Beyond a Theatre Review: Ushering in Toronto–Crash and Dinner at 7:30

I’ve found a new way to not only see more theater performances in Toronto, but to be more involved with them: ushering. I’m lucky that some of the greatest Canadian theaters fill their front of house ushering slots with volunteers. This weekend it allowed me to see two sold-out performances. So far, it has been a very good gig.

Saturday sent me to a new theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille. I enjoyed trekking back to Queen Street East and the Bathurst area in the chilly rain. Thankfully the front of house manager and box office manager were both warm and friendly when I got inside the lobby–and very happy to have a new volunteer join their ranks. I stuffed some programs, listened to the pre-show chat in the lobby’s rush lines, and then went up near the Backspace theater to wait for the house to open. Usually I don’t enjoy the dead time before a show starts. When I was part of the show at Rice University as the producer, actor, writer, et cetera, those moments before were delicious with anticipation or the nerves of the performance. But going to theatre shows alone in Toronto . . . the pre-show moments are the times I feel the most isolated. Like I’ve come into this thriving community without a life raft. As an usher, this fear is taken away and replaced with the friendly, mindless action of greeting the other audience members and ripping their tickets. I’m not good at the ripping part yet (I’ve been told it takes a cleaner, brisker fold), but it erases those awkward waiting moments. Just before the show started, I slipped into my reserved seat in the theater and waited for the show.

Crash did start with the crash. I was surprised at first by how much of a blackout they had created in this odd theater, but then even more surprised by the sound effect that opened the show. I should have expected a lot of the elements in this Dora Award winning production. I should have been expecting the tragedy, healing, narrative of a sexual assault experienced by the actress who wrote and stars in the one-woman show. But I didn’t and I’m glad. It used to anger me in theater classes when we had to perform autodramas, short pieces about each acting student’s life experiences. Why? Because it became so much less about the performance and the technique of forming and performing your own narrative–and more about congratulating and almost rewarding the student for the horrors of his or her life, the accomplishment of just living. I was afraid that this play might have won the 2013 Dora for Best New Play for a similar reason. But it did not. I don’t know how Pamela Mala Sinha managed to write this piece with such clarity and distance, much less how she performs it for full runs to sold-out houses, but it’s clear she won this award because the narrative she tells is smooth and gripping. Each element of the design, from the stark lighting, projections, stairs of the set, to the especially jarring sound design, blends to tell Pamela’s tragedy, but also the story of her family. Her ability for incredible distance and story-telling hit me when she took on the body posture and voice of the police officer who worked her sexual assault case. She transformed and I could see both how it was her story, but how Pamela, with the help of director Alan Dilworth, embodied other actors surrounding these highly charged, emotional events. She made what was such a dark, personal story into something worth sharing and staging.

Entrance to yet another theater I attended this weekend, but for a performance piece.

Entrance to yet another theater I attended this weekend, but for a performance piece.

I was excited to usher for my second gig and second matinee in a row at Buddies in Bad Times for Theatre Rusticle’s final performance of Dinner at Seven Thirty. Once again, the box office manager and front of house manager were both incredibly nice. I had a great chat with one of the front of house employees–she complimented my unique style (red skirt, orange jacket . . . apparently since my feature on Rice’s fashion blog, it’s clear I have some sort of fashion sense)–and then the bar manager gave us homemade chocolate chip cookies! By the time I was set up in the theater, I didn’t feel so much like a newbie any more and I no longer felt like such an outsider/newcomer to the Toronto theater scene. It helped when one of my new friends from U of T unexpectedly walked in . . .

Unfortunately, even though I was privileged to be sitting in another full house, the show did not impress. Friends from York told me the night before that it was incredible. Now I realize that they are in the middle of doctoral research on dance and enjoy movement-based theater. I’m not against movement-based theater, but when it’s coupled with poetic verse, a lilting score, and softly flickering lights, it comes way too close to the real dream for me to hold the dream-like world in my awake conscious mind. I didn’t fall asleep, but I couldn’t help from falling into a sort of sleepy trance. That being said, I loved the light yellow costumes. All the movements were so graceful and choreographed, especially those of The Hero. Reading the program notes later that night helped immensely as it framed the lyrical lines and poetic feel: it was originally inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Suddenly the characters made sense, their child-like pantomime from the beginning, and the presence of the all-white, ghostly figure–they all fit into this narrative tracing the lives of a group of friends through childhood to the anniversary of the first death of The Hero. I wish I remembered more of the language, but at least I can appreciate more of my afternoon daydream than when I initially left the theater.

It was a little stressful managing all these ushering commitments, keeping them all straight on my calendar. They have taught me that Google calendar and technology are only as perfect as the person/thing inputting the dates . . . Regardless, look out for more posts on my unique view as an usher. It’s too much fun–and cheap!–to stop now.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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