It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Sings a Sweet Tune

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It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Theatre New Brunswick. Pictured, left to right: Beau Dixon, Kirsten Alter, Wally MacKinnon, and Ryan Hinds. In the background: Emily Shute, Sound Designer. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

I have never watched the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart. We rarely watched these “holiday classics” in our home. My family gathered around for The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Muppet Family Christmas, and that Christmas episode of Hey Arnold! Any personal knowledge of the film comes from pop culture references and parodies.

Enter Theatre New Brunswick and its holiday production It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry (from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling). Running at the Fredericton Playhouse.

A live radio play? That’s right. It’s like a podcast for your eyes and ears!

It’s Christmas Eve, 1946. Five actors are preparing for a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. A pianist (Emily Shute, sound designer) accompanies the actors. To the side, there is a table full of assorted objects. The radio drama will come alive through the magic of foley. Freddie Filmore (Wally MacKinnon) welcomes the studio audience and invites them to give their honest reactions to heighten the experience for listeners at home. The performance begins after he introduces the ensemble.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man trying to lift his neighbors out of poverty so that their families may prosper in the small town of Bedford Falls. That man is named George Bailey (Beau Dixon). Now, George’s efforts have not come without sacrifice. George has had to give up many dreams to continue his family’s work. He never went away to college, nor did he ever get to explore the world. George has stayed in Bedford Falls all his life.

George’s love for his community keeps him in Bedford Falls, but there is also something else that prevents him from leaving. Mr. Potter (MacKinnon) is a mean-spirited tycoon bent on controlling Bedford Falls. He owns nearly all the businesses in town save for George’s Building & Loan. Mr. Potter would have shut down the Bailey business long ago if it were not for George. Without George, there would be no Bedford Falls.

On Christmas Eve, an apprentice angel named Clarence (Rudy Hinds) visits George after a mix-up at the bank pushes him to the edge.

Unlike A Christmas Carol, there is no divine intervention that breaks through the heart of Bedford Fall’s old miser. The miser goes unbothered. Both stories are similar in that they demonstrate the impact that one person can have on the lives of many others. Of course, Scrooge only learns this lesson after spirits torment him. In It’s a Wonderful Life, divine intervention delivers George to the arms of his community. The last mile — it’s a community of ordinary people coming together to help one of their own. When George can fight no more, his friends and neighbors come to his aid so he can continue the mission. 

In A Christmas Carol, the poor struggle without the rich. Here, the poor are trying to survive against the rich. Scrooge shuts out the world around him, whereas Mr. Potter has his hands in every corner of Bedford Falls. In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter achieves his ultimate goal: total erasure of the small town. The marginalized are further cast aside. George’s efforts help preserve the identity, history, and future of his community. Dixon — one of three black actors in the ensemble — in the role of George Bailey elevates the theme of erasure that runs through It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s hard to ignore as a brown guy sitting in the audience.

The first act is a bit of a drag. Clarence flips through the chapters of George’s life like it were a magazine in the doctor’s office. Except for the odd perfume sample, the plot is mainly a series of “George gets knocked down again.” The tender moments between George and his wife Mary Hatch (Kirsten Alter) are heartwarming. Landry’s adaptation sparks life into the story with commercial jingles that interrupt the program. The actors gleefully perform the jingles.

The actors, already playing multiple roles, take turns as the broadcast’s foley artists. Ordinary objects produce sounds that enrich the radio broadcast. A plunger and washtub full of water stand in for an icy river. Bicycle bells become telephones. And there’s even a small door to mark entrances and exits. It’s quite the old-timey spectacle.

Dixon plays George as a kind of impersonation of James Stewart. It works okay. He slips in and out of it occasionally. Does a radio broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life really depend on an imitation of Stewart’s voice? Director Natasha MacLellan seems to believe it does. I don’t think so, but I say that as someone with no attachment to the original film. All that aside, Dixon delivers a spirited performance as George.

Hinds has a million dollar smile. His cheerful energy lights up the stage. His performance as Clarence is delightful. MacKinnon’s Mr. Potter reminds me of Ed Asner’s performance in Up. Only MacKinnon is playing a real cold-hearted man, and his gruff voice and mannerisms in front of the microphone prove it. Alter is positively terrific as Mary Hatch. Her robust voice and expressive physicality make for a great performance. Jenny Munday demonstrates considerable range as she hops from character to character. 

Set Designer Katherine Jenkins-Ryan turns Studio A into something that looks more like a living room recording session. For a radio station, there’s not a lot of equipment (that we can see, anyway). If it weren’t for the On Air and Applause signs, you would think a group of friends dropped into someone’s spacious home for a script reading. It’s not a negative. I, as a born and raised Martimer, think it’s a big plus. You step foot inside the theatre and almost immediately feel a part of something special. Jenkins-Ryan’s cozy set is the kind of warm and intimate space you want to be in, especially during the holiday season.

TNB’s holiday production is full of joy and wonderful storytelling from its versatile ensemble. 


Theatre New Brunswick’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play ran December 12 – 14 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

The production will tour New Brunswick, December 15 – 21.

For more information about the show, visit:
http://www.tnb.nb.ca/its-a-wonderful-life-a-live-radio-play/

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

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

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

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

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

“3000 years later…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

DJD Dancers:

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

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/

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/

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/