“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

Theatre New Brunswick Turns Back the Clock to 1979

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Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick. The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. Pictured, left to right: Sarah O’Brecht (Brian Mulroney), Jeff Dingle (Joe Clark), and Kevin Curran (John Crosbie). Photo credit: Andre Reinders.

Did you know there’s an election happening right now in Canada? You might have missed it. Pretty low-key. Theatre New Brunswick has had its eyes on it for awhile now. Since April, actually. That’s when artistic director Natasha MacLellan announced TNB’s 2019/2020 season would open with Michael Healey’s political comedy 1979.

Now here we are, just a few days before voters head to the polls. It is the opening night of 1979. Election chatter can be heard in TNB’s Open Space Theatre.

In Healey’s 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark (Jeff Dingle) is minutes away from losing a crucial vote in parliament. Minister of Finance John Crosbie (Kevin Curran) is ready to do anything and everything to save his budget. Meanwhile, foreign minister Flora MacDonald (Sarah O’Brecht) is focused on the extraction of six American hostages in Iran. Clark thinks the entire operation is ridiculous. A Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film? It’ll never work! (The real-life event was adapted for the film Argo, starring Ben Affleck.)

Built into the play is projected text, which is shown here on the back wall behind Clark’s desk (Matt Carter, Sound and Projection Designer). The text introduces the political figures who swing by Clark’s office. Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau are among those visitors. It also provides useful background information about the broader context in which the play’s events are happening. So, audience members are not only filled in about the politics leading to Clark’s short-tenure as Prime Minister, but also the aftermath of his loss in the 1980 election. Yes, there’s a lot of reading, but Healey brings life to the text with wit and humour. Imagine VH1’s Pop-Up Video. It’s kinda like that. 

At its core, 1979 is about an ordinary person trying to do the right thing while everyone watches in complete disbelief, because yikes. Almost everyone wants to pull their hair out while talking with Clark about the impending vote. So many strategies on the table and yet, Clark remains firm in his convictions. He doesn’t want to do the right thing the wrong way. We can laugh at how many times Clark refuses to budge from his position, but damn if there isn’t something admirable in being such an immovable object. 

On its surface, the play depicts the demise of Clark’s minority government forty years ago, but it also raises questions about power and leadership. You know, the kind of things to chew on during an election season. The kind of things to think about while you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. 

Do you need a degree in political science to enjoy 1979? Nah. It might enhance your experience, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Do you need some patience near the end when the play dives into a drawn-out lecture about politics vs. policy? Yes. You might feel like you’re back in your second-year political science course that was required to graduate.

MacLellan’s direction sees the production lean closer to wacky comedy about an awkward politician than a comedic look at a young politician’s naiveté, which becomes his undoing. In going down that path, the production has a hard time convincing us that Clark truly stands behind his beliefs. The inevitability of Clark’s fate in office defeats the play itself — a problem inherit in the script. TNB’s production does little in the way of spicing things up with some tension between Clark and those who want him to break his own rules. The physical comedy is fun, sure, but the underlying foundation is shaky. 

There is a gravitas missing in Clark’s words. Yes, Dingle is playing someone who was considered a nobody, but does he have to be so passive here? That aside, the actor is enjoyable to watch in this episode of a political sitcom. Dingle’s eyebrow game is strong. It’s fun to watch his character’s facial expressions as he patiently hears everyone’s two cents.

O’Brecht makes a splash with her enormous stage presence. Her interpretation of Mulroney as some slick used car salesman is hilarious. O’Brecht’s performance has Laurie Elliott and Kate McKinnon written all over it. And then there’s Curran whose John Crosbie would get along just fine with Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. The actor dresses in drag to play Flora MacDonald in some scenes, with O’Brecht playing the Secretary of State for External Affairs in others.

Andrea Ritchie’s costume design brings the spirit of the 1970s alive. Dingle’s brown corduroy suit is magnificently drab. Set Designer Patricia Vinluan brings elegance, with a dash of retro goodness, to Clark’s office. Ingrid Risk’s lighting design enriches the wood paneling. 

With voting day just around the corner, Theatre New Brunswick’s production of 1979 is a fun, sometimes too breezy break from lawn signs and campaign promises.


Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick (Open Space Theatre). The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. 

For more information about the show, including tour dates: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/1979-2/

“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.

Tune In: Thomas LeBlanc & Tranna Wintour’s Chosen Family

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Thomas Leblanc & Tranna Wintour, hosts of CBC Podcasts’ Chosen Family. Photo by Jimmi Francoeur. Courtesy of CBC.

Finding a good podcast is hard. See, I feel like podcasts require a lot more investment than other digital media. I listen to podcasts while I’m doing mundane tasks. When I listen to a podcast, I am inviting the host(s) into my life. If I watch a YouTube video, I’m designating a specific block of time for the content creator. The experience of watching a YouTube video is a lot more compartmentalized than turning on a podcast while I’m cooking supper. That’s why I like podcasts that make me feel like I’m part of the conversation. A good podcast should create a sense of some communal experience.

Lately, I have been listening to Thomas LeBlanc & Tranna Wintour’s podcast Chosen Family.

Montreal comedians Thomas Leblanc & Tranna Wintour shine a light on the intersection of art, identity, and sexuality. Join CHOSEN FAMILY every second week for deep and spontaneous conversations featuring renowned artists and up-and-coming creators. CHOSEN FAMILY was named one of the best Canadian podcasts of 2018 by Apple Podcasts. (CBC)

Chosen Family started back in 2017, with its first season produced by Montreal’s Phi Centre. The second season of Chosen Family, now produced by CBC Podcasts, premiered on June 19. The podcast is currently on a break with a return date of September 18.

LeBlanc and Wintour interview a variety of guests on the podcast, several of whom are artists of different disciplines based in Montreal (Chosen Family is a bilingual podcast). Guests have included stand-up comic Margaret Cho, stylist Karla Welch, and writer Lauren Morelli. There are great conversations about issues relating to the LGBTQ community (media representation is a recurring topic on the podcast). 

What I enjoy most about Chosen Family are the frank discussions between LeBlanc and Wintour. LeBlanc and Wintour do not shy away from talking about their insecurities, their successes and failures, and their relationships with others. In some way, these earnest, incredibly raw discussions feel comforting. Their vulnerability creates a space, if temporary, that motivates self-reflection. 

And of course, it is a podcast full of laughs and good times!

I am nearly all done listening to older episodes of Chosen Family, so I am eagerly awaiting the podcast’s return next week. Join the positive energy of LeBlanc & Wintour’s Chosen Family, an excellent podcast that I cannot recommend enough.


Listen to Chosen Family: CBC / Spotify / Apple Podcasts

Follow Thomas LeBlanc on Twitter and Facebook.
Follow Tranna Wintour on Twitter and Instagram.

It’s for You! Jackie Pirico Delights in Dream Phone

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Jackie Pirico’s debut comedy album Dream Phone released on September 4th, 2019.

The first time I saw Toronto-based comedian Jackie Pirico perform was last year on CBC Comedy’s YouTube channel. The video (‘Junk Food for your cat‘) introduced me to Pirico’s wonderfully off-beat comedic energy. Later in the year, Pirico popped up in a GameTime video about Pokemon (‘There’s Too Many Pokemon!‘). Pirico’s bewildered delivery about the fact that there’s over 800 Pokemon (Only 100 animals in the real world!) makes the video an entertaining watch.

Last week, Pirico announced on Twitter the release of her debut comedy album, Dream Phone. I was travelling that Friday to Saint John, so I added Dream Phone to my Spotify playlist. I had only ever seen Pirico’s comedy in small portions, so I was interested to hear her perform for longer than 10 minutes. Friday afternoon, I was on the road, and Pirico joined me for the ride.

After I arrived in Saint John, I tweeted out how much I enjoyed Dream Phone. The sparky comedian takes her audience (the album was recorded live) for a wild ride. Below, you’ll find my original tweet about Dream Phone. Start your weekend with a laugh, listen to Dream Phone.

“Real-life cartoon Jackie Pirico delights in debut comedy album Dream Phone. Enjoy listening to Jackie talk about boys named Chris, evil koopa receptionists, and life with an errand mate (a baby). Hilarious. Unpredictable. Smart. A must-listen!”


Follow Jackie Pirico on Twitter and Instagram.

Dream Phone is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.

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.