Beyond a Theatre Review: Why We Are Here! The Grand Finale

As I ponder over which word will be mine for 2014, I will revisit an event that helped me push boundaries and fully experience new theatre: Nightswimming’s Why We Are Here! Appropriately enough, it was the first theatre I attended upon returning to Toronto. The first show of 2014.

Though it was another return of sorts, the grand finale still had much to teach me.

I thought that I had figured out what it meant to sing with strangers. I thought I had figured everything about place that Why We Are Here! could teach me. But taking the event back to an actual theater, Passe Muraille, showed me how theatrical singing can be. I feel like the hours and hours of watching Glee should have prepared me for this, that it would be self-evident since the show’s first season even had episodes titled “Theatricality.” But I suppose the difference is that watching Glee means experiencing the theatrical presence of show choirs filtered through a television screen. Which means I was not experiencing the presence of the event at all. I knew there was something special and theatrical about these pop-up, one-night-only choirs that Nightswimming had been forming for the past four sessions in November 2013. The locations each had the quality of a stage about them, though these stages were most often used for historical, commercial, sacred, and political performances, and the whole event was, after all, put together by a theatre company.

I also didn’t realize how much freeing the act of singing could be. Attending other events, I was still so wrapped in my goals to meet new people in Toronto, to link every experience to my career, and to find the takeaways from these extracurricular theater events that I could take back to my graduate classes and peers. I listened to the lead artist Jani Lauzon’s pearls of wisdom about each space’s history and meaning. I learned the songs and took the stories with me throughout the week. This time, the story was not about community in diaspora or the loss of community or setting down roots in a specific place. No, for the finale, Jani wanted to leave us with the knowledge that the most essential roots to grow, the most important home we can each of us honor is our own body.

In this new beginning, this return to Toronto, I needed to hear Jani’s message of how the balance of everything–the physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual–is reflected in the winds and the outside world but ultimately rests within us. Though I may not know where I’ll be after this graduate program and though I may be torn against so many homes both in the United States and Canada (and still the traces of one in Oxford, England), I can be confident in the home I have in myself.

This home in my body has another great tool: it has a voice and going to this last Why We Are Here! reminded me especially that it is a great one I should use more often. I used to sing a lot. When I studied at Oxford, I had many adventures and calm Sunday nights among the ranks of the Hertford College Chapel Choir (a taste if you haven’t read it before). Before that even I sang in my room so often that none of my family members were surprised but rather glad to see me use my skills for more than waking them up in the morning when I performed in the college musical productions Company and Aida. I used to belt it out in the mornings and while studying at Rice. But here in Toronto I’ve lost that voice. I’m not part of any choir and I haven’t felt comfortable singing in my own home. But after driving through Austin singing through the best parts of the Wicked soundtrack with one of my craziest fun suitemates from Rice and Why We Are Here! I realize it’s time to unleash that voice once again. I deserve to make whatever noise I deem necessary. As the choir director of the finale Annabelle Chvostek said, all noise is music.

It didn’t hit me until we spread out through the entire Mainspace of Passe Muraille. We had some singers on the stage, a few in the “audience,” and the majority of the altos and sopranos up on the second story, surrounding the space and looking down on it. I had been giving it my all as we danced, swayed, and belted out the notes before, but on this performance I felt it all channel through me with a body and effortless power I couldn’t name or understand. And then I looked across the theater space to the performers as they moved. I knew it wasn’t choreographed or practiced. I knew no one had set the lights in the perfect places or thought about the shadows that our dancing, swaying arms would paint against the back wall. All this happened and more. It felt real and because of that, the pure joy I saw reflected back at me from my fellow singers and performers only looked more theatrical. More than that, it was just beautiful.


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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