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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bearing Witness: The Diary of Anne Frank

My most difficult job this season as a live theatre audio describer has been The Diary Of Anne Frank. It's not that the production is visually complex, but the subject matter is a very dark demon to face. I was dreading it the first time around, but a wise friend pointed out: "The worst thing we can do in the face of evil is ignore it. The best of the human spirit, something of which we can and should always be proud, is found in witnessing. Subject evil to fierce, relentless scrutiny. Oblige it to be brazen or craven, but never let it slip by unremarked. Your work this evening is part of that continuum of witnessing. Take heart. Find joy in the good."

It is a remarkable production, and I wept during my descriptive performance. That is okay. That is authentic.

So as I head out to perform this amazing duty once again, here is an interview I did earlier in the year with Sara Farb, who plays Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival.

Sara Farb as Anne Frank

Q: What does it mean to you to be cast in this important role?

A: It’s a milestone for an actor of Jewish heritage. We have many survivors in our own family. In fact, I’ll be doing a Forum event with my grandmother, who herself was a young girl in a concentration camp. The wartime experiences with the Nazis were openly talked about as I grew up, so Anne Frank is part of my genetic fibre.

Q: So you were already very familiar with the book and the play?

A: I came to Anne’s diary early at elementary school: alongside the Torah, it was one of the main important texts for me growing up. This familiarity will be invaluable in doing the part.

As for the play, I’ve auditioned for the role in the past, and I saw a wonderful production at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto when I was very young. I admired the careful attention to details. Very finely drawn characters, like the portrayal of Mr. Dussel and his distaste for the cat – it had a great impact on me. I’m glad that a lot of more recent productions have been updated and are much more true to the diary itself, not watered down and sanitized. That sort of thing is a disservice to the legacy Anne left behind.

Q: What are you most looking forward to about working on the play? What are the biggest challenges for you?

A: It’s more of a joy than a daunting challenge. I’m aware of the extreme weight of history, but it is not foreign territory to me, so I feel confident that I can do it justice. I have two solid years in the Festival acting company behind me [Ms Farb is a graduate of the Birmingham Conservatory and has played the Shakespearean roles of Jessica and Cordelia] and that has certainly boosted my confidence. And there’s such a strong support network here – so many friends and mentors to count on.

I’m excited to work with the director, Jillian Keiley. She has an amazing brain and such a creative approach! It’s great to be a part of a production that will “dust it off” and transcend the usual expectations of what the play should look like. It will not be at all precious or twee.

Q: Do you feel that this story is still important to audiences of today?

A: We need this play here and now. We seem to endlessly cycle through a continuum of man’s ultimate cruelty and inhumanity to his fellow man. We’re fast approaching a time when the last survivors of the Holocaust will die off – so many now in their 80s and 90s – and it will be too late to make their struggles known first-hand. We need to be able to connect actual faces and individuals to these stories – make them real and meaningful.

It is a story of ordinary, flawed people, not saints and milksops. Thrown together, any bunch of different personalities will clash, even under better circumstances. Spend enough time with them, and even those you love the most will become your enemies, like Anne and her mom. Even icons of the perseverance of the human spirit can be selfish.

As a writer myself, I’ve found that specificity counts when telling a story: the more personal it is, the better understood by a wider audience. It gives us something to relate to – a universal understanding.

Please come and see this Stratford Festival production, if you are able:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meet Maria from the Stratford Festival's 'The Sound of Music'

Continuing with some of my retrospective articles from the Stratford Festival's SceneNotes e-magazine, I thought it might be fun to share this 'Meeting Maria' interview with the lovely and oh-so-talented Stephanie Rothenberg. We had a chance to chat back in the winter before rehearsals began. Since it opened, the production of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has earned rave reviews-- and well deserved, too! Stephanie is a shining star, as you can see and hear in the video above.

(I will be giving another live audio described performance of The Sound of Music again this week, so the show is at the front of my mind!)

Q: Since this will be your Stratford Festival debut, can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

A: I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee – though my parents both hail from the East Coast (Dad’s from New York and Mom’s from Pennsylvania) – and at the tender age of eight, I hit a fork in the road: should I continue with swimming lessons or theatre? I chose theatre and I’ve never looked back!

Being in the music mecca of Nashville, it seemed everyone’s basement contained a recording studio. I learned a lot about singing and started doing recordings with one of the city’s biggest kids’ music producers, working for companies like Disney and MTI. I was in a production of Grease at eight, and went “professional” with a dinner theatre production of Annie at eleven, then starred in The Diary of Anne Frank with Tennessee Repertory at fourteen.

Q: How did you get your big start as a leading lady on Broadway?

A: After high school, I applied to study Drama at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. I left there in 2011 and went straight to the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as an understudy.

The big moment came when I suddenly had to go on as Rosemary opposite Daniel Radcliffe – yes, Harry Potter himself! I only had a few hours to prepare for a sold-out performance. My dad managed to get a ticket, and it meant the world to me having him in the audience (along with notable patrons like Nathan Lane). Daniel was amazing and supportive, and he told me, “You’re not meant to just be understudying – you need to be doing this!”

I went on to take over the role of Rosemary opposite Nick Jonas, and no doubt once again made every teenage girl out there extremely jealous. It was the cherry on top of a really great cake. I had so many fantastic experiences doing that one show!

Q: What are you most looking forward to about being in Stratford next season?
A: It’s such a beautiful place! Growing up in Nashville, I was always surrounded by parks and outdoorsy spaces, and Stratford reminds me so much of that. I can’t wait to explore the town and dig into the local foodie scene, farmers’ markets and great restaurants – I love food and cooking.

Most of all, I am so honoured and thrilled to be on the Festival stage working with [director] Donna Feore and the amazing company. I saw Crazy for You this past season, and I was completely blown away by the energy and the palpable enjoyment between the cast and the audience. I can’t wait!

Q: Lastly, what are a few of your favourite things? Name five!

A: My choices are all so incredibly girly, but here we go!

One: In the winter, there’s nothing better than a luxurious bubble bath. And I mean a proper bath, with Mozart playing in the background, candles and a glass of wine while I lie back with a Travel and Leisure magazine. I love travel. In fact, I am visiting Austria over the holidays – it will be wonderful to get a first-hand look at the actual setting of The Sound of Music.

Two: I adore swimming and water, especially swimming in the ocean. I get a kick out of exploring gyms in New York – especially ones with rooftop pools.

Three: Cooking. I enjoy making meals for a crowd and throwing themed dinner parties. I just held a Mexican fiesta themed party with a bunch of friends, and it was great fun.

Four: Date night. I adore going out for a good ol’ fashioned dinner and a movie night with my guy. We go someplace fun for some food, like a neighbourhood Chinese joint, and then stroll through the Village to a great local movie house that screens old films, like Hitchcock classics.

Five: High tea. I love pulling out all of the stops and having a great formal spread with scones and cream with my best girlfriends.

The Sound of Music is on now -- and has been extended until November 1st!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Director John Caird's Labour of Love

Director John Caird

Hello, my darlings. The summer continues apace! And so does my series of my recent Stratford Festival SceneNotes interviews with some of the amazing talented theatre people who pass through my town every season.

Today's special guest... British theatre director extraordinaire, John Caird. Mr. Caird is just putting the final touches on his production of Love's Labour's Lost, and he had a chat with me in between rehearsals a few weeks ago. [He also bought and read Base Spirits, which was very kind of him when he's so busy! He enjoyed it-- found it very scary indeed. He'll pass it onto his son, also a director-- who has actually staged A Yorkshire Tragedy, the dramatic source and inspiration for my novel.)

Without further ado...

In a long and illustrious career studded with Tony and Olivier Awards, Alberta-born director John Caird is perhaps best known for the international smash hit musical, Les Misérables. I caught up with him during a break in rehearsals for Love's Labour's Lost.

Q: Despite having directed Shakespeare productions in the United Kingdom and all around the world, this is your Stratford Festival debut, is it not?

John Caird: Indeed it is! My coming here to direct Love’s Labour’s Lost this season is the culmination of a decades-long conversation with the Festival. I’ve always wanted to work here; the timing just never seemed to be right for me before now. I was too ensconced in my work with the RSC, the National Theatre and the West End, and my family life kept me in London. You could say that the Festival and I have enjoyed an ongoing mutual flirtation. It’s great to finally be here at long last.

Q: As a resident director with the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1970s to the ’90s and beyond, you certainly have an excellent grounding in Shakespeare’s works. But you also have a full and varied background directing new plays, musical theatre and opera. Are there a lot of differences between directing Shakespeare and an opera?

JC: Opera is a very different world altogether. In regular theatre, the director is the artistic authority and textual storyteller – although in the case of developing a new play for production, the playwright is in charge of the storytelling process. In opera, the conductor is the ultimate artistic authority. Opera as performed today is not theatre in any true sense of the word but rather a dramatic branch of classical music. The criteria for excellence are all defined by the quality of the music and the performances of the singers and musicians. As a director, it is not as intellectually engaging as the process of theatre production, and the actual repertoire is quite small. I enjoy it in a very different way.

When I’m directing Shakespeare, most of the actors are generally coming to their roles for the first time. In opera, the performers will often have sung their parts multiple times in other productions – as many as a dozen times or more.

Audiences for opera tend to be dedicated classical music types. They are not necessarily lovers of theatre; in fact, there is surprisingly little crossover between the patrons of opera and theatre. Opera is also horrifically pricey to stage – it is said there is only one thing more expensive than opera, and that’s war! Opera is highly dependent on affluent sponsors and patrons, whereas theatre – Shakespearean theatre in particular – is largely supported by its extremely loyal and enthusiastic audiences.

Q: Les Misérables really opened up the world stage for your theatre career. What is it like to direct Shakespeare in a different language?

JC: I’ve been very lucky with Les Misérables and the opportunities it’s given me. Thirty years later, and it’s still going strong. Who knew? Before Les Miz, I was used to my productions being tossed in the bin after a six-week run!

Since 2009, as the principal guest director at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, I’ve directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet in Swedish. I have developed great relationships with a team of translators and dramaturges and actors as we refine the text in workshop and rehearsal. I supervise the translation process. The challenge is that English has a huge vocabulary compared to Swedish; there are over 650,000 words in English because the language was fed by so many other source languages, and Shakespeare really loved to experiment and play with a whole new vocabulary all his own.

I’m also really enjoying working on Shakespeare in Japan. Earlier this year in Tokyo, I directed Twelfth Night – or Juni Ya – in Japanese. I love working in other languages and cultures. It makes the old, familiar texts completely fresh, and the audiences aren’t jaded: these stories are much newer to them, whereas in the West we can sometimes suffer from cultural fatigue.

Q: How are you finding your first Stratford experience so far? What can audiences expect from your staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost?

JC: I have been extremely lucky with the entire cast. Every single company member is highly talented and motivated. These are actors who really know and understand the language and how to use the verse. Even at the RSC, new young actors have to be taught how to do all of that. Training is key: I think your Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre gives the Festival a unique advantage in honing the next generation of Shakespearean performers.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a very “young” play – very youth-orientated, so having so many recent Conservatory students in the cast is wonderful. As a group, they have a lovely relaxation born of familiarity with one another and they are all extremely lively! No one seems to bring much ego to the party. I like that. Stratford as a whole seems extraordinarily calm and restful. I’m enjoying the “college campus” sort of feel the place has.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is also a very delicate play. The plot doesn’t add up to much, so you can’t load too much modern reference onto it without the danger of the whole thing snapping. The characters all delight in language-play that is rooted very much in its original era, so one would have to be very careful if one wanted to update it. Modernization of Shakespearean production is fine, but it has to have a solid reason or it doesn’t work. This play feels just right in its own time.

Love's Labour's Lost starts previews on July 30, and opens at the Stratford Festival on August 14. For more information on the production and to get your tickets, visit: or call the Box Office at 1.800.567.1600.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Words, Words, Words: Meet Stratford Festival's Hamlet

Oops! I've been too busy to blog again! But at least I've been happy-busy!

It's summer here in Stratford, and that means the Stratford Festival is in full-swing... which means I am busy with audio-description for a few of the productions, as well as writing articles about some of our wonderful performers and artists for the e-newsletter, SceneNotes.

As I am off to see Hamlet again tonight, here is a reprint of an interview I did with star Jonathan Goad for our January edition just before rehearsals began. Enjoy-- and come see the show!

Note: I will be audio-describing this production live for the blind and visually impaired on July 26 and again on September 5. If you know anyone who would enjoy this added accessibility, please let them know.

Q: You have a lot of experience playing leads, and are certainly no stranger to Shakespeare. Are there any previous roles in particular that you feel will help you play Hamlet?

A: You could say that all of Shakespeare’s major roles help to inform an actor’s portrayal of Hamlet. I’ve played the title role in Pericles, and though he’s a very different sort of prince in many ways, both are swept away by the magnitude of their outside circumstances. Playing that sort of lead character is a perfect background, because it makes me familiar with being at the very centre of the vortex of a play. But the successful portrayal of any part is always a team effort – and we have a great team!

A play that might give me the best grounding is Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, which I did with The Company Theatre in Toronto a few years back. Our director, Jason Byrne, said to me, “This play is a bit of a Hamlet” – referring to the overwhelming scale of the dilemma in the drama and the paradigm shift in the main character. It has a lot of obvious parallels.

Q: Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known role, filled with some of his most famous quotes. Did this daunt you at all when you were cast?

A: As with any great leading part, there is a great responsibility to be the glue of the play, so you absolutely have to bring your “A” game to every single second of every performance and be 100% on every night. You need to find the truth in every moment to reach your full potential, and to fully reach the audience.

The real challenge in doing such a famous play is to ensure that the viewer will truly care. You want it to be relevant to them, here and now. Hamlet’s character is so multi-dimensional – on a huge intellectual, emotional and physical scale. It’s his philosophical revealing of his inner self – his vulnerability – that draws us in and takes us into a sort of universal experience to which everyone can relate. An actor wants to bring a Hamlet to the stage that will connect with the audience on an authentic human level.

The big speech, “To be, or not to be,” is only one of his six incredible soliloquies. It’s a pause for breath in the middle of the action, and he never refers to himself: it’s a speech about a collective humanity. The entire play is open to so many questions that take on a life of their own. Is he really mad? Suicidal? Does he really love Ophelia? It’s a journey worth continually investigating from production to production – and from performance to performance.

At the end of the day, what will really grab the audience is the fact that Hamlet is still a remarkable revenge tragedy: a great yarn full of high stakes, high tension and knock-it-out-of-the-park moments.

Q: Hamlet is famous for his melancholy. To end on a positive note, name five things that make you happy.

A: One: First and foremost, my wonderful family.

Two: Anything with a board! I love skateboarding, long-boarding, snowboarding – and I hope to get in a week of pre-Hamlet surfing this winter.

Three: Community. By that I mean the remarkable community of the theatre and everyone who makes a show happen – and also the community formed between performers and their audiences.

Four: I love to learn. I have been doing more and more teaching, and in doing so I always am learning new things myself.

Five: Young people: they possess such boundless excitement, enthusiasm and potential.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Back from the Dead

Dear followers, it's been too long. But I'm not dead, and am now resurfacing from a very nasty stretch of personal turmoil... here's proof that I am still among the living:

After the annual Stratford Swan Parade on April 12, 2015.

Thanks for reading this. I wouldn't blame you for totally giving up on me-- I nearly did myself. I am horrified to see that my last blog post was back in July!!! I don't really want to go over every detail and revisit all of my interim anguish at this point in time, but in a nutshell? My 2014 sucked the hind teat of a particularly sadistic hellhound bitch.

The Reader's Digest  condensed version of events: I was finding my footing in a full-time job after working at home for years. I found myself at the end of a long-term relationship. My elderly parents were both struggling with dementia and other ailments, and my family was in agonies over how best to help them. My own health was up and down. And just as my three brothers and I had our hands forced by circumstances that saw our dear Mom put into long term care, my eldest brother Chris was diagnosed with leukaemia-- and was suddenly in a coma at death's door.

I think that's where I left you hanging. I am sorry.

This has been a shitty time, and I needed to retreat and deal with the succession of blows. My writing all but stopped. Somehow I was hanging in at work, and trying to do what I could for the family from a helpless distance. My days consisted of rising from a fitful sleep, putting in a full day at the Stratford Festival offices, rushing home to make and field phone calls and emails with relatives, the Alzheimer's Society and health care workers, then fixing and eating a solitary dinner before falling into bed as a ragged shadow of myself at the end of the night. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Relentlessly.


Chris showing evident pride and affection for his cadets.

Chris rallied briefly, surprising us all by emerging from the coma with the disease at bay and his mind sharp and strong. He always was a determined fighter, but his body was weakened by this tough battle. Shortly after we'd moved Dad into the same care facility as Mom, Chris died in early December. He was the golden child of the family, and had lived the best of lives-- and we celebrated that as we said goodbye: remembering his love of his wife and his dogs; his adoration of books, music, history and golf; his career with the RCMP; his law studies; his obsession with flight (he could fly a plane before he could drive a car!) and his recent dedication to leadership with the Air Cadets. A remarkable group of young cadets stood as his Honour Guards, and faultlessly folded and presented the flag to his widow, Louise. It was a difficult farewell, but a noble one-- as befit the man.

As we were all still stumbling around in shock, the next blow came when my father died ten days later. Ours was a difficult relationship, but the loss of a parent is an event of mythological proportion in anyone's life. It is the end of an era. I can at least be glad that I had managed to set aside a lifetime of anger and hurt, and tried my best to just help him toward the end of his life. I feel I succeeded in reaching a kind of reparation.

Dad displaying his own father's WWI service medals and badges.

And at the very end of the year from Hell, I finished with my full-time job-- the position having been eliminated due to internal shuffling and reordering. It wasn't that I'd done anything wrong, they assured me. That's just the way my luck went in the bloody awful year of 2014.

Understandably, I was in a damned dark mood these past few months. But I am back.

I have been writing. Submitting short stories to anthology calls and competitions. Zeroing in on the end of the long-awaited first draft of book one of my Dead Drunk series, In The Bag, and being slammed with ideas for other new writing... including another novel that seemed to drop all at once into my lap from out of the ether. I am part of a new and vibrant women's writing group here in Stratford. I'm even doing some acting again after 15 years... a tiny part in a staged reading of a dramatic adaptation of Deborah Ellis's pivotal novel, The Breadwinner!the-breadwinner/c1vv3. Today, I went to a splendid writing workshop with Canadian horror master, Andew Pyper, and a reading from his new book, The Damned. I have a lot of inspiration and spark to get back at it.

I feel ready to take life on again. I've had quite enough of death.