OBAABERIMA

Created and Performed by Tawiah M’Carthy
Directed by Evalynn Parry
Live Music by Kobena Aquaa-Harrison
Set and Costumes Designed by Camellia Koo
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
September 15 – October 7, 2012

I once a taught a teenager who had just moved to Toronto. He was completely different from the others.  For one, he was Ghanaian, and I imagine the only African in what was a predominantly white, yuppie and homogenized suburb. He was tall and majestically handsome, yet his beautiful eyes were often downcast.  His voice was soft and gentle, almost too soft, with the melodic dialect of English-speaking gold coast Africa.  He was extremely courteous and painfully shy, a little sad perhaps, a little lost and a lot confused.

He didn’t know where he belonged.  His name was Ben.

Last night, that shy, beautiful Ghanaian boy stood with his back to me, caged behind steel bars and concrete walls.  Suddenly, there was a sound from him. It was powerful, and primal, and cut through time and space.   I realized it was not the boy Ben who spoke.  It was the adult, the actor, the creator, the great story-teller Tawiah.  He is no longer defeated, but now proud, strong and defiant, no longer a prisoner, but a soul on the verge of freedom.  He is Obaaberima, half woman, half man, created in the image of God.  He is there to take us on his journey.

From that first primal cry, to the final haunting image, Tawiah held me and the rest of his audience and never let us go.  This was the story of a young African man, who struggles between two continents with his  race, gender and sexuality.  It is a prisoner’s confession the eve before his release: a rant, a memory, a dance, a song, a poem, a chronicle and a journey.  Half a dozen characters of all ages and genders come to life through the story-telling, but none more layered, dynamic or human than the storyteller himself.

Poetically written and brilliantly performed, I am overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of Tawiah’s talent.  He possesses a resounding wisdom, spirituality and other-worldliness and yet there is still a very strong connection to our collective consciousness and vulnerability.

The play Obaaberima is further brought to life by the seamless integration of traditional music composed and performed live by the master-percussionist Kobena Aquaa-Harrison.   As Kobena explained, “Music, song, dance, costume, lighting are all integral to West African story-telling,” and so it was last night.  Carried by the sounds of the gyil, atumpan, ashiko, and frikyewa,  we were magically transported to the plains and villages of West Africa.

Tawiah graciously proclaims the production was a collaborative creation and so it was. Evalynn Parry is a renowned, highly skilled and wonderfully imaginative director. Her artistic commitment to this project as the dramaturge took it to an even higher level.  Camellia Koo’s set was also impressive – simple and elegant, yet symbolically strong.   Finally, Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design was perfectly moody, adding yet another dimension to the many layers of the production.   Everyone involved in the genesis of this bold new show deserved the standing ovation the house gave.  This is the first time Buddies and Bad Times’ Artistic Director Brendan Healy has not directed the company’s season opener.  I’m sure he agrees, Obaarima is certainly worthy of that honour.   It was simply one of the most profound and magical one-person shows I’ve seen.

Obaarima runs until October 7th. Don’t miss it.

 

Read Tawiah’s interview in Now:

http://www.nowtoronto.com/stage/story.cfm?content=188699

 

 

The Mission Business Creates a Brave New World

I believe if we put our energy out to the universe, gateways to new realms will open up to us.  So it was with this mind I attended four intensive days at the Director’s Lab North http://www.directorslabnorth.com/ in June with over thirty inspiring stage directors from across North America.

Among those people was a dynamic and impressive theatre artist by the name of Elenna Mosoff.  Elenna is the Associate Producer of the award-winning Acting Up Stage Company as well as co-founder of a bold new artistic company, called The Mission Business http://www.themission.biz/

At the Lab, Elenna introduced us to the Mission Biz’s first initiative: ZED.TO.  This was designed to be an “immersive, interactive laboratory-based narrative adventure” about the impending 2012 apocalypse.  It was marrying live event theatre with on-line gaming, media, social media and science.

Elenna explained that this project was spawned because contemporary theatre in Toronto was staid, if not even archaic and in order to thrive, it needed to be bolder, more experimental, more media savvy, and more inclusive. So…. The Mission Biz’s intention was to create the beginning of a narrative about Byologyc – a fictional lifestyle pharmaceutical company.  Then, they would let the narrative unfold itself with the help of the audience and online participants in three phases (the Toronto Fringe, Nuit Blanche and the Grand Finale in November).  I remember thinking that the project was courageous and ambitious, but also perhaps a little mad.  I saw images of role-playing gamers who couldn’t distinguish the game from reality going postal.  It sounded more like a script for Hollywood than actual theatre in Toronto.
A week later I got an invitation to become a member of the cast at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Thankfully, I was intrigued enough to say yes.  The next thing I knew instead of attending traditional rehearsals, I was being sent on “character dates” in order to establish relationships with the other staff members of Byologyc and to develop my own back-story.  It didn’t take long before I began to question what was real and what was fiction (such as, did a stranger really find my iphone on the street or was it set up as part of the mission????).
The Mission Business wanted the story to develop as organically as possible and it has.
Performing at the Fringe turned out to be a blast and much to my delight the “live event” was a huge success. In the production, the pharmaceutical company Byologyc released its newest product – “ByoRenew” but things went terribly wrong before the end of launch. Sirens blasted while audience were swabbed for DNA, and then forcefully evacuated from the club only to be screamed at by a crazy EXE protester on Bathurst St.
The production did extremely well, and was awarded with numerous awards and accolades, including:
My rather staunch and uptight character so far has survived.  Last night, we had our first rehearsal for Nuit Blanche http://www.scotiabanknuitblanche.ca/project.html?project_id=1048.  For this event, the performance installation is titled Byologyc: Patient Zero and the narrative will continue.  Much of the story has been developed since the Fringe, through Twitter and live forums, and the plot has indeed thickened. From what I learned about the new director of SCD is that power corrupts. At Nuit Blanche, she will be there, along with a mob of  EXE occupiers and armed security to protect the company and the nasty Chet Getram.
All this leads up to the Grand Finale – ByoRetreat on November 2 and 3rd when the world as we know it will end.  Busloads of VIP members (and perhaps a few saboteurs – wink, wink) will be taken to a secret location for a two and a half hour interactive survival retreat.  Tickets will be available online within the next few days at www.zed.to
Without doubt, this is one of the most original and intelligent artistic projects I’ve ever known and I’m thrilled to be part of it.  Indeed, the universe has opened doors for me.
I invite you to enter our story, either as a volunteer performer or an audience participant.  I’m confident it will be one of the most creative things you will do this fall.  Please join us and I hope to see you at the end of the world as we know it.

Seven Impressions Every Theatre Student Should Want To Make

Whether we like it or not, first impressions have a great weight in how others will perceive us not only now but also in the future.  When you as a theatre student first walk into a studio, classroom, workshop or rehearsal, your instructor, director, fellow company members and/or classmates will form opinions about you based on what you do and what you say.

Often, students try to impress others with their talent, skill and how often and to what extent they’ve performed before.  Obviously, if you were accepted into theatre school, you’ve already proved that you have something.  What your instructors are looking for now is not what you’ve learned or done in the past.  They want to know what you have to give right now and for next two to four years. Are you there to learn?  Can you learn? Are you open?  Are you courageous?  Are you confident?  Are you truthful?  Are you humble?  Are you personable?  Will you take risks?  Are you an ensemble player?

What you do in the first month will determine much of your success in the next few years.  These are the impressions you want to create:

  1. You Know You Don’t Know Everything You Need to Know About Theatre:  Regardless of how accomplished an actor you think you are and as much as you think you know – your knowledge is limited. You are studying theatre because you are there to learn not to show off.  Your instructors are there to teach.  Don’t brag.  Don’t grandstand. Don’t argue with your instructor.  Don’t show disinterest.  And whatever you do, don’t read or send text messages in the middle of class. Come with an open mind, prepared to learn.  Focus. Take notes.  Ask questions. Show your professors your passion and your hunger.
  2. You Know How to Listen: Listening is an art. It’s one of the most crucial skills you need to develop as a theatre student and an actor.  Active listening requires that you hear, absorb and process.  It shapes and defines what and how you perceive and communicate.  You need to actively listen to your instructor, your director, your S.M., your fellow students and all of the company members, on stage and off.  In rehearsal and performance, your character must also practice active listening.  Yes, you as the actor may listen for cues, but more importantly, your character must be listening to what is being spoken because this is the first time (every time) your the character has heard the dialogue.  No matter how talented you are, you can’t fake active listening.
  3. You Give Respect:  Constantin Stanislavsky wrote “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” You respect Theatre because you know it is an noble tradition and an ancient rite, far greater than we will ever be.  In order to show that respect, you must be sincerely interested in the art and want to learn more about its history, theory and practice. You have already read many scripts, attended a number of good plays (and not simply pop culture films and/or flashy Mc’Musicals), you’ve read review and essays about theatre,and you think about it too.  This respect is also demonstrated toward the other members of your community – playwrights, directors, technicians, theatre instructors, fellow students and last but not least for your audience.  You are always punctual for classes and rehearsals and you’re prepared to work and to learn while you’re there.
  4. You Are Gracious and Personable:  Good manners and common courtesy are valued by everyone, and often a simple please and thank and pleasant tone will earn you many credits in the impressions department. Being gracious also means being generous.  No-one wants to work with a self-absorbed and selfish actor.  Be they type of artist that others want to work with.  Theatre is not a vacuum; its lifeforce however, is created by the energy and chemistry BETWEEN characters. Focusing on your scene partners as opposed to yourself, and providing them with the energy and emotion they need, will not only enhance your own performance but also the entire production.  You also know how to take notes and criticism with grace.   You know those notes are being given to help you, so you listen, absorb, process and then do your best to apply them.
  5. You Are a Risk-Taker:  Some artists only do what they do well and stay well-within their comfort zone.   Their work tends to be predictable, if not bland.  Risk-takers, on the other hand have the artistic courage and confidence to constantly challenge themselves.  They’re unafraid to try new techniques and methods – driving their work to deeper and more profound places.  They explore and they experiment. They dive into the unattractive or underwritten roles with the same gusto and audacity as they do with the the principal roles.  By diving into the swamp head first, these actors risk self-exposure, criticism and even failure.  But when they fail, they get back up, shake off the muck and try something else.  They continue to grow and develop and surprise us.  Their courage usually brings about breathtaking results. Their work is fresh, original and filled with a vibrant life-force we call the “it factor”.   Risk-takers have the courage to be truthful and open, to expose their hearts and share their fears.  Risk-takers stand out because of their energy. They excite us; they are special and we never forget them.
  6. You Are Mindful:  According to Psychology Today “Mindfulness is the state of active, open attention on the present.” This is one of the most difficult skills to learn.  It takes a great deal of time, discipline and training to learn how to be and stay in the moment.  When on stage, the mind tends to race in a million different directions. Lesser actors think about their lines, cues, blocking, audience reactions and what they’re having for breakfast tomorrow.  All that gunk needs to be removed from your mind when you perform.  One way to get there is to be properly prepared and rehearsed, so you can let the technical aspects of acting go on auto-pilot, Then you can be truly in the moment and in character.  This is not a skill most people have, and once they do, it needs to be nurtured and maintained. Many actors do yoga and mediation on regular basis so they can better reach a state of mindfulness.  True mindfulness creates a character that is authentic, truthful, vibrant and magnetic.  It is a skill to work toward.
  7. You Are Flexible:  There are some things we do better than others.  Some are stronger with physical theatre than text, and the opposite is true for others.  In theatre school you will be learning about all the facets of different acting styles from classical, modern and post-modern sources. You will most likely take classes in Shakespeare, clowning, dance, voice, method acting, improvisation, combat…… One instructor will ask you do something one way, and your next director will ask you to do something completely opposite.  The theatre student who stands out is the one who can adapt and adjust accordingly to the different demands being made on her or him.  Your directors and instructors are looking for artists who want to learn and want to grow.  Be that person.

 

Ego and the Artist

Because of the huge shape-shifting I’ve undergone lately, I’ve had to think about myself much more than I like. Right now, I feel very self-centered, and uncomfortably so.

Ego.  When is it too much, and when too little?

In July, I had a late afternoon catch up with a former student whom I will refer to as D.H.  Currently she is in the middle of a four year performance program at a highly respected theatre faculty in Toronto, where by all accounts, she’s doing exceptionally well.  D.H.’s show had just closed at the Toronto Fringe, and she received excellent reviews for her performances. While we sipped on our Margaritas, and talked about the Fringe, school and dreams.  D.H. confessed she was seriously considering dropping out of her theatre program.  When I asked her why she told me she hated how they stripped the students of their confidence and any and all ego they might have.  There is a culture of emotional oppression of “self”.   What’s the point, D.H. asked, if theatre students were too afraid to take risks, too afraid to fail?  Isn’t school a place to be nurtured?  Aren’t students there to explore and try and safely fail and try again so they can grow as artists?

What is the point, indeed?

Most theatre schools do take the same hard-nose approach and there could be a number of reasons why.  Kids often come from high school programs where they were “stars”, many with egos bigger than the state of Texas.  It’s difficult to teach someone who thinks they know everything, when actually all they know is a drop in the bucket. Or maybe the schools take such an approach because that’s how the instructors themselves had been treated when they were in theatre school?  Could it be what goes around comes around? Or perhaps, students who really want to follow a career in the arts MUST be reduced to nothing, in order to truly understand and the pain and the joy of the human condition. Maybe this is theatre schools’ method to their madness – to determine which students have the strength, tenacity, love and passion to go on despite the inflicted wounds.

Are theatre practitioners not often humbled by critics and nay-sayers regardless of talent, reputation or quality of their work ? We put our work out there for audiences and we hope for praise but must also expect to be hurt.  Some people say theatre artists have to be full of themselves in order to write the play, stand metaphorically naked on stage or direct others in what and how to play the play.  And yes, many extroverts do become performers.  They love being in the spotlight and often they are very well crafted in their staged personae.  Still, it always seems to be the introverted artists – the ones lacking a love of self, the shy ones, the quiet ones, the still ones – who usually steal my heart.  I think those actors and playwrights have spent most of their lives listening, observing, and processing; whereas the extroverts have focused too much on presenting themselves to the world.

More ego.

I remember having a conversation with Rob Kempson of Theatre Passe Muraille, and the current Director for the Paprika Festival .  Rob is also a qualified and very talented drama teacher who I used to love bringing into my classes (and I very highly recommend as a guest artist or supply teacher).  We were talking about performing artists who become teachers.  Rob observed that in order to professionally develop as an actor, one needs to be focused on oneself; whereas, those who teach need to be focused on their students.  He felt that knowing how to switch from one to the other may be quite challenging for some theatre artists.

What recently happened at the Factory Theatre between Ron Struys and his merry Board of Pranksters and founder Artistic Director Ken Gass was a clash of ideas, but also a  butting of egos. And then there’s Morris Panych’s hysterically funny but also distressed  response to critic Kelly Nestruck’s  Globe review of Wanderlust. The tennis match between the two of them, is yet another example of ego and the artist.  You can read the review and Morris’ subsequent response at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/theatre-reviews/stratfords-wanderlust-merely-serviceable-entertainment/article4411194/  (By the way if you do take the time to read the review, be sure to link on to the comments that follow the article.)

And….

There were a number of amazing new plays at this year’s Summerworks Festival including the deeply disturbing  Terminus, the equally extraordinary Iceland and Daniel MacIvor’s new play I, Animal.  I mention these plays because all of them consisted of extended monologues delivered by three separate and disconnected characters.  I loved the first two scripts and the productions but something bothered me.  Is this a new trend for playwrights?  There was little action, little blocking and virtually no interaction between characters.  In the rare moments when the dialogue segued I leaned forward in excitement, hoping for more physical connections between the characters. None came.

I used to think that one-person shows were egotistical and selfish but the truth is their popularity is derived from the fact they are so much cheaper and so much easier to produce.  I understand that, but why have three characters on stage in total isolation?  As an audience member I hunger for human interaction and tension between characters. How can this trend toward monologue-cum-play serve a stronger dramatic purpose? Or is it that playwrights no longer know how to develop relationships between characters?  Is it reflective of how alienated we’ve all become in our world of twitter, FB’ing,  texting and blogging?  If we function alone in bubbles, how can we not focus on ourselves and our own egos?  We talk and talk and talk, and write and write and write but characters having a dialogue on stage is becoming a rare treat indeed.

Which brings me back to my original question.  How much is too much ego?  How much is too little?