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/

Old Burial Ground is Subject of New Site-Specific Work

For the last six months, local playwright Greg Everett has been busy researching and writing about the Old Burial Ground in Fredericton. The site, located downtown between Brunswick and George, is the subject of Everett’s site-specific work Written in Marble, Buried in Earth: The Spirit of a Place. The play “explores the history of the Old Burial Ground itself, the personal histories of the people at rest there, and the relationship that people have with the space today.”

On Friday, May 31st, Everett will present a public reading of his new play at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. Photographs of the site and commentary from the playwright will accompany the reading. The free event will start at 7 p.m. in the auditorium.

I spoke with Everett, whose project was made possible through a Creation grant from artsnb, to learn more about the site-specific work.

How did your project benefit from the grant?

The grant has, in a broad sense, provided me with the time and headspace I’ve need to tackle this project. It’s my first full-length script, which is a challenge in itself, and it’s the most research heavy, community relevant piece that I’ve ever undertaken. Before artsnb awarded me the grant, I was working three different casual jobs in order to be able to earn a living while still having enough control over my schedule to pursue my career as an artist. The money has gone toward my subsistence and bills for the six months of the project duration, and I’ve been able to rent a small space at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre in which to write; those two things have made a world of difference in my ability not only to focus on my research and my craft, but also to work on my professional development as an artist. Part of the mandate of artsnb’s Creation grants is to help artists reach the next stage in their career and I can unequivocally say I am achieving that through this project.

What did your research for this project look like? What kind of sources were you looking at to learn more about the Old Burial Ground?

When I made the proposal, I set a timeline with two months of research and four months of writing. But almost as soon as I started working on it, that idea of two distinct phases went out the window. The play itself is an anti-chronology wherein histories, eras, stories, voices, all overlap; its an effort to reflect the idea that all of the tangibles and intangibles and ephemera representing a place pile up in a very real way. The whole project quickly began to reflect this idea as well, and so instead of approaching the research as piecing together the straight-line story of the Old Burial Ground from 1787 to 2019, in essence I started to root around in the pile and collect a few things in order to convey an authentic sense of place. So while I was reading the ubiquitous Loyalist histories that mention the Old Burial Ground, and historian Lousie Hill’s catalogue of the plots and stones, and newspaper archives, and genealogies, I was also just plain talking to people about their feelings, their memories, anything they had to say about the site. And that created a feedback loop where I was researching and writing in an ongoing cycle. For instance, one thing that came up with a lot of the people I’ve spoken with is the idea that there are no bodies in the Old Burial Ground, and that the stones were moved from somewhere else. Naturally that lead me to try and find out anything I could about that story (spoiler alert: it’s just a rumour), which opened up another avenue of traditional research that I wouldn’t have otherwise explored and subsequently written about.

What is about the Old Burial Ground that captured your interest?

The Old Burial Ground is almost like its own monument; a crumbling, grim presence that denotes the remains of a dead thing. I’m definitely drawn to that aesthetic. But what really fascinates me is the way that the burial ground has obstinately squatted in the heart of the city for two hundred and thirty years while Fredericton has grown up around it. On top of that, it’s very much alive in the ways that people come into contact with it at present: there are always people cutting through to get downtown, there are often people checking out the graves, some just hanging around, kids there to sneak cigarettes, drunken escapades after the bars, etc. etc. etc. It’s an anachronism, in a couple of different ways, and the more I thought about that, the more I wanted to explore it. And in a very self-indulgent way, I knew that no matter what shape the project took, I would be able to write about ghosts. I would say one of the defining qualities of all of my work is an earnest attempt to create a world where ghosts and monsters and revenants are all direct embodiments of buried stories and experiences that have unburied themselves to trouble the present. The Old Burial Ground allows me to manifest all of that in my site-specific efforts.

Can you tell me about the decision to create a site-specific work? Why do you think it’s necessary to bring an audience to the site?

I’ve been interested in site-specific theatre since the final year of my undergrad (around 2013), but it’s only in the past year or so that it’s become a big part of my artistic sphere. I feel that, for me, at this point in space and time, it’s the answer to an ever-present question: how do I make meaningful art? The notion of place and landscape, and their visceral connection to identity and self, have long been central themes of my work, but always at a great distance; generally I bring a simulacrum of rural New Brunswick to the stage. And I’m still doing that, but as a next step in my career, I’ve been looking toward more ambitious projects.

With site-specific theatre, I’m not working in imitations or simulacrums, and I’m not trying to manufacture a feeling or a reaction. I’m allowing those things to develop organically from the audience’s interaction with the site. I’ll here quote from the book CROSSFIRING/MAMA WETOTAN, which originally inspired my interest in site-specific art and which has helped to form the theoretical framework for my play: “the site-specific form invites spectators to encounter the site with a heightened awareness and to develop connections among themselves in relation to the space used, to the inherent notion of temporality, and, of course, to the artworks presented.” Part of what the makes the Old Burial Ground so compelling as a site is that so many people already have some sort of connection to it, even just as a cut-through between Brunswick and George, and that’s an integral part of the play as well: the relationships that people have with it today.

One of the central tensions regarding the site, and thus in the play, is the question of public access, and so a site-specific performance goes beyond addressing that tension through themes to confronting it directly. Again I’ll quote someone who can say it better than I can, in this case Nick Pearson in his book Site Specific Performance: “Site specific performance describes a way of being in place and has the capacity to reshape locales that are considered fixed and immutable.” Ideally, this script, and eventually the performance of the play, will help people approach the Old Burial Ground in a state of mindfulness about all that it has been, and all that it is, and ultimately begin to write the story of what the site will be going forward.


Friday, May 31st: Join playwright Greg Everett for a public reading of Written in Marble, Buried in Earth: The Spirit of a Place. The free event starts at 7 p.m. and will be held at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. 

“Something Weird is Going to Happen”: Corenski Nowlan Talks About New Play #Swipers

This May, Theatre St. Thomas brings the world premiere of Corenski Nowlan’s #Swipers to the Black Box Theatre. Nowlan’s latest play is described as a “light-hearted romantic comedy for the Tinder generation.” To some degree, Nowlan says, that’s true. What Nowlan wants everyone to know is the whole thing is a big catfish. 

In other words, expect the unexpected.

“For ethical and legal reasons, we can’t have anyone going in blind,” Nowlan said. “They have to be aware that something weird is going to happen.”

That’s why the Facebook event for #Swipers has a lengthy content warning:

Content Warning: Expect the unexpected. This is unconventional, immersive theatre. All potential audience members must understand that the play is not what it seems. Through the use of lights, sound, projections, and masks, we are crafting a unique atmosphere that could unsettle some people.

Recommended ages 16-and-up. Moderate use of strong profanity. Safely choreographed fight scenes. Use of flashing lights. If you suffer from PTSD, an anxiety disorder, or a heart condition, please attend at your own discretion.

What’s the full story? It’s a secret, at least until opening night, but Nowlan believes the production will deliver an experience unlike any other.

“In terms of a live event. I guarantee no one is never going to have an experience like this again,” Nowlan said. “I think a lot of people are going to walk out bewildered at what they just participated in.”

For a long time, Nowlan believed #Swipers would always remain an idea, an impossible production that no one would ever put on stage. That all changed when Nowlan met Dr. Robin Whittaker, TST’s artistic producer, and pitched him his idea for #Swipers.

“This guy, he’s going to think I’m crazy,” Nowlan said. “He didn’t. He loved it!”

Nowlan and Whittaker started meeting regularly in late 2017. The two spoke for “hours and hours” about how they could “safely and ethically” manage the veil of secrecy around #Swipers. A year and a half later, Nowlan and Whittaker were ready to hold auditions.

“We told everyone at auditions, right from the beginning, we are doing something very unconventional,” Nowlan said. “This is going to be very experimental, immersive theatre. You may not like it. It may trigger you in different ways. So, we told them that anyone was free to drop out if they wanted to. We were prepared to have a second round of auditions after we did the casting. But miraculously, every single person that we offered a part to took it. They have been super enthusiastic about it.”

For Nowlan, #Swipers is an opportunity to shake people out of apathy and bring new faces to the theatre.

“I always think of theatre as, you know, it really lost out to film and TV this past half a century,” Nowlan said. “Theatre used to be the main cultural vehicle for storytelling, Everyone would go see plays. Now, theatre communities have really shrunk. What I hear from people who don’t go see theatre is oh, it’s boring.”

“It’s about that. What can you do to truly engage an audience in 2019? In 2019, people are not easily shocked by anything. As a culture, we have become so desensitized to gore, violence, and scenes of a sexual nature. What can you do to make a play interesting?”

The playwright says #Swipers has a lot to do with fear, politics, and the impact of technology in our personal lives.

“It is definitely a play that is a product of 2019,” Nowlan said.


#Swipers, written and directed by Corenski Nowlan, runs May 2 – 4 at the Black Box Theatre. 7:30pm nightly. $10 General / $5 Students + Seniors

Meet Laura-Beth Bird, Founder and Producer of Grey Rabbit Theatre Co.

In 2018, Laura-Beth Bird left her job at a local restaurant to pursue her dream of starting a theatre company. The 24-year-old theatre artist had a plan and the savings to start her first show. Then, reality hit.

“I ended up having to use that money to live for two months, which kinda threw a wrench in the whole system,” Bird said. “So, I had to go back to the drawing board.”

Born in Shropshire, England, Bird’s family moved to Canada when she was 10 years old. Her family settled first in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, then later Saint John, New Brunswick. Bird relocated to Fredericton to study at St. Thomas University, where she graduated from in 2017.

When her plans went awry, Bird began to wonder if her theatre company would become something that only happened on weekends.

“I was miserable in the job I was in. Anyone who saw me knew it,” Bird said. “I was panicking thinking that I would have to go back to that. I was going to be forty…doing my art on the weekends because that’s maybe when I could get the days off. I didn’t want that life.”

The “kick in the butt” motivated Bird to apply for Planet Hatch’s ARTtrepenur-in-Residence program. Bird was accepted into the program and started her three-month residency in June. The residency ended with an evening of new play readings. It was the first public event hosted by Fredericton’s newest theatre company, Grey Rabbit Theatre Co.

“Planet Hatch helped me network with larger business communities in the region,” Bird said. “That in turn helped me with strategic funding and planning for five, ten years down the road.”

In the fall, Bird participated in ArtsLink NB’s CATAPULT Arts Accelerator.

Bird has also received support from Fredericton’s theatre community.

“Everyone has been helpful about knowledge and experience,” Bird said. “If they know people, they will put me in contact with them. If we continue to create that sort of practice, it makes people more successful in the region.”

Bird realizes trying to launch a theatre career in Atlantic Canada is somewhat unorthodox.

“Many of the people my age are leaving to Toronto or New York because they feel like they have no opportunities left in Atlantic Canada to be artists,” Bird said. “In the last year, I have been researching ways to make this work. I don’t want to move right now to a big city where I will be a small fish in a big pond. I would rather be a medium fish in a medium pond.”

“That means I take scripts being created here — by emerging and professional artists — and help them reach either stages by myself producing them or matching them with other producers in the area.  If it doesn’t work for mine, it may work for Eastern Front or Neptune Theatre.”

Does Bird agree that Grey Rabbit could be considered both an incubator and a presenter?

“Kind of, yeah,” Bird said. “At this moment, I feel like as I’m learning these things, I am also sharing it with my artistic community, because I want my artistic community to thrive as well.”

In December, Grey Rabbit, in partnership with Theatre St. Thomas, held a workshop for artists seeking to professionalize their artistic practice.

Have all the developments of the past year changed how Bird views herself as an artist?

“I don’t really notice a difference. My friend does. She told me I look healthier and happier, which is hilarious for me. I’m not doing anything different,” Bird said. “I think I am more confident and much more ambitious than I was. I am not willing to let things go. I have to chase after it. If I don’t chase after it, it’s not going to happen. I am more tenacious and cognizant of the way the world views me, because what I’m creating is an extension of myself.”

Bird’s idea of what it means to live as an artist has changed since starting on this path with Grey Rabbit. 

“I’m going to go work on my art which is my business,” Bird said. “ If I have a consistent income, I have more freedom to practice my art. Having a stable business gives me freedom to create. I don’t have to worry about if my power is going to be shut off.”

So far, Bird sees her time being divided 60/40 between the business operations of Grey Rabbit and its artistic end. “I spend a lot more time filling out grant applications and writing than I do creating. It’s just the season that I’m in.”

This year, Grey Rabbit is launching The Vardi Puppet House. The children’s puppet theatre will tour Atlantic Canada in the summer.

A Vardi is a gypsy caravan that is pulled by horses. They were things I came across as a child, and I’ve always loved them,” Bird said. “The puppet house is designed to look like a gypsy caravan. It will be bright red, with wagon wheels. There will be windows that open on the side for the performance. It will have that classic painting technique used on most caravans, and I will use Punch and Judy stylized puppets.”

Bird describes the puppet house as a platform that “lends itself well to public events” and is ideal for helping grow a viewership base. 

Grey Rabbit is currently accepting new scripts for The Vardi Puppet House. The submission deadline is February 28th, 2019.  

 

Step Through the Wardrobe with Theatre New Brunswick

Published in 1950, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is an enduring tale of family and forgiveness. The book was adapted for the screen in 2005, with Liam Neeson as Aslan and Tilda Swinton as Jadis the White Witch. This holiday season, Theatre New Brunswick brings the story to life in a production that’s fun for the whole family, save for some intense moments.

Dramatized by Joseph Robinette, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tells the story of four siblings who discover the magical world of Narnia after walking through a wardrobe. The first to find Narnia, Lucy (Sasha Mais) meets a fawn named Tumnus (Andy Massingham) who has been ordered by the Witch (Raven Dauda) to kidnap human children. Tumnus refuses to take Lucy to the Witch and helps her escape Narnia. Because he allowed Lucy to go free, Tumnus is taken away by the captain of the Witch’s secret police Fenris Ulf (Qasim Khan).

Lucy returns to Narnia with her brother Edmund (Ben Rutter). Edmund stays put while Lucy goes out to find Tumnus. Edmund meets the Witch who promises him royalty and rooms full of turkish delight if he brings the other three to her castle. The Witch’s plan: To keep the prophecy that promises an end to her reign over Narnia from coming true.

Older siblings Peter (Carter Scott) and Susan (Elena Hrkalovic) join the others in Narnia. With help from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Derek Kwan, Allison Basha), the four children embark on an epic journey to help Aslan (Jeremiah Sparks) return peace to Narnia.

Patrick Clark’s set is really neat. The back wall features a large oval frame and within that frame, there are mountain peaks layered behind each other. In the centre of the frame stands a big, tall castle. It kinda has the look of a pop-up book. Outside of the frame, there are trees that resemble a paper craft, a lamppost, and multi-purpose blocks (stone table, Beavers’ dinner table).

Leigh Ann Vardy lights the inside of the frame with frigid blues, and warmer colours when the Witch’s control over Narnia starts to diminish. The lighting work gives Clark’s set a little bit of a Magic Garden vibe. Vardy’s eerie lighting for the scene where Edmund finds the Witch’s enemies, now turned to stone, is stunning.

Sound Designer/Composer Deanna H. Choi makes the production feel like a sweeping epic, despite being staged in quite a minimalist way. Choi’s sound design opens up the world of Narnia with strings and drums.

Robinette’s stage adaptation keeps some of the more harsh elements of Lewis’ story (Aslan tells Peter to wipe Fenris Ulf’s blood off his sword). These parts of the play clash with Lynda Hill’s brisk and upbeat direction, and the colorful pop of the production.

But Father Christmas makes an appearance, so it’s not all grim!

Speaking of not grim, Dauda is comically evil as the Witch. Sure, she has her dark moments, like plunging a knife into Aslan (it’s shadow theatre, don’t worry), but Dauda’s Witch is like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The actress is delightfully physical in the role, giving little kicks when things aren’t going the Witch’s way. There is a levity that Hill allows the production to explore and Dauda runs with it.

Kwan and Basha are a great pairing as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Clark has dressed the Beavers with big tails, which are attached to overalls. No comically-sized teeth, thank goodness. For the bottom layer, the Beavers wear long-sleeve flannel shirts. If it weren’t for the tails, one might think the couple worked deep in the woods.

Back to Kwan and Basha.

Kwan and Basha are superbly pleasant as the Beavers. Basha’s Mrs. Beaver is a sweetheart, while Kwan’s Mr. Beaver has a little bit of a gruff edge but you know he’s a softie at heart. The actors are a lot of fun to watch.

Who’s afraid of Fenris Ulf? Not me, because Khan’s howls sound more like an angry house cat than a big bad wolf. Which is hilarious. It works well with the ‘cartoonish supervillainy’ of this production.

Massingham is jovial as Tumnus, brutish as the Dwarf, and jolly as Father Christmas.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe asks us to reflect on what family really means. Family means to love each other despite our faults and to forgive when we are wronged. It’s a strong message for this time of year when families are coming together, sometimes from far away, for the holiday season. 

It’s also a hopeful story about good always winning over tyranny, no matter the odds.

The big brother/little brother dynamic is well-performed by Scott and Rutter. I say this as someone with two older brothers. Mais’ Lucy is daring and kind — a small, yet mighty force. Hrkalovic’s Susan is a joy. The four actors make clear the play’s message about family with strong performances and a confidence that pulls the production forward.

And what’s Narnia withouts Aslan? Sparks is fiercely majestic as the good lion. He is a big presence with a big voice that fills the theatre.

TNB’s production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is fun, exciting, and heartwarming. Step through the wardrobe, a good time awaits you.


Theatre New Brunswick’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe ran Dec 13 – 15 at the Fredericton Playhouse. The production is now on tour with performances this week in Moncton. 

For more information, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/lion-witch-wardrobe/

Float Comfortably with Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River

Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is like that chocolate chip muffin that turns out to actually be raisin. It’s still a muffin, so yay, but raisin? Well, okay.

Part of Theatre New Brunswick’s 50th anniversary season, Come Down From Up River is a world premiere production from The Foster Festival. The production, running at the Fredericton Playhouse, is directed by Patricia Vanstone.

Come Down From Up River stages a family reunion between Bonnie Doyle (Amanda Parsons) and her uncle Shaver Bennett (Peter Krantz). The two haven’t seen each other in 23 years, and Bonnie has been perfectly okay with that. Bonnie’s wife Liv (Kirsten Alter), on the other hand, thinks it’s sad that Bonnie wants no kind of relationship with her uncle. After all, doesn’t family stick together, no matter what? Well, Bonnie doesn’t think so, even though Shaver is all the family she has left.

Why is Bonnie so cold towards Shaver? She won’t tell. All Bonnie will say about Shaver, a logger from up around the Miramichi River, is that he’s a lout who will strongly disagree with Bonnie and Liv’s interracial, same-sex marriage.

And that’s all we know about Shaver until he steps foot inside their home.

Surprise, Shaver is actually an okay guy.

In fact, Shaver is super likeable. Maybe too much, though. Every time he cracks a joke, you wonder what messed up thing Shaver did for Bonnie to hate him. Was he part of a hate group? Did he kill his sister in that drunk driving accident? You can’t help but feel a kind of dread for the big reveal that Shaver is a monster.

Well, turns out Shaver didn’t accept guardianship of Bonnie after her mother’s death.

That’s bad, obviously, but not exactly everything Bonnie made him out to be.

Yes, Foster’s misdirection makes a point about stereotypes, but the way Foster just so weakly tackles racism and homophobia is disappointing.

The hate doesn’t come from inside the house, but the law firm where Bonnie works. She isn’t made partner because the firm’s biggest client has a ‘moral conflict’ about her and Liv’s relationship. Seriously fucked up, right? This news prompts an emotional speech from Liz about facing racism and homophobia everyday. Instead of walking around it, Liv says, she walks through it.

Walk through it? The play glides through it. Bonnie and her colleague decide to resign and start their own firm. That’s it. Bonnie doesn’t even drop her resignation letter into the hands of her employers. Instead, she tells Liv, it was their personal assistants who felt her wrath.

Cool?

Well, at least the playwright got to tell us how bad hate is.

If you want a fun two hours of characters trading quips, look no further than Come Down From Up River. It’s a funny play that happens to be set in Saint John, New Brunswick. Picture a combination of Ron Swanson and Uncle Buck, that’s Krantz as Shaver. He’s hilarious. And Alter, she’s fabulous in the role of Liv, a person who needs to know details even if it annoys the other person. It’s like a game of squash when Krantz and Alter share a scene together. It’s hit after hit after hit, with the walls vibrating with laughter. Parsons does a fine job of playing Bonnie, the tough one. Of course, she isn’t always tough. Bring a tissue.

Stage right, there’s a table and some bar stools, with a Moosehead sign just behind on the wall. Stage left, a hospital waiting room. And right in the center, it’s Bonnie and Liv’s living room with a couch and table where family photos are on proud display. It’s a simple set from Set and Costume Designer Peter Hartwell.

There’s a lot of sitting and talking, though it doesn’t feel like a lot. Vanstone breaks it up with some movement, just enough so the banter keeps from going stagnant. She keeps the play grounded in effective simplicity, wonderful for those emotional highs that come late in the play.

If you don’t think about it too much, Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is a comfortable comedy.


Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River runs Nov 8 – 10 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/come-down-from-up-river/

Any Given Moment is Marvelously Reassuring

Ever feel the totality of existence weighing down on you? Emma (Claudia Gutierrez-Perez) feels that way. The 21-year-old barista has big questions but no answers. And lately, it’s become too much for her.

Enjoying its world premiere at Theatre New Brunswick (a co-production with Ship’s Company Theatre), Kim Parkhill’s Any Given Moment is marvelously reassuring — like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night.

No, Parkhill doesn’t solve life’s greatest mysteries nor does she pretend to be ahead of everyone else. Any Given Moment is about finding clarity through the support of other people.

Directed by Natasha MacLellan, Any Given Moment stages three strangers trapped inside a church after police initiate a lockdown. The lockdown is put in place after Emma, armed with a plastic gun, calls 911 on herself. To escape the rain, Emma runs inside the church where she finds Lisa (Alexis Milligan), busy preparing a benefit concert, and Bill (Wally MacKinnon), an older man experiencing homelessness.

Despite being strangers, Emma and Lisa think they have each other all figured out. How? Well, Lisa’s affluent lifestyle is all the proof Emma needs to know that she has the perfect life. Kids, husband, and a “McMansion” — what does Lisa have to worry about? And Emma’s diary is all Lisa needs to know that she is a troubled left-wing teenager ready to commit a mass shooting. If Lisa actually listened to Emma, instead of relying on what the news tells her, then maybe she would see things differently. 

It’s easy to think the world and other people are shit when the news (credible or not) is everywhere, all time. It’s hardly surprising that Lisa discovers all sorts of rumours about the lockdown when she logs onto the internet. Any Given Moment reminds us that we live in a time where people can know everything and nothing —  the double-edged sword of Web 2.0.

No matter how much the world changes, however, people can make a difference. Big or small, it all matters. And it starts with listening — a simple, yet powerful act of kindness. It’s only when Lisa learns to truly listen, with help from Bill, that she can not only see the hurt and confusion in front of her, but also make a real impact on someone’s life.

Keeping true to the play’s lesson of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, costume designer Cathleen McCormack has the actors dressed in extremes. Gutierrez-Perez is dressed kind of like Wednesday Addams if she were the lead singer of a 2000s Emo band — torn denim skirt, black leggings, and black boots with black and white socks. Milligan has a neater, more approachable look — a white t-shirt with brightly coloured yoga pants. And MacKinnon is dressed with a dirty face, plaid jacket, and old jeans and sneakers. McCormack leaves no room for ambiguity, these costumes invite preconceived notions. 

Inside TNB’s Open Space Theatre, Katharine Jenkins-Ryan’s set features what look like stained glass windows, an elevated staging area and two benches downstage (one on each side). The way Ingrid Risk lights the back of those windows is beautiful, especially when MacKinnon sits alone with the Virgin Mary.

And those delicate piano notes from sound designer Aaron Collier…!

Gutierrez-Perez brings an energy that feels like a mix between Daria and the Warped Tour. She is fiercely compelling as Emma, an angry young woman who feels powerless against, well, everything. Milligan channels every awful Minions meme that has ever been posted unironically on Facebook. She is brilliantly infuriating as Lisa. Versatile, too. Milligan manages to take us from rooting against Lisa all the way to making us feel bad for her. It’s a solid performance.

MacKinnon is hilarious as Bill. He has a warm presence that makes us wish others could see Bill’s golden heart.

Any Given Moment reassures us that we do matter, no matter how big the world might feel at times. A must-see.


Theatre New Brunswick’s production of Any Given Moment by Kim Parkhill ran September 12 – 16 at TNB’s Open Space Theatre. A co-production with Ship’s Company Theatre.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/any-given-moment/