Why not me? Why not now?: Interview with Kelly McAllister, Founder and Artistic Director of Spearhead Theatre

Say hello to Spearhead Theatre, the newest theatre company in Fredericton. The company will stage its inaugural show, Agnes of God by John Pielmeier, in two weeks at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. It’s a dream come true for the company’s founder and artistic director Kelly McAllister, a new face in the local theatre scene.

The 25-year-old theatre artist grew up in the small town of Carleton Place, Ontario. McAllister’s passion for theatre began at the age of four when she watched the 1952 movie musical Singin’ in the Rain.

“You could watch something and not know the people, but you could feel so inspired and transported,” McAllister says. “I thought I have to do that.”

Besides a local theatre group called the Mississippi Mudds and infrequent school plays (due to a lack of funding), there wasn’t a lot of theatre happening in Carleton Place. McAllister had to find opportunities in the surrounding region. In high school, the young theatre artist enrolled in the Shakespeare School, a theatre intensive summer program offered by the Stratford Festival. 

McAllister later studied at the Ottawa Theatre School and graduated from Sheridan College in 2015. The Ottawa Theatre School closed its doors in 2014. “I was part of the last group there.”

Although she never pictured herself living in a big city, McAllister and her husband decided to move to Toronto. Life in the big city was “a lot of fun” but a grind.

“The hustle and bustle is a lot,” McAllister says. “You are a small fish in a big pond. You have to really fight for your time. I had four jobs at one time. It took me about a year after graduation to get my big gig [Rose Nylund in Thank You For Being a Friend]. I did that for three years.”

The grind was not the only thing McAllister had to deal with in Toronto. There was also the competitiveness of the industry.

“Because you are a small fish in a big pond, it can get very feisty quick,” McAllister says. “I’m not here to be cutthroat. I want to tell stories. I want to have a good time. I want to collaborate and be creative. That’s why I got into this.”

McAllister and her husband relocated to Fredericton in 2017. “My husband is from [Fredericton].”

“We thought you know we want a change,” McAllister says. “It’s almost like a blank state for us. He had been gone for so long. Let’s start fresh. Why not? Let’s just do it. You can’t worry about what if it goes wrong. Life always changes. Nothing is permanent. You can do and do not as you please.”

Two years later, what does McAllister think about Fredericton?

“It’s much easier to live here,” McAllister says. “I find the environment here is great for creative people. You can take a breath and relax. I wanted to create, but I wanted to lose the frustrating bits that come with the industry. I don’t think you need those frustrations in order to create.”

McAllister has been busy performing in Fredericton since arriving in 2017. Last summer, McAllister played Imogen in Bard in the Barrack’s production of Cymbeline in Odell Park. And just a couple weeks ago, McAllister performed at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival in Carlee Calver’s one-woman play A Coward-Bird’s Song.

“I was a little nervous at first because I had never done a one-woman,” McAllister says. “It was very freeing because you don’t have to worry about letting anyone down. If something doesn’t go as planned, you can take a breath, and you can figure it out in your own time. You don’t let anyone down just yourself. Hopefully not. I can let myself down but not others.”

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Spearhead Theatre presents John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God September 4 – 8 at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. Kelly McAllister (above) will play the role of Agnes. Photo Credit: Heather Ogg Photography.

On September 4th, McAllister will introduce Fredericton to Spearhead Theatre, a theatre company born out of her love for classic works.

“I love classic works,” McAllister says. “There isn’t a lot of that out here. It doesn’t tour a lot around here. I thought, why not? Why isn’t it coming here? You shouldn’t have to travel across provinces to see something like that.”

Summoned to a convent, a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Elizabeth Goodyear), is tasked with assessing the sanity of a novice accused of murdering her newborn baby. Miriam Ruth, the Mother Superior (Adeen Ashton-Fogle), is determined to keep young Agnes (Kelly McAllister) from the doctor, further arousing Livingstone’s suspicions. Who killed the infant and who fathered the innocent child? Livingstone’s questions force all three women to re-examine the meaning of faith and the power of love, leading to a dramatic, compelling climax.

When McAllister first read Agnes of God, she knew immediately that Pielmeier’s play would be Spearhead’s debut production.

“I just felt this connection to it,” McAllister says. “It’s very important for me to give women strong dynamic roles because we don’t get a lot of those still. With this show, it’s all dynamic female roles. How could I, as a young woman, start a company and not give that opportunity for other young women to thrive? It just doesn’t make sense. We need to help others thrive, as well.”

McAllister believes actors should receive a “proper wage.”

“I treat this as a craft or a trade,” McAllister says. “If you’re going to hire a carpenter, you are going to pay them their fee.”

In the future, McAllister wants Spearhead to stage plays relevant to high school curriculums. “You are always taught that it’s better to see it but you never get to see it. You watch an outdated movie version.”

On the early stages of Spearhead, McAllister remembers the three questions that motivated her to start the company and begin carving her path in Canadian theatre.

“Why not me? Why not here? Why not now?”


Spearhead Theatre presents John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God September 4 – 8 at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. 7:30 p.m. showtime. 2 p.m. matinee on September 7 and 8.

For more information about Spearhead Theatre and how to purchase tickets, visit: https://spearheadtheatre.com/

With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

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Greg Everett’s Gullywhump — Abraham (Scott Harris) and the Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird). Image from NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

This year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category are Greg Everett (Gullywhump) and Sophie Tremblay-Pitre (With Love, Josephine). Everett and Tremblay-Pitre’s one-act plays, presented as workshopped productions, are running together as a double-bill at Memorial Hall. Both plays received dramaturgical support from playwright Rob Kempsen, NotaBle Acts’ artist-in-residence for the 2019 festival.

Moving between the past and present, Tremblay-Pitre’s With Love, Josephine tells the story of Jo (Mika Driedger) and her grandmother, Josephine (Julianne Richard). It’s 2018, and Josephine has recently passed away. Her former lover Charles (Miguel Roy) visits her house to drop off a box of keepsakes to her daughter Lynn (Kelsey Hines). Among the keepsakes is Josephine’s diary which Jo begins to read in secret. 

The year is 1956, and Josephine is a young woman trying to make her own choices in life. She wants to marry Charles, but her family doesn’t approve of him. Why? Charles is not from a wealthy family, and he’s French. Josephine’s mother Dorothy (Hines) has someone else in mind for her daughter, someone who would be better for her future. Josephine struggles with self-doubt and fear of failure. She feels helpless against the expectations of her mother, her community, and the man she loves. 

Josephine’s story mirrors the issues Jo is facing in the present. Both women are trying their best, but their best doesn’t seem good enough for anyone. Loneliness begins to creep in as so much of their story is wrapped inside someone else’s. And so, what hope can either Jo or Josephine feel for the future when they can’t see their authentic selves ahead of them?

With Love, Josephine sees English and French sharing the same stage. Although it’s not necessary to know French, a basic comprehension of the language does help with appreciating the flavour of Charles’ dialogue. It’s important to note that sometimes Charles makes an effort to translate his thoughts into English, for the benefit of Josephine and some portion of the audience. The play’s bilingualism enriches the drama between Josephine and Charles.

The production is visually interesting with characters entering and exiting from different points of Memorial Hall. Blizzard transforms Josephine’s home into a place where past and present clash just as much as they melt into one another. 

Driedger brings tenderness to the role of Jo, a tenderness that Hines squashes as Lynn and Dorothy. Hines plays the mother characters with the firmness of someone hardened by experience. She is a steamroller run amok. Richard is fantastic as Josephine. Richard and Roy bring out a lot from the other. Anthony Bryan plays the character of Tom with a cool light-hearted energy.

Directed by Miguel Roy, Gullywhump tells the story of two brothers and their pilgrimage to spread their sister’s ashes. Elisha (Alex Rioux) and Saul (Alex Fullerton) revisit painful memories from their childhood as they venture towards Abigail’s final resting place. The brothers are not alone in the cursed forest of Burntland — the same setting as Everett’s Carrion Birds which premiered last year at NotaBle Acts. In pursuit of the two brothers is a Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird), a creature of darkness from their father’s old stories. The audience learns the story of the Gullywhump from Abraham (Scott Harris) in segments.

Don’t let all the talk about black magic and the supernatural fool you, Gullywhump is at its heart a story about coping with loss and trauma. Eli and Saul’s trek through darkness revolves around transformation and letting go. The dark is in between and all around the brothers. They can’t see the other in front of them. Eli and Saul project their regrets onto the other person. The brothers’ pilgrimage is a journey towards the light, towards clarity and understanding. 

The Gullywhump is a mysterious, nearly unimaginable creature. Is it a monster? No, maybe not. That seems inaccurate. The creature, animated wonderfully by Bird, is seemingly the physical manifestation of fear and death. Its true form is difficult to grasp, yet its presence is known. Abigail (Brenna Gauthier) befriends the Gullywhump before taking her life. 

And so, Gullywhump is not a play about a monster that needs a stake impaled through its heart. Yes, there is a monster, and that monster is the children’s father Abraham who sexually abused Abigail. The ritual of laying Abigail to peace is grounded in healing. Abigail’s spirit joins the Gullywhump in meeting Eli and Saul. Eli puts his knife down as everything becomes clear. The siblings, imbued with each other’s strength, can go their separate ways now. Abraham, who spoke so gleefully of the creature, finds himself vanquished by the Gullywhump.

Gullywhump is a heavy play, and it is also at times hard to decipher. Everett leaves ample room for interpretation. It is a compelling play, though, with its vivid imagery and poetic qualities. Roy’s direction keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. The scenes between Abraham and the Gullywhump are almost dream-like in their fluidity and intensity.

Harris is frightening in the role of Abraham. He appears on stage as a ghoul, and he floats like one too. The way the actor snaps his fingers and dances to his characters’ telling of the Gullywhump is unsettling. Rioux and Fullerton do well in their roles of estranged brothers. The brotherly conflict is tense. Gauthier breathes energy and a soft earnestness into the character of Abigail.


With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump ran as a double-bill August 1 – 3 at Memorial Hall. 

Fruit Machine Premieres at NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

 

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Fruit Machine is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Lucas Tapley, Samuel Crowell, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Dustyn Forbes. Photo Credit: Matt Carter.

Alex Rioux and Samuel Crowell began working on Fruit Machine in 2017. At the time, Rioux and Crowell were members of the Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop ⁠— a platform for contemporary artists to create original works of physical theatre. In May of last year, a work-in-progress showing of Fruit Machine ran before another production from the coop, A Record of Us.

Fast forward to this summer: Rioux and Crowell, in collaboration with members of the coop, have developed Fruit Machine into a full-length production, and it is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

Presented at the Black Box Theatre, Fruit Machine explores the decades-long purge of gay men and lesbians in the Canadian military and RCMP. The ‘fruit machine’ was a device designed in the 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor from Carleton University, to detect homosexuality in subjects, who were unaware of the machine’s true purpose. Cold War paranoia motivated the witch-hunt as officials believed gay personnel could be blackmailed by Soviet spies, effectively making them threats to national security. 

What unfolds in Fruit Machine, which uses physical theatre to interpret historical texts and quotes, is a story of betrayal. We meet men and women who are betrayed by their peers, their families, and their country. We enter a world of secrecy, of coded language, and hidden intentions. It is a dark chapter of Canadian history that is almost too hard to believe, especially from the perspective of a young millennial.

Rioux and Crowell present moments that express the same kind of disbelief. These are moments that could appear in any episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. One standout moment is when the actors shuffle across the stage while holding newspapers to their faces (no eye holes). It is entirely comical, again straight from a cartoon, because this period of history seems so outlandish from a young person’s point-of-view. Seriously, a man couldn’t drive a white convertible car or wear a ring on his pinky finger without people thinking he was gay? We are soon reminded that these seemingly trivial actions had life-altering consequences.

Fruit becomes a powerful image in the play. It is an object that holds a lot of significance for the characters and their relationships with others. Fruit is something to be discarded. Fruit is something to be destroyed. Fruit is something to be embraced. Fruit is something that connects people. The inanimate objects are transformed into characters, and the actors respond to them accordingly. The result is beautiful storytelling told through eloquent movement.

Rioux’s direction smartly crafts an intimate atmosphere with characters weaving in and out of the action on stage. There are moments where the connective tissue seems loose, leaving the play and its network of characters feel a bit disjointed. Still, the scenes manage to be effective on their own. The director stages scenes of palpable heartbreak and tightening dread.

The company — Lucas Tapley, Dustyn Forbes, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Crowell — proves versatile with every scene. The actors jump effortlessly from the physical demands of the play to its segments that are more documentary-style. 

Fruit Machine is emotionally devastating. A must-see.


Fruit Machine ran July 23 -25 at the Black Box Theatre as part of the 2019 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival:
https://nbacts.com/

‘There’s only so far you can go in Canada’: Interview With Comedian Michelle Shaughnessy

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Michelle Shaughnessy released her debut comedy album You Know What You Did in 2017. (Photo provided by Shaughnessy)

“Well, I think I would have gotten out of Canada a lot sooner,” Michelle Shaughnessy says as our phone interview begins to wind down. Shaughnessy is speaking to me from her home in Toronto. “I feel bad saying that because I love Canada. It’s just…it is what it is.”

Shaughnessy calls me on a Monday morning in June. The 35-year-old comedian, originally from Peterborough, Ontario, has kindly agreed to talk about her career which has spanned almost twenty years. Besides some old notebooks, there isn’t much evidence of her early sets. Too bad, right? Shaughnessy is okay with it.

“I was trying so hard to be funny that I wasn’t necessarily being true to myself,” Shaughnessy says. “Sometimes when I come across old notebooks, I see my jokes and think oh my God, that’s embarrassing. I’m really glad that it wasn’t the era of everyone filming their sets and that YouTube wasn’t around.”

While it’s true that Shaughnessy started doing comedy when she was 18 years old, it’s not quite the full story. Shaughnessy took a break from stand-up to pursue other interests, like sketch comedy. When she returned to stand-up in her early twenties, Shaughnessy got signed to Yuk Yuks.

“But I still had day jobs,” Shaughnessy says. “I would meet these comics who would be snobby to me, even though we were around the same level. They were like, oh, you have a day job? You’re not a comedian. Okay, you live on a couch. You have no cable. You use paper plates. Look at how you live. You should probably have a day job too.”

Shaughnessy had no problem going back-and-forth between comedy and her day jobs. “I was in my twenties. If I had to work all day and go do a show, I would be so tired.” The young comedian worked in offices, where she was able to work on new material, and restaurants.

“The waitressing always became a problem,” Shaughnessy says. “They would always say we’re fine with it, but then one weekend they would say no, we need you here. I would say I have a show. Well, we need you here. I would just not show up and quit. That was the only time a job became an interference.”

In April, a comedy page on Facebook uploaded a video of Shaughnessy performing at Absolute Comedy in Toronto. Shaughnessy’s set was part of SiriusXM’s Top Comic 2017, in which she was one of eight finalists. The video, taken from Sirius XM Canada’s YouTube channel, has received over 3 million views to date.

 “A friend messaged me and said you went viral,” Shaughnessy says. “You’re at a hundred thousand views. What are you talking about?”

The comedian took “a quick glimpse” and decided not to look at it again. “I’m going to take everything personally. You can see a hundred good comments and then one really bad one. It just ruins my day. I take that stuff really harsh.”

Shaughnessy says the video’s popularity helped increase traffic on her social media. Her inbox receives almost daily messages from viewers.

“A lot of them are positive, but some of them are criticizing me or giving me advice,” Shaughnessy says. “It’s like, who are you? I could never imagine going up to a singer. Okay, so about that song…If you’re not a comic, I don’t want to hear it.”

I ask Shaughnessy about her feelings on the overall experience — her set attracting millions of views online. 

“It’s weird. It doesn’t do anything for you in Canada,” Shaughnessy says. “It really doesn’t. We don’t care. Canadians don’t care. In America, I think that would help me. But in Canada, we don’t have a star system, so it doesn’t matter.”

“My Instagram followers have gone up. It’s been good for that. I just don’t think we here in Canada put much stock into that. When you talk with managers in the States, one of the first things they ask you about is your social media. Do you have a big presence? Do you have a big following? That’s just not a thing in Canada.”

Our conversation turns to the partnership between SiriusXM Canada and Just For Laughs, first announced in late February. SiriusXM Canada’s ‘Canada Laughs’ station would rebrand as Just For Laughs Radio. The new station would air international comics from JFL’s archive. The backlash from Canadian comics was swift. Canadian comics feared Just Laughs Radio would not only sideline Canadian artists but also jeopardize royalties generated from the station.

Shaughnessy was one of many Canadian comics who protested the partnership and asked that the two companies reconsider their decision to alter Canada Laughs. In a statement released on social media, Shaughnessy described Canada Laughs as a “godsend” for Canadian comics. Comics featured on the station benefited from “exposure throughout all of North America” and “pay for play residuals from the not for profit company Sound Exchange.” As far as Shaughnessy was concerned, Just For Laughs Radio was just another way Canada “forces” its artists across the border.

“I was angry, because a lot of comics would not have been okay without [that income],” Shaughnessy says. “It would have affected a lot of peoples’ art, because then they would have to go back and get day jobs. They were afforded the freedom not to do that.”

“I was also angry because it was the one thing that exposed us to outside of Canada. That was going to be taken away from us. We don’t have much. That’s the only thing we have. When I felt it was slipping away, I was so angry. That’s what I was trying to explain to people.  It’s all about money for you guys. It’s not. It’s about our identity. It’s about getting our voices outside. There’s so much here in Canada that’s American. People forget we exist sometimes.”

Shaughnessy did not have the full support of her peers in the wake of her statement and ensuing comments against the partnership. 

“I did have a few more well-known comedians reach out to me and tell me to stop it,” Shaughnessy says. “Why are you attacking Just For Laughs? Well, you know what, I don’t care at this point. You got to stand up for what’s right and not be scared to do so, or else we’ll just have nothing left for ourselves.”

After several days, SiriusXM Canada and JFL reversed their decision and announced that the station, now called Just For Laughs Canada, would exclusively air Canadian content. 

Shaughnessy doesn’t regret speaking out. “I won’t be doing the festival anytime soon, but I didn’t before. That’s why I also felt like I needed to be a strong voice because I wasn’t one of the comics who really stood to lose anything from that company.”

Although Canadian comics may have won in February, there are still challenges for comics trying to ‘make it’ here at home.

“There’s only so far you can go in Canada,” Shaughnessy says. “I feel like Canada picks 10-ish people and uses them until they’re done. Does that make sense? They use them for everything. They pick a group of people and think: let’s go with these people forever. It’s really hard to break through that.”

“I feel like here we have two networks. You pitch your shows to those networks, and they both say no. Now, what do I do? Whereas [in the United States], there’s a thousand places you can go and try at least.”

With the media landscape as it is, Shaughnessy is not surprised that Canada loses talent to the United States.

“If you want to go further and try to get to that next level, you got to leave,” Shaughnessy says. “I’m going to be going. I have to. I didn’t want to. I think I avoided it for a really long time — taking the steps to get out of here — because I love Canada. I love Toronto. But there comes a point where you’re just like I can’t do this anymore.”

I ask Shaughnessy about some lessons she has learned from almost two decades in comedy. Yes, she would have left Canada sooner, but that would have involved Shaughnessy taking “her art more seriously” in her twenties.

“I think I wasted a lot of time partying,” Shaughnessy says. “I don’t drink anymore. I’m very clean living. I don’t like to live life with regrets, but sometimes I look back at the way I was before, and I’m like wow. If I had the clear mind I have now when I was 22 — I feel like I would have accomplished a lot more a lot sooner. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.”

Before we say goodbye, I ask Shaughnessy if she has anything she would like to promote or anyone to shout out. Shaughnessy is currently working on a new comedy album, which she hopes will release in the next year.

“Support your comedians,” Shaughnessy says. “My friend Allison Dore started a record label called Howl & Roar Records. It’s Canada’s first female-centric record label. She’s doing some great things. I’m so proud of her. Look up the comics on that. Buy their albums. Stream it. They are some of the voices that might not get showcased otherwise.”


Michelle Shaughnessy’s comedy album You Know What You Did is available on iTunes.

Michelle is @michellesfunny on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She also has a YouTube channel.

Youth Document Their Lives in CBC’s Red Button

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Taryn Byers filmed her daily life for four weeks. (Red Button/CBC Gem).

The youth-driven documentary series Red Button is back for a second season. All six episodes are streaming now on CBC Gem.

In its first season, Red Button gave homeless youth in Toronto the opportunity to share their experiences on camera. The series rejected the traditional documentary format in favour of a more intimate and personal approach to storytelling  — the documentary subjects became the filmmakers. The youth used smartphones and other film equipment to document their lives and authentically capture their unique perspectives. When filming wrapped, the filmmakers sent their footage to producers and editors.

Executive Producer Rob Cohen says “the culture of self-documentation on social media” inspired Red Button’s innovative concept.

“It’s fascinating to see the shift in the last 10 years of people telling their own stories freely online,” Cohen said. “I think our films are really wonderful because they take us inside worlds that we think we have heard about, but I don’t think we have seen with the same kind of clarity or honesty before.”

The focus of season two is youth living with health conditions.

Born with Treachers Collins Syndrome, Taryn Byers lives with hearing impairment and a facial difference. The 17-year-old competitive dancer jumped at the opportunity to participate in Red Button because it was a chance to “get [her] voice out there.”

“Yeah, I have a facial difference, but no, I don’t struggle in school,” Byers said. “It’s just the way I look. It doesn’t affect me mentally.”

Since each subject decided the story they wanted to tell, the first-time filmmakers decided the duration of their shooting schedule. Byers documented her life for four weeks. Years of public speaking and developing her presentation skills helped Byers feel comfortable in front of the camera.

As part of her story, Byers filmed herself walking the runway at Light Up the Night, a charity fashion event in support of AboutFace. The fashion show featured models with facial differences. 

Byers says Red Button strengthened her commitment to advocacy.

“We don’t have the same facial differences, but we go through the same struggles,” Byers said. “I’m trying to speak on their behalf too and not just mine.”

In the fall, Byers will be studying Environmental Science/Studies at Trent University.

“I find what they have done is extraordinary,” Cohen said. “It takes courage and perseverance to be part of the filmmaking process. Every filmmaker knows that. If you are a new filmmaker, it’s even more challenging. They came through. I’m happy for them.”

Would Cohen have participated in Red Button as a teenager?

“I don’t think I would have done this project actually, because 17-year-old Rob was in the closet,” Cohen said. “If someone had asked what is your story, and why are you different? That would have obviously been it. Thinking of the cultural landscape at the time, it didn’t seem as possible to tell that story in that climate. I look at Tosconni’s episode and how honest and brave he is to share his experience about being a trans youth and the challenges that he’s facing. It’s amazing to me. No, I don’t think I would have had the bravery to do it at that time.”

Cohen hopes Red Button will challenge misconceptions and prejudices “that we sometimes have against people who are different.”


Founded in 1985, AboutFace promotes and enhances mental and emotional well-being of individuals with facial differences and their families through peer and social support, information, educational and experiential programs, and public awareness.

AboutFace is the only charity in Canada offering support to individuals of every age, with any type facial difference.

Mind Fudge: Interview With Series Co-Creator Justine Nelson

Mind Fudge is back and bigger than ever — literally!

Before landing on CBC Gem last Friday, Mind Fudge premiered on Instagram back in 2017. Series creators Justine Nelson and Jon Simo quickly found an audience for their short-form comedy series about a 20-something and the way she sees the world through her overactive, very cinematic imagination. The series’ first season ran for ten episodes, each episode running only one-minute in length.

Mind Fudge’s second season is streaming now on CBC Gem.

In addition to being one of the series’ co-creators, Nelson is also the lead actor, playing the character of Justine.

Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, the 27-year-old actress studied Acting for Film and Television at Niagara College. Mind Fudge is the first series Nelson has created.

Joyful Magpies spoke with Nelson to learn more about Mind Fudge.

Let’s go back to the first season on Instagram. I think this is the first time I have seen short form comedy done in this way before. Where did the idea to create these minute-long episodes come from?

It all started when Jon and I became friends a little over three years ago. When we met, we really clicked. We had very similar tastes in art. We wanted to work together. He was a cinematographer. I was an actor. We wanted to create a short film. We decided that It was quite the ambitious short that we were trying to make. In the meantime, Jon came up with this idea of: why don’t we make something really, really small just to get something out there and test the waters? We couldn’t really get our feet with the grander concept we were trying to get off the ground. He said: why don’t we use the platforms we have and make something short-form for Instagram?

We came up with this idea of someone’s imagination because then it was limitless. We wouldn’t have any rules to play by. We could just create anything. We did three of them. They were the coffee one, the firework one, and the heart rip one. We didn’t know what we had. We hadn’t even called it Mind Fudge yet. (Mind Fudge was the only name that stuck.) We just had these three little shorts. We were having so much fun making these bite-sized stories but with high production value. It was quite the challenge.

At the time, no one was really making high production value content for Instagram. I mean people are doing it now, but we hit a pocket where it just hadn’t really been done mainstream yet. Because we were so excited by the response, we decided to keep doing it. We made another and another and another. We kind of set up ourselves for a lot of hard work, because we wanted to put one out every week. We would write one, shoot one, edit one, and put it out every single week until we had ten episodes. It kept growing and growing.

Because it was so shareable and bite-sized and people could digest it so quick, it was being watched. It really catered to people’s attention spans. We hit a convenient pocket of people’s interest. It took on a life of its own.

That’s something I was going to ask you about. I think it’s really cool how you integrated the series right into the platform, instead of telling people “Hey, we made a thing. Click this YouTube link to watch it.” That must have really helped you grow your viewership.

That’s exactly right. I think that’s why it did so well. We made it specifically for Instagram. We shot it with the size of framing in mind so that it would fit on a phone screen. We knew we had a minute maximum to tell our story. We didn’t want to put it into two videos. We wanted it to be you scroll and don’t realize that you just watched the whole thing. It’s so easy, you scroll and don’t have to click another link. We were really experimenting and learned how beneficial it is if it’s right there. You don’t have to go somewhere else.

It’s wild how people won’t click another link. They will sometimes. But if it’s right there on Instagram, it’s the most digestible way to get content out there. I think that’s why it did so well.

You mentioned how the concept is this person’s imagination, giving you endless possibilities, but you were also working within a strict time limitation. Did the time limitation cause you frustration, or was it in some ways freeing for you?

It was definitely frustrating.

I think at first, it felt freeing because it meant we didn’t have to make something very long. We were like this will be super quick, and it won’t be that hard. Little did we know. Each and every week, we wanted to do something greater and greater, and then it got harder and harder to make it a minute. By the end, we had a whole entire life flashing before my character’s eyes. We shot in over five locations. We had three days of filming for something that was going to be crammed down into a minute.

It really helped us as storytellers. What is important? What is the message we are trying to get across? What do we need to tell the story? It became very challenging, but it was a great learning process to really get down to what is the story and what is necessary. It was really hard to shave things down, but when we got down to it, it was so strong because we didn’t have any frivolous stuff in there.

What was the transition like from creating those one-minute shorts to these longer episodes in season two? Were you worried at all that some of the elements of Mind Fudge wouldn’t translate over to a longer format?

No, we were actually excited that we didn’t have to limit ourselves to the one-minute format anymore. By the end, it was getting really tricky. We knew we had to let the hyperreals breathe, and it would easily take up more time. We got to explore the story more outside of the hyperreals. Who are these other characters in Justine’s life? Who is Justine outside of her hyperreal? We were excited to start exploring the best friend character and any love interests. Then, really dive into the hyperreals. We knew had a lot more ideas and content. It was quite the seamless transition to stretch it out.

One of the things I really like about Mind Fudge is how the series pays tribute to a lot of different films and filmmakers. In season two, we see references to 500 Days of Summer, Cast Away, and Kill Bill. How did Mind Fudge become this loving tribute to film?

I think it all started because Jon and I are huge films buffs ourselves. I really liked the concept of “if my life were a movie.” It’s a line that we all tell ourselves.

We wanted to pick different genres to explore. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to just doing comedy or just doing drama. We wanted to do it all. With this plane of imagination, we got to because it’s Justine’s movie moments in her mind. 

Despite all the wackiness, Mind Fudge doesn’t stray too far from its emotional core. Things get pretty real. Was it hard finding a balance between comedy and drama?

I don’t know if it was hard, but it was definitely a challenge we were happy to take on. We really wanted to tread that line. We also have another co-writer on it. Her name is Robby Hoffman. She’s talented and wonderful. She helped us weave in the storylines within the hyperreal and to stay focused on that as well. It was a joy to find those moments within the hyperreal where they would click and realize they go together. In the shorter episodes, the hyperreals serve a comedic purpose. In the longer episodes, we wanted them to be really smart and thought out and not just there for the sake of it. It was an exciting challenge to find a balance between them.

Mind Fudge really moves. It’s a very physical series. Season two features a boxing match and back in season one there’s a training montage. Do you have a background in fight choreography?

I don’t, but physical fitness is something I have always enjoyed. It’s a huge aspect of my life.

It was definitely a fast-paced set. I had very little time to learn the choreography. My co-star Katelyn McCulloch has a lot of training in movement and stunts. I was very lucky that I had her opposite me. She really helped guide me. Our stunt choreographer [Anita Nittoly] was so great. They came very prepared with the choreography to teach me. Thankfully they had time beforehand to work on it whereas I was on set with other episodes. It went really smoothly. 

The queer representation in Mind Fudge is really cool.

For us, it was just a no-brainer. We decided that the character was a queer character. It wasn’t even really a conversation. It started from the beginning when we made the heart rip episode. We just made it with another woman. What I appreciate about Jon and I was it was never a big conversation about if we should make the character gay. Is this going to be a very gay show? It’s an element of it, but it’s not her hardship. We didn’t want to focus on the struggles of being gay. We wanted to present a sometimes light-hearted show where the girl happens to be gay. All the things she struggles is everything else. We wanted to make sure we did it accurately. I like to think that we did a good job of not making it the main focus but also not doing it a disservice either.

Looking at the series as a whole, I am wondering how much of the character Justine you are. How much of your personal life is in the series?

Originally we named the character Justine because the Instagram page was under my name. There were logistics that made us keep it that way. A lot of it started off based on things we knew about me. I can’t cook. I’m scared of camping. Scary movies genuinely keep me up for days. Little things like that we took and amplified. It’s my life, but a more exaggerated version. We are not identical. There are definitely things the character does that I like to think I wouldn’t do. We draw upon aspects from my life, Jon’s life, and friends of ours. I would be lying if I said there were no commonalities between Justine in real life and Justine in Mind Fudge.

What can we expect from you next?

I think more Mind Fudge is the plan. We are looking to take it and grow it out. We want to continue making more.


Where to Watch Mind Fudge

Season One | Instagram
Season Two | CBC Gem

Interview: Sound Designer and Composer Deanna Choi

Deanna Choi takes time from her busy schedule to speak with Joyful Magpies about sound design and composition.

Choi is a sound designer, composer, and violinist based in Toronto. Theatre Calgary, Theatre Passe Muraille, the Stratford Festival, and Theatre New Brunswick are just some of the companies Choi has worked for in the past. Choi’s credits with TNB include Fortune of Wolves (2017) and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2018).

Choi holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in behavioral neuroscience from Queen’s University, as well as a theatre minor.

What is the difference between sound design and composition?

I think it’s almost a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes it feels like composition is like architecture whereas sound design is more like interior design and ergonomics where you take that concept, that framework, and all these blueprints for the sonic environment and you have to adapt it to the world of the play.

For me, composition involves — yes, it’s writing the music and the score, but it’s also taking into consideration the genre and instrumentation. If there’s lyrics in the show, how do you write music that suits the lyrics? It’s world development.

With sound design, you really have to make it specific to the play and the production. What kind of venue are you performing in? Are the actors mic’d? Where is your sound system relative to the audience? And how do you optimize all of these internal features in order to deliver the kind of experience the composer wanted?

Sound design is not something you see on stage. Do you think audiences appreciate sound design, or does it tend to be overlooked?

I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on this.

On the one hand, I had a mentor who once said if they don’t mention the sound in a review, then it’s a good thing — because it was integrated so seamlessly. But then, there are other times where the music or sound plays a very prominent role.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a big vocabulary, especially in the English language, in which to describe sound. Most of the time, if my design is ever mentioned in a review, it’s referred to as atmospheric. But what does that even mean? We use words that are visual or tactile to describe sound, like bright or soft or muted or warm. You can describe a pitch as high or low and the volume of a sound as loud or quiet. But I think because we don’t have words to describe it, it’s hard for people to remember.

Sound doesn’t show up in production photos, so you can’t really refer back to it. Sound is temporally based. You can’t get a snapshot of a sound. You have to experience it over the course of a second or ten seconds or fifteen minutes to get the full impact of it. I think that makes it hard for people to review and talk about, because you have to describe your experience and how, if the design was executed well, it changed over the course of a play.

In the case of sound design in a musical, a successful sound design is one where the story comes across very clearly. You can hear every word the actors are saying, and the balance with the band is good. If it’s done well, then you would never really think of it, because it allowed everything else in the story to come through.

In your Tedx Talk at Queen’s University, you speak about the effect of music on the brain’s chemistry during group music making. What happens when an audience listens to music during a theatre production?

It’s been a few years since I’ve been involved in research, but what I may venture to presume is that there are similar effects happening albeit differently.

I focus more on the sensory perception and memory pathways in terms of design. Let’s say I’m trying to build up tension in a scene. A common thing sound designers will do is play a low frequency sound and build that up. We have a more primal, primordial reaction association with low frequency tones. That’s a really quick shortcut into the brain’s neural circuitry that indicates oh, something scary is going to happen.

With memory, it comes to things like a type of thematic motif associated with a particular character that keeps repeating over the course of the play. They say audiences need to hear something three times before they recognize it. By the third or fourth time, they are primed by music, or by their sensory perception, and then that can become a conditioned cue.

There is overlap with the lighting world because we are used to observing phenomenon in the real world as a visual paired with an audio cue. If a book drops, you hear the sound of the book hitting the floor, but you also see the book falling off the shelf. Or if there’s an explosion, you see the flash, and you hear the sound. In theatre, if these visual and audio cues aren’t timed well together, then it pulls us out of that moment because that’s how our brains are wired. That’s how we have learned to perceive the world.

It seems that this knowledge about music and its effect on the brain is advantageous to your work. Would you say that’s true?

I guess so. Most of the time, it’s not something that I am consciously doing. Certainly, there are these principles of psychology and behavioural neuroscience that affect the way I conceptualize sound.

For me, the biggest difference between sound design in theatre, compared to other mediums like film and television, is how sound operates with regards to physics and psychology. In theatre, you have control over the space (the physics), and how the sound waves are travelling to your audience. The psychology of it: the actors can hear the sound just as well as the audience. You have to factor that into account in terms of how you create and program and structure the design.

Your work for theatre and dance tends to be collaborative, is that right?

It’s pretty much always collaborative.

How do you navigate the needs of the director and your own artistic vision?

Collaborative is sort of the main way I like to work because I don’t ever write music for myself. I find it actually quite challenging. I could never be a singer-songwriter because I can’t just sit down and think of something I want to write music about. I need a story which is why theatre, film, and dance are great because generally someone else has come up with a story first or we create a story together. The story inspires the music and the creation of it.

What is your cultural background?

I was born in Canada. My parents are immigrants from South Korea.

When we talk about diversity in theatre, we often talk about staging more playwrights of colour and playwrights from marginalized communities. New perspectives bring new stories and new ways of shaping roles. In what ways do you think your upbringing has influenced your approach to creating sound and music?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is it’s influenced me very little because all my musical training growing up was in the Western European classical tradition.

With regards to diversity in theatre, I think the biggest learning curve for me and what I’ve been trying to incorporate into my practice has been working in collaboration with Indigenous artists. So, there have been a number of times where I have been working with an Indigenous playwright, director, or group of actors as a sound designer/composer. There are moments prescribed in the play where there has to be a song. Unfortunately, I don’t have any training with Indigenous elders from any nation on Turtle Island. In cases like these, what I have done is be more of a music facilitator, so allowing individuals in the group who have songs from their background, histories, traditions and have their permission to use them. The group jams on them through a live improvisation in rehearsal to create new material. I record this on my phone, or with a microphone, and then take it home to transcribe. And then, I pick apart different sections to craft into a more structured piece of music that then becomes part of a soundscape.

There have been other times where they have hired an Indigenous composer to write the music for a show, and then I incorporate it as a sound designer.

I think this is an okay intermediate step until we are able to train and hire more Indigenous composers and sound designers in theatre. It’s sort of a middle ground that I’ve found in terms of avoiding cultural appropriation and exploitation. Can I find an expert in this style who can either teach me basic things or I can record and use their work with their permission? I follow this approach when I am asked to use music from another culture that I am not familiar with, or I don’t have any training with.

What are you currently working on? What’s coming up in terms of projects?

Right now, I’m in Niagara-on-the-Lake [Shaw Festival] composing and sound designing the next installment of their Narnia series. It’s called The Horse and His Boy [runs April 6 – July 21], adapted by Anna Chatterton and directed by Christine Brubaker. 

Next for design, I’m doing the lemonTree/Buddies in Bad Times/Why Not Theatre co-production of Lilies [May 4 – 26]. I’m also doing August: Osage County at Soulpepper [May 18 – June 23]. That’s what my design docket looks like.

This summer, I’m going to take time off and pursue some personal projects, of which I haven’t decided what they are going to be yet. Maybe I’ll delve back into the intersection of neuroscience and music and theatre. It would be nice to get back into that. It’s sorta been on the backburner.

Is there a specific topic you would like to research?

There are so many. There are a lot of labs out there exploring what our brains do while we are creative or improvising. A lot of labs looking at the health impact of music.

It’s hard to say.

A few years ago, I would have said I want to research the benefits of performance, and why is it important for us to advocate policies that encourage arts funding or arts education. Now, looking at the political climate, I don’t even know if research is going to help because no one is listening to scientists anymore! It’s a little discouraging, but I still think there’s still room for hope and to keep fighting the good fight.


To learn more about Deanna Choi, visit: http://www.deannahchoi.com/