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Musings on World Theatre Day 2016
Submitted by Nick on Tue, 04/05/2016 - 9:41pm
Incoming Artistic Director
“As cultures intermingle on the stage the audience is brought together before precise, yet universal truths.”
~ Peter Brook, World Theatre Day Message, 1988
This World Theatre Day, I reflect on what has inspired me to continue being an artist.
Choosing this path has propelled me into a life of extreme emotions, constant negotiations, and fleeting trips from city to city. Life and work have become one and every spare moment is spent writing emails, poetry, or prose. I have spent beautiful sunny days in dark rooms “finding my light” and rainy afternoons singing opera on street corners, and like most artists, wee hours of the night are dedicated to writing grant applications so I can pay myself for it all. Needless to say, it isn’t glamorous.
So why do we do it?
I do it because I feel it somehow makes a difference. Because theatre is always teaching me new things and I’m constantly pushed to see life from another perspective. Because theatre has the ability to change the way we see our world. I do it because that person in the audience came up after the show and said “I sincerely thank you for telling our story.” I do it because theatre can make anyone a storyteller, and it moves me to tears to see youth on stage. I do it because I imagine theatre being able to instigate real change. Not just change in the awareness of people, but real political and systemic change.
Wouldn’t that just be so awesome?
I do it because I have started believing that maybe change is coming—because I’m living in a country that has recently announced a significant increase in its support to the arts. A country that has opened its doors to thousands in need of a home.
I do it because it excites me—because being an artist isn’t just being an artist in a black box, frame or proscenium, but being someone who reacts to, responds to, and perhaps even helps to shape the world that we live in. I do it, well, because I can’t see myself doing anything else. And somehow, even when we’re faced with challenges of space, funding, and resources, we still make it happen. We’re still capable of bringing comfort, hope and joy, or anger and conflicted emotions to a room full of people.
And maybe when that person in the audience does turn to the stranger next to them, it is the beginning of a change that is to come.
Outgoing Artistic Director of MT Space,
Artistic Director of IMPACT Theatre Festival
On World Theatre Day 2016, Anatoli Vassiliev started his message with a question: “Do we need theatre?”
I have been also wondering: Do we need theatre in this time of the Syrian refugee crises? “What is it to us?” Vassiliev asks. What is it to the many Syrians who are fleeing death in a relentless war, only to face another death by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, I ask?
“What do we need it for?” Vassiliev wonders before he goes on to tell us that “theatre can tell us everything.”
Here at MT Space, theatre was recently able to tell us one particular thing in response to the refugee crisis.
It told us that we, as a theatre community, can get together to sponsor a fellow Syrian artist stuck in Cairo, with only one option: to “ride the sea.” Theatre has brought us together from across this vast country of ours, to extend a hand and to offer Ahmad Mire’e a place amongst us. While many of the contributors to Ahmad’s sponsorship campaign were not theatre artists in particular, for me this campaign was very much about theatre. It was about theatre beyond the art form. It was about theatre as a culture of support and collaboration; theatre as means for empowerment and solidarity; theatre as a community building exercise.
When Ahmad Mire’e was identified to us by the refugee response organization Najda Now as a theatre student and emerging artist in need of a refugee sponsorship to come to Canada, MT Space called on theatres across Canada to help. With endorsement from the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), and using the Toronto Fringe crowd funding platform Fund What You Can, $14,000 were raised. Theatre here had a direct effect on someone’s life, and it did it outside the theatre.
I add my voice to yours Mr. Vassiliev to say: theatre, not only “can tell us everything,” but also it can do everything for us, because theatre by its very nature demands of us to ‘act!’ :)
I am not an actor…
I am a musician. Music is and always will be my first love, and I will never stop making music.
Last June, I became a musician managing a theatre company. Since then I have had the pleasure of witnessing a talented community of theatre artists creating and performing their art, the overwhelming joy of watching them shine in the spotlight, and the honour of contributing to their creations as a musician, composer, and sound designer.
In February, I was asked to read a part in a new play by Katharine Mills, for Flush Ink’s UnHinged Festival. I am not an actor...but I said yes, because I like to try new things. I took an acting lesson from Nicholas Cumming who led me through a seemingly simple yet surprisingly challenging exercise called 'Present Yourself'. I have presented myself to hundreds of audiences since I became a musician...but always with a flute holding the space between us.
Without that comforting piece of metal in my hands, there is nothing to protect me from being seen.
The thing is...we want to be seen. And we want to see each other. We are afraid of it, but we want it. This is what theatre does. It shows us entire worlds we never imagined, it shows us people we have never met, and it shows us ourselves. Whether we are on stage or in the audience, theatre allows us to see each other, and to be seen.
To be seen.
When interviewed by journalists back home in Syria, where I was still living and working as a theatre artist, I used always to say:
“Theatre is a little prophecy, and artists are little prophets.”
When I first came to Canada in 1999, I was full of myself as an artist, as a beautiful woman and as an avant-garde person. For years after that, however, my art, my beauty and talent were of no use. No one seemed to see any of it. No one seemed to notice my talent, my skills nor by beauty.
For years, I flew like a pie in the sky. I then landed a job as a cashier at Daisy Mart convenience store. I became nothing, nothing at all, nothing but a short woman who sells cigarettes and gum; a mere cashier. I changed all the older habits of my educated and cultured self, no more reading, no acting, no intellectual discussions, no love affairs, no socializing, no wine or candles, no one calls, no one to call, nothing. I became only two working hands with no pride or dignity, working all day, selling stuff and stuffing shelves. My brain was only used to remember what I was, and what I became, and to feel sorry for myself. My past experiences, my witty jokes, my cultural knowledge and smart comments, seem all to have disappeared. And, I wasn’t even smart enough in selling cigarettes and chewing gum after all.
In short, I was invisible.
In 2008, Majdi called me and asked me to join, as an actor, the MT Space production of The Last 15 Seconds. Initially, I was scared as I haven’t been on stage for years.
Would I still be capable of pulling a serious acting job?
I moved to Kitchener to start rehearsing The Last 15 Seconds. I rented a small cheap bachelor without a TV or internet or laundry machine. It was a very basic apartment: A door, ceiling, electricity and bathroom. Just like my existence, basic, breathing, eating, sleeping and paying the bills. I was still invisible. No one can see me.
There was a stray cat that wandered around my apartment. I was luring that cat to become my friend, feeding him, combing his hair and loving him. I love animals.
Across the street, lived a neighbour, with a dog and a cat. This neighbour reminded me of the men I used to fall in love with back in Syria, educated, artsy, creative and passionate. I would see them often holding flowers for me in one hand and a book in the other. Reminiscent of those men was my neighbour. He would always sit on his balcony with his dog, his cat and a book in his hand. I knew later he is a writer.
I became anxious to know him. I was attracted to him. But he never noticed me. I did what I could to attract his attention: walking in and out of my balcony, playing loud classical music to show him how cultured I am, holding high my scripts, reading loud. I was doing anything and everything that would give him a reason to look at me so I can talk to him. Eventually, I managed to chat briefly with him. I even invited him to the rehearsals. I just wanted him to see me, know I was an artist, a woman, an educated woman, like him, an animal lover, a reader, a woman with passion. It was all in vain. He even refused my offer to look after his pets when he’s away. He still couldn’t see me. I was totally invisible to him.
Spending long days in a dark closed studio rehearsing The Last 15 Seconds was depressing to say the least. Rehearsals were very difficult, the subject matter was sad, and we were engaging in a lot of heated and emotional arguments where my tears would flow almost every day. I had doubts in my acting abilities and also in my political arguments around the show. No one could see me and I couldn’t see myself, I was totally in the dark. Then came the day of the performance at the Registry Theatre, where The Last 15 Seconds opened as part IMPACT 09 festival. On stage, I stood tall in front of the audience. I became taller and bigger than I’ve even been in years. My feet were grounded. I performed. I did my part with conviction and confidence. I was seen. Everyone in the house saw me. Everything I did in the play was seen. My words were heard.
The audience saw the whole of me, inside out.
After the play people started saying: ‘Hello Nada. We saw you in The Last 15 Seconds. We liked you in The Last 15 Seconds.’ I started to have a shape, a form, a body. I started to be liked or disliked. I started to be seen, to exist.
This is why theatre is. It is for you to be seen, for you to expose, express and share ideas and emotions. It is you, the artist, and the leader where everything you do or say is a responsibility.
It is your responsibility to elevate yourself, and to spend hundreds of hours in the dark room rehearsing and squeezing your creative juices while other people are drinking juice in the park! Then it is your opinions, your art, your work, that is going to be heard and seen by the audience. What values, stories and questions are you going to bring to your audience? The audience doesn’t know how hard you worked. But they are there ready to like you, learn from you or even criticize you.
Theatre transforms thoughts and ideas to tangible forms. Theatre is you. It is your political stand, your morals, your values, and your message that will be seen and heard. In theatre you, the artist, become the story and the message. In theatre, you are the little prophet who sacrifices him/herself to tell a little prophecy.
The audience will always go to the theatre to see, do you have something to show?
I have been in love with performance since I was in grade one and my mother pinned a striped white, blue and green towel on my back. I became a 'slippery snake' in the classroom. That was it! That was my first acting experience.
I was hooked on the magic
of performative transformation.
I didn’t come into contact with the theatre until much later after that—Grade 8, I think. Theatre then was still just platforms in the gymnasium of my school. We hadn’t graduated to lights and other special effects. I was only a member of the choir in Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat. But that gymnasium saw many other fond memories—of speech contests and Christmas concerts where I embodied profound messages of peace and humorous anecdotes to bind our community in laughter. I could see theatre had some kind of group healing magic. I always felt great after. I just didn’t quite understand its full power yet. It definitely brought people together and I liked being a noticeable part of that.
It was high school where I was bitten by the theatre performer bug. We didn’t have a drama department when I started there in grade 9. Therefore a group of us got together and produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the Christmas assembly. I think it was then that the school realized there was a desire for performance as extracurricular activity. Perhaps they took positive action because they were just a little scared if they continued to leave us to our own devices. But action they took! Because of us! Or that is the story I have told myself all of these years. The local weekly newspaper covered the controversy and I quote “Shockwaves will reverberate throughout the countryside!” I remembered the excitement of making the paper, not just as entertainment, but as news. I thought,
“Hmmmm, there is something to this theatre thing.”
It was the next year that they remedied our production of Rocky Horror with Godspell. “Well,” I thought “They certainly took notice now didn’t they.” I didn’t get a part because I was terrified to sing. I had no training but I auditioned. You see, with Rocky Horror we had lip synced to the album. But I am always the brave so I sung off key and warbled my way through the audition.
To me theatre has always been where I become brave. First scared, then brave.
Then a whole life happened … and I ended up moving to Kitchener and I met Majdi Bou-Matar and I said what this man is doing is good and brave! I like that! The rest is history I guess. Happy world theatre day MT Space artists and audience. Sometimes both at the same time! The theatre is home for the courageous. And as my father always says “small margin between a brave man and fool.” Now I think I know what he means by that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The world is a boring and not very smart place without its fair share of brave fools. And I am proud to be one of them.
Gary Kirkham & Tanya Williams
Artistic Associates, Facilitators MT Space Newcomer Youth Program
Somehow we got here… Here being a rehearsal hall with twenty-one youth who are newcomers to Canada.
The idea is that we are going to teach them ‘theatre’.
Problem is, we’ve been doing theatre for years and no longer have a good definition of what theatre is. Every definition we have ever had never quite covers what theatre can be.
So we say to the youth,
“how about we define theatre as we go?”
Maybe that is what we do every time we create theatre, we create plays to define what theatre is for us right now in this room, we define theatre so that our stories can live in someone else.
So they start telling their stories. Funny stories of coming to Canada… we all laugh as they describe unwitting misunderstandings and cultural blunders. As the trust amongst us all deepens, they start to tell the stories that only their closest friends might know, some of them devastating, some joyous, some heartbreakingly sad. In the end, these stories are heard and understood, and although we can’t go back and change the past, we all can feel how we are creating a new possibility amongst us right now.
Soon the audience will arrive the lights will dim and that circle of trust will widen….
In the past year, I have had the privilege of reading, being, performing, acting:
a gun-lover with an ineffably human dog; a deserter from the Iraq war, hiding from a whole country, the past, a way of life; a venture capitalist with good intentions and an aggressive Tinder ‘portfolio’; and a would-be composer who writes an opera and forever damages another life with/for ‘love’.
I have had the pleasure of ‘shepherding’ or stage managing the stories of:
The complexly universal and tragically unique story of just one of many Iraqi refugees (in the context of a world of fractured nations coming to terms with the rising tide of human beings seeking refuge from human-induced conflicts and climate change); and the simple yet heart-breaking story of love and marriage across cultures in the post-millennial West.
In the past year, theatre has taken me from southwestern Ontario, to Whitehorse, Yukon (which reminded me of my youth in Nunavut), to New York (for the first time) and soon to New Brunswick (near where I was born in Nova Scotia) … but always back to Kitchener-Waterloo.
We always come back to discussions of where ‘home’ is—can it be here and there, can it be in more than one place? Can you even have a home once you’ve left it—once you surrender ownership and it goes on living, breathing, changing—without you.
What amazes me is that I can be in one place—the city I live in, or the specific theatre space I happen to be working in (a small or large, mostly empty rectangular prism of possibility)—and I can reach out and touch so many different lives, cultures, real human beings—and the hopefully authentic expressions of all of those—the characters we invoke on stage.
In theatre—I find home, I find refuge.
To echo Anatoli Vassiliev, maybe theatre can tell us “everything”, discuss anything, go anywhere, reach everyone.
I’ll take a pointer from Pam and share a quote:
“If you want to awaken all of humanity,
awaken all of yourself.”
~ Lao Tzu
Happy World Theatre Day, 2016!