news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Q&A with Michela Sisti

Michela Sisti is working with Ross as  as the Assistant Director for Century Song through Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program. Michela takes us behind the scenes as she learns more about creating experimental, interdisciplinary theatre here in Toronto: 

Michela Sisti

Q:Why did you want to work with Ross Manson on Century Song for this training opportunity?

A: I want to get really good at creating interdisciplinary theatre.  I started directing when I was living abroad in London and I began by staging plays quite conservatively.  Then I got into devising work with actors and found it incredibly nourishing and eye opening.  The realization that we can make anything, do anything, speak anything we want was utterly revolutionary to me. What I learned from our experiences was creating good theatre that honours all of the talents involved in the creation process is difficult. It’s difficult and it is worth spending the rest of my foreseeable future learning to get it right.

My first encounter with Ross’s work was going to see A Synonym for Love. It was opera uncorseted, gleefully liberated from proscenium arch-land and it was genuinely playful.  I loved it.  I moved to the UK the following year and it was there that I began reading up on Volcano’s other shows.  This company was kick-ass.  Not only were they bringing together music, movement, strong visuals and spoken dialogue in their work, they were also crafting their shows around poetry, history, science, and things that were happening to people in our world, now.  I kept thinking to myself, this is what art is supposed to be: absolutely bottomless.  The small, the big, everything in between.  Life is too short.  While I’m here, I want to make some of that!

Putting on a piece of theatre is kind of like inviting a whole neighborhood of people over to your home for dinner. Some of these people might be old friends; most are complete strangers.  Your job as the host is to serve up a fresh, well-made meal.  (I might have stolen that phrase from Mike Alfreds.) By the end of this meal you might want your guests to feel nourished.  Or you might want to leave your guests not quite satisfied and wanting more. You might want to give your guests a burst of inspiration, that could cause them leave half-way through the dinner in order to cook up their own suppers. You might want to delight your guests with the array of flavors you’ve drawn together, or the presentation.  (Some of those flavors might turn people off - that’s cool, you’re not going please everyone.)  People might be stimulated, galvanized, provoked by the dinner conversation. Whatever goes on at that table it’s the relationship with the people you’ve reached out to and who’ve come, that has to be honoured. When people are taken for granted, ignored, forgotten, art can become tyrannical and abusive.  This is something I want to try to stay vigilant about.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of the experience so far?

A: The people! Playing around together with ideas! Problem solving!

Century Song’s final development week was focused on reinterpreting a movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which will be replacing a semi-improvised musical section from the show’s previous run.

Messiaen’s quartet was originally written for piano, violin, cello and clarinet.  The challenge was to reinterpret the piece for piano, soprano voice and whatever else the combined musical genius of Gregory, Deb and Neema could come up with.

In the B section of the chosen movement, "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time", a cello and violin drift along the same winding staircase of notes, in their upper registers, three octaves apart from each other, in pure, sustained tones. 

Early in the process the team decided that Neema would sing the cello line on a pure vowel. After a bit of experimenting, it turned out an ‘oo’ sounded best. But what instrument would sing above her? 

The team came up with an eccentric list of candidates: the Theremin (a contact-less instrument you play by manipulating an electromagnetic field with your hands!), the musical saw, the Ondes Martenot (1920s synthesizer) and an array of sounds Deb conjured up on his computer.  We had two restrictions to work with. The first was a practical one: whatever was chosen would have to be something Deb could realistically learn to play between now and the performance. The second restriction was artistic: if we were going to honour the original piece Messiaen had written, we would need to have two joined voices, moving as reflections of each other over the glass footsteps of the piano line.  So we needed to find a sound that had the same bare, vibrato-stripped quality of Neema’s "oo"s.

Finally this idea was proposed: Neema would sing with… herself! 

Deb had found a way of capturing Neema’s voice through a microphone and producing a live, three-octave-higher, Neema doppelganger.  Fun! Brilliant!

I learned early on that a big idea expressed during Volcano’s development process is a wonderful, dangerous thing.

In Volcano-land Ross and the team give ideas the dignity of formal experiment.  The idea is put into action and tested.  A hundred and one questions emerge, and offshoots of offshoots of questions, which are tested in turn.

Neema Bickersteth
Photo by John Lauener 

Q: What moment in the show takes your breath away?

A: Neema’s semi-improvised ‘Blood Dance.’  I watched it first through a computer screen - Ross had given me a recording of the Ottawa performance to look at  - and it was one of those moments when you have to pause the video and ask, did I just see what I just saw?

When I attended the final development week of Century Song I saw part of the dance live, with the percussion rattling and cracking through the room. Witnessing the live performance was a whole other experience– much more visceral. You feel in your own body the sonic vibrations that are moving the performer.  And there was a meditative quality to Neema throughout all this, in spite of the frenzied nature of the dance, which drew all the explosive energies of sound and movement to one deadly centre. It was as if a vortex has been created on stage.

The Blood Dance percussion now rips out of the tranquil, undulating belly of Messiaen’s  "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time".  And Neema now wears a boiler suit and a red head-wrap – the uniform of a female munitions factory worker of WWII.

The sum of all these images is grim, but there is something regenerating in conjuring up these events of from past into the present, and all of us looking at them, together, in the face.

On a lighter note, wait till you get a load of the fettFilm animation. I defy any jaw that does not drop and swing from its hinges.

Q: What artist from the past century do you wish more people knew about?

A: I think a lot of the artists whose works I love are already pretty well known…or at least within the circles of the people who like them!  Two 20th century composers I keep coming back to are Gyorgy Ligeti and Arvo Pärt. Both composers have this ability to dissolve a room with their music. Ligeti builds landscapes of sound that take you hostage. When I listen to his Atmospheres or his Requiem I feel as though I am being pulled deeper and deeper through shifting, transforming worlds.  And then Pärt – it’s as if the man composes with light!  There is a beauty and a spiritual clarity to his music that demolishes anything peripheral, that lays everything else to rest. 

I would love to take an armful of art and music and literature from the 20th century and drop it into the lap of a completely different era from the past and see what people make of it.   What conclusions would they draw about us?  What would they reject? What would they be moved by?  I think it would only be worth the time travel if I were allowed to get in on the communal art discovering.

Q: What moment from the past century do you wish you had witnessed?

A: Excellent, more time travel!

I actually don’t know if I’ve ever wished to be present as a witness during moment from the past century. So much of what comes to mind when I first hear the words 20th century is the stuff of nightmares – wars, genocides, state terror, mass disillusionment, environmental degradation.  But then, on the other hand, the 20th century also brings to mind people who were brave and compassionate, people who had visions of a better world and who devoted their lives to creating the good kind of change.

This prompt question is actually a really good exercise because it essentially gets you to be honest with yourself about how you want to be spending your time now, in the present moment.

My first instinct is to go somewhere quiet. I would transport myself to a forest somewhere, in the early hours of the morning, 1921, let’s say. There’d be a lake. And I think there would be no people around. I would want to see the world without human markers of time.

But then, I could stand in a forest anytime I wanted and pretend it is 1921!

Second instinct is to drop myself on a large city’s busiest city street corner at the turn of the century. Can I make it a world tour of busiest street corners? 

Third instinct is – no, I actually don’t want to visit distant ancestors in rural Italy.

I just want to find some one I could talk to, really.  I think I want the peace of knowing we are all existing/we have all existed together on this earth.  I don’t want to feel alone in time.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

A Q&A with Debashis Sinha

Debashis Sinha has been crucial to the development of the sonic world of Century Song. Working with creators Ross, Neema and Kate, Debashis (along with pianist Gregory Oh) creates a live improvised soundscape onstage every night. We're so lucky to have Deb's unique electroacoustic sound as a part of Century Song's journey through the past century of art, history and emotion.

Debashis Sinha

Get to know Deb through this Q&A:

Q: What moment in the show always delights you or takes your breath away?

A:The very last note and move that Neema does of the Aperghis-the moment before Gregory and I launch into the response. So lovely and  powerful, and a testament to Neema’s incredible strength and artistry.

Q: What moment from the past Century do you wish you’d been a witness to?

A:I wish I was in Berlin the night the wall fell.

Deb hard at work during an early workshop

Q: Music is at the heart of Century Song.Do you listen to music to get ready before the show? 

A:Absolutely not. I like to keep my mind clear.

Q: This show’s been in development for 5 years. Have you ever done anything else that took five years?

A: Other than be a dad, no.

Q: Can you tell us about a surprising or memorable moment during the creation of Century Song?

A: The first time I saw Neema run through what she and Kate had been working on - I was completely flabbergasted at how amazing she was! And so thankful to have been asked to be a part of it. And completely unsure of how anything I could do could make it better.

Check out Deb's incredible work when Century Song opens at The Theatre Centre this January, curated and presented by Volcano Theatre as a part of Progress. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Use the code EARLY18 before December 25 to get $18 tickets. 

To learn more about Deb's music you can visit his website or check out his Bandcamp profile.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A conversation between Debbie Patterson and Matthew Thomas Walker

Debbie Patterson is an actor/director from Winnipeg. She is a founder and current ensemble member of Shakespeare in the Ruins and a member of the Playwrights Unit at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

Matthew Thomas Walker is an actor/director from Toronto. He is a founder and current member of Litmus Theatre.

Debbie and Matthew open up their email correspondence with one other, discussing their experience at the 2015 Volcano Conservatory.

Conservatory participants, including
Debbie Patterson and Matthew Thomas Walker
Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot

Hi Debbie,

I'm so glad to connect again so soon. Now, in the spirit the conservatory, let's get right into it! I thought I'd start us off by asking how you came to take part:
What lead you to sign up this year? And at that point, how did you define yourself as an artist?


Hey Matthew,

So great to hear from you.

I know a few other people who have taken part in the Conservatory in past years, so I knew it was a great program.

Then late one night, on my news feed, there was a post from the theatre consultant at the Manitoba Arts Council about Deborah Pearson's workshop. I clicked on the link and found information on the other classes. I wanted to take them all!

By noon the next day, I had registered, booked my flight, and was busy writing grants to help pay for it all.

I live in Winnipeg, which has way more going for it than you might think in terms of creating a sustainable life as an artist. But I need to get out every few years to do some professional development. It gives me a chance to bring new ideas, new practices, new approaches back to my peers here. And it allows me to get a little objectivity in terms of assessing my own artistic impulses.

It also gives me a chance to meet exciting artists (like you, Matt) and strengthen that web of connections that is the Canadian theatre community.

To answer your second question, my definition of myself as an artist has been in flux for a while. Right now I like the term "theatre maker". It’s an accurate reflection of my practice, which seems to be all over the map!

For example, right now I’m the lead artist on a dance/theatre/verbatim/installation piece about end of life choices; I'm working with a Congolese woman to create a short play about healthy parenting; I'm preparing to play Richard III next spring; I'm organizing the Winnipeg Wrecking Ball; and I'm writing an adaptation of Robert Munsch stories for Prairie Theatre Exchange. Seriously, all over the map.

I want to know more about what you're working on. What led you to the Volcano Conservatory? Has the stuff we did influenced your work in the weeks since?


Collective Creation: a field guide to devising theatre with Stephen O'Connell
Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot

From playing Juliet in Kim Collier's workshop last month to Richard III in the spring... Not bad Debbie. I think that lands you in a very select group of actors! I really love how 'all over the map' your projects are. 

I had been interested in the conservatory for a while, but due to schedule or money I hadn't been able to take part before. When things lined up this year, I was all over it. I'd just won an award, and wanted to put it towards my professional development, so I went on a bit of a shopping spree at

In recent years, my career has shifted away from gigging as an actor to working as a "theatre maker" (I'm stealing your words), mostly as a director and writer. I have two degrees in theatre, but have never trained formally as a director, so I've been drawing on the collective creation techniques I'd been exposed to as an actor. Taking brief workshops has also been hugely valuable in fuelling the fire and evolving my work.

I got so much out of the conservatory. I was so happy to discover that all our instructors were throwing new ideas at the wall as a way to evolve their own work. I found it inspiring to see such accomplished artists leading us in that state of unknown.

As directors, I think there is a trap we can fall into where, with the more experience we gain, the more we feel we have to be an authority on everything. It was heartening to see these Instructors creating structures for us to play within, and then building imaginatively off the magic that would happen in the room.

With my company, Litmus Theatre, we throw ourselves huge obstructions in the form of unconventional venues and non-theatrical scripts - as a way to spur our creativity. This fall we're in development for our Brave New World project, which is a big story. Many of the exercises we learned at the conservatory will get put to good use! Can't wait.

What were the big take-aways for you? Did our work in the conservatory shift your attitudes about how you define yourself as an artist, or open new doors for what you want to achieve? There's an election coming up? Any plans to run?


Movement for Actors with Peggy Baker
Photo by Elee Stalker

Oh my goodness, this is such a stimulating discussion!

Yes, I also loved the way the instructors were clearly risking and trying new things. I felt like it gave all of us permission to suck and encouragement to be bold.

And that notion of creating from a place of unknowing: I've become completely comfortable with that as a performer and collaborator, but I've always been slightly uncomfortable with it when I'm in charge. In those situations I always put this pressure on myself to have a plan and bring everyone else along with me. So realizing that I could just let go of that was a totally liberating discovery. And just to be clear, I still think having a specific, well-drawn plan is important. You still have to do your homework as a director. But once you are in process it's okay to veer off the plan without having a backup or an exit strategy.

I spent the last two weeks of August in a development workshop of a new script. I wanted to explore the text through movement and imagery so these ideas gave me a new freedom. I was able to take this huge text that I'd spent most of the year working on and just kind of go, "Okay, well this is a suggestion, a point of departure, we might say these words, we might not. Let's just try some shit." It was a little bit terrifying, but we made some amazing discoveries.

There were a couple of moments in the Conservatory I really loved, and I wonder if you loved them too? There was one time in Ross's workshop when someone made a proposal and Ross paused and said "I'm trying to decide if that idea excites me." Or interests me, or something like that. First of all I love that there was no value judgment in what he said. There was no implication that it was a good idea or a bad idea. His criteria for accepting or rejecting the proposal was unabashedly subjective. I also loved that he gave himself the luxury of time, not to leap to either yes or no but to claim some space for waiting, to remain in a state of uncertainty.

Another moment I loved was when Kim Collier talked about how we create the world. She didn't just mean the world on stage, she meant The World. And when she said it, I kind of reflected on the vibe she created in the studio. I felt like everyone in the workshop was being incredibly courageous in taking big risks. I don't know if I've ever been in a room like that. Respectful without being precious. Open without being flaky. Everyone did great work. It brought out the best in all of us.

It's exciting to think what could happen if all of us in that studio took the world that we inhabited in that space and created that world wherever we went. It's easy as artists to just stay in our little artistic circles where people understand us. But civic engagement / being present in society is essential to creating work that is relevant, to creating a world worth inhabiting.

So yes, there is an election coming up and I have no plans to run for public office. But if I did, I have some big, new ideas about the world that I would create with that kind of platform.

What about you? Are you planning to throw your hat into the ring? Or just keep your fingers crossed for a Senate appointment? What Brave New World are you creating?


Collaborative Art Making for Actors with Kim Collier
Photo by Elee Stalker

Yes, I also loved those moments! They are beautiful markers of what kind of week it was. One might expect that the workshops would be treated as isolated little bubbles where we would learn the best practices of our teachers in order to SOMEDAY be able to apply them to our work in the real world. Instead, in every class, we were doing work that was engaged with the real world. Whether we were working with Romeo and Juliet, or Hedda Gabler, or examining the week’s headlines dramaturgically with Deborah Pearson, we were always being encouraged to actively address the HERE and NOW and create art from our reactions. Because of this, I too walked out of the conservatory feeling a higher sense of civic engagement and a responsibility to keep that going.

While I can assure you this didn't translate into a suit and tie or a campaign bus, it instead made me feel incredibly lucky to get to address society in the way that we do; to interact with issues that trouble us through art (images, metaphor, allegory, character)... Using the right brain! It's a great privilege to do the work we do. And a great responsibility to do our part to keep society's right brain healthy!

Debbie, thank you so much. It has been really nice to chat some more about our time together in studio. I hope we keep this discussion going for many years to come.

All the very best,


Friday, 17 July 2015

Director Kim Collier Explains Why Actors Should Pipe Up During Rehearsal

Co-Artistic director of Electric Company Theatre (Vancouver) and Siminovitch Prize winner for theatre direction, Kim Collier guest teaches at this year’s Volcano Conservatory. Her workshop, Collaborative Theatre Making - For Actors, will illuminate ways to prepare actors for rehearsal time with creative leaders and how to be a strong creative force in the rehearsal room.

Your workshop will encourage actors to participate in the rehearsal process as collaborators, although many actors find it problematic to speak up - believing that their only ‘job’ is to ‘act.’ What are your thoughts on this perception?

I personally view actors as artists and I am very interested in their insights and ideas. I believe the capacity of what is possible in a rehearsal hall goes up when actors feel safe to speak up on more then their role in the play.

What exactly does it mean to 'ACT?'  I think their 'Job' is to think, to question, to engage around the project, or writing in a way that the Actor plays a role in discovering what is possible in a text, or creation period. So often actors only come to deliver a performance as requested. When invited to think about the work in other ways as well…the discussion / exploration can stop. They either are too consumed with the process at hand, or don’t have the skill set to think in these other ways, or perhaps are not comfortable putting their ideas into the room. They also can be very lost when invited to play in a more conceptual way. So I found myself thinking about what might be missing in our training and leadership that does not allow for this “Art Making” kind of actor to thrive.

If an actor needs all kinds of knowns in order to do their work…then that can halt a creative process. "My character would only do this"….or "my character sees the world this way." Or the actors ask "what am I doing here in this moment exactly?" Or they ask the director: "what does my character want/need here...what is their goal?" Often actors can’t dive in a play unless they have figured many things out…have a safe frame of reference. When the performer can understand a text or a creation process not only from a physiological or intension based process, but also come at the work understanding how a scene can illuminate an idea, then that allows their character presence to help illuminate the moment.

There is lots to talk about how to have a collage of interrogating voices in a room and still be productive and respectful. It starts with common purpose around a project. If you don’t have that….relinquishing control as a director may not be the right decision. The ensemble of a production really needs to be a true ensemble for this kind of Art Driven Process to thrive.

What is one thing you find actors struggle with in rehearsals but should definitely speak up about?

I like to create a rehearsal room in which dialogue between the actor and the director is at the core of the process. Like a coach to an Athlete….or as two artists, each with valuable thoughts and instincts around the work and the character. I guess, I would be very unhappy if there was concern about my direction or interpretation around a moment in a production or a section; and if that concern became a green room conversation and bar talk and not part of the rehearsal room with the director. For me, I want the collaboration to be a shared experience where the making of the show, the brilliance that can be found within the material for the audience, is sought together. That together directors and actors and designers and all the team strive for something greater then themselves. We are one in the art making. I don’t deny that the director has the great privilege to often be the creative filter of that collective effort and guides the work hopefully through a unifying vision. I Believe the director has an obligation to have a vision and invite others to join in that vision and that allow that vision to belong to everybody.

So if an actor wants to raise a concern…they should do it…it is not personal to do so. It is the work.

Can you share an experience as an actor when you were most involved in the collaborative process? What did you accomplish?

I suppose that would be the Electric Company show “Brilliant: The Blinding Enlightenment of Nicola Tesla” when I played Katherine Underwood and a Pigeon.

Hummm….I think what is interesting about our collective creation as a team of actors - creating all parts of the production together - is that a lot of it became script work and idea building in rehearsals, not really acting. And I think what happens when you help create the work you act in,  your ownership and life force inside the work is palatable. There is something so beautiful about actors performing their own work. If the audience can feel passion and commitment (which they can), then creation teams are infectious with their audiences. I also think my experience of building shows collectively, that we also acted inside, allowed the projects to be greater then what was possible for any of us alone. The dynamic of many minds coming together was complimentary and pioneering. You would find yourself in places that you would never have arrived at on your own.

What is your typical preparation process like before first day of rehearsal?

Massive, varied and long. For a play: I read the text very carefully a few times and pay very close attention to my experience of the text. What does it speak to me, how does it resonate for our times and what I am visually seeing and feeling. I note these things, or promise to remember them. I remember what spoke to me in the text…what resonated as there will be much truth for me in what I want to do with the text from those initial impulses that may be lost in reading research and other peoples thoughts on the play. And I can’t direct from others peoples intuition, I can only direct from my own meaning, intuition and understanding and allow it to interact with the others on my team.
After those reads, I research a great deal on everything to do with the play: historically, thematically and on and on. After this period usually 3-5 months I will then be ready to think about how design can help illuminate the material and themes.  Set design is very important to me as it connects so powerfully to how the play can unfold kinetically in staging, concepts, ideas and transitions. For me Set Design is at the root of thinking about meaning and character plot and all. It can effect rhythm and pacing and how characters can relate to each other. It is right at the centre of the production building part of my process.

What is up next for you?

A big holiday, and gathering. I have made a great deal of work these past years. I gave the projects all I had and all I was thinking about at the time. Now I need to gather again.  In time I am going to create some work with Daniel Brooks, Michael Healey, and dig into Romeo and Juliet, and some other plays.

Being that the Conservatory takes place in the middle of summer, what’s your favourite way to treat yourself?

I go to Shuswap Lake in BC and swim, sauna and have some cocktails at sunset. And after some rest, I head for the mountains and backpack into some big, huge, undeniable nature. Every year.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Stephen O'Connell Debunks the Myths Surrounding Devised Theatre

Stephen O'Connell, pictured in promotional image for site-specific work It Comes In Waves

Co-Artistic director of bluemouth inc., Stephen O’Connell guest teaches at this year’s Volcano Conservatory. His workshop, Collective Creation: a field guide to devising theatre, explores some of the essential methods and techniques for collaborating across a variety of artistic disciplines in the absence of a centralized artistic ‘vision’, ‘director’ or authorial voice.

Are there any common myths about devised theatre that you would LOVE to debunk?

That it is easy. And that it is not rigorous.

I think audiences sometimes make assumptions about a lack of clarity in devised work. Often audiences use the same criteria for experiencing devised work as they do they do for playwright driven dramas and this seems unfortunate to me. I am not suggesting that devised work needn’t live up to the same standard of excellence as a well made play, but I regard the plurality of voice is often the result of a devised process and is a unique asset rather than a limitation.

I also believe that educational systems need to start offering training that better prepares young theatre makers for a career in self producing work. In my opinion, there is such an unrealistic emphasis on developing actors for the film and television rather than providing them with the tools needed to develop their own work and the encouragement to project their vision out in the world.

As a theatre artist, with a professional background in modern dance, do you prefer collaborating with a multi-disciplinary team of performers when creating new work?

Absolutely. I am currently collaborating on a sites-specific project between bluemouth and Necessary Angel and I find it incredibly rewarding to be in a room with a team of people who all consider themselves to be the primary artists. That includes the performers, director, writer, designers and the production team.  A brilliant idea can come from anywhere at anytime, and if you are open and listening carefully you will discover it. I enjoy working with people who are generous, sensitive and have a healthy sense of ego.

I’ve recently had a lot of interaction with highly trained dancers and I find them to be incredibly disciplined and generous with their creativity. Perhaps even to a fault.

Challenge: describe your workshop in 5 words not already in the title?

Personal, Ambiguous, Expressive, Exhausting and Rigorous.

NYC is considered a second home for many Torontonians, whether it’s for leisure or career pursuits…was Brooklyn a natural choice for you to build with bluemouth inc?

No. I moved back to New York 10 years ago for very personal reasons. My family lives in New Jersey and I wanted to spend some quality time with my parents. I initially thought it would be very cool to develop work in Toronto and then produce it in New York, but that no longer interests me. I think New York is a very tough place to live and an even tougher place to develop your craft as an artist. There is such a sacristy of resources. The companies who inspire me like the Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service are all working with very limited resources. Individual companies are forced to huddle around their individual fires making it challenging to nudge your way into their circle. Not impossible just really challenging. Resulting in a lesser sense of artistic community that I personally need to creatively survive.  

I mean I love going to see world-class international work with frequency. I live a block away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and on any given Friday night something amazing is happening there, but there are also many amazing international companies coming to Toronto.    

We are excited to partner with the Theatre Centre as the venue for this year’s Volcano Conservatory - what do you think about their new space?!

I love the new Theatre Centre, but I am also in love with the Theatre Centre in general. The Theatre Centre was the first organization to offer bluemouth help when we first arrived in Toronto. David Duclos was the Artistic Director at the time. I met him at an Inter Disciplinary symposium in Montreal. He was the first person we contacted when we arrived in Toronto and he immediately opened his doors to us. The Theatre Centre helped produce all of the early bluemouth shows and connected us to a community of like-minded artists.  hen when Franco Boni became the Artistic Director our relationship to the Theatre Centre continued and became even deeper. bluemouth became one of the first resident companies and their support helped to lift us up to the next level.

Where is your favourite spot in the city during the summer?

Toronto Island is pretty awesome in the summer time. I love the fact that you can hop on a ferry and in 10 minutes suddenly feel like you are miles away from the city. Trinity Bellwoods Park is also pretty special. Perhaps you can start to see the trend. These are both places where bluemouth has done site-specific shows.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Recap: Finding the Right Fit, an artist development talk

From L to R: Adiyana Morris, Franco Boni, Mumbi Tindyebwa, and Ross Manson

Mondays in theatre are usually known as 'dark days,' being the one day of the week the theatre is closed. But those who came out on Monday, June 15 to Finding the Right Fit: How a Life in Art Happens were illuminated. A mixed group of theatre artists - youngish to oldish, students to working professionals, directors and arts administrators - came out to hear from three of Toronto's boldest artist directors.

Guest speakers, Franco Boni (Theatre Centre), Mumbi Tindyebwa (IFT Theatre), and Ross Manson (Volcano Theatre), happily shared their career experiences and industry tips for an hour long talk. Moderator Adiyana Morris, Volcano's current Metcalf Arts Management Intern, led the discussion in the upstairs lobby of The Theatre Centre.

The informal conservation included topics of mentorship, leadership, childhood ambitions and failure. Each question was framed by a famous and provocative quote to get the speakers and audience thinking. It was an engaging discussion that organically unraveled into an open discussion with the speakers asking each other questions and the audience following-up on statements.

Audiences members had good laugh

There were many highlights, including when Adiyana asked the speakers about their formative years and how they found themselves in theatre. Franco admitted to having no recollection of memories prior to Gr. 3 but from that point on he described himself as bossy and a natural organizer. Picturing Franco as a dictator-esque 3rd Grader got the conversation off to a great start. Yet is was even more interesting to find out that his first leadership position that had the most impact upon him was heading to the Rhubarb Festival, entrusted to him at age 28. Franco also spoke candidly about spearheading the $6.2 million capital campaign to house the brand new Theatre Centre. He admitted to constantly tackling challenges that can feel like day to day failures, but, all in all, his dedication to putting the art first is a testament to his successful career. 

Mumbi made great points around audience engagement and making theatre representative of the communities you are trying to attract. She believes that artists and producers should focus more about how their content relates to the audience than how much the ticket price is. Her example was that  the same person who you think can't afford your ticket is willing to shell out $100 for a Jay-Z concert..which goes for low and high income earners. Hence, it's less about price and all about demand.
Ross made an interesting analysis what he considered failure as an artistic director and conceptualized it in three ways: 1. failure of a project (which is sometimes a good thing if the idea inevitably doesn't float); 2. failure of a relationship between two peers or producing partners (which can really suck); and 3. failure of a one's ego (the suckiest of them all). His honesty put things in perspective in the realm of leadership and risk.

Who do you think had the last word...?!

The conversation closed with some useful tips. The speakers suggested that participants think about reaching out to a mentor they really admire, and to share a new idea with a peer sooner rather than later. Basically, best Monday ever!

A special thanks goes out the Theatre Centre for hosting the talk and all three (amazing) guest speakers!


Ross Manson will be leading The First Two Days: Utility, Respect and the Right Brain, a professional development course at The Volcano Conservatory (July 31 - August 2). To register and/or find out more about his course (and others) click HERE.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Deborah Pearson talks Experimental Performance - it's a lot simpler than you think

Live Artist Deborah Pearson guest teaches at this year's Volcano Conservatory. Her workshop, Dramaturgy, Narrative and Structure in Experimental Performance looks at the unique ways in which contemporary performance can address our preoccupations with narrative. 

Did you always question conventional theatre elements, like three act structures, and what made you gravitate towards experimental performance?

I guess you could say I have always gravitated towards what frequently gets called "experimental performance" because of one aspect of my work that is not "experimental" at all, but that is really at the heart of a lot of very old theatre.  I just can't get over the fact that the audience is there.  I have always wanted to address them, to play with them, to hang out with them.  I don't know how to ignore them.  I really admire work that adheres to this "ignoring the audience" convention and somehow still manages to feel theatrical and moving and live.  But the truth is, work that firmly stays behind the fourth wall while genuinely effectively reaching out to its audience is very rare.  It's a convention that is very difficult to explore effectively.  Even Shakespeare doesn't do it!  And I think this is because the very thrilling thing about theatre is of course the fact that the audience is there in the room with you.  When you think about it, not acknowledging that is a highly unusual thing to do.  It's only the prevalence of fourth wall theatre (some of it very lazy and bad) in the last sixty years or so that has made us think of that approach as traditional. It's actually a very weird thing to do, and I think it only really justifies itself as a form once every five years or so.  A truly stirring "well made play" is that rare.  

That said, the "Three Act Structure" is not the property of fourth wall theatre.  It's the property of the human cognitive process.  We organize every experience we ever have into a "beginning, middle and end."  We may not remember them in a chronological order in terms of actual time - but things begin, they happen, they end.  It's a very simple thing to keep in mind, but a very useful way to conceive of building an interesting experience for an audience.  How do you want it to begin?  What do you want them to reach deeper into once they've entered?  And how do you want it to end?  What do you leave them with?  The "Three Act Structure" has been conflated with Hollywood narratives, but that's just one approach to that structure.  It comes from Aristotle's Poetics, and all he specifies is that nothing comes before the beginning, the middle follows, and nothing comes after the end.  There's nothing about a climax or inciting incident or Hero's quest.  It's just those three very simple components - but they're very useful to keep in mind when making work.

You mentioned theatre being preoccupied with Representation, Conflict, Arc, and Meaning/Message. You mean there’s more to a story?!

Ah you may have misunderstood my use of the word "preoccupation."  I don't mean that preoccupations are negative or positive.  They're just there.  I don't think that there's more to a story than a beginning, middle and end.  But I also think that those three categories are HUGE - so why should there be?  Representation, Conflict, Arc, and Meaning/Message are all things that we may expect to exist within that beginning-middle-end structure - they're cultural baggage, and we can play with that cultural baggage in interesting ways if we want to.  Theatre Replacement, New World and Chris Abraham made the show Winners and Losers, for example, and really toyed with the audience's preoccupation with Conflict.  But they didn't approach it uncritically - they made the audience sit with that preoccupation and dig deep into it, and a lot of incredible insights came out of that deceptively simple premise.  I'm not sure "more to the story" is the right way to navigate the preoccupations I bring up.  They're very rich and problematic elements of narrative interest.  We don't really need more - but if we think deeply about them, we will find more.

As an associate artist with Volcano Theatre, how have you grown with the company over the years - as the lead on inFORMING CONTENT and having worked as the librettist for Synonym for Love?

I owe a lot to Volcano.  Ross Manson and Kate Alton gave me my first professional job in the theatre, as their research assistant on The Four Horsemen Project.  I remember thinking it was really cool and totally strange.  I hadn't ever seen anything like it before, but I loved it.  I think one of the reasons that I love working with Volcano is the incredible variety of projects that they make, and the amazing but excellent risks and opportunities they take with their artists and with their form.  When Ross asked me to write a libretto for the company I joked that it was like he'd asked me to build a cabinet.  I had no idea how to do it.  I learned on the job.  And it was one of the most fun and interesting things I've ever had the privilege of doing.  I learned how to read music, and over the years have gone from someone with no musical knowledge at all to someone who can play the guitar.  A Synonym for Love really sparked that desire to learn in me.  But I didn't necessarily stand out, because everyone involved was doing something totally new and challenging for them with that project.  Even the orchestra had to figure out how to accompany an opera that was moving around a hotel!  I love Volcano because it's a company that genuinely prizes risk and experimentation, and encourages other artists to take risks too.  It's worth mentioning that I moved to Europe on Ross's advice, and that was a great risk to take.

As the co-founder and co-director of Forest Fringe, would you consider festivals safe spaces for experiential work?

It depends on the festival.  Forest Fringe is a venue that exists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the biggest experimental theatre festival in the world.  So asking whether or not experimental work is safe at the fringe is sort of like asking if a baby is safe in New York City.  It depends on the apartment and it depends on the parents.  I wouldn't just drop your baby anywhere.  There are a lot of wonderful venues taking very good care of artists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Equally, there are a lot of smaller festivals, like Fusebox, PuSh, FTA and Offta, and I hear that Progress was great too, that really look after artists.  Generally speaking, the smaller a festival is, the more support it will have for artists, and the less it will resemble a shopping mall of work.  It's a very sad thing as an artist to feel like you're selling a product.  It's necessary sometimes, and often true, but also necessary I think to convince yourself that it isn't happening.  That's the only way to keep the work good.

What is one thing you miss about living in Toronto since moving to London? 

I miss biking.  I have a bike in London but it is a terrifying place to do it.  When the weather is nice in Toronto, if you know the back alleys well, getting from one place to another can be the best part of your day.  Something about how much fun it is to bike there really sums up a lot of more abstract and atmospheric things that I miss about living in Toronto.  I think it's a really healthy place to live, with a lot of love and good feeling.  I'll always miss it.  And when I miss it most I think about biking down a sunny leafy street somewhere in Little Portugal.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Infinity Reviews

We've just opened Infinity, our co-production with Tarragon Theatre. So far the audience and critics are loving it! Below are a few reviews. As new reviews come out, we'll be sure to continue posting here. If you've had the chance to see Infinity, tell us your thoughts in the comment section below.

Review by Susan G. Cole

“Brilliant; makes you feel as much as it makes you think”

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

3/4 stars
Review by: J. Kelly Nestruck

“Infinity shifts from a play of ideas to a family drama – and it’s a beautifully acted one...”

Photo by John Lauener

The Star
Review by: Carly Maga
3.5 / 4 stars

"Moscovitch... is visceral. And the acting from Braunstein, Rutherford and especially McGee is extremely affecting."

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Review by: Dorianne Emmerton

“I loved the interplay between real-world relationship dynamics and high concept physics.”

“[Ross Manson] captures Infinity’s sequence of events in arousing intervals.”

The Theatre Reader
Review by: Veronica Appia

"This play is as brilliant as it is haunting -  a perfect combination of music, math and science that doesn't make your head hurt, but manages to makes your heart hurt."

The Slotkin Letter
"Director Ross Manson has created a production of seamless collaboration..."


4 stars

Town Crier
"infinitely great"

If you haven't had the chance to see Infinity, join us at the Tarragon Theatre before it closes on May 3.  Select dates have very limited seating so book today


1. Anyone under the age of 35 can book $22 tickets for April 1 - 22 performances with the coupon code "Tarragon22"

2. Artsworker and students tickets are available for $29

3. Rush tickets are available for $15, two hours before showtime at the box office. Limited availability.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Dear Diary: Infinity rehearsal, preview week

Every week, Infinity Assistant Director, Mariel Marshall writes us a diary entry of her experience in the rehearsal hall. If you haven't already, start at the beginning by scrolling down to Dear Diary: Preparing for Infinity Rehearsals. 

Here's what Mariel has to say about Infinity's preview week:

We’ve had a week of previews and it’s been a really exciting time. We continued to undergo changes to the script and to the staging all week. Having an audience witness the performance gives us a lot of feedback about which scenes are working and what timing and rhythms create laughs, tension, and catharsis. Tonight we open the show! We won’t have the chance to do any further edits or rewrites, so it’s our last chance to make any final tweaks. So far, the feedback we’ve received from audiences has been incredibly exciting. People are buzzing about this show. It’s a crazy beautiful piece about love, math and time, and it’s been crafted with incredible care. Enjoy!

Hannah Moscovitch, Andréa Tyniec, Amy Rutherford,
Paul Braunstein, Haley McGee, and Ross Manson

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Dear Diary: Infinity rehearsal, tech week

Every week, Infinity Assistant Director, Mariel Marshall writes us a diary entry of her experience in the rehearsal hall. If you haven't already, start at the beginning by scrolling down to Dear Diary: Preparing for Infinity Rehearsals. 

Here's what Mariel has to say about the final week of rehearsal, now in the theatre:

This week, we moved into the Tarragon Extraspace. It is also TECH week, which is an exciting time because all of the elements, the set, lights, costumes and props, finally come together. It’s really the first time we get to see how things speak to each other; how the costumes look against the backdrop of the set, how the lights reflect against the painted floor, how the actors sound in the space. These elements, which we have been working with individually, and imagining from drawings and models, finally take shape.

Director: Ross Manson

The set appears to shift your perception. The stage is painted all white with lines vanishing across the width of it like blurred stars in the cosmos. It’s quite beautiful, especially with Rebecca Picherack’s incredible lighting design, which makes it appear like an ever-shifting world of colour and shadows. The really exciting thing is that the set works like a scrim which allows us to light actors from behind the material – and they appear like ghosts through the semi-transparent material.    

It’s been a really fast and exciting rehearsal process, and our technical dress rehearsal on Sunday went very well. The work is definitely ready for an audience this week and I can’t wait to see how people respond to the work, and how the actors, in turn, grow and feed-off of an audience.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Dear Diary: Infinity Rehearsal, Week 3

Every week, Infinity Assistant Director, Mariel Marshall writes us a diary entry of her experience in the rehearsal hall. If you haven't already, start at the beginning by scrolling down to Dear Diary: Preparing for Infinity Rehearsals

It’s been very busy in the rehearsal hall this week, so this post is a little behind schedule! But Mariel has treated us to something a little different:

I sat down with composer, Njo Kong Kie, who is the mastermind behind the score of Infinity, and asked him to tell us about the inspiration of the music.

NKK: When we first started, Ross asked if I could build a solo violin piece based on a passage contained in a track from Picnic in the cemetery, my album for violin, cello and piano. The piece is called Formula 1. I know this title suggests car races, but it is also a reference to using a mathematical formula, a recipe if you will, to compose a piece of music. In the context of Infinity, it makes sense that there are some suggestions of math in the musical score, however simple and subtle they may be. I suppose music is inherently mathematical anyway, but I did think about math a little bit more while working on this score and there are subtle references; but unless one goes looking for them, one likely won’t notice them. For the music detective audience out there though, see if you can break the code to uncover our thinking in the musical design.

The score has evolved gradually from one workshop of the script to another until it reaches its present form. And it is still evolving. I am a gregarious person. I enjoy a collaborative environment. I get ideas from whatever is in the room: a movement, a word, or in this case, the characters and the situations they find themselves in.  I reckon the process is similar for all collaborative artists.

If we compare composing to cooking, then musical ideas are the ingredients. Some ingredients you can find already in your kitchen, some you have to get from the market, some you discover by happenstance. Once you have the ingredients, you have to decide how to prepare them, what shapes you are going to cut them into, what to cook them in, how to cook them, what spices to use, what sides to serve them with and how to present them. I don’t know where I can go with all these, so feel free to expand on this analogy and see how far we can stretch it. Please do join us at the show. Let us show you what we have cooked up for you.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Dear Diary: Infinity Rehearsal, Week 2

Every week, Infinity Assistant Director, Mariel Marshall writes us a diary entry of her experience in the rehearsal hall. If you haven't already, start at the beginning by scrolling down to Dear Diary: Preparing for Infinity Rehearsals. 

Here's what Mariel has to say about the second week in the rehearsal hall:

We’ve just finished week two of rehearsals for Infinity.  This week we completed staging the piece: creating a basic structure for where actors are placed in scenes, where set pieces live, and how actors transition from one scene to the next.

The playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, continues to make changes to the script. It’s exciting to see what comes in from her on a day to day basis. At first, there were additions of an entirely new scene. At this point, the changes have become more subtle.

Haley McGee looks through her script
In rehearsals this week, the actors have been working with gesture and physical explorations. We used a movement exercise developed by Michael Chekov as a way for the actors to explore the psychological and physical world of their characters. For each character in the play, we brainstormed a number of known and popular archetypes, for example: the femme fatale, the wizard, the prodigal son, or the manic pixie dream girl.  The actors picked three of the archetypes that resonated with them, and developed a gesture for each archetype. It was a fun and compelling way to get to the heart of a character’s psychology. The archetypal movements that the actors created were also refined into much smaller and subtler gestures, and incorporated throughout the play. We have also introduced the gestures in the play’s dance/movement sequence, choreographed by Kate Alton.

We have also been doing a lot of intricate work with transforming a very minimal set into different locations, including a public washroom, a hospital room and a family home. In order for these set changes to happen smoothly, there is lot of challenging prop choreography for the actors to learn. As we move from scene to scene – and of course considering costume changes and the needs of the set and lighting design, each movement and transition must be carefully considered and planned.

Director, Ross Manson speaking with Amy Rutherford and Paul Braunstein.
In the design department, we've had our first costume fittings and the characters are taking shape very nicely. We are working with designer Teresa Przybylski on both set and costume design, and it's incredible to see how skilled she is with crafting a design that is minimal, functional and effective in conveying the world of the play. 

Next week, we’ll be going back through the piece and layering in more depth within the scenes, clarifying blocking and smoothing out any last changes.