Let’s Keep Dancing

There is something hopeful, noble and even magnificent about new theatre companies.   They have the courage and audacity to believe they have something new and worthy to share in a community that is already besot with too many starving artists.

Last evening I had the privilege of seeing the debut production Always on Alert by the spanking new and madly ambitious Iconoclasm Theatre Company also to be known as ITC. http://iconoclasmtheatre.org/index.html .  According to their website, the founding members Sandra Dagovic, David Lichty, Regine Tiu, and Waleed Ansari have made it their goal not only to entertain but also to “challenge audiences to examine culture, religion, and their symbols”.


Co-founder, philosophy student, director and playwright David Lichty was first baptized into the Toronto theatre scene with his 2012 SummerWorks play I Believe in Atheists.  This new script appears to be a continuation of the first with similar themes and questions.  What is the meaning of life?  What is our greater purpose? Does God exist?  What happens to us when we die?

In a nutshell, the play centers round Donald (played by Rob Wierzbicki) a conflicted nihilist living in a isolated government outpost in Alert, Nunavut with three other scientists. Their sole duty is to push the apocalyptic “nuclear button” should politics warrant the need to end the world.  Donald’s moral melancholy has led him to believe that all existence is “inconvenient”, especially those of his fellow scientists.   Throughout the play he spouts his nihilist rhetoric, challenging the other characters to negate his views with their own Christian or existentialist values.  They don’t have a chance against his skepticism and sociopathic righteousness.

There is something anachronistic about this play. It’s vaguely reminiscent of paranoia surrounding the Cold War when the possibility of annihilation was so much more present in our collective psyche.

Lichty’s direction controlled the frenetic energy of Wierzbicki who carried the play as if it is a one-man show.  This young actor has great presence and potential. He mastered huge chunks of diatribe, and gave them shape, substance and believability.  Not an easy task with a character deliberately written to be an unlikeable anti-hero.  At times, Wierzbicki may have indicated too much and consequently threw away some great moments of what could have been both fun and macabre.  For example, there are nuggets of absurdity that lost some of their power because we knew they were coming.  In particular the physical interactions between Donald and his fellow scientists felt somewhat underplayed and rushed.  Otherwise, the pace flowed well and the company played the irony found in the text.

Kudos go out to actors Greg Wilmont, Hayden Finkelshtstain and especially Marc Blanchard for their wonderfully present and controlled performances.  Without giving away too much of the plot, these characters were more than the recipients of Donald’s philosophical ranting. In their states of non-existence, they hugely contradict Lichty’s argument that existence has no meaning.  These three fine actors also reaffirm the adage “There are no small roles.”

The venue is the studio space at the historic Alumnae Theatre on Berkeley Street.  Ironically the oppressive heat in that space last night added to the oppressive isolation of the outpost even though it’s set in Nunavut. The tech team performed miracles in what is a challenging space.   Subtle lighting design and a cluttered and cost-effective re-purposed set design by Waleed Ansari added to that sense of growing madness, alienation and our inherent need to connect to the world and each other regardless of our religious and more beliefs.  Sound, costumes and makeup were also flawless.

There’s something melancholic about Existentialist Nihilism.  I suppose it’s the coming-of-age disappointment in the realization that we’re actually not the center of the universe.  Questioning the meaning of our existence seems to be a universal rite of passage for those on the cusp of adulthood.

Last night, I was reminded of Peggy’s Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?”  There’s no doubt this play and this company deals with questions relevant to all young people.  Always On Alert is both thought-provoking and meets  ITC’s mandate to challenge their audiences.  I left the theatre inspired by the company’s vision and their integrity of purpose. I look forward to watching them evolve over the months and years ahead.

Doodling, Fuck and Other Four Letter Words

Under certain and very specific conditions, of which my students were all fully advised and aware, swearing in scripts and scene work in my classes was condoned.

Blind censorship does not help anyone to think critically on their own.  Learning how to discern between what is gratuitous or simply added for shock value and what is critical to the character or the situation is a valuable learning skill for artists and audiences.There was one dirty four letter word one word however, that students were never, ever, ever, ever allowed to use in my studio:


I became the  horrified drama queen if a student referred to their work as a skit.  I’d gasp. or moan, or sometimes, shriek.


What’s so wrong with the word, they’d ask.

“Boy Scouts do skits!  Camp kids do skits!  MATH teachers do skits!. Drama students DO NOT DO or even say that four letter word that begins with an “s” and ends with a “t” – and it’s not “SHIT”!

It was as much fun as the times I’d send them outside the studio to spit, spin and swear for that other taboo word.  Honestly though, like most drama teachers, the hair still stands on the back of my neck when I hear the word “skit”.

After years, I finally came up with an explanation that made sense:


So, on this lazy Sunday morning, I stumbled across a great little website http://kerbyrosanes.com/ that made me think of doodles and skits and inspired today’s blog.

Perhaps one can find artistic merit in doodles and skits, after all.


When I first arrived as Mowat, as Head of Drama in September 1989, I informed our principal (who we shall call Mr. A.) that our first production of the season would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It had been a few years since the drama department had mounted a play at that school; he simply nodded his head, made a note of the November dates in his calendar and he gave the quick go-ahead.

Two days before opening night Mr. A. apparently in a panic called one of the senior cast members, Jeff Jones, to his office.  He seemed very anxious and asked him how rehearsal were going.  Jeff said they were going great.  After hemming and hawing, Mr. A. finally asked Jeff if the play was “like the movie” which he had finally rented the night before. Jeff assured him that the stage play was considerably different and many of the scenes in Nicholson film aren’t in the play.  Mr. A. seemed relieved.

There were many brilliant moments in the play and that cast – with Alex Pearson, Jeff Jones, Chris Scholey, Jeff Logue and many others – may have been one of the best companies I’ve ever worked with.  The one actor I cast as one of the “incurables” Ruckley was a hulk of guy – well over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. His costume was nothing more than an adult diaper. For most of the play, Ruckley stood upstage with his arms outstretched as if crucified. But at critical moments he stepped out of his catatonia and boomed in a deep baritone voice: “F-F-F FUCK ‘EM ALL!”   It was one of my all time favorite stage moments. The effect was both hilarious and unsettling for the audience.

Opening night sold out and the 700 seat auditorium was filled with students, parents and community members.   We placed Mr. A. in the VIP section of the house and strategically I sat a few seats behind him.  The lights went down and the play begin.   When Ruckley spoke his first line there was a considerable shift in the energy of the audience.  Before the laughter erupted it seemed as if every single person in the audience took their eyes off the stage and turned their heads to see Mr. A’s reaction.  He slumped a couple of inches lower in his seat every time the f-bomb was dropped.  By the end of the show, he could barely be seen from behind. I can’t remember if he stood at the end (which got a full standing ovation every night) but I do know it wasn’t until much later, Mr. A. finally commented about the play and that night.

256_42964335388_3951_nWhen I wished Mr. A. a happy retirement years afterwards, he smiled and asked me if I knew how upset he was with Cuckoo’s Nest. He said that he went home that night and didn’t know what he would do with me, once the dozens of complaints and grievances would pour in.  But much to his surprise,  he didn’t get a single complaint. Not one.

Mr. A. looked me in the eye and said, “I still don’t understand why not.  Can you tell me why nobody complained?”

I do know Mr. A. but if you couldn’t figure it out, I  don’t think you’ll ever understand.