Beyond a Theatre Review: New (to me), Toronto Theatre That Excites Me

Although I haven’t posted reviews about all of them, I have been to many more shows in the past few months since I first moved to Toronto. I’m always going to a reading or performance event at least once or twice a week. The problem now is that I don’t want to sit down and write about all of them. It seems like . . . it’s just more noise and it’s just a process to document everything I’ve attended. So instead of back-logging or listing everything, I want to zoom in on two theatre events that I enjoyed and stayed with me in ways I didn’t expect. And finding unexpected surprises in the theatre–that’s what I want.

1) Der Vorfuhrefekt Theatre’s The 7 Person Chair Pyramid High Wire Act

From Der Vorfuhreffekt Event FB page

From Der Vorfuhreffekt Event FB page

A friend from my MA program publicized this performance all around our department and on the internet. I was going to skip the performance initially because it sounded outside my theatre interests–DIY theater? a theater troupe she met at a conference/workshop on political theater? Neither sounds like my research or personal interests–but I felt like I had to go and support. And because I had promised myself when I moved to Toronto that I would expose my self to some shows that I would otherwise pass up.

In this case, I got to see a show that was only in Toronto for one night, I got to see it in Beit Zatoun (an arts space dedicated to political movements and other sorts of social justice-inspired and supporting art), and most importantly, I witnessed a show that taught me how I could embrace these tangents of do-it-yourself theater, science, and maybe politics, as long as they were woven in such a brilliant script and narrative package as The 7 Person Chair Pyramid High Wire Act.

The homemade set didn’t bother me. I thought it would constantly draw attention to itself and say, “Look at me! I’m made of found objects. I’m made by humans and not machines. I’m about to fall apart.” Instead, every time the actors manipulated it by turning on their own spot light or lifting up the Siberian rope-maker’s cave out of the floor, I was further drawn into the story. Maybe it was because the story was so cobbled together from different facts about the Electromagnetic Spectrum, bats, the actual 7 person chair high wire act, miracles, and rope-making that I wanted to be focusing on the links between them and the ways that the actors/theatre-makers were turning these disparate links into a story that made me gasp, tear-up, and grin from ear to ear when it was finished. It taught me so much without every feeling like it was didactic theater. Again, The 7 Person Chair High Wire Act as a script and as a performance worked more through the links between facts than through a cohesive image or theme it wanted to give to the audience.

All I can say now is that I have bought the script and I cannot wait to revisit it time and time again when I think my own writing is too random and not focused enough. It goes to show that the right narrative structure, one that embraces puppetry, slide shows, letters, and a very long sheet of illustrated paper in addition to the “normal” fare of monologues and dialogues, can bridge any breadth of material together.

Without seeing this show, I might have abandoned A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I might have said, “This is science writing and I’m a humanities/theatre person. Why am I reading this?” Instead, I’m soaking up every odd and yet enlightening science metaphor and especially every odd science story about the universe and the scientists who have helped us learn about it. I wouldn’t have a new play idea that excites me. For all this and more, I have to thank my friend and Der Vorfuhreffekt Theatre for exploding my boundaries about what can make great theatre.

2) Why We Are Here! by Nightswimming

Through talks about internship possibilities, it was suggested I attend the first Why We Are Here! event of November 2013. I had no idea what to expect except that it was going to include singing with strangers, that I didn’t need to have any singing experience, and that there would be hot tea waiting for me at the performance site. I wasn’t sure how this related to a theatre company, but I was game. Especially since tea was involved . . .

I didn’t realize how much I missed singing or how much of a community experience it can be until I left that first session at 500 Dundas Street West. I thought it would be weird to sing in a commercial real estate show room for new condos in Regent Park. I guess it could have been weird to go to an event alone, but then again, I’ve been doing that so much in Toronto that it doesn’t bother me at all. Every performance, every festival, every happening is a chance to meet someone new. And once again, I had no idea how freeing it could be to get to know strangers by singing with them in a pop-up, one-night-only community choir. Under the guidance of musical director Suba Sankaran, we warmed up our voices and then had the best time improvising. The showroom had this insane acoustic center so volunteers could walk into the center of the choir circle and just solo on top of the group, letting the room’s acoustics carry his or her voice much further than expected.

When we took a break, artist Jani Lauzon shared history about the Regent Park region when it was inhabited by the first people in Canada, the First Nations and aboriginal groups. We talked about how the British settlers placed square plots and city blocks on top of the circles of land previously used by the First Nations peoples–and then we experimented back in the choir with singing in circles and in squares. Suddenly I understood how this was art and theatre as well as just a fun, relaxing way to belt without embarrassment in public. I was enamored with the idea of land divided into circles and squares, especially after discussions about the Toronto Waterfront in my performance studies course up at York University.

In other words, I had found a new, fun way to engage with Toronto theater that allowed me to be an active participant, drink more tea, and exercise the singing voice that has lain dormant since I returned from studying abroad at Oxford and my Hertford College Chapel Choir. Although I hadn’t marked it as “theatre” at first, I saw how the creation of a community, the integration of site history/dramaturgy, and the creation of a live and collaborative performance of song definitely fit under that heading. I suppose it goes to show that although I prefer “traditional” theater, the type set on a stage with actors and a clearly defined audience, maybe it’s time to look past those boundaries and to realize that my comfort zone as a human and an artist extends further into the realm of performance art. Maybe.

From Nightswimming's FB Page, Nov 25 Why We Are Here! in Toronto City Hall

From Nightswimming’s FB Page, Nov 25 Why We Are Here! in Toronto City Hall

I wasn’t able to make it to all four of the November 2013 Why We Are Here! events, but I did get to sing rounds about “The Ghost of John” and learn about roots in community in the historic Campbell House. Last week I made the most exciting (and current) session which met at Toronto’s City Hall Council Chambers. That’s right. I got to sit in one of those chairs and help bring old school gospels and harmony into those chambers, the same ones that just stripped Mayor Rob Ford effectively of his powers.

I am deeply grateful for these two shows/theatre events. Here’s me being grateful for theatre experiences in Toronto–especially since I’ll just be going to yet another play reading instead of celebrating the traditional American Thanksgiving.

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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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