Tag Archives: patricia cerra

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.

Theatre out of the theatre

I attended three performances last week, none of them in conventional theatre spaces.  And I attended a rehearsal in a living room, for an indie production that may culminate in workshop/performance in equally unconventional space.

There is something truly inspiring and welcoming about using found space to create and share performance, about taking advantages of the quirks of the location to develop site-specific performance, and about bringing live entertainment to places the audience is already comfortable with, rather than trying to draw new audiences in to a conventional theatre with all its inherent cultural expectations (do I dress up?  do I fit comfortably in their seats?  what if I get restless?  can I afford it?  can I bring refreshments? etc).

Two of the performances I attended this week were staged readings rather than fully staged productions.  That means that the actors had the scripts in front of them, on music stands.  There were no sets or props, no fancy lighting or sound effects, just the narrative and the actors delivering it.

Alberta Playwrights’ Network hosts a “Script Salon” once a month, a public reading of a new script by one of their members.  This month it was Blaine Newton’s Bodice Ripper. (Blaine Newton’s play Bravo! about nuclear testing in the south Pacific was performed by Shadow Theatre a few years ago).  Tracy Carroll directed the reading, and the readers were Perry Gratton, Jenny McKillop, Sam Jeffrey, Patricia Cerra, Jacob Holloway, and Jake Tkaczyk.  The actors took turns reading the setting description notes and stage directions, and from these we learned that the action all took place in the main room of a small holiday cabin in the mountains, in the 1960s.  The premise is that a group of friends borrows the cabin retreat with a plan to write a novel collaboratively – maybe a romance, a bodice-ripper, maybe a murder mystery or thriller, they can’t agree.  Without a visible set, I pictured something like the cabin in Teatro’s Sleuth a few years ago, or maybe the Mayfield’s stylish Long Weekend, or the one in Ruth Ware’s thriller novel In a Dark, Dark Wood.   As was pointed out in the lively talkback discussion afterwards, setting it in the 1960s “raised the stakes” for female characters who had been resenting the men who underestimated them – and it also provided for a fully-staged production to benefit from the audible and visual business of feeding paper into a typewriter, typing (quickly, slowly, or clumsily with mitts on), and pulling paper out to crumple it or file it.  Script Salon is open to the public, admission by donation.  The April session will mark five years of the project, and promises to also have cake and live music.

The other staged read I attended was Social Studies, a play by Winnipeg playwright Trish Cooper.    The reading was in a suburban community league hall, hosted by a regular seniors’ social group there – there were folding chairs, a small stage, and a cheerfully-staffed snack bar, but no other theatre amenities – no dimmed lights, no sound amplification or hearing-assist loop, no reserved seats, no programs.  And of course no set pieces, props, or actor movement.  But I loved it regardless.  Kristin Johnston plays Jackie, a young woman who arrives with suitcases (and metaphorical baggage) at her childhood home after a breakup, only to find that her mother (Leona Brausen) has given away her room to a Sudanese refugee (Deng Leng).  Rebecca Merkley plays teenage sister Sarah.  The play’s narrative intersperses snippets of a class presentation Sarah gives to her class about the Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese refugees in Canada, with scenes of how this works out in real life in the household.  I thought the dialogue was well-written, credible, funny, and affectionate.  It reminded me of a mix of Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek, in the way it portrayed 21st-century mismatches between parents and children, and between well-meaning people of different cultural and religious backgrounds.   Specificity made it more powerful (audience members at the reading shared afterwards that they were familiar with the meat-packing plant in Brooks hiring Sudanese workers, as mentioned in the text).  The readers were all good, bringing life to the script with comic timing and pathos, with Leona Brausen particularly powerful as the slightly-hippie single-mother/activist.  The reading was directed by Jake Tkaczyk, who also read the stage directions.

In a change of pace from the staged readings, Tuesday night I attended opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Gregory Caswell in the title role, Marisa West playing her husband Yitzhak, and musicians Matt Graham, Sean Besse, Connor Pylypa, & Sam Malowany as the backup band.  Brennan Doucet directed.  It was fully staged, with all the rock/punk music and over-the-top costumes.  And it was performed in Evolution Wonderlounge, the small subterranean LGBT+ nightclub down the street from Rogers Place.  This worked perfectly with the musical’s storyline that Hedwig and her band are performing in a low-prestige venue near where her estranged former lover/protege Tommy Gnosis is playing an arena show – and every now and then Hedwig throws open a door and we “overhear” Tommy Gnosis’s over-amplified between-songs musings.

Hedwig is a cult phenomenon, an off-Broadway show that opened in 1998, a film version in 2001, and a first Broadway version in 2014-2015 (I saw that one, with Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall in their Tony-award-winning performances).  It’s a rather odd story, using the late-20th-century divided Berlin as a metaphor for love and gender and a seeking for wholeness and re-unification.   Caswell owns the role and the stage, from eyeshadow to stilettos, a fierce, tragic, brave genderqueer performer telling us her story and singing her songs.  Marisa West plays Hedwig’s Croatian husband Yitzhak, surly and resentful at the start but reborn in beautiful drag for the finale.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch has one more performance tomorrow night (Saturday Mar 16th).  It’s not quite sold out, but it probably will be.

 

I Am For You, by Mieko Ouchi

I had the chance to attend the short Edmonton run of a new Concrete Theatre play by Mieko Ouchi that will be touring high schools and junior high schools, I Am For You.  And it made me happy.

The three characters in the play are a student teacher doing a practicum in drama, Mr Morris, (Jonathan Purvis) and the two students he catches fighting, Mariam and Lainie (Patricia Cerra and Samantha Jeffery.)  I found all of them appealing likeable people, and the character growth in the storyline was credible and satisfying.

I thought the student teacher was particularly well done.  He was awkward and inexperienced enough to be believable (the way he winced after talking about “meaty” parts of the body), and at the same time he was able to provide enough exposition for the audience within his teaching persona.  Many of the audience in the show I attended were actors or acting students and I got the impression that they were particularly amused by the things said about his career path from acting student to actor to teacher.  I was more impressed by the way he asked for explicit consent every time he touched his students during stage-combat instruction, and the way the students rolled their eyes at his rule-following but came to trust him.  It always irritates me when scenes of teachers and teenagers don’t fit current Canadian customs on this kind of thing (Friday Night Lights, I’m looking at you), and it is helpful for anyone who might be on either side of a similar situation to see the behaviour modelled properly and to see that it doesn’t disrupt the teachable moments or the physical comfort.

Cerra and Jeffery had realistic portrayals of teenagers, surly and defensive but occasionally becoming more open to each other and to the teacher.  Jeffery’s character is in some ways the harder case, but her flashes of grin are a victory for the teacher and a delight for the audience.  When the detention / fight choreography work ends and they gather up their bags, saying of course the real fight scenes would always go to the boys, I could see that neither of them had any expectation that this could change or that Mr Morris could be persuaded to intercede.   But of course in this story Mr Morris does intercede, persuading the (off stage) play director to cast the two girls as Tybalt and Mercutio.

The performance contains a lot of valuable information about theatre, about stage combat, and about the story and meaning of Romeo and Juliet.   I was fascinated to have some of the techniques of convincing falls and unarmed fights explained and demonstrated, and I was actually disappointed when the teacher says he doesn’t have time to teach them how to do a slap.

At the same time, some powerful messages about violence are being delivered.  Purvis’s character doesn’t let his students get very far into the fun of the choreographed dances of stage fighting before starting to remind them that they are learning to portray something dark and awful.  His statements about Juliet’s father slapping her mother, about slapping being an intimate or private form of violence extra shocking when done in public, and about how it’s the form of violence most often experienced by female characters in plays, connected with the audience as well as with the two students.  Although there is no explicit backstory expounded for the two girls, it is clear that they are aware of “messed up families” and found relevance in that part of the Shakespeare story.

Watching this play would be good entertainment and valuable conversation-starters for school groups, student teachers, beginning actors, or just anyone who likes stories about young people or about teaching.   And having seen this play, I would definitely make a point of watching anything else by Mieko Ouchi.

The Missionary Position is uncomfortable.

If you found this page while searching for advice on a sexual problem, let me pass on my best wishes for comfortable resolution, along with a link to the sexuality-information resource website Scarleteen, directed at young people but useful for anyone with questions or curiosity about sex.  This page is a good starting point, with lots of links elsewhere.  I’m sorry to detour you with my wordplay.

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The Missionary Position was uncomfortable.

But I’m sure that was one of the intentions of playwright Greg MacArthur, in developing the play The Missionary Position for the U of A drama department and the BFA class of 2013.  The preview performance of this world premiere was tonight at the Studio Theatre in the Timms Centre for the Arts on campus.

It didn’t make me cry.  But it definitely made me squirm, and I got the feeling it made a lot of the audience members squirm too.  It touched on disaster tourism, international adoption, various shallow or pathological reasons people would go on a mission trip, and the potentially tragic consequences of well-intentioned badly-planned gestures.  In the play, the visitors are Canadian (from Edmonton) and the country suffering after an earthquake and tsunami is carefully not identified, but I kept thinking, This is Haiti.  This is everything the Haiti activists talk about.  And in fact, in the theatre lobby at intermission I noticed a news article about the New Life Children’s Refuge case, which had some similarities to the story of the play.

It’s a horrifying compelling story, told in alternating scenes of the past and present.  In the present, the young people are being detained in some type of prison because of something about some children, while the scenes of the past and occasional video clips shown on a screen behind the stage develop the story of what happened and why.

The storytelling is much more effective on stage than it would be in a movie.  Because in a movie, they’d have to show the children, the people living under tin and tarps, the scenery, and the jail, rather than the way the audience of the play sees these things through the narration of the visitors.  “Like little brown dolls”, a character describes the children – and without real child actors to distract us, we are limited to this disturbing exoticised view.

There was some recurring imagery, in particular several sets of allusions to water.  A memory of baptism and a newspaper photo of a dead child underwater become analogous in a creepy way.  Glowing water is used in a story about visiting Chernobyl but also in attempts to evoke magical escapism.  And sprays of water pour onto the stage when one character takes a shower, and in another scene where I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be showers, tropical rainfall, or something more darkly symbolic.

The outsider character who seems like the most reliable narrator, the one through whom we find out the truth, is Ben Gorodetsky’s embassy employee, who is distracted by cocaine and celebrities and who also seems somewhat enthralled by Lianna (Lianna Makuch), the leader of the missionary group.  His partner Angie (Angelique Panther), a translator and aid worker who’s been in the country or the region for ten years (so she should know better), has her own smaller version of the tragedy arising through badly-thought-out actions from good intentions.

At the end, the audience didn’t start clapping right away.  Maybe people were sort of stunned.  Then I heard people around me discussing whether the results of the investigation were fair and how much responsibility people should bear for their uninformed parts in other people’s crimes.  Which was probably another of the playwright’s intentions, so I’d say he succeeded.

The Missionary Position plays until February 16th.  You can get tickets at the Timms Centre box office or through Tix on the Square.

Excessive Fringe

I didn’t do much else this weekend except hang around at the Fringe Festival going to shows. And sleep. I think I’m getting a cold.  Anyway, here are more shows that I’ve seen. I probably should have bought two frequent-fringer passes (20 shows) instead of the one 10-show pass.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago – This was a sold-out opening show. I had never seen this David Mamet play before, although I had seen the movie “about last night” long ago. Some of the language and attitudes seemed too outdated to be credible, although unfortunately not enough of them. The actors were all good, Jamie Cavanagh, Sereana Malani, Richard Lam, and the fourth whose name I need to look up (edit:  Patricia Cerra). In the lineup beforehand and before the play started, I enjoyed talking to an interesting young theatre student from a small town.

Pushed – I picked this one on the spot because it fit my schedule between the two other shows I already had tickets for. It was both funnier and much much darker than I expected.

Middleton a folk musical – Notes on this one are in a later post with other musicals.

7 Ways to Die: a Love Story – on a recommendation from a friend, I got completely caught up in this wordless masked story. It was like the darker version of Fools for Love – again two characters in different apartments in the same building interact, but in this one it seems that one of them keeps trying to kill herself and the other one keeps trying to stop her.  Alexander Forsyth and Keltie Brown were the creators/performers.

Divide – I was looking forward to this because I liked the song cycle that the artist (Joel Crichton) had written for last year’s festival, and besides because I like having interesting beer at Wunderbar. This was a performance piece that was a mix of storytelling, invoking his dead heroes Jack Layton and Vaclav Havel, imagining dystopic futures with his granddaughter and son in them, looping and beatbox and hiphop, and singing. It worked surprisingly well.

Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Hansom Cab Killer – Three actors played an awful lot of characters. I giggled frequently. It was full of doubles ententres but I think that for kids who know Sherlock Holmes and who don’t mind not getting some of the jokes or parents who don’t mind that they do get them, kids would like it too. I liked one of the main plot premises but I won’t mention it and spoil a friend who’s planning to see it later in the week.

Essay – this play about gender politics in an academic setting was written by young Canadian playwright Hannah Moskovitch. I sort of squirmed uncomfortably all the way through it because the characters were so familiar. The venue was the upstairs of the Wee Book Inn.

Significant Me – a one-woman show with props and occasional audience participation, the sequel to last year’s ONEymoon, by Christel Bartelse, with a manic pace and a lot of amusing asides and stage business. I’m not sure the plot hung together quite as well as last year’s; more of it just seemed like excuses to stick in other funny parts, but I didn’t mind.