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.

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.)


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?