Tag Archives: kristin johnston

Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls, and other stories

My calendar was full for a while working on Cabaret for ELOPE Musical Theatre (timely and chilling and also entertaining), but now I have a little more time for watching theatre as well as helping to make it.

Two weeks ago I attended the monthly Script Salon organized by Alberta Playwrights Network and Playwrights Guild of Canada, because the new work to be read was Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls.  It was wonderful and it made me cry.  Kristin Johnson, Rebecca Sadowski, Jayce Mackenzie, and Karina Cox played students in a girls’ junior-high robot-building club.  Stage directions were read by assistant director Patricia Cerra.

The playwright said in the talkback session afterwards that he had tried to consistently have his characters in this play choose to be kind.  I also had the impression that the playwright was kind to the characters, making them quirky and interesting but not at all parodies or objects of amusement.  And there was still enough challenge and drama in their lives to make it interesting listening/viewing – even in a staged read.  The wide social gaps between Grade Nine soccer-star (Johnston) and naive less-popular-twin Grade Seven (Mackenzie), between the student council president (Sadowski) and the new kid (Cox) were accepted by all the characters.  Watching them awkwardly navigate the group norms and transition to productive teamwork and cautious friendship made me happy.  The premise of the story – a continually-absent teacher-advisor, a school rule against cell phone use – gives us a situation where the four girls have to interact with each other while they work on the project.  And the incidental conversations ring true – about embarrassing parents, about annoying siblings, about various understandings of menstruation, about teachers and classmates and dreams of the future.  I loved that the characters are not preoccupied with boys, romance, or sex – this script passes the Bechdel-Wallace test easily, with the few conversations about boys mostly limited to the problems of having brothers or the ways in which boys in a mixed-gender school would take over the building project.

I thought that it was a play for adults, but that young people of the characters’ ages or five years older would also enjoy it and feel like it was a fair portrayal.  In an epilogue, we hear not only how the team fares at the robot competition/festival, but how each of the characters goes on in science and in life.

It reminded me a little bit of the wonderful 1999 movie October Sky, about boys from a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1957 who pursue rocket-building.  And it also reminded me of the recent movies Eighth Grade and Booksmart, films about present-day bright feminist girls navigating social challenges at school that show their young characters in respectful ways.  In both those films, there are no villains, nobody being gratuitously mean.  The protagonists get embarrassed, and they get into awkward and potentially risky situations, but they get themselves out of them.  They aren’t stories where the writers punish the girls for aiming too high, for acting on the crush, for going to the party with more popular kids.  In both films, things don’t quite work out as hoped for the protagonists, but they aren’t disastrous.  And after I saw Eighth Grade, I realized that there are an awful lot of stories where the plot punishes the outsider girl with humiliation, with slut-shaming, with sexual assault. It’s awful that I’m impressed when that doesn’t happen in a story.  But it doesn’t always happen in life, and it shouldn’t always happen in stories.

Maybe we’re into a new kind of stories about teenage girls, and I like them.   Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls is a good one.  I hope to see it on stage soon.

Spooky October performances 2018

I’m not managing to see everything on Edmonton stages these days, but I wish I could.  I wish I’d seen Lenin’s Embalmers at U of A Studio Theatre, or the Maggie Tree production Blood: A Scientific Romance.  From what I’ve read about them, it looks like the creepy or paranormal themes could have fit into this Hallowe’en-week blog roundup, too.

At the Walterdale Theatre, I helped work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a script prepared by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans using various primary source materials, and directed here by Barbara Mah.   It was thought-provoking and disturbing, because the horrible fates of real people were depicted graphically, because the resulting legal case portrayed did not result in justice, and because the hazards of the garment industry juxtaposed with fashion advertising are not so different from their contemporary equivalents.   Watching this story play out every night as one of the booth operators, I kept cheering for some of the determined young women who lived to tell their own stories, particularly Rose Freedman (Danielle Yu), and Ethel Monick, (Stephanie Swensrude), and kept getting angry at the factory owners and their lawyer (Eric Rice, Kent Sutherland, and Matthew Bearsto).  It was a relief to close that show and watch some scary shows for fun.  

Dead Centre of Town XI has four more performances in the Blatchford hangar at Fort Edmonton Park.  This year the macabre true stories researched and written by Megan and Beth Dart of Catch the Keys all relate to air travel.  As usual, the audience members are guided through relevant settings to encounter the characters of various disasters and mysterious happenings, while super-creepy poet/narrator Colin Matty provides extra detail and atmosphere.  “If humans were intended to fly, why are they so Goddamned squishy?”, he muses.  More live-theatre than haunted-house, this annual immersive event does a great job at making the details build up the overall experience – even the ticket distribution (“boarding passes”) and the traffic-management (impersonal masked uniformed airport workers in a crowded “boarding lounge” with staticky announcements) are part of the adventure.

Dark! at Fort Edmonton is new this year, adding on food (with creepy nicknames like Bloody Balls and Skewered Rat), drinks, and adult-level haunted-house attractions.  I went to one of the haunts, and decided that I prefer the Dead Centre of Town style of horrifying imagery enhanced by narrative, to the unexplained jump-scares of Dark!

The Bone House, by Marty Chan, also has performances remaining on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  It was also very scary in a different style again.  At first it felt like a TV or movie experience, with a forensic-psychology expert presenting an illustrated lecture about serial killers, but it became more unsettling – it was easy to involve myself into the story enough that I could imagine being in danger, but I also began to feel somewhat complicit in choosing to listen to serial-killer narratives in any medium.  Brrr.

This weekend I also managed to fit in a performance of Northern Light Theatre’s Origin of the Species, by Bryony Lavery.  With direction and set/costume design by Trevor Schmidt and performances by Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner, it uses the ridiculous premise of a contemporary archaeologist encountering a live prehistoric woman, to touch on several important themes with a subtle touch.  I particularly enjoyed the very gradual transition of the prehistoric woman Victoria (Johnston) towards modern physicality and communication, and the many ways that both characters subvert assumptions about “traditional” gender roles.

Fringe 2017 – the last weekend

A Beautiful View – Perry Gratton directed Nikki Hulowski and Samantha Jeffreys in this Daniel MacIvor script, a lovely celebration of a hard-to-label relationship between two women. “You have to be very organized to be bisexual”, the one explains to herself/the audience while deciding not to follow up on an unexpected sexual encounter.   There are a lot of segments where a character speaks facing the audience – sometimes they are alternating in a conversation with each other as retold to the audience.  I don’t know how much of that is in MacIvor’s script, but I think I remember a lot of it in a play Gratton directed several years ago at Fringe, Letters to Laura.  The ending was … well, there was enough foreshadowing that the not-entirely-explicit awful/sad ending must have actually happened.  But I wish it hadn’t, since I really liked both characters.  They were quite different from each other, but there were things I identified with in both of them.  (A Beautiful View has one holdover performance on Thursday.)

Late Night Cabaret – Late Night Cabaret is an Edmonton Fringe tradition.  It happens at midnight, every night of the Fringe except the last Sunday when things wrap up early.  I only went to it once this year, but it wasn’t hard to pick up on the ongoing jokes and routines.  Hosts Amy Shostak and Julian Faid have guests from other shows every night as well as the very talented house band Ze Punterz.  The Backstage Theatre sells out with happy artists, volunteers, and dedicated fringegoers extending their evening and building community.  It runs about an hour and a half with an intermission, and I think maybe the bar stays open during the show.  Some people go to it every night.

Multiple Organism – This piece by Vancouver’s Mind of a Snail troupe (Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel) was the most original and creative work I saw at this year’s Fringe, and I liked it a lot.  It made extensive use of unusual projection techniques.  Some of it was a little gross, but not gratuitously so.

Rivercity: The musical  – Rebecca Merkley wrote and directed this new musical which seems to be an homage to the Archie-comics characters without quite borrowing their names.   It’s full of amusing quick-changes for double&triple-cast actors, silly puns, and cartoon-inspired sound effects (especially the wind-up-and-dash running starts of red-headed Andrews (Molly MacKinnon), which sounded like the Road Runner or something).  In between, though, there were some touching and serious solos for various characters, particularly for the viewpoint character Bee (Vanessa Wilson) and for the Jughead-like Jonesy (Josh Travnik, also multiply-cast in Evil Dead).   The cast of four (Kristin Johnston plays Reggie and the principal among others) covers too many characters to count.  Live music is provided by Scott Shpeley and Chris Weibe, wearing Josie-and-the-Pussycats-style cat-ears. 

Tempting – Erin Pettifor and Franco Correa are a psychic and a sceptic in Ashleigh Hicks’ new script.  When the audience enters the Westbury Theatre auditorium, the large stage has been made into a cozy cluttered studio-space for psychic Alaura (Pettifor).  She is puttering about doing yoga poses in a disjointed distracted way and making tea.  At first it is not clear why Adam is dropping in before business hours, and it is also not clear why Alaura is so immediately adversarial.  Those things do become clear – Adam’s girlfriend Constance is a client, and Adam wants Alaura to recant the advice (or prediction, or support) she gave Constance in a decision Adam doesn’t like.   The problem as described is interesting – Constance is dying and in pain and wants to pursue medically-assisted death, which Alaura supports and Adam doesn’t.  But I don’t really feel compassionate for either of the characters on stage, as I find out more about their motivations and connections to Constance, and I found the ending unsatisfying. 


I think I saw 28 performances this Fringe (one a repeat) and I might see a couple more at holdovers this week.