“When I made that decision to go for it, there was no stopping me”: Interview with Singer-Songwriter Amanda Martinez

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Amanda Martinez’s latest album Libre is available now. Photo Credit: Johnny Lopera.

Amanda Martinez is a renowned singer-songwriter who has performed across Canada and on stages worldwide. She has played sold-out shows at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club, and the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara. In June, Martinez released her fourth album Libre. It is hard to believe the Toronto-born artist almost pursued another path entirely.

Born to a Mexican father and South African mother, Martinez grew up household founded upon a strong work ethic. Her father came to Toronto with virtually nothing. He and his brother rode their bicycles to Canada from Mexico. The brothers had $100 to their name. Martinez’s father always told her that there are no shortcuts in life. “It’s all about working hard.”

Acting on the advice of others, Martinez shelved her dream of pursuing a music career full-time so she could follow a “more secure path.” Martinez would go on to earn a Bachelor of Science from the University of Western Ontario and a Masters in International Business from York University’s Schulich School of Business. In time, Martinez landed a job in TD Bank’s trade finance department. Music remained a hobby.

As time went on, Martinez became increasingly worried about her future. She feared growing old and looking back on her life with regret. It manifested “in a bit of a crisis.”

“I just realized that I had been going along with what everyone had told me,” she said. “I had never really given myself the chance to pursue what I had always known in my heart, that I loved music, and I loved to perform.”

At the age of thirty, Martinez left the corporate world to pursue a singing career. It was not long until she landed her first gig at Alleycatz, a jazz club in Toronto.

“I walked into this jazz club and convinced the owner to let me audition with the house band,” Martinez said. “I was very enthusiastic. When I made that decision to go for it, there was no stopping me. He said: I like your attitude, I’ll give you every Monday night. That led to me knocking on doors at clubs around Toronto.”

In the beginning, Martinez sang a lot more in English than she did in Spanish. The singer noticed that “people really responded” when she sang in Spanish.

“They could tell that was what lit me up,” said Martinez. 

When she was not performing at Sassafraz or the Rex Hotel, Martinez was busy auditioning for television. She became the host of Ontario Lottery Tonight, allowing her to give up her temp job. She landed roles in Mutant X, This is Wonderland, and Monk. Martinez also provided the voice for a character in the critically acclaimed video game Rainbow Six: Vegas.

In 2005, the singer embarked on a new chapter in her career. JAZZ.FM91 hired Martinez to host and produce Café Latino, a weekend radio program dedicated to Latin jazz from around the world. 

“I feel like that got my name out there,” she said. “People got to know me on-air, and they would come to my gigs.”

Martinez recorded her debut album Sola during her tenure as host of Café Latino. “It was always my dream to record an album.” The album released in 2006. She left Café Latino in 2008 to focus on her music career.

“I wouldn’t have had a clue that years later I would have four albums to my name,” Martinez said. “And people would still be buying tickets to come see my shows. There was always that dream, but you never where you’ll end up.”

From knocking on doors to performing sold-out concerts, Martinez’s nearly twenty-year-long career is truly remarkable. And there is still much she wants to accomplish in her career. Martinez recently filmed an episode of Private Eyes in which she plays a Mexican actress visiting Toronto. A fan of musical theatre since high school, Martinez hopes one day she can bring her love for music and acting together. “I don’t know if it’ll be something I produce myself, but I would love to use both those sides of me.”

Touring more often is another career goal for Martinez, who performed across Ontario and Quebec this fall.

“I have been doing a little bit of touring but not a lot,” said Martinez. “There are so many places I would love to visit and bring my music to. It’s always a challenge with having young children at home and with my husband [Drew Birston] touring too. I hope to continue performing outside of Canada.”

Reflecting on her days performing at Alleycatz, Martinez says she feels lucky to still feel the same excitement to get on stage as she did back then. Yes, she may have “fewer wrinkles” in pictures from those years, but none of that matters for the 48-year-old singer. Martinez is thankful for the years of life experience that she brings to her music and shares with her audience.

“As the years have gone on, I feel so much more comfortable with myself and what I’m doing,” she said. “I remember when I first started, I was curious about people’s age. Oh, that person is x years old and still doing what they’re doing and loving it. People are still enjoying their music. That brought me comfort.”

“And I remember when I was hosting Café Latino, some of my favourite albums featured these seasoned singers from Cuba. There was this character to their voices. You could hear it in their voices — their life and their experience. That brings me back when I do feel anxious.”

What advice does Martinez have for young people? Follow your gut and try not to second-guess yourself.

“A lot of momentum that I got, especially in the beginning, was through being bold and going after little ideas or opportunities that came my way,” she said. “Even the radio program, I remember thinking who am I to host a show? But then I thought you know what, who am I not to? I can learn. If you maintain that attitude of being open, a lot of doors can open for you.”


Amanda Martinez’s latest album Libre is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify. 

Learn more about the artist:
Official Website

Follow Amanda Martinez: FacebookInstagram / Twitter / YouTube

“Stage 4 Hurricane” Dena Jackson Brings the House Down in Blue Lights

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Dena Jackson is a Toronto-based comedian and writer. She hosts The Ego Podcast. Blue Lights is Jackson’s debut comedy EP.

Dena Jackson is coming off a big year. Sure, she might be “moonwalking backwards” through life, but Jackson is fine with it. Back in the dating game after nearly a decade, the Toronto comedian wants everyone to know that she’s “chill, cool, and casual.” Well, that all depends on the time between text messages, then you might be dealing with a “stage 4 hurricane.”

In her debut comedy EP Blue Lights, Jackson invites her audience into the life of a newly divorced woman. It’s a weird and wild world, but she’s pretty weird and wild, too. When she’s not on the hunt for men with pinky rings, Jackson is busy leading the lost luggage scene online. She’s a big deal on Twitter, you know.

Blue Lights runs just under 25 minutes, which is all the time that Jackson needs to come in and tear it up. Jackson skillfully weaves in and out of the woes and small victories of life. All in a distinct rhythm and way with words that sucks you in like dirt against a “Dyson vacuum.” Jackson’s Blue Lights is positively hilarious.


Dena Jackson’s Blue Lights released on November 22, 2019. Blue Lights is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify. Released through Comedy Records.

Follow Dena Jackson: Official Website / Twitter / Instagram / The Ego Podcast

Notes From the 2019 Silver Wave Film Festival

The 19th Silver Wave Film Festival wrapped this weekend. I was lucky enough to catch the festival’s third showcase of New Brunswick short films on Saturday night. The Fredericton Playhouse was nearly at capacity for the event. Friends, family, and supporters of local film talent were in attendance.

Before the evening began, the filmmakers, varied in directorial experience and years involved in the industry, introduced themselves to the audience and gave thanks to the people who made their films possible.

When We Were Young
Director/Writer: Annick Blizzard
Producer: Annick Blizzard, Jon Blizzard
Cast: Annick Blizzard, Ryan Griffith, Elizabeth Goodyear

In this short film from Annick Blizzard, Blizzard plays Liv, a woman who returns to the town where she grew up. Her visit home surprises people from her past. Not in a good way. The hotel clerk (Elizabeth Goodyear) is reluctant to let Liv book a room. Liv hands the clerk a big wad of cash to help change her mind. Her childhood friend Jake (Ryan Griiffith) wants nothing to do with Liv. 15 years later, the accidental death of Liv’s brother by her hand still haunts Jake. There’s nothing left to say, Jake tells Liv.

Before she tries speaking to Jake again, Liv travels to her childhood home. Memories from the past rush back to her. Liv is standing in a field with a rifle in her hands. A young man runs up to her. She turns around quickly with the rifle aimed high. 

Liv finds Jake drinking alone in a bar. She tells him about a pair of keys she found in a pencil case. The keys, she says to Jake, unlock a secret container that they buried when they were kids. Liv wants Jake to dig it up with her. Jake relents and joins Liv to the location of the box.

Blizzard brings a muted intensity to the role of Liv. She is a woman with a plan. In her performance, Blizzard makes clear that Liv is not someone to be underestimated. Griffith goes all-out as Jake. He’s angry and unwilling to bury the past. Griffith’s Jake leaves nothing on the table with Liv, which might be a mistake. He is worn down by Liv’s persistence and emotional manipulation. Blizzard and Griffith make for a dynamic pairing.

Like the ending of Inception, When We Were Young leaves viewers wanting just a few seconds more to find out what happens next. Is Liv sincere in her intentions to reconnect, or is there something sinister afoot? 

Unofficial Selection
Director/Writer: Gordon Mihan
Producer: Lance Kenneth Blakney, Arianna Martinez
Cast: Jean-Michel Cliche, Catherine Belzile, Tania Breen, Sharisse LeBrun, Ryan Barton, Cassidy Ingersoll, Anthony Bryan, Jon Blizzard

After narrowly violating his probation, a con-artist named Trevor (Jean-Michel Cliche) turns away from crime and organizes a film festival. Well, not without some help from his sister Sophie (Catherine Belzile). 

A con-artist herself, Sophie brings Trevor into her low-level film festival scam (accept entry fees but reject all the films) to keep him busy. What begins as just another job turns into something more. Trevor enthusiastically accepts all the film entries. In the meantime, Sophie is planning a bank heist.

Unofficial Selection weaves in and out of the three short films that Trevor accepted to his film festival. The first short film is about a dystopian society where the government has banned recreational swimming due to a water shortage. A former swim champion (Anthony Bryan) breaks into a pool for one more swim. The second film begins with guests at a wedding reception, recording video messages for the bride and groom. Everything goes wrong when the apocalypse rolls in and wreaks havoc on the party. And finally, the third film sees a young man (Ryan Barton) interviewing for a new job. He may seem confident on the outside, but there’s a lot happening on the inside. When the interviewers ask about his biggest weakness, the man lets it all out.

Unofficial Selection celebrates the transformative power of film. Trevor is plucked from his bubble and brought into something larger than himself. In viewing these films, the con-artist finds not only purpose, but also empathy. Trevor evolves from trying to con a pizza delivery guy to placing himself into someone else’s shoes to making something real happen. 

In its story of a con-artist buying into fiction, Unofficial Selection identifies the sleight-of-hand inherent in storytelling: a story is never just a story.

54 North
Director/Writer: Mélanie Léger, Émilie Peltier
Cast: Mélanie Léger, Marcel Romain Theriault, Katherine Kilfoil, Ariel Villalon

In 54 North. Moncton filmmaker Mélanie Léger plays a homeless woman named Sam. One day, Sam finds a key on the ground. The key sparks something in Sam’s memory. She digs through her belongings to find a photograph of a young boy. Sam finds herself at the door of a familiar house in a nearby residential area. 

The residents of the house are an older couple (Marcel Romain Theriault, Katherine Kilfoil) preparing for someone’s birthday. Sam begins quietly living in their space. 

Before leaving for a birthday party, the wife tells her husband she doesn’t feel okay leaving the house, not after recent break-ins in the neighborhood. Her husband assures her that everything will be fine and that he’ll call the security company to fix their alarm system. Once the couple leaves, Sam comes out of hiding and begins searching the house for a cell phone. Coming out of the shower, she hears someone breaking into the house downstairs.

After subduing the burglar, Sam sits in the family room to make a call on the burglar’s cellphone. It is here that the film shatters everything we think we know about Sam. Sam looks on the walls of the room and sees herself in family photos.The boy from earlier in the film is her son. His grandparents are the older couple who own the house. Sam is a university graduate. When her son picks up the phone, Sam is overwhelmed by emotion. She cannot speak a word. All she can do is cry as she listens to her son’s voice again. At last, Sam reconnects with the life she once knew.

In its final moments, the film lifts Sam from a solitary outsider to an individual with history, relationships, and feelings. 54 North pushes back against the dehumanizing ideas that persist in discussions about homelessness. It reminds us that homelessness does not discriminate. Homelessness can happen to anybody, and it is not typically a choice. 

Léger delivers an inspired performance as Sam, a character with no dialogue. She brings a wonderful physical fluency to the role. I was in awe of the film’s ability to deliver social commentary with minimal dialogue. 

54 North is a powerful film. A must-see.


The 19th Silver Wave Film Festival ran November 7 – 10 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Complete list of films screened at New Brunswick Shorts III:

End of Leash
Life’s a Bitch
Unofficial Selection
Together We Move
When We Were Young
After The War
Velle to Want
54 North
Distortion

On Tour: Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet & Romeo at the Fredericton Playhouse

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a lot like a pepperoni pizza. It’s a classic. You know it when you see it. And you know what? You’ll eat it because it’s never really let you down before. In other words, it’s fine. Now, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet & Romeo is all about that pepperoni pizza. It’s just that DJD takes all the basic ingredients of Shakespeare’s play, throws them in a wood-fired oven, and serves you something that makes your taste buds explode.

Adapted by Cory Bowles, Juliet & Romeo is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers. The plot is all here but not in a traditional sense. Consider Bowles’ adaptation a remix of Romeo and Juliet. Bowles hits the major story beats but rearranges them into something almost entirely new. Kimberley Cooper’s choreography brings the text alive with movement that is exhilarating, tense, and at times contemplative. The production features live original music from Composer/Musical Director Nick Fraser, accompanied on stage by the Nick Fraser Ensemble (Fraser on drums and percussion; Rob Clutton on bass; Jeremy Gignoux on violin; Carsten Rubeling on trombone). The live jazz music is an integral part of Juliet & Romeo, and the company’s DNA. All these elements together produce a deep dive into the material that explores its themes and puts a spotlight on Juliet.

In DJD’s original production, which premiered at the 2017 High Performance Rodeo, Bowles played the Narrator. This time, company dancer Natasha Korney is the Narrator of Juliet & Romeo. Korney is infinitely charming in the role. She captures your eyes and ears with her larger than life persona and fierce delivery of the text.

Bowles weaves the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe into Juliet & Romeo. If you remember from English class, Pyramus and Thisbe appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, woefully but amusingly staged by Bottom’s theatre troupe. Korney, dressed in a big coat to play The Wall, energizes Bowles’ take on Pyramus and Thisbe with comedic flair. Shayne Johnson and Catherine Hayward play Pyramus and Thisbe, respectively. Cooper’s choreography sees Johnson and Hayward reaching through the wall, wanting so desperately to bridge the distance between them. The story ends with Pyramus and Thisbe choosing death over living apart — sound familiar?

“3000 years later…”

By including Pyramus and Thisbe, Bowles winks and nods at not only the ultimate fate of our young lovers but the timelessness of their story. Young people will always rebel against their parents and go to great lengths for love (or what they think is love). Or maybe not. Juliet & Romeo’s thesis is not so simple.

Soon after, Juliet & Romeo narrows its focus on Juliet. The dancers gather around a table and, using shoes as hand puppets, illustrate Juliet’s situation at home. Juliet is a 14-year old girl with no freedom. Her future is not her own. Juliet’s father promises Count Paris that his daughter will marry him. Moving up the social ladder is all that matters to the young Capulet’s family, not her happiness. The “shoe show” is delightfully crafted by Cooper.

Meanwhile, Romeo (at this point played by Kaleb Tekeste) is livin’ la vida loca. He’s a regular bro. Tekeste is laid back and totally cool as Romeo. He and the boys have nothing to stress about. No, really. What is the biggest problem in Romeo’s life before he meets Juliet? Unrequited love. After meeting Juliet? Putting a ring on her finger. Small beans compared to everything Juliet has on her plate.

Everything changes when Tybalt (Scott Augustine) enters the equation. Johnson really shines here as Mercutio, the clown of Romeo’s friend group. Even in the face of death, Johnson’s Mercutio has time to crack a smile. Cooper’s choreography brilliantly brings together danger and levity as Mercutio and Tybalt fight, with Romeo trying to defuse the situation. Of course, Mercutio gets stabbed, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to have the last laugh. He collapses, then tries to get to his feet, only to collapse again. Mercutio flips off Tybalt and dies. Johnson’s facial expressions and comedic timing elevate the scene.

Thanks to Costumer Designer Sarah Doucet, the dancers look super slick in this world of secrets and schemes, of jazz and violent delights. 

In the second act, the dancers run through the entire plot of Romeo and Juliet in “6 Minutes and 47 Seconds.” The whirlwind scene sees the whole company flex their comedic talents. It is reminiscent of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The scene is hilarious.

The show returns its focus to Juliet at the end. In an “Open Letter to Juliet,” the Narrator wonders what might have happened if Juliet had friends around her. What if Juliet had a support system to keep her from acting so drastically? Perhaps it was unbearable loneliness and Juliet’s estrangement from her family that pushed her. Hayward dances an eloquent solo, moving vertically and horizontally across Scott Reid’s industrial set, as Korney laments Juliet’s fate. The open letter also expresses rage, all of it directed towards misogyny and patriarchal oppression. 

DJD’s Juliet & Romeo is a must-see. The company brings together dance, theatre, and live music for an enthralling experience that reimagines and reinvigorates Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


Decidedly Jazz Danceworks presented Juliet & Romeo at the Fredericton Playhouse on October 30th. The production ran as part of the Fredericton Playhouse’s Spotlight Series.

DJD’s Canadian tour of Juliet & Romeo runs October 8 – November 20.

Juliet & Romeo will run as part of the 34th Annual High Performance Rodeo. The show will run January 16 – 26, 2020, at the DJD Dance Centre in Calgary. Tickets available here.

DJD Dancers:

Scott Augustine
Cassandra Bowerman
Sabrina Comanescu
Jared Ebell
Jason Owin F. Galeos
Catherine Hayward
Kaja Irwin
Shayne Johnson
Kaleb Tekeste

Christina Martin Talks New Album, Life on the Road, and Taking Care of Business

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Christina Martin’s latest album Wonderful Lie is available now. Photo credit: Lindsay Duncan.

“I did not want to turn 40,” Christina Martin says from her home in Port Howe, Nova Scotia. We are talking on the phone. It is a sleepy morning for Martin, home after touring Newfoundland. Martin and her husband/guitarist Dale Murray are enjoying two days of rest before hitting the road again in the morning. Their Canadian tour will take them as far as British Colombia. “I didn’t want to turn 30. I don’t like the idea of aging. I think it has to do with the industry I have chosen to be in.”

Last month, Martin released Wonderful Lie, the award-winning musician’s seventh album. As part of the Wonderful Lie Tour, the singer-songwriter will perform in Fredericton at The Muse Cafe, November 22. The venue is not far from where Martin grew up in the capital city.

“Both my parents are from Saint-Léonard,” Martin says. “I was born in Florida. We moved to Harvey Station when I was about eight months. Not long after, we moved to Fredericton. I grew up in Fredericton with my parents and two brothers until we moved to Rothesay when I was around nine. I lived on University Avenue.”

Martin remembers wandering the neighborhood and catching burdocks on her clothes in the field behind her home. Behind her home, too, was the train. 

“That train went off the tracks while we were still living there,” says Martin. “Nobody was hurt. It did damage some of the homes, though, just around the corner from my house.”

In 2002, Martin released her debut album Pretty Things while living in Austin, Texas. 

“It was a soft launch,” Martin says. “I did record an album and it was available, but I had no concept of what it was to promote an album outside of the town I was living in. As an artist in Austin, I was focused on trying to be a better musician and learning the ropes. I only started thinking about how to properly launch an album independently or with the help of partners once I moved back to Canada and became a resident of Nova Scotia.”

Martin’s attitude towards her craft changed when she began learning how to develop and grow her business as an independent artist. “Before it was all oh, I don’t need to learn that or do that. I’ll just focus on writing songs.”

In her tour journal, Martin speaks openly about managing the details of her business. “We do the best we can and it’s not always glamorous,” she writes. I ask Martin about the journal entry and the work that goes on behind-the-scenes.

“I do it because I have to,” she says. “This is my business. I have to pay the bills, and I want to grow. At this point, I can’t afford to hire somebody full-time or part-time. It really is a full-time job. It could be two peoples’ full-time jobs. I’m doing a lot of it myself. It’s hard. You are trying to find time to write and to record and to tour and to also have downtime to be healthy. All I can say is I just try to do the best I can. I make mistakes. I wish I could do more.”

The work comes with Martin on the road. While Murray drives the vehicle, Martin is answering emails, working on funding reports, and taking care of booking. 

“You are always thinking ahead because you got to plan the next tour that’s like half a year, a year, even two years ahead,” says Martin. “I always feel that pressure, you know. You have to book this now because, otherwise, these venues are going to be busy. You aren’t going to have work. That’s always a fear of mine. That I’m not going to have work, and I’m not going to be able to pay my bills. I won’t be able to continue the mission, which is to build connections with the music and the messages.”

I ask Martin about life on the road and how she stays healthy. Martin says she tries to stick to a routine that includes exercise and drinking plenty of water. “If I don’t exercise, I feel really anxious and just not centered.”

Exercise has always been a major part of Martin’s life. She was an athlete in her teen years.

“If it was sports season, I wasn’t experimenting with alcohol or drugs,” Martin says. “It was when the sports season was off that I started experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Because my brother struggled with addiction, I knew that could be something that I might struggle with. That might not be good for me. I went through a couple of years, on and off, of overdoing it with alcohol. I was conscious of it because of my older brother. I was cautious because I knew the negative effect it had on his life. I was scared that would happen to me.”

In her early twenties, Martin made the decision to stop drinking alcohol. 

“That was around when I started singing,” says Martin. “I was very busy with other jobs. I learned early on that if I wanted to be a singer and manage all these jobs and my music career, I couldn’t. I had to take care of myself physically. That included staying away from drugs and alcohol. Being in the entertainment business, it’s hard to say no and to not be the life of the party. It took until my mid-thirties that I became comfortable saying I don’t drink alcohol. Or to really say no and not feel that pressure to please people.”

Martin recently celebrated her 40th birthday.

Growing up, Martin received negative messages about aging. “The message I got was in the music business if you weren’t young or a prodigy right away, you wouldn’t make it. You would never be a star.” Today, she knows there is no single definition of success. Still, the idea of growing older is something the musician struggles with.

“I suppose it’s ingrained in me that as I get older, I will no longer be useful or wanted,” Martin says. “It’s such bullshit, but it’s still there. It’s a fear. It also keeps me going and working hard. I want to do more. I want to do more in my career and be better.”

And that is why Martin strives to live a healthy, positive lifestyle.

“I would like to be a role model as someone who is aging and kicking ass at what they do,” says Martin. “And breaking negative cycles. Those are important things to me.”

Our conversation turns to the new album and its release.

For Martin, a lot of the details involved in releasing an album are “a pain in the ass.” The details, she explains, take time away from creating more work. Where the magic lies for Martin is in the writing and dreaming of the concepts, as well as the collaborations along the way. “I get excited when I know I can get on that journey again to write and record.”

Wonderful Lie opens with Martin covering ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” I ask Martin how she decided on recording the song for the album.

“Growing up, I loved ABBA’s music,” Martin says. “I started going through the material, and I landed on this one. It’s the one that stands out to me as a really beautiful song. I picked up my acoustic guitar and tried finding the right key for my voice. It felt good. It felt right to sing it.”

Before our conversation comes to an end, I ask Martin about her Patreon page.

Patreon is a subscription service where fans can help fund artists and creators. The membership platform offers exclusive content for patrons. Martin tells me that initially, she was hesitant to start an account with Patreon. “Who am I to ask for money? People are going to think I’m begging them.” What changed Martin’s mind was when she realized that in order to sustain her career, she was going to need to ask for help.

“I felt the pressure financially that I needed to change something,” says Martin. “I love touring but, you know, sometimes it kicks you in the ass. Like if you get sick on the road. I have been scared many times where I didn’t know if I could keep touring.”

Knowing, too, that historically, artists have relied on patron support also motivated Martin to sign up with Patreon. “I think it’s really no different today.”

Among the perks Martin offers to her subscribers is a tree planted in their name. Martin plants the tree on her property in Port Howe and sends the subscriber a yearly update about their tree. She calls the initiative her Plantreeon Family.


Christina Martin will perform in Fredericton at The Muse Cafe, November 22. Tickets can be purchased here.

For more tour dates, visit Christina Martin’s official website.

Follow Christina Martin: BandcampFacebook / Twitter / Instagram

“I have an unwavering belief in what I’m doing”: Interview with Comedian Tranna Wintour

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Tranna Wintour is a Montreal-based comedian, singer, and writer. Photo credit: Jess Cohen.

“I wish October could last all year,” Tranna Wintour says from her almost vacant apartment in Montreal. Wintour and I are speaking on the phone just a few days before her big move. After nine years of living in the same apartment, Wintour is moving into a new place. “This is the month where I can wear whatever I want without wearing a giant winter jacket.”

Raised in the suburbs of Montreal, Wintour is a transgender comedian, singer, and writer. She is one half of the CBC podcast Chosen Family. On the podcast, Wintour and co-host Thomas LeBlanc discuss sexuality, pop culture, and community with guests. Guests have included comedian Margaret Cho, actor and director Amy Jo Johnson, and pop duo Tegan and Sara. 

Wintour is back home from Toronto where she recorded a live episode of Chosen Family. The live recording was part of JFL42, where Wintour also participated in a panel discussion about podcasts (“The World of Podcasting”). I ask Wintour how she feels about the recognition she has garnered from listeners and the industry.

“It’s super lovely, ” Wintour says. “But it’s just. We work so hard on the podcast. We take it so seriously. Of course, it’s always nice to have your work be recognized. It’s not an expectation. For all of us, you can’t go into things with the hope of recognition or validation. That’s just a recipe for disaster. If you buy into the good, you have to buy into the bad. At the end of the day, it’s more important to stay focused on the work.”

The work can be all-consuming. That is, she explains, the risk of doing something you love.

“You pour so much into it,” says Wintour. “I feel like I’m basically working 24 hours a day. Even when I’m not specifically working on something, it’s always on my mind — this constant, endless to-do list. It’s been six years of this to-do list.”

Wintour is not shy talking about her relationship with doubt.

Doubt plants itself in Wintour’s mind when career accomplishments fail to produce the expected results. The results, she says, are often internal. “Okay, if I reach a point where I am able to achieve this and this and this, I will feel secure and be able to relax a little bit.” Those feelings of security and stability do not always follow, and that is when doubt begins to set in.

“Fundamentally, I have an unwavering belief in what I’m doing and that it will work itself out,” Wintour says. “If I didn’t, I don’t think I would be able to continue.”

Our conversation turns back to the podcast.

Wintour tells me that the podcast’s listenership has yet to reach its target. “It’s not disappointing, but we are already doing everything that we can.” Wintour is trying not to think too much about the metrics. In her personal experience, focusing on the end result removes joy from the creative process.

“I’ve noticed that I’m happy in the moment that I’m creating,” says Wintour. “I’m super happy when we are doing a great interview. I’m super happy when I’m on stage. I have found for myself that the joy is so short-lived because as soon as those moments of creation are over, I’m back into the mindset of the results.”

Moving away from that mindset is easier said than done.

“Under capitalism, we have all been trained to focus on the end result,” Wintour says. “We tie up the value and the worth of ourselves and the work in the result which is so toxic. It is so hard to deprogram that way of thinking. That’s what I’m really working on.”

Growing up, Wintour’s mother always had music playing in their home. “My mom is a music lover, but she’s not a die hard fan of any specific artist.” As a result, Wintour had no concept of “The Artist.” That all changed when she discovered Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. It was the first time Wintour felt a connection to a single artist.

“That was transformational for me on so many levels,” says Wintour. “I was only eight or nine years old. It was the first example of what it would look like to live your life as an artist. In that connection to Alanis, I knew that one way or another, that was going to be me. That was what I had to do.”

Next year, Wintour will release her debut album Safe From Your Affection. The album, produced in partnership with Mark Andrew Hamilton, will be available on vinyl and digital platforms. Recording an album was something Wintour dreamed about for years.

“Somewhere along the way, I gave up on that dream.” Wintour says. “It was a dream that was always there, but then it became a dream that I thought a lot less about. I can’t believe it actually happened.”

It is a Thursday morning. October has just begun. Change is on its way, and Tranna Wintour is in its path, standing tall.


Tranna Wintour:  Official WebsiteFacebook / Twitter / Instagram / Bandcamp /

Chosen Family: CBC Podcasts / Spotify

“I didn’t want to be less than perfect”: Interview with Actress and Former Ballet Dancer Sarah Murphy-Dyson

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Originally from Victoria, B.C., Sarah Murphy-Dyson is a Toronto-based actress whose credits include Suits (NBC), Workin’ Moms (CBC), and 12 Monkeys (SyFy). Photo credit: Tara Noelle.

In 2006, Sarah Murphy-Dyson retired from ballet to pursue acting. Four years later, the former First Soloist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered her one-woman show The Naked Ballerina at the Toronto Fringe Festival. The Naked Ballerina told a story Murphy-Dyson had kept secret for years.

“Ballet was such a perfect metaphor for my life,” Murphy-Dyson said. “Everything is about looking perfect and getting it as close to perfect as you can on stage. And that carried over to my life. I didn’t want to be less than perfect for anybody. I was struggling with stage fright and body issues. For me, they were such big secrets and there was shame around that. I would have rather died than people find out about it.”

In writing The Naked Ballerina, Murphy-Dyson touched on subjects she had “ignored or suppressed.”

“It felt really good to get those out,” she said.

Since the play’s original run, Murphy-Dyson has spoken more openly about her struggles. She says reaching this point took a long time. “And I think that’s why it’s so important.”

“It was kinda layer by layer that I was able to do it,” Murphy-Dyson said. “I did the show, and it was terrifying but very cathartic. When I redid the show a few years later, I did a Q & A ⁠where some young girls told me how much it had helped them.”

Hearing the impact of her story, Murphy-Dyson realized her potential to be a role model. “I realized more and more that everybody is working through their own stuff. The more we hide it from each other, the more we perpetuate the idea that these things are bad or shameful.”

“I realized in hindsight how heavily all that weighed on me,” she said. “I was always so anxious. Always, always, always. I’m not anymore. Every time I think about it or talk about it, it’s such a relief.”

Growing older has also helped Murphy-Dyson in her journey.

“The older I get, the less I care about what other people think,” Murphy-Dyson said. “Which doesn’t sound very nice but we are conditioned In the dance world — maybe more so with women — to make everything okay.  We are told to be nice and quiet, and to make sure people like you.”

“You can take me as I am or not. If you don’t, that’s okay. It may hurt my feelings but I get it. I accept it at least. It’s been very freeing that way.”

Today, the 45-year old actress sees her younger self in a different light.

“It really does feel like that was a past life for me,” Murphy-Dyson said. “It’s interesting because I used to look at it with shame. I didn’t like talking or thinking about it. And now, it’s like I have empathy for my younger self. I can really feel sad for that part of me. For me in that time of my life where I was so lost and didn’t even realize it. Before I would have been upset with myself, but now I can empathize with that person like I would for anyone else. We are our own harshest critics.”

Murphy-Dyson says her departure from ballet came as no surprise for anyone who worked with her. 

“[My coworkers] were definitely supportive,” she said. “I think they got it. I had been going to school while dancing at that point. I had done some independent films. They knew I was getting into the acting. I always loved character roles the best in the dance world.”

Appearing in 2005’s Capote with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman motivated the actress to finally pursue acting full-time.

“What had happened was two of our ballets were made into films,” Murphy-Dyson said. “We got to know the crew really well. We would be laid off — it was contractual — for one to three months a year. Some of us started doing stand-in work and feature background work. It was in doing that, that I ended up doing Capote with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman.”

“I got chosen to do a scene with him. It was literally that moment when I was like, this is what I want to do.”

The next day, Murphy-Dyson told her director it would be her last season with the company.

For the actress, a “huge” part of the transition from ballet to acting was learning to tap into her real self and be honest with not just herself, but other people. Rae Ellen Bodie and David Rotenberg, instructors at Toronto’s Professional Actors Lab, Murphy-Dyson were pivotal to the process.

“When I was dancing and I would get really nervous, especially at first, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Murphy-Dyson said. “I just thought, it’s my problem. I would push it down and try to ignore it. It would come out sideways at some point. Most people wouldn’t know watching me on stage. Whereas an actor, I can’t. Before, I would deny any negative feelings — nerves, sadness, or anger. [My training] forced me to touch them and acknowledge them. That’s where I have to act from.”

“Sometimes I feel sad that I wasn’t able to get to that place while I was still in the ballet because I think that would have been an amazing place to dance from, the freedom of that.”

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Sarah Murphy-Dyson in End of the Rope, a short film by Sibel Guvenc.

Although she retired from ballet 14 years ago, Murphy-Dyson has not totally stopped dancing, especially not for the camera. The CBC web series Off-Kilter, released last year, saw Murphy-Dyson play the role of Anna, a veteran ballerina nearing the end of her career. The actress recently starred in End of the Rope, a sci-fi short film by Turkish-Canadian director Sibel Guvenc. In it, Murphy-Dyson plays a famous dancer whose career is ended by a car accident.

When she is not busy appearing on stage or in film and television, Murphy-Dyson writes screenplays. The actress says she has many ideas, and plenty of screenplays “sitting idle,” but high on her priority list is an adaptation of The Naked Ballerina.

“I want to direct and produce my own stuff with a core group,” Murphy-Dyson said. “ I have had great feedback on an adaptation of The Naked Ballerina, it’s just a matter of money. It’s definitely high on the list, but I would do something smaller first to help get a directing or producing calling card.”

Murphy-Dyson has a new teacher in her life.

“I have an eight-year old daughter,” she said. “Being honest with yourself and really stepping into who you are and not worrying about what people think. She’s more like my teacher in that. She’s definitely well on her with that.”


Follow Sarah Murphy-Dyson on Twitter and Instagram.

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/

‘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.

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/