope they may later learn to walk with the Other and come to a greater knowledge and acceptance of themselves. My hope is to contribute to a more empathic and just society by promoting the exchange and celebration of difference and diversity without fear; to make room for every person to walk their own path and to be who they are with freedom and respect.
Although there is no such thing as a homogenous Canadian experience or identity, in terms of mainstream culture only a very narrow slice of the full spectrum of that experience tends to be disseminated, often one that reinforces the image and primacy of settler or colonial identity. And considering our current global political climate and the rise of increasingly divisive racist rhetoric in public life and discourse, it seems that the push for representational diversity in arts and culture is insufficient. The value of diversity–a word I’ve come to loathe when used as a euphemism for BIPOC people–is not only about fair play, it’s also a tacit declaration of values for our industry, culture, and society, about what kind of reality we want to project onto ourselves. With all due deference to Nina Simone, it is the duty of the artist to not only reflect the times in which they live, but also to respond to them.
It is not solely through a unidirectional assimilation of all citizens into settler culture and its existing cultural and training institutions that will help to contribute to harmonious intercultural exchange in society, but to concurrently counter the effects of historic and systemic exclusion and erasure by creating more dedicated space for racialized artists to develop and explore practice together as well. In terms of feminist spaces, the importance of having a space to get together and be empowered to function without men and male-identifying people is perfectly understandable. Such instances have less to do with exclusion than with facilitating areas of exchange in which to practice, develop, and unlearn patriarchal behaviours and conditioning together. The same principle tends to apply for marginalized folks existing outside the many different intersections of privilege in our society, whether that be culture, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, living with disabilities, and so much more.
Recently while on contract for a local theatre company, I did a survey of all PACT and affiliate companies for the coming season across the country that had programming featuring Black artists either onstage or on the creative team. I see that there has been measurable growth and progress with representation of racialized artists in theatre in the years since I first began acting in the 90s, which is heartening. But there is no denying how much more work still remains for this industry to do to move beyond tokenism towards true representation, let alone the possibility for exchange. The disparities and limitations of diversity in representation on Quebec stages and screens is even more marked; whereas about 18% of Quebec residents are racialized–as are approximately 43% of Montreal residents–the corresponding 3-5% representation of artists onscreen and onstage who are not white shows that this reality is neither by accident nor oversight. And I’m only speaking to issues of visibility: the question of the nature and quality of that visibility as well as who is empowered with access and the resources to produce, direct, write, and design is another thing altogether.
I’ve been a theatre artist for nearly two thirds of my life, twenty-five of which were spent in Montreal and I’m painfully aware that although my level of exposure, mobility, access as an artist in this field has only very recently begun to grow, I still have much more to learn and discover. When I think of how many prominent theatre directors I know of who are also women of colour in Quebec, I can count their number on one hand. (In truth, I know that the answer is zero. Why should this be the case, and what accounts for the under-representation of voices like mine in the Canadian theatre landscape? Over the years that have passed since my artistic residency in directing at Black Theatre Workshop, I’ve come to discover exactly why so few womyn do this work in Quebec. Indeed, recent response to some controversial programming in Quebec theatre this past year has led to some important public conversations about cultural appropriation and the under-representation as well as marginalization of racialized artists in Canada.
But a push for inclusion and consultation of artists of colour in any meaningful capacity beyond participation and endorsement only reveals one side of the question. In any of my private conversations with many of the Black and racialized artists who have either participated in industry consultations organized to address these issues, as well as those who choose not to, one heartrending refrain resounded. Without exception every artist I spoke to insisted on anonymity when revealing their fear of engaging in critique or challenge to the issues of racist and problematic representation and practices in the industry lest they face hostility or being blacklisted. Though at times I feel marginalized and isolated in my industry, I also believe that my experience is even more acute for my francophone colleagues of colour, which has only reinforced my resolve to remain a Quebec-based artist so that I can do my part in contributing to change.
My journey from actor to director and now playwright is my response to the lack of diversity and representation in Canadian arts and culture that I experience. The range of stories that I am usually invited to tell as an actor continues to be limited. But whenever I have had the extraordinary opportunity to break out of that mold, it has always been because a director has had the vision to imagine the possibility that my multiracial queer body could indeed inhabit that role. So rather than rail at the status quo, I parlayed my experience as an actor and as an educator into opportunities to explore and develop my craft as a director through its practice. There remains much more to learn and explore, which I hope to do while “holding open the door behind me” in the same way that others have and continue to do for me. It’s the principle that informs what has become my modus operandi as a director, particularly in recent years. In the simplest of terms my mandate as a director is to shine a light on the overlooked and to pass the mic to those that have been silenced. Practically speaking this MO determines both the choice of stories that I tell, as well as the artists that I choose to prioritize in the composition of my collaborative teams: primarily those who are BIPOC, queer, feminine or non-binary, and living with disabilities.
And so ever since that day I first considered the sum of my past and present, my purpose has finally come into view: to contribute to shifting the landscape of an industry that historically has not made an equitable space for marginalized voices and to do my part to open up more room for those voices, those stories, and those bodies to occupy space in the Canadian imaginary.
All images include, Tamara Brown sitting in Centaur Theatre Company who this year are celebrating their 50th anniversary!
Photos by: Mathieu Samson
By Caleigh Crow
“She was born dancing, my dad says,” Aiza says with a sly look at Dayane, “It’s true! He’s always said that.” It’s clearly an old family yarn, the kind that might elicit a preteen’s eye roll, but Dayane returns a graceful smile. It’s a learn-to-love-it story passed down from parents, grandparents, aunties; the kind of story that eventually everyone in the family knows by rote, and as people get older, they cease to be the subjects and start becoming the tellers. These little familiarities rang clear as a bell as I was talking with Aiza and Dayane; sisters in every way – blood, art, and soul.
“What I want to say about Dayane is that every single thing she said she wanted to accomplish, she’s just done it,” Aiza says firmly, recounting her sister’s previous work. Dayane and Aiza both landed roles in Hairspray shortly after Dayane made the decision to act full time. “Boom! Hairspray,” Aiza says.
Then Dayane decided she wanted a lead role. “Boom! Sister Act. She played the lead role in the Just for Laughs musical of the summer, the biggest one in Quebec,” continues Aiza proudly. “And now she’s directing! When she puts her mind to something she just does it.”
“If we’re going to do this we’re going to be here all day,” Dayane interjects, slightly sheepish, “I could talk about how my sister inspires me! You know, you want to be an artist but you think you need a plan B, plan C, and my sister was just doing her thing. I looked at her and thought, I want to do that.”
Dayane and Aiza were both first introduced to theatre through musicals in grade school in Montreal, but as they continued their studies and later joined the artist workforce, neither of them were interested in relegating themselves to one kind of performance or another. Perhaps it was musical theatre’s marriage of the big three performance elements, theatre, dance, and music, that informed their holistic approach to the arts.
“I’m so interested in song as dance, or chant, or voice. I can’t see them being apart,” says Dayane. “That’s how we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of time. As a director that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see how we can make that natural, because it is natural. Even in speech, there is a song in speech. There is a chant in speech and there’s a specific way people move. How can we make that into something more?” As Dayane speaks, Aiza nods in agreement, “The fact that I studied dance helps me overall, as a performer,” says Dayane, who advises everyone to take a dance class, especially if you’re a classic emphatic wallflower.
“Anything that you like, that you find interesting. It loosens you up, it gets you out of your head and inside the rest of your body.” She concludes, “It’s such an important part of any piece. We can’t underestimate the power of it. It’s a whole package. It’s why I love performing arts.” It’s difficult to find one career so varied at such an early stage, never mind two, and yet here are Aiza and Dayane, who tell me several times during our interview that they don’t believe in labelling themselves as anything – as actors, musicians, directors – and they credit this approach for their continuing success, ongoing work, and most importantly, peace of mind. “I always try to remember that at the end of the day, I’m an artist and I can do it all” says Aiza. “I realise now that it’s good to have a sense of what I want but then I just release it as much as possible and I allow life to bring it to me, and I realise the bounty that is available to me when I surrender to what’s happening.”
“That’s one part of the equation, and another part is, and this is something else I learned from Aiza, is don’t be afraid to say no,” Dayane remarks. “When there’s a project that comes to you and it’s not good for you, it’s good for somebody else. Sometimes you go see a show, especially with my director’s eye, you look at an actor and you can see they’re a good performer but you can tell they don’t want to be in this show.”
“Doing something that you enjoy is such an important part of what we do. Being human. Not just as artists, but every human in the world should do something they enjoy,” Aiza advises.
“We’re human beings,” Dayane says, “Not human doings.”
Dayane studied dance and music in CEGEP, all while honing her acting practice by taking workshops, auditioning and acting in plays, which continued all the way up until as recently as last year, when Dayane was accepted into Black Theatre Workshop’s Artist Mentorship Program, opting to participate as a director, what she calls her “new tip” as she hadn’t yet made a professional foray into that field. She reflects positively on the experience, saying, “I owe a lot to Black Theatre Workshop because they invest so much in the artists in the program. Ever since I did the program I’m directing all the time.” The transition to move from centre stage to the director’s chair doesn’t feel sudden to Dayane, on the contrary she describes the change as “completely natural”. She says, “It got to a point where I was always looking at what people were doing in shows I was acting in and asking myself ‘why are we doing things this way’?” Without missing a beat, Aiza steps in.
“Or she’d be calling things out before the director himself or herself would fix it. Dayane would say: ‘that doesn’t work’ and then weeks later the director would say ‘oh that doesn’t work.’”
A moment passes before Dayane and Aiza say, in unison, “Called it!”
They present a united front without any hint of mimicry. Rather than one sister parrot the other out of sibling devotion, when musing on a theme they tread different paths, expand on each other’s ideas; when one sister steps into the tangential, the other is happy to explore whichever new direction the conversation takes. They can finish each other’s sentences perfectly, then seamlessly returning to their own perspectives and reflections.
Dayane continues, “When I finally made that shift, I realised that there’s many things that need to be put in place, and even though it doesn’t work right away, you have
to let it not work, and then fix it. But there are other things -”
“That need to be fixed right away,” Aiza finishes.
“Yeah for sure,” Dayane agrees, “It was super natural. In alignment with everything.”
The pair did a school tour with Black Theatre Workshop called Binti’s Journey, which resulted in the sisters themselves journeying to as far away as Nunavut. “Fellow actors know what a school tour is about, I didn’t know!” Aiza laughs, “That was a real school tour. The beauty is we got to fly to Iqaluit and besides being cold we went and had a really great time. We held a workshop with the teens there who are not very exposed to theatre, and I thought, I’m here with my sister in Nunavut! What is going on?”
“I am so grateful that we’ve been there but it was a place that was –“
“Not even on my radar!” say the pair simultaneously.
“It was lovely,” Dayane concludes.
Aiza, for her part, is still taking things as they come. Aside from playing new officer Roxanne Dionne in the fourth season of Bravo’s hit show 19-2 and landing a long list of TV roles and commercials this past year, she’s been busy working on a lot of music, having released her first single ‘Criminal’ this summer, and travelling to LA and Guadeloupe to participate in a variety of music festivals with other established artists. “Last year, I landed a role that changed my life forever and I’m so thankful for the experience. Playing Roxanne surrounded by such an amazing cast and production team helped set the bar higher for myself as an actress. As for my music career, I’d say it’s just the start of a nice little transition. I’ve been focused on my acting for a while but now it’s a nice blend of both,” she says. “I don’t need to box myself in.”
Her unboxed undertaking has led to frequently working with youth, not something she went out of her way to do, but has reaped the benefits of her experiences nonetheless. “I love talking to young people because they’re so bright, and so raw. That’s another thing about performing for young audiences, is they give it to you straight,” she says, grinning, and Dayane laughs in agreement, “If they don’t believe you, you can hear them in the audience. I’ll admit that at times there’s something comforting about a nice polite adult audience who claps at the right time, and laughs at the right time, when you’ve been jabbed at by young audiences for a while,” she says fondly. Aiza recently had the opportunity to attend a conference called Women in the Arts, which brought a panel comprised of artists of all sorts – a DJ, a dancer, a singer songwriter and radio host – to a school on the West Island, when it occurred to her just how much working with youth has been an unexpected part of her career. “It’s been such a huge part of my path without me realising; I’ve done a lot of theatre for young audiences shows, a lot of talk backs.” Aiza considers, “When you’re given the chance to talk about what you do, you realise you’ve been doing it for longer than you think. I have a few tips to give! I want to use my skills and passion to create something that’s going to inspire and uplift people somehow. If we don’t do that with the arts, there’s something missing.”
Besides setting out to work with youth, Aiza is reaping and sowing simultaneously. She concludes, “Eventually you can take that art and turn it into an act of service.”
Alternatively, Aiza and Dayane tell me there’s a lot about working in the arts that they just don’t buy. They don’t buy into the “starving artist” mentality and they don’t really believe in “scarcity” of work. “I was given a gift, and I’ve learned to hone it. Because of my very introspective nature and the people I’ve had around me, I have a certain level of confidence that I’m proud of and that I work for every day. Because of that mindset, I think doors have been opening in a way that they may not for somebody else, not for lack of talent, or for lack of drive or vision, but because of limiting thoughts they may have about what’s possible. That’s what’s been helping me move forward. We learn to play small or say sorry for being good at something. But I think that the more we can learn to shake those fear-based thoughts and replace them with love, the more we show up, and the more we can accomplish and be happy,” Aiza muses.
Their statements catch me off guard – I consider myself very much a starving artist, though not by choice, but because in my experience, work is scarce. In the hours and days after our interview, I give their remarks some thought and concluded that the sisters have a point. Maybe work is scarce, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s one big reason for it or a thousand small reasons. Either way, why dwell on it when there’s life to be lived?
In keeping with this attitude, the pair have some guidance to offer workaholic artists: stop. Dayane advises, “Have something you do that’s just for fun. If it’s rollerblading or whatever, go have some fun. It will feed your process!”
“This false notion that you have to keep plowing through even though it hurts,” Aiza agrees, saying, “I took a step back, I focused on my music, I spent time with my family, I cried, I wrote, I slept, I ate, I went back to basics. I came back energized. Then I was showing up again, I was feeling like myself, so I started booking jobs like crazy. That’s another warped notion that we have: don’t you ever give up! Don’t you dare! Never give up!”
“But it’s not giving up! It’s letting a thing breathe,” Dayane points out, “It’s like that in the rehearsal room too. If it’s not working, leave that thing alone, move on to the next thing, or if you can’t move on, call it a day. Come back tomorrow and for some reason it all falls into place! You have to trust in the process. Ebb and flow. That’s just the way it goes.”
By Caleigh Crow
Maxine Segalowitz, in addition to being a busy actress in Montreal’s independent theatre scene, is a University-trained dancer, cabaret artist, sketch comedienne, clown, and gremlin-witch. That last feather in her cap came after she was cast in Raise the Stakes Theatre’s 2016 production of Macbeth, where Maxine played Witch #3, where she decided to include some gremlin-esque interpretations into her Witch character and finally had her chance to make “real magic” on stage. “You can feel magic in theatre when you have a moment onstage and the audience feels a change. There’s a moment of a reflection and we all breathe together- that is magic,” she gives me a deadpan look, “And then I did actual magic. It’s quite evil, the magic that happens in Macbeth.” I know she’s speaking symbolically, but I’m left with all sorts of questions when she doesn’t reveal to me what spells or equipment was necessary or what was the evil result of Macbeth magic, but I suppose that’s a rather scientific way to look at the topic, and Maxine, probably a result of her dance training, prefers feeling truth to finding it.
We discuss the difference between theatre and dance as we typically perceive them. For Maxine, it’s less of a hard line in the sand and more of a soft line in the mud. To help explain, she picks up a spoon, next to her now empty coffee cup, and tells me to look at it.
“This is a spoon, it is used to spoon things, it is silver in color. It’s got some coffee on it, I can pick it up and put it down. We have what this is and we do things with it.” That’s theatre, per Maxine. “This is an oval shaped object which has multiple grooves and parts to it. It moves in a circular fashion in the way that it’s built and the way that it flows through the air. Dance is how do we get inside the spoon and feel it from within and build it into a different creature.” This ability to look at things from the inside out is a boon for Maxine in her work and it feels profoundly personal. “In theatre it’s important to have momentum and patterning, to have comprehensive ideas come clear. In dance its more about getting inside one thought and working on that a bunch and getting deeper, and then building a momentum and patterns from that.”
“I don’t really create choreographs anymore that are 5, 6, 7, 8 kind of movements, more of states and emotional experiences and emotional trajectories for an audience to go though and I am the facilitator of that, which feels like theatre.” She says of her artistic process.
Maxine graduated from Concordia University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Contemporary Dance degree. While in attendance she made some important connections with other students that eventually led to a performance in the Festival Saint-Ambroise Fringe de Montreal. Her first foray into Fringe introduced to her a network of theatre artists in Montreal that led to more Fringe performances, cabaret, clown, and most of all, creation for Maxine.
“I’m doing a lot of performance art, theatrical kind of interactions in choreography while still being movement based in my source material and how I create from that,” she pauses, “Is that too vague?” I assure her it’s not. Several times in our conversation she asks me if she’s being vague when, in fact, she is being insightfully specific. Like many artists, Maxine experiences cognitive dissonance when it comes to describing performing art. It isn’t always obvious how to translate ideas like “theatrical” and “movement based” into art and descriptors can seem intangible compared to the material presence of the piece as a thing. These are the limits of language, not of Maxine herself, who acknowledges that language is just another attachment of a symbol, in this case a word, to a thing. “The great thing about dance and theatre is we get to play with what those attachments mean and make space in there and find new air and find new ways of explaining how the meanings can change,” she reflects, “Or we can at least ask the questions.”
The presence of the audience creates a push-pull effect during the creation process. In response to one question, Maxine replies she wants to “specifically curate an audience’s experience” and then the next answer she says she tries to “build something that can be open to different interpretations”. It’s a very authentic snapshot of creation, which often sees creators finding the common ground between an honest idea and the people who come to listen. “We want to confuse people but we want to keep their interest. We want to challenge them but not isolate them. We want to put them on the spot but make them feel welcome. As I’m creating I’m going to keep looking at that.”
As for the work itself, Maxine has irons in many fires. She regales me with stories about cabaret character creation, her work on Team Greco’s How to be a Good Modern Woman for the Revolution They Wrote Festival, Theatre St Catherine’s Joketown, which she describes as a sketch comedy “experimentation spot” both “wonderful” and “ridiculous”; but we talk for nearly half an hour about SEXPECTATIONS, which, at this early stage in her promising career I’m not comfortable calling her magnum opus, but Maxine certainly has been channeling a lot of her creative energy into this project.
Initially, Maxine has some trouble talking about the project. She takes two false-starts at an introductory sentence: “What I create is-“ and “I have a show that I’ve created-“ before taking a moment to gather her thoughts. It’s rare in an interview to see so plainly when a subject is deciding what to reveal and to what extent, but then, Maxine is the most giving subject I’ve interviewed. When she’s ready, Maxine places her palms down on the table, looks directly into my eyes, jaw set, and tells me she’s a stripper.
I understand her reticence. This is, after all, an interview about her professional artistic career, and as I was previously unknown to her, how could she gauge my reaction to such a revelation? It’s hard to predict the opinions, biases, and stigma an individual may possess. So, I also understand her resolve (and maybe a hint of defiance) in her statement: “I am a stripper, I work as a sex worker.” It might seem dissonant for a “feminist, queer person, woman” who strives to “debunk patriarchy and oppressive ways of interacting with people”, as she describes herself, to be working in an industry that caters predominately to heterosexual male desires. “If I’m going to be objectified in my life non-consensually,” she explains, “If I can manipulate how I’m being objectified than I have more power over it and if I can profit off it I’m going to do it,” she laughs. She’s referring to pedestrian occurrences in our society – cat calls, leers, a pinch here, a pat there (or wherever else someone might feel entitled to grab) – that are experienced but are not paid for.
SEXPECTATIONS is completely Maxine’s. It’s based on her personal experiences working at the bar where she’s employed as a stripper. “In this environment, there are relationships to navigate all at the same time, and they are all different, and they all have conflicts with each other,” she says, “Between stripper and client, interactions with other dancers, dancer and management, client and manager, watching other people interact,” she reflects, “It’s a lot.” It’s these relationships that inspired Maxine to start writing a series of monologues that would eventually become SEXPECTATIONS, a feminist multi-disciplinary piece that examines gendered distributions of labor, in particular social or emotional labor which are often uncritically accepted as a status quo.
But there are lingering questions for Maxine as to her suitability to address these topics. For many artists, particularly white artists such as Maxine, the call for diversity in the arts calls for serious internal investigation. “As someone who is talking about sex work, I am not the face,” she says bluntly. Certainly, she is a University educated artist with the means to seek employment elsewhere, a set of circumstances that many in the sex industry are denied. While her story may not be the story of what it’s like to work as a dancer in a bar, she still lays claim to her story. It’s all wrapped into why Maxine began her work on SEXPECTATIONS. “If you have an urge to create, you should create,” says Maxine, “I believe in that. Try your very hardest to get some time to do it. Even just to process for yourself,” she reflects, “It’s not just about the story, it’s how it’s told. Creating something that isn’t just about the telling, it’s about how the hearing happens.” Of course, in theatre, the hearing happens when a group of people come together to listen to a story, regardless of if their own lived experiences are directly represented onstage. As audience members can accept and relate with a Scottish king’s supernatural rise and fall, as in the case of Macbeth (gremlin-witches and all), so can they relate to any other work. “Giving opportunities for artists of color, transgender artists, queer artists, marginalized artists more spaces to create art and share their lives and process their own experiences is so important for sharing stories; for educating each other and helping understand each other and the world and humanity.”
For a physical performer like Maxine, the real meat-and-potatoes of creation was moving away from a text-based piece towards incorporating more abstract performance elements. “I felt like what I was writing a thesis,” she says. However, “We can be nuanced. We can be abstract.” She gives credit to her mentor, Montreal choreographer Helen Simard, for pointing her in the right direction. “She gave me the cue of how to physicalize what these moments are about.” she explains. “For example, if I’m feeling nauseous, how can I physicalize it beyond retching? I don’t want to mime it. I want to understand what’s happening in nausea. There’s knots, there’s imbalance, there’s disassociation, confusion. How can I show that in my body?”
Maxine pauses and pulls at a curly lock of hair. “I feel like this train got derailed,” she remarks. She’s been examining every nook and cranny of SEXPECTATIONS for the past three years, so it’s easy to get lured down a winding tangential path. She says jokingly that it’ll take her five years more to fully “work through it” though for my part, as a writer I know there’s always editing to be done, endlessly. But as Maxine astutely points out, “Dance and theatre doesn’t need to be a thesis!” she exclaims. “I can have all these ideas about gender and sex work and then what I present can be me eating cupcakes. But the process of getting there is mine and mine alone.”
By: Deborah Forde
It was a warm winter afternoon as I made my way through the maze of hallways at Dawson College in search of A wing and the Theatre Department. Thankfully, the students seem used to playing tour guide for the lost, and I find my way there with little trouble. I am waiting by the office door, when Mr. Sutton arrives, and greets me with warmth and invitation. He welcomes me into his office, an intimate space, shared with three other instructors. Knowing that time is limited, I immediately riddle him with many questions, which he answers openly and with great humor.
QDF met with Elisabeth Bragale, Production Stage Manager for Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s production of Heathers: The Musical at McGill University to talk about the role and the challenges of a Stage Manager. Here is an interview from a unique perspective of a production team member that is far too often over looked: the Stage Manager.
On a slushy afternoon, QDF met with Canadian artist Nisha Coleman at the beautiful and charming cafe Tommys not far from the Centaur Theatre where Nisha will be performing her solo piece, Self-Exile, as part of the Wildside Festival. Nisha earned her spot at the festival by being selected as the Best of Fringe award recipient. Opening January 5th and running until January 15th, here is a question-answer interview with the artist to give you a taste of her successful and powerful autobiographical piece.
[QDF] I understand you participated in the Montreal Fringe Festival last minute as a spot opened up a few weeks before the beginning of the festival. Tell me about your journey from a last minute Fringe spot to the Wildside Festival.
[NISHA] At first, I thought there was no way I would ever get into the Fringe I didn’t realize you could get into the festival until the very last minute. But then I got the call. A group had dropped out so if I wanted the space, it was mine. The show was polished enough since I had done it once before, so I was ready. I just needed to prepare myself psychologically. Then it started. It happened quickly and I feel fortunate it happened this way because I got to be at La Chapelle. It was perfect for the show. Plus, it was my first Fringe ever! So I was in awe of all of the activities. The spirit of the Fringe in Montreal is so amazing: there is so much love and support from all of the other artists. I would have so many artists come to see my show and I would get to see so many amazing shows. It was a good experience. And Self-Exile won Best English Production, so the prize of this award is to receive an automatic entry to the amazing Wildside festival. All of the sudden, I was being part of the festival I had been attending in the past and always wondered how does one get to this beautiful theatre. I am now so happy to have the opportunity to present Self-Exile at the Centaur.
[QDF] Tell us about Self Exile.
[NISHA] Self-Exile is storytelling. It borders on theatre, but it is a one-person autobiographical show. It is my story, from before conception to busking in Paris about ten years ago. That’s a lot of years to cover in one hour, so I decided to focus on very specific moments. Moments stuck in my psyche as very developmental that changed my direction and the way that I behaved and thought about myself. The basis is that my parents were hippies. It’s one unique situation that is not told very often. I also talk about the mental illness of my father. He was quite depressed when I was growing up with moments of violence sometimes. I talk about our relationship and how it affected me personally and the way I live my life as a result. The title, Self-Exile, directly refers to my tendency to dissociate from who I actually am to try and be other things… kind of like a shape-shifter. Because I learned early that it wasn’t okay to be who I was, I had to try consciously or unconsciously to be something else. It is kind of a difficult way to live and it is confusing, but my own self-exile seems to be my solution to what I was taught by my father.
[QDF] What does this piece means to you and why did you chose to tell it?
[NISHA] It is the most personal story I have ever told. I felt I had to write the show in order to understand myself. I always knew there was sort of a self-exile thing happening, but I had never articulated it. I was sort of aware of how I changed personas depending on who I was with, aware of the way I was trying to accommodate each individual based on who they were. Therefore, I tried to go back in time and figure out what created that behaviour. Was that actually me? Or a learned behavior based on something external? So I linked it to certain moments that I explore during the show. I guess it was a way to figure out why I am the way I am. The question I ask in my show is: is it better to be loved for who you are or to play all of these different roles to be sure you will be loved? Is it satisfying to receive love for a thing that you are not? Self-Exile is exploring all of those themes and, interestingly, although it is a very personal story, a lot of people connected with this sentiment.
[QDF] What would you tell a non-theatre goer to convince them to come to your show?
[NISHA] Self-Exile is very accessible and this accessibility is the beauty of storytelling. It is pared down with almost no set. It is just me telling my story. In a way, it is very easy to connect to. You don’t have to work hard, you just need to trust me and come along for the ride.
[QDF] What is special, to you personally, to be featured in this festival? How can this experience enrich your career?
[NISHA] Being a part of this bigger thing such as the Wildside, I think, will draw people I don’t know, that haven’t heard of my work, that are curious about the festival itself and what’s being featured this year. This, to me, is something new. I won’t know who will be in the audience and I like that. I like being part of these high caliber shows and am excited to see all of the other work that everyone is doing. It is so fulfilling to see other people working hard. When you do a solo show, there is so much time spent alone, but being part of a festival reunites you with other artists; even though you are doing a show by yourself you are still part of something bigger and that’s what I like about the Wildside Festival.
[QDF] What are you most looking forward to this year in the festival?
[NISHA] I guess I am looking forward to be surprised because of these unknowns and because every show is different in a way. I absorb the energy from the audience and since it is just me, I sort of change my delivery. I guess I am looking forward to seeing how Self-Exile will evolve based on this new audience, what appeals to them, and what they react to. Self-Exile in Montreal is not the same as Self-Exile in Toronto, or in my hometown of Huntsville–and I am sure it won’t be the same now. I guess that’s what I am most looking forward to: the unknown and how the show will evolve.
[QDF] What’s next for Nisha and Self-Exile?
My next challenge is to try to work in my second language, French. I am actually working on a new show that is in French about learning French. I would really like to translate Self-Exile because I think it could work in French and then I could bring it to other places, other French speaking places or other festivals.
Thank you to Nisha Coleman for agreeing to do this interview and thank you to our readers. Make sure to subscribe to QDF Musings for more insights on the Montreal Theatre Community and more interviews.
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