Fine Arts alumni fuel Shakespeare Festival

While students and alumni of the Department of Theatre tend to show up on stages all over—and far out of—town, one place to keep an eye on local talent is the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival. Running July 8 to August 8 and this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Shakespeare Festival is packed with Phoenix folks past and present, on stage and off.

GVSS Artistic Director & Writing MFA Karen Lee Pickett

GVSS Artistic Director & Writing MFA Karen Lee Pickett

“We trace our genealogy back to 1991, when the first Shakespeare Festival was started in the Inner Harbour by Clayton Jevne,” says GVSS Artistic Director and local playwright Karen Lee Pickett—an MFA alumna of the Department of Writing. (Jevne himself was both an alumni and former instructor with the Department of Theatre.) “And after Clayton moved on, a couple of members wanted to keep it going so they formed the non-profit Greater Victoria Shakespeare Society and eventually found this home at Camosun College—and now it’s our tenth year at Camosun.”

This year’s outdoor productions include A Midsummer Night’s Dream—directed by Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Weddell—and Romeo & Juliet, directed by Phoenix alumna Britt Small, of Ride the Cyclone! and Atomic Vaudeville fame.

“Being the 25th anniversary, it’s good to have two plays with a broad appeal,” says Pickett, who was hired as festival producer back in 2011 and is now in her second year as Artistic Director/Producer. “The last time we did Dream was our first year at Camosun.”

The triple Phoenix alumni Dream, starring Trevor Hinton (Oberon), Sarah Jane Pelzer (Titania) & directed by Britt Small (photo: David Bukach)

The triple Phoenix alumni Dream, starring Trevor Hinton (Oberon), Sarah Jane Pelzer (Titania) & directed by Britt Small (photo: David Bukach)

This year’s productions, running in repertory from July 8 to August 8 on the grounds of Camosun College—include Phoenix alum Trevor Hinton, Sarah Jane Pelzer, Cam Culham, Michelle Morris and Taylor Lewis, plus stage managers Rebecca Marchand and Delaney Tesch. And School of Music instructor Colleen Eccleston’s son Kiaran McMillan will be playing Romeo, as well as Lysander in Dream.

Pickett, who recently performed her own one-woman show Slick at Intrepid Theatre’s Uno Festival in May 2015,, admits her current gig is nominally a year-round position, despite being a summer festival. “It’s a lot for one person,” she says with a bit of a tired laugh. “My big push last year was to concentrate on the artistic quality of the productions. We have a great history of including a lot of students and community actors—which is an important part of our mandate—but I want to make the shows the best that we can make them.”

Phoenix alumna Sarah Jane Pelzer as Juliet with Kiaran McMillan as Romeo (photo: David Bukach)

Phoenix alumna Sarah Jane Pelzer as Juliet with Kiaran McMillan as Romeo (photo: David Bukach)

As a playwright and actor herself, does being an artistic director help her own creative activity? “It’s challenging, especially with a small but growing organization, but I always feel grateful that I work in the arts; I don’t pull down any other jobs. That said, my hours are ‘when I’m awake.’ But living an artistic life means doing a lot of different things.”

Looking to the future, Pickett sees great opportunities for growth in the festival. “I really want to bring our young actors up through the ranks, so they have the opportunity to work with more established actors,” she says. “And I would like to expand our education program, so we can include more youth.”

The Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival runs July 8 to August 8 at Camosun College. Tickets run from $19 to $24, or you can get a festival pass for $33 to $42.

From Manila to Broadway

Like many MFA students in the Department of Theatre, director Chari Arespacochaga came to UVic already armed with a strong resume and extensive experience in theatre. A native of the Philippines, Arespacochaga directed professionally in Manila for many years, casting big foreign stars, and touring shows across Asia. Her resume is teeming with major productions of Broadway’s best and most popular musicals including Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde, Avenue Q, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Rock of Ages.

Directing MFA Chari Arespacochaga (photo: Adrienne Holierhoek)

Directing MFA Chari Arespacochaga (photo: Adrienne Holierhoek)

So why leave a successful career to travel across North America and return to school? “I didn’t want to rest on my laurels in Manila. Doing my MFA meant starting fresh in a new community so that I could improve myself and my craft,” says Arespacochaga. “When I was researching different programs, I noticed that UVic’s directing MFA was not only very successful, but very competitive—only one person is admitted each year. I thought it would be very challenging and I would be able to focus completely on exploring plays and directing work within a department that has the resources and support to make my ideas a reality on stage.”

Arespacochaga was also looking forward to working in the department’s extraordinary facilities and mentoring with the diverse faculty. “I loved that there were three different spaces in which I could explore staging possibilities in,” she says. “And the faculty has a great diversity of experiences and approaches to creating theatre. I thought this would be beneficial to expanding my ideas and directing process.“

A scene from Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

A scene from Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

While musicals have a special place in Arespacochaga’s heart, for her MFA thesis production she decided to explore music within a more classical-style play and chose Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning fictional play (later a Oscar-winning film) about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his rivalry with Antonio Salieri.

“I was taken by the poetry in Shaffer’s writing and believed that the questions this play asks about the nature of art were very important. What is our accountability to our talent? Is it a gift from a God, or can it be developed? How far would you go to achieve success?” she says. “These are fascinating ideas to explore in school where people are trying to become artists.”

Amadeus director Chari Arespacochaga interviewed on CTV VI

Amadeus director Chari Arespacochaga interviewed on CTV VI

Staged in March as part of the Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage series, Amadeus was called “bold and ambitious,” garnering a 4.5/5-star Times Colonist review and a nearly sold-out run. Directing a cast of 16 student actors, Arespacochaga was also able to work with a majority-professional creative team, including professor Allan Stichbury, retired Stratford lighting designer Michael Whitfield, sound designer Brian Linds, choreographer Jacques Lemay and award-winning student costume designer Pauline Stynes.

Returning to school has also opened up Chari’s perspective on theatre. “I love a good musical, but there are so many other genres of theatre that you might not get to do in a commercial environment—so many ways to do theatre, and so many scripts to create theatre with. There’s always something to be excited about, always something to explore.”

Chair CUFor Arespacochaga, coming to Victoria was a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. “As a director, it’s important to venture into bigger theatrical centers and to keep discovering new ways of creating and approaching theatre.  I left Manila to broaden the spheres that I create theatre in,” she says. “What’s next?” she laughs. “I am keeping my bags packed and then I will disappear into Vancouver or Toronto or New York or London or wherever the work takes me . . . and emerge with a Tony Award.”

—Adrienne Holierhoek

This article originally ran in the June 2015 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper

Designing Prague

When it comes to stage design, the Prague Quadrennial is as good as it gets—and this year, a pair of Theatre alumni will help represent Canada. “It’s the Venice Biennalie of stage design,” says Department of Theatre professor Allan Stichbury. “It’s the top in terms of recognizing stage design in the world.”

The nominated design for the Belfry Theatre production of The Turn of the Screw

The nominated design for the Belfry Theatre production of The Turn of the Screw

With top stage designers from 80 countries, the Prague Quadrennial is the biggest theatre exhibition in the world. Canada will be represented by six different submissions at the June 18-28 event, selected from 33 entries by the three-person jury—which included Stichbury. Among those entries was the Belfry Theatre’s 2008 production of Turn of the Screw, which featured the design work of Phoenix alumni Patrick DuWors (set & lighting) and Erin MacKlem (costumes), plus frequent Phoenix contributor Brian Lynds (sound).

Much like any major international competition, the Canadian teams will be competing for gold, silver or bronze awards. Stichbury—who, along with Theatre professor Mary Kerr, has exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial before—will also be taking 13 current Phoenix students to the event.

Allan Stichbury

Allan Stichbury

“Our students have exhibited in the student exhibition since 1995—and they will again this year—but it’s not the same as being juried into the competition,” he notes. “But it’s still an amazing opportunity. The attendance is supposed to be about 80,000 people—and a huge percentage of that will be students, so our students get to meet colleagues from all over the world.”

As for the competition itself, Stichbury said the jury was obviously impressed by the stunning Belfry design by DuWors and Macklem. “It really met the criteria of inserting itself into the heart of the production—not just paying it lip service or commenting on it.”

Macklem, who graduated with a BFA in 1998, has been the Artistic Associate & Outreach Coordinator at the Belfry for nine years now and is “thrilled” at being selected. “The event itself is so inspiring—it gives you a sense of the national identity of the aesthetic of different places, and how the approaches to scenography vary according to geography.”

A stylish Erin Macklem

A stylish Erin Macklem

While she has attended the Quadrennial in the past (in fact, her Turn of the Screw design was inspired by a Latvian entry she saw there), Macklem won’t be going this year due to family and production commitments. “I told Patrick that we’ll just have to work together on something exciting in the future so we get invited again,” she laughs.

Regarding the acclaimed design for Turn of the Screw, Macklem credits fellow Phoenix grad DuWors with the initial concept. “Patrick really took the lead on it with the idea of it being all black and white with a crazy modern red staircase,” she recalls.

“When I heard that he wanted a contemporary take on the Gothic period, I realized I wanted the costumes to key into the script and be true to period, so we didn’t go too far afield. The pieces themselves were very much from the period but they all had a satin contrast fabric sewn onto them so it would outline them and catch the lights in a certain way—the floor was also very high gloss, so we tried to incorporate the idea of light playing off the darkness.”

Patrick DuWors (photo: Jae Kyun Im)

Patrick DuWors (photo: Jae Kyun Im)

The very fact that the Belfry was mounting a Henry James piece originally written in 1898 also made the production memorable for her. “The Belfry specializes in contemporary shows, so doing a Henry James piece was weird and outside of the mandate, even though it was a modern adaptation of the script,” she says. “To approach it with a very contemporary eye to the design made it feel like it was more a part of the world the Belfry’s audience was accustomed to. People still say, ‘what was that one with the crazy red staircase?’ It’s fun that it left that much of an impression on people’s imagination.”

Macklem is also quick to credit her UVic training for her current success. “I had a great experience with the design department,” she says, citing Mary Kerr, past instructor Debra Hansen and Stichbury himself. “Allan is very much a director’s designer, which put me in good standing and helped me understand how bodies move through space, how you really need to analyze a play’s text to understand the traffic patterns—what the positions of power are and how to optimize those in the design.”

She also notes how the variety of design experience at UVic better prepared her for future employment. “I did more set design in school but there were more opportunities in costume design out of school, so I switched to that,” she explains. “But I had the advantage of both Mary Kerr and Debra Hansen alternating in the teaching position, so it was great to have different perspectives from different teachers.”

Macklem's design work for Eleemosynary at the Phoenix

Macklem’s design work for Eleemosynary at the Phoenix

When asked for a standout production from her student years, Macklem points to the 1997 Phoenix show Eleemosynary. “It was all-student design, and we were all undergrads, which was quite rare,” she explains. “It was really quite a utopian experience—we were all on the same page—and that really came though in the design. It showed all of us how you can transform a theatre, take the set off the stage and into the audience and how much that can change things.”

Stichbury notes that it’s the Department of Theatre’s unique hands-on approach that makes it outstanding in a crowded university field. “Unlike many Canadian universities, our students actually get to design something and put it on a stage,” he explains. “At the undergrad level, most universities have faculty members exclusively designing, but we allow our best undergraduates to do it—so when they get out into the profession they’re much more capable of stepping up at an earlier date than many others. They learn by doing—don’t get me wrong: learning by theory is great, but you also have to practice. Our students get more opportunity to do that on a significant scale than most do.”

PQUltimately, Stichbury already sees both Turn of the Screw and UVic as winners in this year’s Prague Quadrennial. “It’s fantastic that UVic is represented in at least one of the six shows,” he says. “It’s already a big victory, because there’s a lot of pretty amazing stuff out there across Canada.”

Enter Vodka, exit Masters student

When it comes to their theses, UVic’s graduate students are always looking for something new. Recently, Master of Education student Mike Irvine became the first person to conduct an underwater webcast defence of his thesis. Now, Department of Writing MFA candidate and playwright Leah Callen will present a staged reading of her thesis—the surreal play Enter Vodka—followed by a public defence . . . in front of a live audience.

Dept of Writing MFA Leah Callen

Dept of Writing MFA Leah Callen

“Originally, I asked to do my defence under-vodka, but that was a no-go,” quips Callen. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have my play read by some lovely actors to an audience. A script doesn’t mean much unless it is heard out loud.”

Enter Vodka marries the personal histories of two dead Russians—Stalin’s daughter and the Romanov Princess Anastasia—both stuck at 17, and trapped inside a melting Fabrage egg. In Enter Vodka, nothing is as red or white as it seems. The 90-minute show begins at 8pm Sunday, April 26, at the Intrepid Theatre Club (1609 Blanshard, at Fisgard) with Callen’s thesis defence to follow. Admission is by donation.

The staged reading—directed by Melissa Taylor, featuring Kathleen O’Reilly & Julie Forrest, and designed by Kerri Flannigan & Colette Habel (all UVic students or alumni)—is part of Intrepid’s monthly New Play Reading Series and in support of the Equity in Theatre Initiative, which continues to celebrate the work of local women playwrights at all stages of their careers. “We are happy to be working with the UVic writing program on this project to bring new plays to life,” says Intrepid artistic director, playwright and celebrated Department of Theatre alumna Janet Munsil.

A scene from Callen's The Daughter of Turpentine

A scene from Callen’s The Daughter of Turpentine

Nervousness aside, Callen is looking forward to the opportunity of having her new play presented in public. “UVic’s Writing program is wonderful, but I felt pretty cloistered as a playwriting graduate student, typing away by myself for two years,” she says. “I’m both excited and terrified by the defence part—but if I can’t stand up to a little public scrutiny, what kind of a playwright am I? My characters have to go through the fire literally, so the least I can do is honour them figuratively with a little Q&A.”

The idea behind the public defence came from Callen’s MFA supervisor—award-winning playwright and Writing professor Kevin Kerr—who wanted her project to step off the page. “A stage play is meant to be seen in performance and, as a writer, it’s important to see the work handled by the other collaborating theatre artists who bring the work to life,” he explains. “The success of the thesis is not only on the page, but also in the way that it inspires other artists to create a living experience for an audience.”

Writing professor & playwright Kevin Kerr

Writing professor & playwright Kevin Kerr

Kerr feels this is an ideal opportunity to showcase the creative academic process. “It seemed to be an exciting way to handle this formal step in Leah’s academic journey,” he says. “It’s potentially an opportunity for an audience to get a first-hand encounter with what a Fine Arts graduate degree entails, and demonstrates the connection between the work done inside a university Fine Arts program and the professional practice the students are working towards.”

Both Kerr and Callen expect it to be more than just a standard theatrical talk-back session. “There will be a different level of stakes attached to the process, as the questions—and answers—are part of the final step for Leah to complete her MFA,” he says. “People witnessing the defence will also be able to contribute to that experience with questions of their own.”

Not that Kerr is out to add extra pressure to an already daunting experience. “Will it be nerve-wracking? Yes—but exciting as well,” he chuckles. “Leah is being supported by a team of artists who are invested in presenting the work to the best of their abilities. Their passion is already a vote of confidence in the candidate’s talent and ability, so Leah’s not alone in this experience.”

Callen—who spent the past two years studying with playwriting faculty Kerr and Joan MacLeod—had her first one-act play, The Daughter of Turpentine, produced by Phoenix Theatre’s SATCo in 2014. She has also reviewed theatre for local online magazines Coastal Spectator and CVV Magazine. A revamped version of Turpentine will reemerge as a full production at the Victoria Fringe Festival in August this year; directed by Phoenix Theatre’s Chase Hiebert, Callen promises it will “literally set the stage on fire.”

enter vodkaThe inspiration for Enter Vodka originally came from a poem she wrote about the Romanovs for Writing professor Tim Lilburn’s poetry workshop. “This story is inspired by the two real women, but it’s a metaphor for the places people visit when wounded, to escape or  revisit pain in ways that are as ritualistic as drinking tea, lighting candles or doing shots of vodka,” explains Callen, who cites the likes of Tennessee Williams, Tomson Highway, Sarah Ruhl, and Wajdi Mouawad as influences.

“Anastasia ordering Svetlana about could easily be modern-day Russia trying to drag Ukraine back home. I’m playing with the historical forces that have led to this moment in time, and in the end their holy kiss has explosive repercussions literally and figuratively. But this is not a biographical play. It is symbolic and thematic of the Russian struggle, but it’s mostly about women trying to find joy and freedom in the face of death.”

Kerr is also looking at this as something of a pilot project. “I’d be interested in continuing to find more opportunities to connect our grad students to the larger theatre community and audience as part of their time here,” he says. “I think it could be an important part of what we can offer as a program.”

New Phoenix season offers mix of modern and classics

Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) 2014-15 season, Phoenix Theatre recently announced their lineup for next year. A mix of new work, old classics and rarely seen gems, the 2015-16 season is looking like another great year.

“Theatre has a way of reminding us what it means to be human,” says Theatre department chair Allana Lindgren. “At the heart of the Phoenix Theatre’s 2015/16 season are four plays that share compelling human stories, and with master playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams in this list, I know you’ll love the plays we’ve chosen for next season.” Here’s what’s coming up:

Loon by the WONDERHEADS (photo: Andrew Phoenix)

Loon by the WONDERHEADS (photo: Andrew Phoenix)

Opening the season with their traditional Spotlight on Alumni, Phoenix alumna Kate Braidwood returns to campus with her performance partner Andrew Phoenix and their widely acclaimed WONDERHEADS company. They’ll be presenting the wordless and whimsical Loon (October 14-24), a beautifully surprising mix of physical theatre, comedy and pathos and a love story the likes of which you’ve never seen. CBC enthusiastically described Loon as “a live cartoon for lovers and for dreamers; that is, for everyone. I’d give it more than five stars—I’d give it the moon.”

Loon centers on Francis, a lonely janitor who is plagued by isolation and tickled by whispers of childhood imagination. He has hit rock bottom and discovers that he has nowhere to go . . . but up. And up. And up! But will plucking the moon from the sky bring him the love he is searching for? The Portland-based WONDERHEADS have been hits with every show they’ve brought to town (including Fringe Fest favourites Grim & Fischer and The Middle of Everywhere) and it’ll be a pleasure to see Braidwood back at the Phoenix in the Spotlight on Alumni.

A German poster for The Threepenny Opera circa 1928

A German poster for The Threepenny Opera circa 1928

Up next is Bertolt Brecht’s classic The Threepenny Opera (November 5-21), featuring the music of Kurt Weill—possibly best known for bringing the jazz standard “Mack the Knife” into the world. Directed by Theatre professor Brian Richmond, The Threepenny Opera borrows from the 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera and offers an edgy mix of biting satire and sheer theatrical innovation as it takes aim at the traditional bourgeoisie and reveals a society where law is fickle, money corrupts and crime absolutely pays.

“This is quite possibly the most important piece of musical theatre in the 20th century,” says Richmond, who will be working with Applied Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta to bring a strong sense of realism to this production. Richmond is well-known for breathing fresh life into classic works, as evidenced by past Phoenix productions like Guys & Dolls, Dark of the Moon, The Wind in the Willows and Romeo & Juliet.

Renoir's 1881 painting "Le Déjeuner des Canotiers" catches the flavour of Wild Honey

Renoir’s 1881 painting “Le Déjeuner des Canotiers” catches the flavour of Wild Honey

Moving into 2016, we have Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey (February 11-20). Directed by Theatre professor and Phoenix alumnus Peter McGuire, and adapted from an original play by Anton Chekhov, Wild Honey offers a charming and hilarious love triangle set on a hot summer day on a provincial country estate, where friends, neighbours and family all get caught up in an elaborate game of romantic cat-and-mouse.

“Shakespeare said, ‘what fools these mortals be’ and I want to celebrate that sense of foolishness,” says McGuire, noting that Wild Honey is a lot like “a Woody Allen film—it shows us lives filled with love, sex and intrigue, all with a strong element of farce.”  McGuire also plans to take a decidedly non-traditional approach to the production, with the design mixing old and new, classic and modern—all to a jazzy, klezmeriffic music score. Curiously, Wild Honey is based on Chekhov’s first ever play, which was then sealed in a bank vault until after his death.

Summer and Smoke is evoked in Richard Emil Miller's 1910 painting "The Pool"

Summer and Smoke is evoked in Richard Emil Miller’s 1910 painting “The Pool”

Finally, Phoenix ends its season with Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, as directed by MFA candidate Alan Brodie (March 10-19). Set in Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century, Summer and Smoke sees Tennessee Williams at his most passionate as he gives us the tale of Alma—the daughter of a small-town minister and mentally unstable mother, who harbours a life-long infatuation with her restless and self-indulgent neighbour, John. Of course, Alma and John’s struggle—between body and soul, anarchy and order, love and lust—leads to profound changes in both their lives.

“As a designer, I’ve done plenty of shows but hardly any from the modern American milieu,” says director Brodie. “I’ve always been drawn to early 20th century playwrights like Williams, who emphasize story, character and psychology. This is essentially a love story, just one without a happy ending.” (Better get out your handkerchiefs for this one.)

A bittersweet exploration of love and longing, Summer and Smoke is a true American masterpiece with unforgettable characters that break our hearts even as they touch our souls.

Click here for ticket information, and subscriptions for the 2015-16 season are already on sale here.

Rock me, Amadeus!

It’s the kind of ovation Mozart himself would have loved: Amadeus, Phoenix Theatre’s final production of their 2014/15 season, has been earning raves from local reviewers—and packing the house with almost every performance.

Aidan Correia plays Mozart in Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Aidan Correia plays Mozart in Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Written by acclaimed British playwright Peter (Equus) Shaffer in 1979 and directed here by Department of Theatre MFA candidate Chari Arespacochaga, the multiple Tony Award-winning play—which also inspired the much-loved Academy Award-winning movie—has been thrilling Phoenix Theatre audiences since it opened last week.

Amadeus continues daily at 8pm to March 21, with a bonus 2pm Saturday matinee on March 21, but tickets have been flying out the door.

Salieri (Jenson Kerr) and Mozart (Aidan Correia) in Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Salieri (Jenson Kerr) and Mozart (Aidan Correia) in Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Often considered the greatest musical genius the world has ever known, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also seen as vulgar, boorish, unforgivably brilliant—and thus an enemy to be eliminated—by Antonio Salieri, his 18th-century contemporary and fellow composer. Seen through the envious eyes and skewed memory of the aging Salieri, Amadeus chronicles their tumultuous rivalry and Salieri’s devious efforts to destroy Mozart’s career, even while recognizing the genius of his music.

“Director Chari Arespacochaga . . . has imbued the show with wonderful vitality,” writes Times Colonist theatre critic Adrian Chamberlain in this glowing review, praising Arespacochaga’s re-imagining of the show in an insane asylum as “an intelligent approach that works well.” Chamberlain also notes the strong work by lead performers Jenson Kerr (Salieri), Aidan Correia (Mozart) and Samantha Lynch (Constanze), all of whom ensure “the pathos is evenly leavened with humour and hijinx.”

A scene from Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

A scene from Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Chamberlain also praises the show’s design elements, noting Theatre professor Allan Stichbury’s “terrific set [that] resembles a giant dungeon—a dark, forced-perspective vault that encourages us to consider the serious themes underneath the comedy” and the “superb costumes” by undergrad student Pauline Stynes—”The costumes are sumptuous, a feast for the eye.”

CBC Radio’s On The Island theatre reviewer Monica Prendergast enjoyed the show, noting that “the production is working well on a number of levels. It has an extremely strong design, a lovely set by Allan Stichbury . . . . beautifully lit by Michael Whitfield who gives us a gorgeous design . . . . and really nice costumes by Pauline Stynes, so the whole thing gets lifted to a whole other level.” She also notes “the ensemble work was particularly strong.” You can listen to the entire review here.

Amadeus director Chari Arespacochaga interviewed on CTV VI

Amadeus director Chari Arespacochaga interviewed on CTV VI

Interestingly, Arespacochaga and Stynes both have well-established professional careers long before they enrolled in the Department of Theatre—Arespacochaga has been directing major Broadway musicals in Manila for the past decade, many of which then toured across Asia or were remounted in Singapore, while Stynes has a 30 years of tailoring and costume creation behind her—a good decision, it turns out, as Stynes won the local  Critics’ Choice Spotlight Award for Best Costume Design for Phoenix’s Picnic in 2014.

You can see director Arespacochaga talk about the play in this preview from CTV Vancouver Island News (around the 4:34 mark), and you can read more about designer Stynes in this preview from the Times Colonnist. And there was this great conversation on the local CFAX1070 Eye on the Arts radio show (starts around 34 minutes) between Arespacochaga and show host (and Fine Arts alumnus) Adam Swatsky, as well as actor Jenson Kerr (Salieri). The Oak Bay News also spoke with Arespacochaga in this article, where she noted the production is “a great interactive mix of students and industry pros. New thoughts colliding with more experienced thoughts. It’s been dynamic.”

The scheming Salieri (Jenson Kerr) in Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

The scheming Salieri (Jenson Kerr) in Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Local arts blogger Janis LaCouvee noted in this review that “director Chari Arespacachoga does not shirk from difficult questions; her Amadeus is a bold and ambitious undertaking which brings essential reflections on the nature of talent, ambition and legacy to the forefront. Under her inspired direction the students of the University of Victoria theatre department have once again delivered superior theatre to the stage, ending the year with a production that is as complex as the men it immortalizes.”

UVic’s student newspaper Martlet also really enjoyed the production, noting in this review that, “The two male leads, Salieri and Mozart, worked brilliantly together, allowing the audience to feel sympathy for both characters.”

Constanze (Samantha Lynch) is tempted by Salieri (Jenson Kerr) in Phoenix Theatre's Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

Constanze (Samantha Lynch) is tempted by Salieri (Jenson Kerr) in Phoenix Theatre’s Amadeus (photo: David Lowes)

And Monday Magazine was also impressed with the production, with reviewer Laura Lavin primarily highlighting the cast in this blog review—noting that Aidan Correia “does an admirable job of making Mozart both boorish and endearing,” Jensen Kerr plays Salieri with “spirit and confidence” and the “supporting cast was superb.” She also acknowledges that the “music, lighting and staging of this performance were again superb. The set is dark and gives focus to beautiful period costumes by designer Pauline Stynes.”

Finally, if you missed director Arespacochaga’s pre-show lecture, you can listen to it here and hear her in conversation with Theatre professor Peter McGuire discussing the differences between the play and the film, playwright Peter Shaffer and her own creative process.

National symposium at UVic addresses acting methods

If you’ve ever seen actors at work—on stage, on screen, on the street or on television—you’ve seen the results of the kind of pedagogy happening daily in the Department of Theatre. But now a first-of-its-kind national symposium co-organized by theatre professor Conrad Alexandrowicz is questioning and examining traditional acting methods, as it addresses what’s been described as “the crisis of actor training in Canada

Conrad Alexandrowicz

Conrad Alexandrowicz

From March 6 to 8 at UVic, Acting Training in a Shifting World will welcome 34 instructors from the majority of Canadian post-secondary drama institutions, ranging from universities and colleges to conservatory programs. “Basically, we’re looking at who we’re teaching and what we’re actually training people to do,” says Alexandrowicz.

Following up on the October 2014 issue of the journal Canadian Theatre Review, which was dedicated to changes in actor training, the UVic symposium will address issues ranging from diversity in gender, sexuality, physicality and ethnicity to funding challenges, new teaching methods and philosophies, postgraduate and company-based training models, and the gap between acting institutions and the professional world.

“We want to reflect a much broader picture: who’s actually living in Canada and what kind of theatre people are making across the board, not just what goes on at festivals and mainstream stages,” he continues. “We’re training people to do a range of things and we need to include a whole different set of approaches to realize that goal.”

For his part, Alexandrowicz specializes in innovative performance techniques that address issues central to the human journey—relationships, gender, power and the nature of the performance event itself. “Realism is only one style of theatre,” he says, “yet we treat it as though it’s a given, as though it’s the sine qua non, when it’s not.” Rather than accept conventional theatrical procedures and forms, Alexandrowicz instead draws from a number of genres and disciplines, deconstructing and recombining them in startling ways—as seen in his direction of last month’s widely lauded Phoenix Theatre production of Lion in the Streets and 2014’s Mother Tongue, his SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary work based on the poetry of Lorna Crozier and Erin Moure. He is also the artistic director of Wild Excursions Performance.

Alexandrowicz working with students

Alexandrowicz working with students

Admitting that both the US and the UK are ahead of Canada in these study areas (“I hate to say it, but it’s true,” he grumbles), Alexandrowicz is keen to affect change from within. “Why are university acting programs simply reproducing all these discriminatory and oppressive patterns that operate in the larger culture?” he asks. By way of a positive counter-example, Alexandrowicz points to Diana Belshaw, head of acting at Humber College and co-editor of the 2014 CTR issue, who notably reconfigured Humber’s theatre department into a performance lab and workshop for creating new work. “We need to diversify our approach so we’re covering more bases.”

As a member of one of Canada’s leading theatrical training institutions, Alexandrowicz is also excited the symposium is coming here. “It’s good for UVic to host a discussion where we’re questioning all the things we’ve taken for granted for decades—that acting always comes out of a printed script,” says Alexandrowicz. “We’re under a lot of pressure to think of theatre training as a greater part of a liberal arts education, so we should be including people from all across campus, people who want to learn about performance but have no interest in professional acting per se.”

He points to the potential performance benefits to be gleaned by forging connections with faculties like law and business, and the increasing popularity of events like TED Talks and UVic’s own IdeaFest, where scientists and thinkers need to be able to effectively communicate their ideas and research. “I really want us to offer this kind of experience to students across campus; we need to democratize how we teach acting to make the experience of learning about performance available to a whole range of people from other disciplines.”

Alexandrowicz pauses and chuckles. “One person even asked if we should still be teaching Shakespeare, so pretty much everything is on the table right now.”

This piece originally ran in the March 2014 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper

Fine Arts at IdeaFest 2015

IdeaFest 2015_web buttonBack for its fourth year, UVic’s IdeaFest is celebrating ideas that can change everything. Organized by the Office of the Vice President Research, IdeaFest runs March 2 to 7 at various venues across campus and offers over 50 panels, workshops, exhibits, lectures and tours presented by UVic thinkers, innovators and artists. Join us as we explore dozens of world changing ideas!

Fine Arts is heavily involved IdeaFest once again, with five separate presentations as well as participation in two exhibits and the annual Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award fair. (See our full-lineup below.) But with over 50 events at IdeaFest as a whole, the hardest part will be choosing which to attend. Keep in mind, all events are free (unless indicated) and no advance registration is required.

Graphic IdeasGraphic ideas @UVic
12:30-3pm Monday, March 2 • UVic Bookstore

If you love graphic novels, comics, or cartoons, don’t miss this comic book fair with presentations from students, profs and visitors! Writing professor Lee Henderson will be on hand to discuss his new comic strip-focused novel, The Road Narrows As You Go.  Come with your favourite graphic work for a discussion between readers and creators about graphic art. Organized by the departments of French, Curriculum & Instruction, Indigenous Law Research Unit, Hispanic & Italian Studies, Germanic & Slavic Studies, and Pacific & Asian Studies, with support from the Bookstore and Libraries.

new photo_testing 1,2,3Testing 1, 2, 3: New approaches to music courses in the 21st century
6-8pm Monday, March 2 • MacLaurin B037

From Beyoncé and the Beatles to jazz legends and rock divas, our School of Music is always looking for new approaches to its music courses. Through a look at course content, shifting tastes and audience demands in popular music, this illustrated lecture will demonstrate the need for innovative course design. Featuring Music professor Patrick Boyle and instructors Melissa Avdeeff and Colleen Eccleston.

Medieval Minutes
12:30-1:30pm Tuesday, March 3 • McPherson Library A003

Marking an evocative time in history, the medieval period lasted from the 5th to 15th century. Fast-forward to modern day and imagine a large circle of people coming from diverse areas of the campus and the community, some even dressed in medieval attire. All have a medieval story, memory or performance to share. Join the Medieval Studies Program and Art History & Visual Studies professors Jamie Kemp and Catherine Harding for this open-mic event—everyone wishing to step into the circle is welcome and has three minutes to be “medieval”.

The mythology of the mad genius: Five myths about creativity
4-6pm Tuesday, March 3 • MacLaurin D110

Mad GeniusWhere do ideas come from? Do you have to suffer for your art? And are all artists really that eccentric? Find out when moderator and Acting Dean of Fine Arts Lynne Van Luven deconstructs the myths of creativity in this zesty and informative panel discussion featuring one faculty member from each Fine Arts department: Christopher Butterfield (Music), Kevin Kerr (Writing), Brian Richmond (Theatre), Paul Walde (Visual Arts) and Erin Campbell (Art History & Visual Studies).

Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards symposium
11:30am-3pm Wednesday, March 4 • the SUB’s Michele Pujol room

Join us in celebrating the outstanding research produced by 110 Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards scholars. Fine Arts will be ably represented by Holly Cecil, Aimee Hawker & Laurie White (Art History & Visual Studies), Jerry Flexer & Cody Gles (Writing), Elizabeth Charters, Hovey Eyres & Olivia Prior (Visual Arts) and Chase Hiebert & Emma Leck (Theatre).

Liar Wins thumbnailThe best liar wins: Hidden information and role-playing
1-3pm Wednesday, March 4 • Phoenix Theatre Lobby

What happens when the audience becomes the performer? Join Theatre professor Anthony Vickery for a fun and dynamic role-playing event where audience members must make a decision with limited information—your figurative life is on the line as you engage in lies, acts of deception and leaps of faith. Members will engage in a battle of wits where they role play a villager in the midst of a crisis and ultimately try to out-perform their peers. This event involves participating in the performance as a villager with guided direction from a leader, followed by a discussion of the performative aspects of role playing.

March 4_Inside JM's DiaryInside JM’s Diary: Researching a WWI “History Mystery”
4:30-6pm Wednesday, March 4 • McPherson Library Special Collections A003

Join Art History & Visual Studies professor Marcus Millwright as he shares clues and tips from around the world that may help him solve a long-standing UVic historical mystery—the search for the true identity of the now-famous “JM,” the author and artist of a World War I diary. The two-volume diary, currently on display at his Legacy-Maltwood exhibit The Arts of World War I, will be on hand so participants can view first-hand over 130 watercolour illustrations and pen and ink drawings detailing the author’s life during the war.

Computers and art_thumbnailCan computers and art produce aesthetic work?
10-11:30am Friday, March 6 • Room 150 of the Visual Arts building

Visual Arts professor Lynda Gammon is joined by colleagues and students from the departments of Computer Science and Visual Arts to discuss projects using computation to produce artwork difficult to make with traditional media. This includes a Flowsnake algorithm that creates detailed single-line drawing with a digital pen, and a composition motivated lighting algorithm that renders animated light patterns from a single sketch. Feel inspired as artists and scientists discuss the symbiosis between the groups and give a demonstration of the creation process.

Light and Colour
Running March 2-7 • Audain Gallery, Visual Arts Building

Visual Arts instructor and exhibit organizer David Gifford invites you to discover a broader understanding of light and colour through a diverse showcase of student-led exhibits. The exhibit includes a presentation by James Tyrwhitt-Drake on particle wavelength duality, a demonstration on synaesthesia by Music student Gowan McQuarrie, and a workshop on LEDs by Olivia Prior. Interactive elements include a camera obscura tent, a rainbow competition and a device that tells the time through colour.

d. bradley muir, The Supernova Scene

d. bradley muir, The Supernova Scene

In Session – ONE
Running 10am – 4pm March 4-7 • Legacy Art Gallery

Step out of digital overload and explore the significance and power of photo-based art. Come explore a showcase of  new works by Visual Arts sessional instructors Megan Dickie, Laura Dutton, d. bradley muir and Tara Nicholson. Note: this event takes place off campus at the Legacy Art Gallery Downtown, 630 Yates St.

Please come out and support our Fine Arts faculty and students. And be sure to check out the rest of the fascinating options on view at IdeaFest 2015.  What’s your idea that will change the world?

IdeaFest 2015_web banner

 

“Brilliant” reviews for Lion in the Streets

It’s another strong batch of reviews for Phoenix Theatre’s latest production, Lion in the Streets. “Brilliant,” “brave and intrepid” and “tremendously successful” are just a few of the accolades that have been rolling in from local theatre reviewers.

Lion in the Streets director Conrad Alexandrowicz on CTV VI

Lion in the Streets director Conrad Alexandrowicz on CTV VI

Lion in the Streets is directed by Department of Theatre professor Conrad Alexandrowicz, who uses his extensive background in physical theatre to fuel his compelling direction of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s award-winning play. This is third production in Phoenix‘s 2014/15 season and continues until February 21.

CBC Radio’s On The Island theatre reviewer David Lennam was utterly effusive in his praise for the production, the cast and the direction, noting he could describe it in “one word: brilliant. It’s simply one of the best productions of the year.” Lennam praised the “really professional ensemble acting” and director Alexandrowicz‘s “lively, emotionaly gripping direction.” You can listen to the full review here.

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Times Colonist theatre critic Adrian Chamberlain gave the show four out of five stars in this review, noting “the production, skilfully directed . . . offers a variant on magic realism. Scenes begin in a naturalistic manner, then shift to a nightmarish realm as Thompson plunges into unconscious worlds. This is where the playwright is at her best—her subterranean visions are unrelentingly honest, brave and highly imaginative . . .”

Chamberlain also praised Alexandrowicz’s direction. “The directorial approach, here and elsewhere, is tremendously successful . . . . Alexandrowicz has a thorough understanding of the play—the extra physicality adds much.” Summing up, Chamberlain felt “this is one of the most consistently strong student casts in recent memory . . . . this show will be enjoyed by open-minded, intelligent audiences. It’s not easily forgettable . . . . the excellence of the production makes it all worthwhile.”

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

And local theatre blogger Janis LaCouvee also felt the entire production was top drawer in this review, noting “cast and crew have succeeded beyond measure. Lion in the Streets is dark, disturbing, revelatory and illuminating—it demands an audience equally as brave and intrepid.”

LaCouvee also praised the design elements of the show, singling out Colette Habel’s “brooding sound design [which] immediately sets a mood of disquiet and unease, a portent of the tales to come” and Allan Stichbury’s set “[which] oozes muck and mire with sculpted floors and chairs.” She also noted Bryan Kenney‘s lighting (“dark, with narrow slivers of illumination, focusing attention”) and projections (“reminiscent of a child’s drawings, pulling the audience into a world seen through Isabelle’s eyes”), as well as costume designs by Emma Welsh which “bring in elements of the period to punctuate the often-monochromatic colour scheme.”

Lindsay Curl as 9-year-old Isobel in Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Lindsay Curl as 9-year-old Isobel in Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Lion in the Streets follows Isobel, a lost Portuguese girl wandering around her neighbourhood, frightened and looking for answers. She witnesses a series of dark moments in the intertwined and troubled lives of several strangers in her community as they try to hold on to their own humanity; by watching them, she finds understanding, forgiveness, and ultimately redemption. And although the scenes in Lion in the Streets are set in a Toronto neighbourhood, the play itself brings the audience to a place somewhere between reality and dreams, memories and fantasies.

The production also received strong previews in this Times Colonist article, in which director Alexandrowicz noted his cast immediately embraced playwright Thompson’s dark vision. “Listen, these kids, are you kidding me? Young people these days are, well, they’ve seen it all. They grow up very quickly in a digital age.” Adam Sawatsky of CTV Vancouver Island also offered a preview in this TV interview with Alexandrowicz (skip ahead to the 5:28 mark) and both director Alexandrowicz and set designer Stichbury were interviewed in this Oak Bay News piece. And Gordie Tupper of CHEK TV profiled the Lion in the Streets cast and interviewed Conrad Alexandrowicz in this clip.

Finally, click hear to listen to a recording of director Alexandrowicz’s pre-show lecture about the history of Judith Thompson’s award-winning play and his process of collaborating with the actors to develop this production.

Lion in the Streets continues until February 21 at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. The show runs 8pm Mondays to Saturdays, with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, February 21. Tickets $14-$24.

Lion in the Streets moves with the world inside

What happens when we combine movement and dance with complex emotions, darker realities and unhappy experiences? Department of Theatre professor Conrad Alexandrowicz uses his extensive background in physical theatre for his direction of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s award-winning play, Lion in the Streets—the third production in Phoenix Theatre‘s 2014/15 season.

Director Conrad Alexandrowicz (photo: David Lowes)

Director Conrad Alexandrowicz (photo: David Lowes)

Alexandrowicz has always loved the powerful combination of dance and theatre working together. With a BFA in Dance and an MFA in Directing, he is also the founding artistic director of Wild Excursions Performance and, since 2008, the Theatre department’s professor of movement and physical theatre. Alexandrowicz was interested in staging Lion in the Streets for the current season, and wanted to explore the possibilities for impactful movement and choreography in this challenging piece. “Theatre provides a forum of common experience—and really good theatre should ask difficult questions and challenge audiences at the very foundation of their beliefs,” says Alexandrowicz. “It should shake you to the core.”

Learn more about Alexandrowicz’s vision when he discusses his collaborative directing process in a special pre-show lecture at 7pm, Friday February 13.

Lindsay Curl as 9-year-old Isobel in Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Lindsay Curl as 9-year-old Isobel in Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Lion in the Streets follows Isobel, a lost Portuguese girl wandering around her neighbourhood, frightened and looking for answers. She witnesses a series of dark moments in the intertwined and troubled lives of several strangers in her community as they try to hold on to their own humanity; by watching them, she finds understanding, forgiveness, and ultimately redemption. And although the scenes in Lion in the Streets are set in a Toronto neighbourhood, the play itself brings the audience to a place somewhere between reality and dreams, memories and fantasies.

Read more about the Phoenix production of Lion in the Streets in this Times Colonist article, which also features an interview with playwright Judith Thompson. And both director Alexandrowicz and set designer Allan Stichbury were interviewed in this Oak Bay News piece.

“At first glance, this play seemed to be a series of fairly realistic scenes contained within a completely non-realistic frame, amounting to a kind of allegory,” says Alexandrowicz. “But then I realized that nothing about this play is realistic. This sits well with me as, coming from a background in dance and text-based performance, I am compelled by the possibilities of scripts that emphasize the physicality of the actor.”

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Prior to rehearsals, Alexandrowicz consulted the playwright herself to talk about the real-life inspirations for the play. Thompson described the personal memory that sparked the need to tell this story and give voice to the victims of horrible crime: while living in Toronto in 1983, a nine year-old girl named Sharin Morningstar Keenan was abducted and murdered in her neighbourhood. “We lived on Brunswick Avenue at that time, very near the park where she was taken,” Thompson recalls. “All night we heard the police van’s pleas: if anyone has seen a nine year old  girl . . . and while we listened, she was being murdered a block away. That is inscribed on my soul.”

It is dark memories like this that remain with Thompson and inspired her to pen Lion in the Streets in 1990, which tackles the incredibly challenging subject material with a sense of poetry and allegory. “Yes, the play portrays violence, but it strives to put it in to a context, a continuum, in which the emotional violence within different relationships has the potential to lead all the way to murder,” notes Alexandrowicz. “That smaller interpersonal and emotional violence have the capacity to generate lethal physical violence across generations.”

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Dynamic movement is a big part of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Going into the rehearsal process, Alexandrowicz remained open to the many possibilities of collaborating with his cast. Many directors approach a play with a very clear idea of what the final product should look like and how the characters should talk and act. Conrad chose to begin with a clear idea of only the themes of each scene and let the specifics arise out of the collaboration with the actors, working together to improvise and experiment with movements and characterization to mould the final product. “This is the way I work all the time”, says Alexandrowicz, who has a strong background in devising new plays from poetry and text. “If you’re not collaborative you’re missing out because everyone has such great ideas.”

While this style of creation is the norm for Alexandrowicz, it was a whole new world for many of the student actors. “Conrad really encouraged neutrality going in, which was absolutely terrifying as a young actor”, says student Lindsay Curl, who plays the nine-year-old Isobel. “Each rehearsal was like trying on different approaches to the character until we found one that fit.” Student Levi Schneider, who plays multiple characters throughout the play, says that the creative process could be challenging at times. “There is a lot of responsibility as an actor. It was sometimes difficult to know which improvisational choices were beneficial to the themes and which should be put on the back burner.”

The cast of Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

Recreating an Ophelia moment in Lion in the Streets (photo: David Lowes)

After six weeks of rehearsals, the production has captured that poetic sense of existing between reality and dreams, memories and fantasies. In many scenes, several actors move together as an ensemble or tableau to portray the emotional state of one individual character. “I wanted the actors to animate the interiority, the inner landscape, of the character who’s talking and try to make physical their unspoken internal words,” explains Alexandrowicz.

And these internal thoughts – made manifest on stage through the actions of the cast – also help to emphasize the humanity of these characters, casting a light of hope on the darker challenging stories, that hopefully will, as Alexandrowicz says, “shake you to the core.”

This story was written by Leah McGraw, a second year student in both Theatre and Writing.

Lion in the Streets
February 12-21, 2015
UVic’s Phoenix Theatre
8pm Mondays to Saturdays, with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, February 21
Tickets $14-$24