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)
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)
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)
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.”
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.”
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
If proof of a rich life is the cultural treasures by which you surround yourself, then Iona Hubner is wealthy beyond measure. As the Visual Resources Curator for the recently renamed Department of Art History & Visual Studies, Hubner has been immersed in the vast and bountiful cultural riches of the entire world for the past 19 years. Her daily task? Assisting the Art History faculty with the visual resources essential to their research and teaching.
Art History’s Iona Hubner (UVic Photo Services)
On this particular day, Hubner’s desk is cluttered with art books encompassing 15th century Burgundy, the camera lucida, Renaissance tapestries, world architecture and British artist David Hockney. One of her computer screens is always open to DIDO (the Digital Image Database Online she manages for the Faculty of Fine Arts), and the numerous cabinets in her visual resource collection hold over 150,000 photographic slides—outdated technology, perhaps, but many of which still offer unparalleled images ranging from neolithic cave art to rare Qu’ran pages that cannot be found online.
“I sincerely love what I do,” Hubner croons. “It’s always changing, and I love the history in the art. That’s what our department gives people: that extra added visual literacy of looking at the world and seeing it in different ways.”
changing with the times
That ability to see the world differently is what drew the Victoria born-and-raised Hubner away from an intended Classics degree and into Art History after taking a single undergrad elective back in 1990. “One thing I liked—and still like—about our department is the cultural diversity,” she says. “It’s not just the European canon: we’re one of the only places in Canada that specializes in Islamic art, for example. That’s important for visual literacy, because we’re not always referencing European traditions.”
An initial student workstudy position led to being hired after graduation as the Assistant Curator of the Slide Library in 1996—a title that changed to Visual Resources with the transition to digital in 2004 and the development of DIDO in 2005. But with over three millennia of global art, architecture and material culture at her fingertips, much of Hubner’s time this past decade has been spent converting some 64,000 of those slides to digital images.
Indeed, the former History in Art department’s 2014 name change to Art History & Visual Studies reflects the changes in both society and pedagogy. “It’s essential for people to increase their visual literacy,” Hubner insists. “We need to understand the meaning behind an image—why it was chosen, what it means, what it represents—as well as the past cultures it references.”
Art historians in action
From video games and album covers to costumes, fabrics, stamps, coins, ceramics, architecture, films—the list is endless, really—she reminds us of the importance of an artist’s choices. “If you just see an image as a pretty picture or an interesting design, you’re missing so much. Looking at contemporary artists like Ai Wei Wei and being able to reference back to the Rennaissance or Russian Construcitivism enriches everything.”
Not surprisingly, if you bump into Hubner off-campus, she’s likely to be doing the same thing she does at work: looking at art. Haunting galleries and museums is still a passion, even after 20 years of art management. But rather than be stymied by the changes and challenges of digitalization (“Talk about lost art forms—I know how to mount a slide behind glass,” she quips), the eminently good-natured Hubner sees shifting technology as a means of making resources more accessible. “Because art history is based so much on the visual, and visual literacy so important, it’s essential to have a functional visual database. It’s what our faculty use in their teaching all the time.”
Shifting digital frontiers in both society and academia is what the Art History & Visual Studies department’s annual Faculty Research Symposium will be focusing on come February 27. “New Directions in Digital Scholarship” offers a look at how scholarship is being challenged, transformed and expanded. Featuring a keynote by the University of Exeter’s Dr. Fabrizio Nevola, all are welcome to hear a range of speakers and guests exploring these questions and more in the Haro Room of Cadboro Commons.
For Hubner, digitalization is primarily about future preservation. “Technology always changes,” she says. “In the past 10 years, we’ve gone from slides to digital; I can’t even imagine what we’ll be using in 10 more. But for people studying at UVic, how else would you be able to see these particular images and sites? You can’t just pop to the museum in Dijon on the weekend—but you can look at their images in DIDO.”
Art History’s Visual Resource Collection remains unique on campus for both its size and scope. “Some of our slides are so valuable they can actually be thought of as primary resources,” she explains. “One of our professors, Dr. Marcus Millwright, does a lot of research in Syria and he has images in our collection are of things that no longer exist, due to the conflict.”
Ironically, for someone who spends her days digitalizing images for online use, Hubner’s final thought is particularly poignant. “A local collection is an essential academic tool—much like a solid campus library—as it specifically reflects the faculty’s research and teaching here,” she says with a sly chuckle. “And, despite what people think, not everything is available on Google.”
This piece was originally published in the February 2015 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper
Like spring rains and sleepy groundhogs, the Victoria Film Festival is back and is once again featuring a number of contrbutions from the Faculty of Fine Arts. As well as representation on the VFF jury by current Writing MFA playwriting candidate Leah Callen and recent MFA filmmaker Connor Gaston, a number of faculty and alumni filmmakers are well represened in this year’s fest, running Feb 6-15 at various venues around the city.
Who is Theatre’s Leslie Bland with Alex Trebec?
Up first is the feature documentary Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood, co-directed by Department of Theatre alumnus and instructor Leslie D. Bland. Created with bestselling local humourist Ian Ferguson (author of How To Be A Canadian), Gone South seeks to expose the dirtiest secret in all of Hollywood—who is secretly Canadian?
A hilarious history of Canada’s contributions to Hollywood from the early 20th century onwards, Gone South documents the role Canadians played in founding Tinsel Town, and the roles Canadians continue to play to this day. From Alex Trebek and Monty Hall to Neve Campbell, Howie Mandel, Tommy Chong and Alan Thicke, Gone South features funny and frank interviews with some of the most famous actors, directors, musicians and producers who share this secret heritage. No surprise, Canadians are everywhere in Los Angeles . . . you just have to know where to look.
This is another kudo for Bland, who was recently awarded a UVic Continuing Sessional Lecturer Scholarship from the Learning and Teaching Centre. Gone South screens at 6pm Friday, Feb 6, at the Vic Theatre. Read more about it in this Globe and Mail article and in this piece from the Times Colonist.
Bradley on the set of Two 4 One (photo: Arnold Lim)
Up next is Department of Writing professor Maureen Bradley and her transgender romantic-comedy Two 4 One. Frequent readers of this blog will have followed Bradley’s debut feature film from its inception at the National Screen Institute’s Features First initiative through its filming during her study leave in early 2014 and its world premiere in Calgary and popular screenings at follow-up festivals. Just before their appearance at the VFF, Two 4 One will be the opening gala at the Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon—Canada’s largest Film Festival north of 60—an event at which Bradley and producer/Fine Arts staffer Daniel Hogg will be on hand.
A bittersweet romantic comedy, Two 4 One finds its transgender hero in an unimaginable predicament when ex-lovers Miriam and Adam have an ill-advised one night stand that sees them both end up pregnant. Featuring a standout performance from Gavin Crawford (This Hour Has 22 Minutes)—who was recently nominated for an ACTRA Award for his role in Two 4 One—Bradley feels the fact that she could write and shoot her film in Victoria is a strong indicator of the growth of the local film scene.
“There are a lot of amazing filmmakers locally now, and many are coming out of the Writing department,” she says, noting the likes of alumni Connor Gaston, Stacey Ashworth, Amanda Verhagen, Jason Bourque and Scott Amos. “It’s engaged learning at its finest; my students learn so much from being on set in my classes. Plus, they’re good writers. The department creates great poets, great fiction writers, great CNF and now we’re getting great screenwriters.”
You can hear Bradley discuss her film on CBC’s All Points West “Creative Class” column with Amanda Farrell-Low (skip ahead to 4:58), as well as in this CFAX 1070 interview with Pamela McCall (at the 48:00 mark).
Two 4 One has a Valentine’s Day screening at 6:30pm Saturday, Feb 14, at the Odeon and noon Sunday, Feb 15, at the Vic Theatre. Bradley and Hogg will be attendance at both screenings for a post-show Q&A.
Connor Gaston’s Godhead
Speaking of alumni filmmakers, Connor Gaston recently wrapped his own locally lensed debut feature, The Devout, and his intriguing short film Godhead will be seen at the VFF. Gaston has been making a name for himself of late thanks to the popularity of short films like the award-winning (and UVic created) ’Til Death.
Godhead will screen as part of the “Grander Schemes” short film program at 8:45pm Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Vic Theatre.
The triple-alumni creared Gord’s Brother
The busy alumni filmmaking team of Jeremy Lutter, Ben Rollo and Daniel Hogg are back again with their latest short film, Gord’s Brother. This same team of Writing grads earned film fest kudos back in 2011 with their robot charmer Joanna Makes A Friend and will now debut Gord’s Brother—created with funding they won through Harold Greenberg Fund’s Shorts-to-Features program. Lutter directs, Rollo writes and Hogg produces what’s described as is described as a “10-minute fantasy” in which “the protagonist discovers his baby brother is a monster, forcing him to visit the City of Monsters, where lessons are learned.”
Gord’s Brother screens as part of the short film program “Tense Times” at noon Saturday, Feb. 14, at the Vic Theatre.
Congratulations to all UVic filmmakers for their continuing outstanding work!
She’s the artistic director of Puente Theatre, the cinematographer for Look At What the Light Did Now—the Juno Award-winning documentary about Canadian singing sensation Feist—and recently won the Canadian Stage Award for Direction at the SummerWorks Festival with her acclaimed play El Jinete: A Mariachi Opera. By day, she’s the poetry, fiction and non-fiction editor at the publishing house Bayeux Arts, and her first children’s book Lunar is forthcoming later this year. Now, Department of Writing graduate Mercedes Bátiz-Benét can add UVic’s Distinguished Alumni Award to her impressive list of credits.
Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, 2015 Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni, (photo: Peter Pokorny)
“Personally and professionally, it means the world to be named one of this year’s Distinguished Alumni. I am deeply honoured,” says Bátiz-Benét from her family home in Mexico. “There were so many people who told me I wouldn’t last a semester at UVic and in Canada, that I would never be able to do a writing degree in another language, that I had no business doing so and that I wouldn’t have the courage, discipline, and tenacity to endure a life in the arts.”
“And when I think of the girl I was on my first day of university—frightened, overwhelmed, alone, and completely out of place—I don’t know why I didn’t believe all of that myself. But receiving this award has given me the opportunity to look back and realize how much and how hard I’ve worked to be where I am today, of how privileged I am to have an academic background in the arts and in philosophy, and to have a life, a fulfilling career and job in the arts.”
the sum of her achievements
Truly a renaissance woman, Bátiz-Benét—who speaks several languages—is an ideal choice as this year’s Distinguished Alumni for the Faculty of Fine Arts. Beyond her role with Puente Theatre, productions of her own plays include Faust: Ignis Fatuus (part of 2005’s international Faustfest), Cruel Tears/Lágrimas Crueles for Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, the roundly lauded El Jinete: A Mariachi Opera, which she wrote and directed, and, as co-writer, The Secret Sorrow of Hatchet Jack MacPhee for Caravan Farm Theatre, The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan for the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, as well as both The Umbrella and Gruff for the Kaleidoscope Family Theatre Festival.
Alumni Week 2015—the eighth annual spotlight on the positive impact of more than 100,000 UVic grads—runs from February 1-7. In addition to the Distinguished Alumni Awards, there are over a dozen other events including lectures, workshops, reunions and a featured evening with Chancellor Shelagh Rogers. “Some of our most meaningful connections happen through education—and this is true for both students and professors,” says Dr. Lynne Van Luven, Acting Dean of Fine Arts. “To be alumnus is to be part of something vital: memories, friendships, awakenings, ideas. Alumni Week captures all such excitement.”
Bátiz-Benét now joins the likes of previous Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Esi Edugyan (BA ’99), Michael J. Whitfield (BA ’67), Carla Funk (BFA ’97), Paul Beauchesne (BMus ’88), Deborah Willis (BA ’06), Valerie Murray (BA ’78), author Eden Robinson (BFA ’92) and Andrea Walsh (BA ’91).
“It’s an immense honour to be recognized by my faculty in my professional life, and in my life after university; I am truly humbled,” says Bátiz-Benét. “The 10 years I spent at UVic were some of the most fruitful, fulfilling and difficult years of my life, and the most important years of my formation as a woman, an artist, and a human being. I absolutely loved every second of my life at UVic, and to be now named one of the Distinguished Alumni is like putting a giant bow on the immense gift of my academic and professional lives. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t be able to do it had I not attended every class, read every book I read and engaged in every discussion I did. It fills me with pleasure and joy to know that my faculty and my alma mater feel proud about who I’ve become through their help.”
Mercedes speaking at the Distinguished Alumni Awards (UVic Photo Services)
Joining Bátiz-Benét at the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards Night on Wednesday, February 4, at the Hotel Grand Pacific will be the other noted thinkers, changers and difference-makers being honoured: Victoria Wells (Continuing Studies), Anne Tenning (Education), Josh Blair (Engineering), Kim Henderson (Human & Social Development), Lucas Aykroyd (Humanities), Douglas S. White (Law), David Day (Libraries), Dr. Tom Rimmer (Medical Sciences), Robert Beecroft (Science) and Susan Cartwright (Social Sciences).
a Mexicanadian perspective
Born and raised in Mexico, Bátiz-Benét moved to Canada in 1997 to attend UVic, where she earned a BFA in Writing (both poetry and drama), as well as a BA (with honours) in Philosophy. She also completed a Diploma in Film Production from the Pacific Film & New Media Academy. Approaching expression from as many angles as possible, she has worked as writer, dramaturge, theatre director, translator, adapter, actor, puppeteer, multi-media artist, screenwriter, film and video editor, cinematographer and director. Not that any of that was the plan, of course.
A scene from her mariachi opera, El Jinete
“I never intended to live in Canada,” she says. “But I chose UVic because of its writing program and because it was on an island in the Pacific. The prospect of studying and reading the great masters and thinkers, while being able to develop my own writing amidst a forest of pines by the ocean, was a dream come true.”
“Moving to an entirely different culture, language, way of thinking, and country, did wonders for my growth as a person and as an artist,” she continues. “I was able to find out who I was and what I was capable of doing away from the comfort and security of home, family, my culture, and my language. I feel very grateful and lucky I was able to study as many things as I did, and to learn and experiment with as many things as I did.“
As one of the many international students who contribute to UVic’s rich tapestry of success, Bátiz-Benét never regrets choosing to come here to learn. “I think it’s paramount for local audiences to learn from other cultures, especially in the multicultural experiment that is Canada. “We need to learn from each other so we have a greater and better understanding of what it means to be human,” she says. “Every culture experiences life from a different angle, from a different point of view and, in my experience, the more points of view you have, the more your understanding expands and deepens. I have a Mexican way of understanding and viewing the world, as well as a Canadian one, which enables me to develop a third point of view—a ‘Mexicanadian’ one, if you like.”
Bátiz-Benét and Brian Richmond (photo: Times Colonist)
Blue Bridge Artist Director and Department of Theatre professor Brian Richmond worked with Bátiz-Benét in 2014 on Cruel Tears/Lágrimas Crueles. “Mercedes is scary smart,” he says. “I have not only had the great privilege of working with her in Mexico and Canada on two very different productions of the musical Cruel Tears/ Lágrimas Crueles, but have watched her remarkable work with Puente Theatre with admiration and respect. She is an amazing asset for the Victoria, British Columbian and Canadian theatre community.”
exploring many paths
But how did she go from her original plans to specialize in poetry and journalism, to a career in theatre and film? “I actually found theatre and film during my time at UVic,” she explains. “Writing 100 changed my life—not only did I have to write poems, but also a play for the very first time, and a short story. It opened my eyes to new worlds of possibility, learning and expression, and when the time came to choose my major, I couldn’t let theatre go.”
Bátiz-Benét’s cinematographic work helped this Feist film win a Juno Award in 2012
Deciding on a double-major (poetry and drama), Bátiz-Benét was able to direct a staged reading of one of her plays at the Phoenix. “I knew then and there that I wanted to write and, one day, direct plays. I was hooked; I wanted to do anything and everything that had to do with theatre. Similarly, it was in a writing for film class that I made my first ‘film’ and, for the very first time, had hands-on experience in that field.”
Switching her minor from journalism to film studies, she then took as many literature and film classes as she could in other departments—including Germanic and Slavonic Studies, Latin-American Studies and French Studies. And, she says, her Philosophy degree provided her with the necessary tools and foundation needed to expand her own thinking, and creativity, as well as developing the capacity to doubt, question and find her way through her own thoughts, art and life.
“I am deeply grateful to UVic for allowing me to discover who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do,” she says. “I developed as an artist beyond anything I could’ve imagined on my first day of university, and have grown to be the person that I am, with the life that I have, thanks to everything I learned and experienced in my 10 years of full-time studies at UVic. Without my BFA, I never would’ve come to know these worlds, and I would’ve become a very different person.”
following her bliss
While Bátiz-Benét says it would be “impossible to list all the invaluable advice” she received from fellow students, staff and professors, when asked for one notable piece of advice she received while a student, she singles out two of her “greatest professors, mentors and friends:” Derk Wynand and the late Brian Hendricks, both of the Department of Writing. “Derk always told me to write about what I knew, and to always keep learning, so that I could in turn expand my writing,” she recalls. “And Brian told me to follow my bliss—words to live by. I try to follow their advice every day and with everything that I do.”
On the flip side of that, what’s one piece of advice she’d offer current Fine Arts students? “Never close yourself to learning, work hard every day and, in the words of Brian Hendricks, follow your bliss.”
When asked what the key is to succeeding in the arts, Bátiz-Benét admits her own life continues to be a work in progress.
“I don’t really know what the key to succeeding is . . . but I think the key to creating in the arts is to work hard and persevere, to always be open to new ideas, possibilities, and learning, and to follow an idea through to its logical conclusion,” she says. “Our curiosity, our willingness to dive into the unknown, our love and our need to create, understand and express an idea—those are the things that make us artists. The blank page is a frightening thing, but if one pushes through with the aid of passion, and perseverance, one can discover infinite marvels and possibilities beyond our wildest dreams.”
She advises current Fine Arts students to not be nervous about their chosen paths, but to instead follow their passion, work hard and persevere—and trust the rest will fall into place.
Mercedes with Acting Dean of Fine Arts Lynne Van Luven (UVic Photo Services)
“There’s no doubt about the ‘risky’ nature of a career in the arts—not only due to budgetary constraints and funding cutbacks, but also because of the saturation of the field, scarce job opportunities, and the huge importance of being in the right place at the right time,” she cautions. “Money and security are not what artists should be after, but experimentation, creativity and the creation of meaning . . . . We should be worried about ideas, stories, images, feelings, concepts, thoughts and dreams, about the intangible. Money and stability are not what stories are made of. Don’t be afraid; instead, invent, experiment, learn, be willing to fail and push through to the other side.”
Looking back, Bátiz-Benét concludes with a simple but evocative thought befitting her latest honour as a Distinguished Alumni. “I graduated with a BFA because I fell in love with more than one field in the arts, and I wanted to begin a journey into the unknown,” she says. “And what better way is there to create, than to thrust yourself into the unknown?