Reflections on connections

Hello, Internet, today is Monday, March 23rd. I intended to write this tying-up-the-project blog entry two weeks ago… but, then, the world completely turned upside down.

So I’m only getting to it now. But as I try, along with everyone else, to wrap my head around this new pandemic-time reality, it’s been great for me to look back at this tour and reflect on it. I’ve come to the conclusion that, even in a time when we are being asked to stay apart, the way that we are connected to each other is more beautiful than it is scary.

Original is founded on the links between the mythologies at the root of our society, and each of the characters defines herself by the way she is connected to the rest of humanity and to the world. And stories exist to connect us: to each other, to our past, to ourselves.

Here are some touring highlights:

St. John’s

What can I say about The Hall? About that gorgeous space and the people that make her run? The most constant part of my life in St. John’s, where I have been working – casually, and off-and-on – for more than a decade, where my community meets (used to meet; will meet again) to share their sorrows and their triumphs?

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If you don’t mirror selfie, are you even IN a dressing room?

This is me, scared shitless, but held up by the people who prepared me for that moment: the designers who conceived of and made this costume that makes me feel like a warrior; the designer who made me a freaking rainstorm on a beach that I can pack up and bring thousands of kilometers with me on a flash drive; the director who believed in my writing and performance enough to strip away almost everything else; the stage manager who, about 5 minutes after the taking of this photo, came in to give me the time with her rare brand of professional kindness; the graphic designer who made the perfect image for the new edition of the piece; and the administrative staff at the Hall, who worked around everything they’ve ever done before to allow a ticketed choose-your-price pay structure with a very low bottom end, helped me with promotion, and then PAID to see the show even though seeing theatre for free is arguably the best reason to work in that building.

Chelsea & Ottawa

First of all, this stretch of the tour was only possible because of kind actions by the producers of Between Breaths – a beautiful show on which I get to work and which was playing in Ontario in February/March – who booked my flight back to Newfoundland several days later than my contract ended, from a different city. This act of kindness let me bring Original to my “other home,” and is emblematic of the support that becomes run-of-the-mill when you work for Artistic Fraud for long enough.

OK, now let’s talk about Eleanor.

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Eleanor (right) and me on a show-day snowshoe

I grew up in Ottawa. I’m about as connected to it as I am to any place, on an emotional level. But on a practical, producing-theatre-in-the-area level, Eleanor is my bridge.

Eleanor is my Theatre Mom. I think most of us who work in theatre have one of these – a teacher or mentor who was there during a formative period of our lives and provided knowledge and encouragement as we dove into this thrilling, unpredictable, unstable, beautiful industry. Well, she’s mine. She’s also one half of the team that makes up Bear & Co. In 2018, she brought their production of Vern Theissen’s Shakespeare’s Will to Newfoundland and we toured it together. (I also directed their summer production of Cymbeline that year.) So working together on Original was a no-brainer.

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Pre-show at Pressed, where, in the absence of a dressing room, I sat with my two of my oldest friends and took this picture.

Bear & Co set me up with 3 shows in 3 days and I got to tell this little story to about 75 people. One of the beautiful things about the new storytelling format of this piece is that the connections are direct and immediate. I got to look into these people’s eyes. I got to speak with them afterwards. I got to have so many conversations, right after the performances and in the days afterward, about feminism, about politics, climate change, pipelines, about the place that stories and myth have in our lives and in our collective psyche. I met people I didn’t know. I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in years (decades?). Members of my family saw a part of my life they’d only heard about before. My root-bowl grew a little wider.

And nature and I got to reconnect as well.

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It’s not hard to tap in to Embla when you get to spend an afternoon like this.

Corner Brook

I went to university in Corner Brook. It holds a massive part of my heart. There is a ski hill and everything, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that I actually like winter.

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I spent so many days staring at this view between 2003 and 2007…

The Rotary Arts Centre is a new venue – by which I mean that it opened after I finished my BFA almost thirteen years ago – and I had only ever poked my nose in there before. It’s perfect for this kind of show, though: 90 seats, intimate, and 3/4 thrust. Fabulous.

And now I must introduce you to Pig and Giraffe.

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Pig is often astonished. Giraffe finds that their neck is sometimes cold.

These little pals are always in rehearsal, and they watch every show. They’re Jaimie (stage manager)’s assistants and they are very diligent. And here is their view of the RAC stage.

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Hitting the stage in Corner Brook for the first time in nearly thirteen years was an honestly incredible experience. Again, reconnecting with some old friends, making new connections, having lots of exciting and energizing conversations. AND, while I was there, I got to see Grenfell‘s production of Macbeth, so that was pretty darn cool.

Clarenville

In the fall I did a little acting with New Curtain Theatre Company, and they were kind enough to present Original. Like so many small theatres, New Curtain doesn’t currently have a building – they rent venues based on the needs of the production – and for this little show, we asked Bare Mountain Coffee House to have us. They did, and folks? It. Was. Beautiful.

 

After the show there, one of the audience members told me that while I was speaking as Embla, the wind was blowing in the trees behind me. And I think that’s just excellent.

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This is what it looks like when you store a storytelling show.

So, friends, that was the tour. I got home – healthy – before the understanding of what was to come really set in. I connected, briefly but meaningfully, with so many people, and while we are all inside our homes for the time being, trying to keep our interpersonal contact to our phone lines and WiFi, I’m finding comfort in my understanding that we – humans – are intrinsically connected to each other, and to the world that we live in.

On IWD2020

Hello Internet! Today is Sunday, March 8th – International Women’s Day!

As I sit in a little rental flat in Clarenville, drinking tea and hoping that the snow outside will abate in time for us to do our performance this afternoon, I am warmed, not only by the tea and fleece blankets and and the magic of electric heaters, but by the messages of love and hope that are being posted in honour of the day.

This tremendous message from the UN Women Executive Director, for instance, doesn’t hold back about how much work there is left to do to achieve gender equality; but the message is still one of hope.

Generation Equality, the theme of this year’s IWD, is about recognizing the work of the women who came before us, and of being supportive of the work that is still to be done, acknowledging the women and girls who are picking up the torch to guide us into the coming year.

As we react to every day’s news as it comes, it’s easy to feel as if nothing will ever ever get better, or as if we are going backwards, but that simply isn’t true. Policies and attitudes have been changing, are changing, and will continue to change, because of the hard work of the women and their allies who take to the streets, write letters, deliver speeches, sign petitions, or do any or many of the infinite list of things that can have an impact.

I encourage you to check out International Women’s Day’s official website, here. And to the women who inspire, support, and motivate me: have a very good day.

On sisterhood

Hello Internet, today is Thursday, March 5th, and tonight we open in Corner Brook.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is to celebrate the incredible things that can happen when women work together and support each other.

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Original @ Pressed, 1 March 2020. Photo by Marie-Christine Bédard

Here is a timeline of things that made it possible for Original to play in Ottawa & Chelsea:

  • January/February, in St. John’s, a crackerjack team of women build and support the revised, scaled-back version of the script: director, stage manager, and designers are all women (the credits in the program are 100% female-identified);
  • December/January/February, in Ottawa, Eleanor Crowder and Rachel Eugster (who together are Bear & Co.) hustle to book venues and promote the heck out of the show to their regional audience;
  • mid-February, in St. John’s, full-out awesome stage manager Jaimie makes and delivers a clean, easy-to-use book for calling the show in Ottawa, AND sound designer Kat sends us the files we need via the internet;
  • late-ish February, blog-writer Emily interviews me for this cool piece to help with promo;
  • 27 February, Eleanor picks me up a the bus station, brings me home, and feeds me cheese (this is so very important as a step);
  • 28 February, I do a radio interview with Barb Gray on CKCU; Eleanor and I walk through the show in her living room with the book and the sound design, and when we encounter a couple of problems, we get Kat on the phone and she totally troubleshoots with us until the whole thing is working smoothly;
  • 28 February to 1 March, Eleanor and I install and run the show in 3 different non-theatrical venues like it ain’t no thang; right before the show on the 1st, director Berni texts, just to send me some love.

There is really nothing like the feeling of being loved and supported by a broad-reaching network of women, whether they have been friends and colleagues for years, or whether they are relative strangers who did a media piece, or facilitated a venue booking, or helped to spread the word. And this does not include the many women who have contributed to and supported the work as it has been and will be presented in Newfoundland.

So, with very much love, I offer this almost certainly incomplete and extremely unscientific word cloud in celebration of the sisterhood that is making this project happen.Word Art

On going small

Hello Internet, today is Monday, February 17, and I’m almost done reeling from rehearsing and remounting Original in St. John’s.

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Original, 2018. Photo by Ashley Harding Photography

The biggest difference between the 2018 edition and this one – aside from the fact that I am producing it this time, with so much freaking love and appreciation for PerSIStence for doing so last time – is scale. Until PerSIStence came on board, I was expecting to produce it myself (which comes with a much smaller budget), so I had a hybrid theatre/storytelling aesthetic in mind. And then some brilliant designers chewed on the stories for a while and came up with something bigger. We gave Embla the role of storyteller and put her in a costume, in a place – a beach, specifically – and, as the story unfolded, she set up camp there. We built a frame for our stories. I built a fire, and a tent, and a clothesline. We made a setting for the story to happen in.

When we reunited, the plan was to shrink the design to something that would fit into a suitcase. Carry on a milkcrate to sit on, rather than finding a rock there. Embla could build the beach, along with her camp there. We put the costume back together. We knew that lighting was out, but I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve for very simple ideas that might augment an otherwise on/off design. We expected to still, for example: make and drink tea, hang laundry, sit, stand, lie on the ground.

That all went out of the window almost immediately. When Berni and Jaimie and I got together for the first time this month, I read the script for them (there are new pieces since 2018, because history isn’t fixed and feminism is an ever-changing landscape), and we just tossed it. We briefly considered a packable roll of burlap to indicate an outline of a beach (or a nest, as we used to call the inner circle of our set), but that didn’t stick either. On day 1 we built a pillar out of some milk crates that happened to be in the rehearsal room for the purpose of giving me something to put my script on so that I could use my hands, and I found myself interacting with it (mostly Eve enjoyed leaning on it). And Berni suggested that I just tell the stories. Very little blocking – but an invitation to interact with the space I am given.

In short, the alternative to going big was going very, very small. Storytelling amounts of small. Look the audience in the eyes amounts of small.

The characters are the same. The costume is also the same: the story it tells is of a woman who has been walking around the world for a long time, and that still fits the new show. The sound design remains – and is, as expected, the main design element now – and ties the setting of the various stories into the elemental nature of the women. The beach is still there, in the sound, but it’s less literal. We hear the water reach up onto the shore and pull back, drawing its fingers through the pebbles on the beach. We have wind, and fire, and sometimes we have the sound of people – because people are, after all, what the story is about. But the show hinges now on the connection that the performer makes with her audience, and there is something about that that feels… right.

Original goes on tour at the end of the month with 3 dates in the Ottawa area, followed by shows in Corner Brook and Clarenville. See here for details.

Return to ‘Original’

Hello Internet! Today is Saturday, February 1st, and I am glad to announce a new life for Original.

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More than a year after the original production of Original (I love saying that, it’s not confusing at all), I am working with director Berni Stapleton, sound designer Kathryn Burke, and stage manager Jaimie Tait on a new edition of this little solo show.

We’re returning to the roots, so to speak: the work as a piece of storytelling. There are some changes to the text – because history is being made every day and there’s always a new reason to be enraged or inspired – and we are stripping the show bare – just our three women, sharing space with an audience, telling a story.

After a very short run at the show’s home at the LSPU Hall in the Cox & Palmer Second Space, the show will be doing a few dates in Ontario and Quebec with our friends at Bear & Co., and then a small tour of Newfoundland, including dates in Corner Brook and in the Clarenville area. Keep an eye on this page for details.

Gratitude for Original

Hello Internet, today is Tuesday, December 4th, and the dust is just settling after the run of Original. And I have a story for you:
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Photo by Ashley Harding Photography

Last weekend, I wrote a final report to the City of St. John’s. A year ago they gave me a little grant to put toward the production of Original.
 
In a final report, you have to tell them how it went, highlighting in particular anything that happened differently in real life from how you planned it. Generally, best-case, you get to say “it all went pretty much the way I said it would.” At least, that was my best-case, until this project.
 
The grant application I wrote for Original a year ago described a solo show with minimal tech in a gym or art gallery, put together by an actor/producer, a director, and a stage manager/designer. That was the team, because the budget was tiny.
 
Instead, Persistence Theatre Company got behind this little show, hired the best humans available to build it, and then let it grow. This costume, this set, these lights, the soundscape… none of that was in the plan a year ago. But here we are, packing away all of those elements in the hopes that, in the not-too-distant future, we can pull them out again and put the show back together.
 
For the first time in my grant-writing career, my final report says that the real-life project goes way beyond the proposal.
To celebrate, here are a few other pictures taken by Ashley Harding Photography, and a very fine review written by Dr. Andrew Loman, who is a faculty member in Memorial University’s department of English.

 

 

 

Open!

Hello, Internet, today is Thursday, November 29th… the day after opening!

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This brilliant photo by Ashley Harding Photography

There is a review now. It is here.

Also, I thought I’d share the Playwright’s Note for the programme with you here:

“If you resist, you can change your story.”
There are three women – weird, otherworldly, not-quite-human creatures – who know the future. Shakespeare wrote these sisters into Macbeth. The ancient Greeks called them the Fates. In Norse mythology they are maidens, but there is a twist: they write the stories, but fate isn’t fixed. Your choices influence your future.
Here are three women – old as time, human but undying – on whose stories our culture is founded. Eve, who ate the apple. Pandora, who opened the box. Embla, who carries the burden of life. Original is an attempt to reclaim their stories, to tell them in their voices. Maybe, by giving these women a voice, we can change the stories that are told about them and, by extension, the culture that is rooted in them. I believe in the power of stories to change the world.
This piece represents a number of firsts for me as an actor, playwright and storyteller, and I dedicate it to the incredibly supportive theatre and storytelling communities of St. John’s that made it possible. Thanks especially to Jenn and to the board of PerSIStence who have believed in this particular story from the beginning. And thanks to you for coming in to share this story with us.
You can also download the whole programme if you like.
Original, running until Sunday, December 2nd at the LSPU Hall. Tickets are available here.

Introducing Embla

Hello Internet, today is Wednesday, November 28th… OPENING NIGHT! And I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Embla, and she was once an elm tree.

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Ask and Embla, by Robert Engels

In the early days of writing Original, when I was just doing a general look-see for stories about first human women, I came across the story of Askr (or Ask) and Embla. There is a great summary of that story here, but in short:

Odin and two other gods (sources disagree about which ones) were walking along a beach and they found some tree trunks that looked kind of like a man and a woman. So Odin brought them to life and they became the first man and the first woman. He named them, dressed them, gave them the world (Midgard) to live in, and they parented human civilization.

That’s it. That’s the story.

So, when I was trying to figure out who was going to be in this play of first women, I wasn’t too sure about Embla. Unlike Eve and Pandora, who have detailed stories and personalities to use as a jumping-off place, Embla just… was a tree. An elm tree, in particular. But then, I found out about the flood.

So, in TONS of mythologies from all over the world, there is a huge, universally destructive flood. There’s one in the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course. There’s one in Greek mythology. There’s one in Hinduism. Several Indigenous-American cultures. Chinese mythology. There’s one in Norse mythology, too, but Norse culture has lots of cross-overs with Christianity and scholars generally believe that the existence of a flood in the Poetic Edda was based heavily on Noah’s flood.

Ragnarok

This piece, and Original, both take a few liberties with the mythology…

But one of the best-known stories from Norse mythology – Ragnarok – is also a flood.

To be fair, Ragnarok is a lot of destructive things. War, fire, death, eating by a wolf. But the end of it all is that the earth sinks into the sea. More info on that here, if you’re interested.

We generally think of Ragnarok as an apocalypse, but there is a version of the mythology where there is rebirth of all things: gods, worlds, people who survived and repopulated Midgard. Ragnarok is the distant past. But it’s also the future. And it might just be me, but I think that is pretty darn cool.

So when I imagined Embla living now, it meant that she had to survive Ragnarok (at least the first one), and the result is the character in the play.

When Odin found me, I was an elm tree, green with life. Supple, adaptable. Opportunistic. He gave me human form and he gave me Askr, who was an ash tree when he was born. The two of us were pale and perfect. I was resilient, could bear the weather. He was strong and flexible. We reached up the sky, out to the world, we reached down into the earth. We were happy for a thousand years, but then it began to wear a little.

-Embla, Original. Playing at the LSPU Hall TONIGHT, November 28 to December 2nd. Get your tickets here.

3 things I didn’t know about Pandora

Hello Internet, today is Tuesday, November 27th, which is cue-to-cue and tech rehearsal day at the LSPU Hall. It’s also the day we get to talk about Pandora.

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Pandora, by John William Waterhouse, c. 1896

I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I’ve always been a giant nerd. I devoted a large portion of my spare time throughout my teenage years to learning way more than is necessary to know about ancient Greek mythology. Gods & goddesses, a woman who became a spider, a man who fell in love with his own reflection and then drowned, a woman who opened a box that let every bad thing into the world.

Pandora is so entrenched in our culture that a “Pandora’s box” has a meaning beyond the story it came from. You open one and the situation gets out of control and you can’t undo it. You probably know that this is what happened to Pandora – she was told not to open a box, she opened it anyway, and everything evil in the world came out of it.

Here are some things you might not know, things I didn’t know about Pandora until I started working on Original.

1. It was a pot, actually.

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One of these.

Pandora’s story appears in Hesiod’s Works and Days, and the container was actually a large clay jar – of the variety used to store things in Ancient Greece. It was mistranslated as a box and then got famous.

2. Pandora was a first woman.

Before Zeus had Pandora made, there hadn’t ever been any women. Lots of men. Tons of em, a whole society. No women, though. Nobody ever died (death was in the pot, right?) so there wasn’t really a need for procreation.

3. Pandora was literally a curse on mankind.

Ok, here’s the deal. Prometheus (you might have heard of him if you, like me, are a giant nerd), stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, so that men could have heat and light, cook their food, etc. For this he was famously punished, in the following manner: he was chained to a rock for all eternity, and every day an eagle would eat his liver. And then, because Prometheus was immortal (he was a Titan, and not a human, if you’re keeping track), his liver would regenerate overnight so that it could be eaten again the next day. Solid punishment, right? Zeus was really good at punishing folks.

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Heroes, right?

This particular punishment was going great until Hercules killed the eagle and set Prometheus free. So then Zeus had to come up with something better. So, he made Pandora. Or, rather, he made the other gods make Pandora. Hephaestus made her, technically speaking. Athena brought her to life and taught her to weave. Aphrodite coated her with charm. The Graces gave her jewelry. Hermes gave her wit, and a sense of mischief. Then they brought her to earth – this beautiful creature designed especially to be irresistible to men – and gave her to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, who, of course, loved her. And then the jar/pot/box was opened and you know the rest.

So, yeah. Pandora was Prometheus’ second punishment. Literally a curse on mankind.

In the very early days of work on Original, I tried out Pandora’s story – starting with the moment she opened her eyes – at a couple of storytelling events. Very little of it made it into the final script, but I feel like I know Pandora far better because of it.

Hermes gave me the pot, and then he gave me away. He gave me a name, too. He called me “Pandora.” It means – he said it means – “gift from all the gods.” So I thought of myself that way for a while, you know? I thought I was a gift.

Pandora, Original. Running at the LSPU Hall November 28-December 2. Tickets are available here.

What I learned from the story of Eve

Hello, Internet, today is Monday, November 26th – programming & levels day at the LSPU Hall. It’s also the day that we’re going to talk about Eve.

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Eve and the Serpent, by John Dickson Batten, 1895

I grew up in Christianity. I went to Church every Sunday. I sang in the choir from age 9 to age 19. I grew up with an illustrated children’s bible, which I loved and scoured regularly for stories.

In that book, there was a picture of Eve and Adam, running from the walled Garden of Eden, looking dejected as the gates slammed behind them. Eve was carrying an apple core, and they were both covering their nudity because eating the apple had made them ashamed of it. There was an angel with a sword of fire guarding the gates.

Here are the things I learned from that story:

  1. God told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That was a lie. Sometimes parents lie to their kids to keep them safe and that’s a totally reasonable thing to do.
  2. When the serpent told Eve that she wouldn’t die, but would, in fact, gain wisdom by eating the fruit from that tree, she ate it. She trusted the snake over God, and that was the wrong thing.
  3. Even though it wasn’t Adam’s idea to eat the fruit, he still got punished for it. Adam and Eve and the snake all got in trouble together, like you and your friends would if you decided to, say, hypothetically, have a water-balloon fight in the living room, regardless of whose idea it was.
  4. Eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil makes you notice that you’re naked. And being naked is bad and embarrassing.

For my developing brain, none of this was too problematic. God = parent was an easy jump for me and being punished for disobeying parents is a pretty normal part of life at the time. I didn’t think about any of the gendered stuff at all.

But now that I am an adult, I have some observations:

  1. God lied.
  2. The snake told the truth.
  3. Everyone got punished but Eve got it WAY WORSE than Adam: she got pain in childbirth and also Adam will “rule over” her; and meanwhile, Adam… got farming. He has to farm for his food, because he’s kicked out of the garden… Eve, of course, also kicked out of the garden. (PS: the snake actually got it the worst of the three – check your Gideon if you don’t believe me.)
  4. Being naked – in a climate that is a reasonable temperature, devoid of poisonous brambles and biting creatures, in the presence of several animals and one other human who happens to be your sexual partner – is EXCELLENT. Prove me wrong.

So I’m happy to be reimagining Eve’s story. I’m not the first artist to do that by a long shot, and I won’t be the last. But she’s so compelling that it’s worth exploring this story again.

In my defense – and the snake’s – it was a really good apple. Red. Shining. Hanging low enough that you could smell it from the ground… and juicy? Like a flood in your mouth, every bite. Adam thought so too, at the time. He’ll deny that now, of course. He’ll say “it tasted like betrayal.” And you know what? It did taste like betrayal… just not ours.

-Eve, Original. Running at the LSPU Hall November 28-December 2. Tickets available here.