Spotlight On: Stephen Orlov’s BIRTHMARK

From September 11-17, 2016, Infinithéâtre is showcasing the work of their inaugural Playwrighting Unit. The Unit is comprised of eight playwrights who will be presenting staged readings of their new plays at theatres across Montreal and the surrounding area. The readings are free and open to the public.

QDF had the pleasure of sitting down with Stephen Orlov, the playwright, dramaturge and educator who will be showcasing his new play Birthmark at the Centaur Theatre on September 15 as part of Infinithéâtre’s inaugural playwrighting Unit. Birthmark is a dark-comedy set in 2015 that delves into the relationship of two Montreal diaspora families, one Jewish, the other Palestinian. Stephen is writing the play with the support of a Cole Foundation commissioning grant, sponsored by Teesri Duniya Theatre.

In Birthmark David Stein, a liberal secular Jewish writer, faces a living nightmare when his only child Nelson announces his plan to quit university and join an isolated ultra-Orthodox settlement outpost in the West Bank. David tries to sabotage the messianic plan by finally revealing to his son that a mix up at an in-vitro fertility clinic might have resulted in Nelson being conceived with the egg of a Palestinian woman. But Palestinian teacher, Jamila Hassan, refuses a DNA test to determine whether Nelson is Jewish or Palestinian, fearing its potential impact on her adopted daughter Hannah, who mysteriously disappears, provoking a CSIS investigation.

QDF: Could you tell us a little bit about where Birthmark came from?

Stephen: Well, its initial conception was sparked a long time ago. Birthmark is the sequel to a play that I had premiered in London, England called Sperm Count: a Jewish diaspora play set in Montreal. And that play is being published this month by Playwrights Canada Press in a groundbreaking anthology that I’ve co-edited with Palestinian playwright Samah Sabawi called Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas. When that play premiered in London a few months after 9/11, I was invited to participate in a theatre conference in Tel Aviv, shortly after the Second Intifada broke out. I went to a site in Haifa a couple of hours after a suicide bombing and Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister at the time, responded by bombing Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. Those experiences never left me, but the brutal Israeli siege of Gaza two years ago provoked me to write Birthmark, now in its sixth draft.

QDF: Why is it that you choose to engage so deeply with the complex issue of Jewish and Palestinian diaspora?

Stephen: I think part of the answer is I’m Jewish. My own upbringing and my political orientation have drawn me to question and look at these issues in quite a bit of detail for many years.  And as a writer I’ve chosen to tackle them onstage rather than in demonstrations. This is particularly important because the conflict is one of the remaining thematic taboos for many Western theatres. My journey is to create authentic characters on both sides, to turn the political into the personal, hoping that it will shed some light on the complexity of the conflict and the need for peace and justice in the region.

QDF: Writing from the location of diaspora is particularly relevant today not just in speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in speaking about the refugee and migrant crises globally. I’m wondering what contributions you believe we as artists can bring to the resolution of these sorts of conflicts?

Stephen: Well, I’ve always believed that artists should be visionaries. And when we tackle social issues we should never tail behind history like politicians.  In terms of identity, yes, I am a Boston-born Jew living in Quebec, Canadian, but above all else I am a member of humanity.  And while this play delves into the specific complexity of Palestinians and Jews from the diaspora perspective, I think its universal themes are applicable to many conflicts around the world.  Ultimately what I’m trying to address is how these conflicts reinforce or compromise our humanity? And I think the only way we can answer that is not simply in generic global terms, but as an artist we have to look at the specifics. We have to create characters that are authentic, true to their culture, true to their values and true to the world they live in. And do it in a way that’s personal and theatrical, not didactic. That’s the real challenge, I think, of the writer.

QDF: Can you speak about the anthology you’ve been working on “Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas” which is being published this September? It’s the first English-language anthology in any genre worldwide by Jewish and Palestinian writers.

Stephen: This is the first anthology of its kind internationally. There are seven plays and nine writers involved in this, and all of the writers are of either Jewish or Palestinian descent and living in diaspora communities. They’re not directly in Palestine or Israel. What has guided myself and my co-editor Samah Sabawi is that we want to delve into plays that tackle either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly or Jewish-Palestinian relationships in the diasporas. We wanted to have plays that varied in genre between comedy and drama, in style between realism and surrealism, a variance in whether they’re set in Palestine or Israel directly or in the diaspora community, and in the characters’ political expressions. It was a difficult choice, artistically, coming up with these seven plays.

And probably the biggest problem we saw, artistically, of plays that we couldn’t accept was that the characters—the “Other” characters—were too uni-dimensional and stereotypical. For main characters we needed well-rounded, complex, human beings. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have some secondary characters that are playing uni-dimensional roles in the play, we do, but in terms of our main characters we wanted to delve into the complexity of real human beings, Jewish and Palestinian. And I must say the experience with Playwrights Canada Press, who’s publishing it, has been just superb. They’ve been supportive all of the way in this.

QDF: Could you describe Infinithéâtre’s The Unit and what your process has been like working with them?

Stephen: In The Unit eight playwrights are developing seven plays.  We meet every few months, read and discuss our latest drafts, with one-on-one feedback from AD  Guy Sprung and Alex Haber, the dramaturgical coordinator. I’ve always believed that good company is a more powerful and inspiring motivation than individual willpower, so it’s been great feeding off the energy of other writers and getting feedback.

QDF: Are there others that you’re excited to see in September?

Stephen: Absolutely, all of them! I mean, it’s quite an interesting group. I won’t elaborate on all the plays, but during that week we have play readings at venues all the way from Huntington, to the Segal Centre, to the Centaur. And the plays are quite varied in topic and to a certain extent in genre and I would encourage people to go during the entire week of Infinitheatre’s staged readings, which start on Sunday the 11th and run until the following Saturday the 17th.

QDF: Your playwrighting resume is extensive and impressive. What advice would you give to new and emerging playwrights?

Stephen: One word: write. That is the absolute most important thing. You know, It’s tough to live a writer’s life. There’s going to be a rollercoaster road along the way. And I think there are three ingredients that it takes to make it as a writer: one is you have to have skills, secondly you have to have determination, and lastly you have to have good timing. And of those three things: skills, determination, and good timing, above all else determination is the most important. Because if you keep writing and you keep working at it, you will be motivated to develop the skills you need. And the more you hustle, the more you’re going to open opportunities for the right artistic director to read your play at the right time for the right theatre, that’s the good timing; but that requires hustle and determination.

Repercussion Theatre

In the lead up to the summer season, QDF sat down with Amanda Kellock, Artistic Director of Repercussion Theatre, to discuss her freshman year and the upcoming production of Julius Caesar.

QDF: Let’s start by talking about your first year. You’re finished your first year, so any surprises you weren’t anticipating?

Amanda: Not really in terms of the company or the work itself. I think I probably learned a lot about just how much work goes on the entire year, just to put up a show for 4 weeks in the summer. And given that I was also Artist-in-Residence at Concordia for the year… it was a lot!

QDF: The other part that’s very different for you than any theatre company is this thing about constantly moving the show. What does that require?

Amanda: Well, it requires thinking a lot about how you build everything because you know that it needs to be packed and unpacked every day. You know it needs to be carted around by human beings ever day. It needs to withstand the weather and be all packed “tetris-like” into two trucks. That’s one of the things we’re doing right now. I’m talking with our production manager and our technical director about what types of materials we can investigate that will be sturdy, light, weather-resistant, and be easy for actors and crew to carry and store.

QDF: What does that mean though in terms of the rehearsal process? As a director, how do you build that fluidity into the process?

Amanda: Well one of the things we do is move out into the park as early as possible. So this summer we’ll spend 3 weeks in the rehearsal hall and then we’ll spend a week and a half outside. There’s a full week of rehearsal that is just outside so that they can start to get used to the sun and the bugs-

QDF: Shakespeare in the park, Repercussion Theatre, prides itself on being and is one of the most accessible works that you find in theatre. Partially because of where you do it -open and in the park, and the other part is because its pay-what-you-can, is that right?

Amanda: Yeah, we actually call it free-will donation.

QDF:  Okay, so let’s talk about this year’s show because I hear exciting things are happening. Tell us about this year’s show.

Amanda: Sure! It’s an all female production of Julius Caesar. (…)I had the idea, essentially last year, when I was auditioning people for Twelfth Night. I think I saw about 75 women and about 15 men and I was essentially looking for 7 men and 3 women and just the scope of that inequality really hit me hard. I ended up in that instance changing two of the roles to women because I just couldn’t stomach it, and because I just wanted those two particular women in the show. (So the cast ended up being split – 5 men and 5 women.) But as I was watching these auditions – I mean, I was watching the actors you know, no actors out there should think, “Directors are thinking about other shows when they’re watching me!” – but while I was watching them, the idea hit me and I just knew: next summer I’m doing an all-female show. I had known that I wanted to do Julius Caesar for a while and it felt like that was kind of the perfect show to explore with all women.

QDF: Why?

Amanda: Because in some ways it’s such a masculine play – or what we consider to be “masculine”. It’s about politics, it’s about honour, and it’s about conspiracy, power. It’s about all of these things that I think we tend to associate with men, or an idea of maleness, of manhood. Yet, in my life, I think about politics. I think about power. I think about how people act with each other, and how social change happens. So it frustrated me that in the Canon, roles like Cassius and Brutus and Antony and Caesar and Casca are inaccessible to me because I’m a woman, and yet I identify with those characters so much more than I identify with Calpurnia or Portia – the only two women in Julius Caesar – and they’re wonderful characters, they’re really fascinating people. But for me, I feel like it’s a really exciting world for women to have access to. For a number of reasons: I think it’ll be really interesting for an audience to see women speaking these parts but I also think it’s really useful for women, as actors, to be able to imagine themselves in those parts, to play those parts, and to speak those lines. For women in the audience to be able to see themselves in positions of power. Obviously we’re not the only piece of culture in the world – there are other instances of – and I think this is true in television right now, especially – that there are more and more really strong roles for women that are exciting. I think it’s important for an audience to see themselves reflected on stage and I think women seeing other women in a variety of positions of power is a really useful tool along the road of more and more women stepping into their own sense of who they are and their own power.

QDF: It’s interesting that you say that because I do see this “women embodying power” more in television but what I think is interesting – well, curious about, is that they’re being directed to embody that power  the way a man would. Are you looking at that in terms of production and process?

Amanda: Yes! That’s one of the questions, because when I first decided I wanted to do Julius Caesar with all women, the first thing I had to figure out was: are the characters women or are the actors women playing male characters? So I thought about that for a long time and the conclusion that I came to is that I fundamentally believe that if the characters were women, the story would not go the way it does. Because if I believed that women, given that sense of power, would do the same thing then . . . I give up. I give up on the world. So once I made that discovery for myself, then I decided on the idea that this is a sort of post-apocalyptic world where for whatever reason there are either only women left or enough women left that they have basically taken control, and essentially as a ritual reminder of what not to do – they perform Julius Caesar. Because the play itself is incredibly depressing given that, historically, we know that Antony and Lepidus and Octavius are just gonna divide the known world amongst themselves and then they’re gonna fight amongst each other and then Lepidus is gonna die and Antony is gonna die and Octavius will become Augustus and the Roman Empire will start, and eventually fall…. It’s just a cycle of violence and power and corruption and so I’m super interested in asking : what might a truly “female” power look like? One of the things we’re exploring, because there is a war at the end of the play, is if women went to war – and women do go to war but a war that has been sort of designed by men for the most part – if women fought how would they fight? Would they use different strategies? And one of the things that I sort of landed on (in part because of the woman who is my assistant director on the show, Jessica Abdallah) is the idea of capoeira – she’s been doing capoeira for a few years now. We were both really excited by the idea of a form of fighting so connected to ritual, to music, to performance, and to the need to hide the fact that one is training to fight… It’s a bit more of a level playing field in terms of opponents because you can be smaller, lower to the ground, and still take someone out because of the way that you move. So that’s something we’re really going to explore a lot in rehearsals as we reimagine how to approach this war in the show. We’re not necessarily just transposing capoeira into the show but using it as a base, and Jessica’s going to bring in one of her capoeira teachers (mestre), who’s a women, to come in and teach us and talk to us also about the roots of capoeira and the history, because we want to approach it with a sense of respect. I think it will bring a lot to our exploration. One of the things that I want to talk about and explore is: does our very notion of power actually have a gender and can we re-imagine what power looks like if it is more infused with “femaleness” – whatever even that is.

QDF: Speaking of knowing about, Julius Caesar is one of those plays that most of us encountered in high school, so your audience will come in with a certain understanding of that. How do you think that will play with your vision of the play?

Amanda: I kind of like that relationship. I always assume that there will be people in the audience who’ve never heard of the play and people who know it inside out.

QDF: And those that only know the historic.

Amanda: Yeah or those who know Marlon Brando saying : (impersonates) “Friends, Romans…” and so I personally always try first a foremost to focus on telling a really clear story, that’s always number one for me. Then I also like playing with those expectations. I think it’s interesting to think about the way in to a really famous speech, and to make sure that the way into it is super grounded in the world of the play. Especially for the actor, it’s key that they don’t have a moment right before starting to speak where they go: “Ah crap, here it comes.” Yeah, I think I really enjoy playing with those expectations. And, because it’s all women it will, right there, blow the whole thing wide open. I think audiences will be interested to see how that all plays out. (At least I hope so!)

QDF: Okay, anything else you’d like to say to your audience either about the process, the play, anything you’d like to say?

Amanda: Pray for no rain?

QDF: Rain and that’s it, right? You close the show. You can’t do the show if there’s rain?

Amanda: We actually work really hard to keep the possibility of a show to the bitter end. We’ll do a show if there’s a light sprinkle and it’s not dangerous. We continue until it has the potential to become dangerous for either the audience or any actor. That’s never good. Often stage management both watching and checking in with the actors off stage going: “How is it out there? Everything ok?” And often it’s the actors who are like, “No, no, no, just keep going, keep going” because it’s really hard as an actor to stop a show. But we do stop if it’s dangerous. Sometimes we stop, wait out the rain for a few minutes, then mop the stage and keep going. That’s fun, actually. The audience sticks it out. They’re amazing. Our audiences are so dedicated they make my heart burst. As an actor, it’s so disappointing to get into costume, get ready, and be halfway through a show and have to stop. It’s one of the most disappointing feelings. Certainly for the poor crew to set up the stage and then just have to tear it down in the rain – that is no fun.

QDF: So if I’m an audience member and I get up on the morning of the show and I’m not sure about the weather, how can I find out on the day of, whether the show is canceled or not?

Amanda: Check our website. We always have a Twitter feed that is updating people. Usually our phone as well, people can call the office and there’s usually an answering machine that’ll give info. But I would say our website is the best place to go to check in and get the most up-to-date info.

Repercussion Theatre will be presenting Julius Caesar in parks around the Montreal area. For more information visit their website: repercussiontheatre.com.

The Rural Arts Project

January 18th, 2016

Mark Bye, Artistic Director of the Rural Arts Project and director of Moon Over Buffalo

Moon Over Buffalo promo shots (31 of 40).jpg

QDF: How did you get involved (in producing theatre) with The Rural Arts Project?

Mark: When I was fresh out of The National Theatre School back in the 80’s, a few friends and I from Huntington and the Chateauguay Valley ran a summer stock theatre out of Grove Hall for three or four years. We couldn’t buy the building back then; it was too much being fresh out of school with all sorts of school debt. After 20 – 25 years of being in the business, the Grove Hall came up for sale, so my wife and I bought it, and with the help of community volunteers, we have turned it into a Performing Arts Centre. The Rural Arts Project is the not for profit organization that produces and supports local arts and artists.

 

QDF: Why did you choose to do the project in Huntington?

Mark: This is where I come from. This community is very distinct in a lot of ways, it’s a very isolated community, it is very traditional and rural. The voice of the artists in our milieu is very different from those in an urban setting. It has always been my goal to do theatre there; and give a voice to this area and its population. There are an amazing number of talented people living in the Chateauguay Valley.

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Dean Patrick Fleming

January 15th, 2016

Dean Patrick Fleming, Artistic Director of Geordie Productions

 

QDF: What got you involved with the Theatre World?

Dean: Oh my God! That is a long time ago. I believe I was 18 or 19, and I had a bunch of friends who did improv, comedy improv. They were a troop called Caught in the Act. One day, I wrote a skit for them. They said “Cool, we’ll do it if you do it with us.” So, I did, I performed with them. Then, I began to perform with them for two years. We treated ourselves as a band, we played in bars and we did a lot of crazy humor.  I realized after a certain amount of time, that I wasn’t really good at it and I wanted to get better at it. So, a friend of mine told me that Concordia had a theatre department. I was about to quit University. I auditioned for Concordia with my first monologue I ever did. Al Goulem coached me because he was a part of the improv troop. And I got in.  That completely changed my whole outlook and everything; it focused my life completely around theatre once I was in theatre school.  I was a little bit older too so; it was good; I knew what I wanted. I think it is really interesting that when a person in school finds their passion that’s when learning changes. When you aren’t just there to get a mark or to finish school, you are actually there learning what you want to learn, learning the craft and the field. I used to be there all day and all evening.

 

QDF: Why is it so important for kids to see theatre?

Dean: Well I think in a way, it’s the same reasons as why all theatre is important, we go into a room and hopefully we’re seeing a little bit of the world we are living in; a slice of it put in front of us. It gives us an opportunity to see something different, then discuss it and think about it. I think that’s not different whether you are doing theatre for young audiences or doing theatre for adults. The topics might be different or the themes might differ. But the actual act of going to see the theatre and the importance of that act, I don’t think that’s different no matter what. That is what theatre is, and that is what I love about it. That’s what I love when I get to see a play and that is what happens. When it doesn’t happen it is disappointing.

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Spotlight on: W. Steven Lecky (Twelfth Night)

Spotlight on: W. Steven Lecky

Professor, Dawson College Professional Theatre Program Director,

Twelfth Night

Wednesday, November 11 to Saturday, November 21st at 8pm

Twelfth Night
QDF: We at QDF have heard that you have developed your own model for training. What drove you to do this?

Steve: Well I think when we look back at our past we can connect many, many threads. I remember being in productions when I was in school and not knowing what I was doing. I remember encountering a certain amount of frustration about that. Even with valuable lessons in playing objectives and intentions, which for me was a start, albeit an intellectual one, I still felt little or no guidance in the area of how to execute as an actor.

I was also an athlete and I realized that in the athletic world coaches were telling me how to do things precisely. Where to put my feet, how high to lift my knee, exactly what the arc of the ball needed to be for the jump shot, how to pace myself in the 400 meters.

And so, even at that time, there was a part of my brain that started asking why actors were not getting this type of information. Then I started studying musical instruments and singing, and these art forms also had very precise techniques. Yet still, at the acting end of things, I didn’t know how to progress.

So that’s the simple, short answer. I decided I was going to create for actors a practical method – a range of techniques, books and DVDs on technique, called the Vox Method. The Vox Method goes through all the tools that are integral to performance and an actor’s craft, names them, discusses them and sets them down in a comprehensive organization with example exercises and video clips.

The Vox Method is a fantastic tool. It has made my teaching and my directing take off. The actors I work with understand now that there is a right and wrong way to do things. It is not just a matter of one opinion versus another, or worse, one interpretation versus another.

Interpretation is something beyond the tools. Once you have the tools, any interpretation is open to you. Now when I speak with actors and students, we share a terminology, have concrete technical and artistic goals, and we can experiment with and assimilate technique en route to achieving these goals. Rehearsing now is a rewarding, exacting, very constructive process which nurtures both technical and artistic growth.

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Spotlight On: Amanda Kellock (Part 2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

September 28th, 2015

Spotlight On:

Concordia’s Artistic Director for Productions

Director of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Amanda Kellock

Fairies

QDF: Is this your first season as ad. How does it differ from your job at Repercussion?

Amanda: Yes, it’s my one and only season as QD of the theatre department (Raymond Marius-Boucher is on sabbatical.) The biggest difference from Repercussion is that I didn’t choose this season but I’m the one who will see it through.  My biggest challenge going into this, is that I don’t know what I don’t know – what does it mean to be the Artistic Director of a university theatre department? Fortunately, I am surrounded by a very supportive team in the Concordia Theatre Department.

My top priorities moving forward are to streamline the process for assigning/inviting Directors and choosing the plays we put on. This necessarily begins with a deep reflection on the purpose of productions within the department.

QDF: What are the shows?

Amanda: To start, I will be Directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream – yes, again (lol). The great thing about this is that I know this play so well, that I can really focus on the design team and the actors, and give them the support and guidance they need to create this production.

We will once again have the SIPAs (short hand for Student Initiated Production Assignment). This is an opportunity for students to choose their own work, build their own teams and drive their own productions from start to end. It’s guided by Ursula Neuerburg-Denzer and happens at the Cazalet studio (Loyola Campus) at the beginning of November.

In addition we will have the Performance Creation Playground: an exciting new project that also puts students in the creative driver’s seat, this time collaborating to create a series of site-specific pieces that will eventually play simultaneously in February 2016 all over the FC complex on the Loyola Campus.

In April 2016, Dean Fleming of Geordie Productions will join us as a visiting Director for Alice, a take on Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass as adapted by Harry Standjofski. That will be such a fun way to end the year.
QDF:Why should we come out to see student productions?

Amanda: It is the equivalent of watching butterflies emerging from their cocoon.  You get to see the next generation of Theatre professionals as they take risks and try out new ideas. The energy and vitality of that is very exciting. It’s amazing to think that, years from now, you might be able to say “I saw them when . . .”
QDF: Why include public productions as a part of training:

Amanda: Productions are where it all comes together. Theory is so important, but when the pressures of time, an audience, and working with other people come into playm that’s when you figure out who you are as an artist.
QDF: University vs Conservatory; what’s the difference?

Amanda: That’s a longer conversation than we can have now! But I would say, briefly, that Conservatories offer a much more specialized training while Universities by nature require a broader approach. A conservatory can dig deep, whereas a university tends to cast its net fairly wide. I think both systems are super valuable, depending on what a student is looking for.

At Concordia, we tend to really look at the social impact of what we do as artists and encourage students to be reflective of the impact of their work. We give them the chance to not just follow the paths created by those who’ve come before (though we certainly believe that knowing your history is important!), but to think about what kinds of trails they’d like to blaze for themselves. We talk a lot about the role of the artist in society. That’s not to say that conservatories ignore such things – I just know that it’s a real focus here.

My guess is that not every student who graduates from a University theatre program will become a professional theatre practitioner, although there are certainly a solid number of Concordia theatre grads working here in town! (Not to mention around the world.) I know some of our alumni pursue drama therapy, or education, or work in the field of community-building, politics, etc. or focus on more research-based practices – it’s fascinating to see where their theatre training can take them, and how their creativity is valued in other areas.

QDF: Diversity is becoming a pressing issue within the arts. How is training and performance changing to meet this challenge?

Amanda: I think training institutions have a vital role to play in changing the status quo. We need to recruit more diverse artists into our programs, expand the way we approach training (to reflect different practices, different performance traditions and different aesthetics), encourage the artists we train to be aware of issues of representation and accessibility, and generally make sure that we’re leading the way in all these areas. Of course, that is all easier said than done! But it’s not nearly impossible, and we’ve just got to stop talking about it and start doing it. Personally, I know that in planning Concordia’s next season, my priority will be seeking out plays by women and/or writers of colour. I feel like we’re on the verge of big changes in theatre, and I’m sometimes discouraged, but mostly excited.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Playing from December 2nd-6th
At D. B. Clarke

 

Spotlight On: Amanda Kellock (Part 1)

September 9th, 2015

Spotlight On:

Amanda Kellock (Part 1)

Artistic Director

Repercussion Theatre

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