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.”

67489744_1264662110370012_7543123505731076096_o

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

67970843_2644306968912806_2911153602305196032_n.jpg

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

 

FruitMachine

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/

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 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.