Fresh Meat Sizzles
The latest edition of the Fresh Meat: DIY Theatre Fest this month proves not only that Arts Court is the place to check out up-and-coming theatre artists, but also that their art is something worth checking out.
This year Fresh Meat offers up 10 bite-size performances spread over 2 weekends, with audiences gorging themselves on 5 of them over the first weekend and 5 more on the following weekend. These 10 performances all range in theatrical style, resulting in a sumptuous buffet where if you don’t like one thing, the next one will come along soon enough. The order of shows changes every night, so for the purposes of this review I will be listing them in the order I saw them on the nights of Friday October 16 and Friday October 23.
be/see/together – Closer to performance art than your typical ‘drama,’ this piece actively defies any kind of fixed meaning. There are some lovely images and movement sequences: the piece starts in total darkness with the performers holding illuminated magnifying glasses up to themselves, lighting up their whole bodies over time by moving the magnifying glasses with an intense slowness. Later on when creator/performer Kara Nolte narrates the story of her visit to a Calgary nail salon she pairs it with staccato movements in a rapid-fire sequence. The movements are lovely but the text they are paired with seems a bit vapid in comparison. The text is all a bit strange: one brief sequence relies entirely on deictic language (intentionally vague terms which require context/a physical gesture to complete their meaning; if I said “this here,” I would point to what I was referring to) but both Nolte and fellow creator/performer Karen Balcome hide behind the wings when they say it. About 15 minutes in they sit together onstage and ask the audience for questions about the performance; whatever the question is they smile and answer with a “thank you.” If their goal was to draw attention to the fragility of meaning in language then they succeeded admirably, but the lovely movements don’t fit in well with that interpretation. The performance ends with more audience participation, in which we are invited to turn to our neighbour and tell him/her 3 things that we’ve noticed about him/her. Again, this interactive component doesn’t jibe with the rest, it occurs unexpectedly and encouraging the audience to talk amongst themselves only served to widen the gap between spectator and performer, which is the opposite of what performance art is supposed to do. While these three components – language, movement, and participation – all have potential by themselves, they don’t necessarily form a cohesive whole.
Train Compartment – The first of two clown shows on the first weekend! Writer/performers Mike Kosowan and Joel Garrow show off their improv roots with this piece, which has a very firm set-up but perhaps not the most satisfying of payoffs. Riffing on The Defiant Ones, two clowns are chained together by their feet and try to maintain composure in a train compartment while also trying to pass as not clowns. The premise is easy enough but it is unclear why these clowns are chained together (even when it comes up that they are on the lam it doesn’t make sense; did they go to prison and then escape?). Furthermore, their fight to keep their identities as clowns secret is devoid of tension as there is no other performer playing the authority figure for them to play off of, just a voice recording of a rather androgynous-sounding conductor collecting tickets and distributing meals who is interested in meeting the clowns he/she has heard are on board. Without tension the piece relies on prop comedy, which is actually quite well done when the clowns hide a behind a newspaper with comically enlightening headlines detailing their reason to be on the run from the law. Otherwise, the props mostly serve as things to be thrown around during moments of panic. The final moment of crisis – all is revealed, the non-present conductor discovers the clowns – is resolved rather simply with the conductor’s interest not in turning in the clowns but in getting their autographs. The predictable twist doesn’t come as the relief of tension so much as the ending that you knew was coming. Kosowan and Garrow come from an improv comedy background, where scenes tend to follow familiar formulae as they are spontaneously generated by the performers (not only does it make the task of creating a play, so to speak, much easier on the performer but it also makes it easier for an audience member to understand what’s going on). With this in mind the somewhat sitcom-my nature of this piece isn’t altogether surprising, but it doesn’t work as well here as it would during an improvised scene.
Stephen and Me – A delightfully well-researched and timely piece of political satire, this piece is presented by Norah Paton who plays a fictionalized version of herself – a version of herself that has been in love with Stephen Harper since even before his tenure as Opposition Leader against Martin’s Liberals. Paton tells the story of her sexual awakening as an adolescent as it correlates to Harper’s rise to power and questionable tactics while in office – all with the understanding that her need to be with Stephen Harper is so powerful that he needs to leave politics for them to truly be together. The tongue-in-cheek nature of Stephen and Me is obvious from the start but Paton embraces the premise whole-heartedly – it would be too easy to put together a piece that lists all Harper’s negative qualities and questionable political tactics (though there was a brief moment where audience members got to vent by yelling out the many public grievances against Harper, such as C-51 and the like) with an accusatory tone, but Paton’s opposite approach is refreshing and much more interesting. There are plenty of people on the Internet who will tell you Harper’s faults, but none will do it while projections of famous movie love scenes play in the background with Harper and Paton’s faces superimposed on the actors’ heads (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stephen Harper in Ghost). The love-crazed persona that Paton embodies also helps to humanize Harper’s die-hard fanbase, a community that seems rather inaccessible especially to the sort of people who go to independent theatre festivals. With this piece being presented as part of the first weekend of Fresh Meat and therefore opening in Ottawa just 4 days before the 42nd Federal Election, both Paton and the festival organizers couldn’t have picked a more fitting performance for the time and place.
Joseph and Amarise – Of all the shows at Fresh Meat this year, this one is the most traditional in terms of a dramatic script being performed by actors who do not interact with the audience. What is not so traditional about this play is that the script was compiled from the actual transcripts of the online interaction between a teenage girl and her first boyfriend – an interaction in which they begin to role-play a Harlequin-style romance between a barmaid with a heart of gold and a mysterious nobleman with a supernatural secret. Danielle Savoie and Alain Chauvin play the teenagers who appear at opposite ends of the stage while their fantastical online romance is played out by Chandel Gambles and Jake William Smith, complete with over-the-top costumes and a highly affected acting style. While the acting of all four is commendable (Savoie and Chauvin employ a more naturalistic acting style that makes the online fantasy between Gambles and Smith even more enticing) the real star of the show is the script itself, which is an interesting example of verbatim theatre – interesting in that its aim to to entertain rather than inform like other verbatim scripts, such as The Laramie Project. Dramaturg/director Catherine Ballachey pushes the boundaries of the verbatim genre not just with what she has done (sifting through endless chat transcripts between two teenagers must have been equally fun and infuriating) but with what she chose not to do with this script in that respect. Conversely, she sets up a perplexing paradox: the play at Fresh Meat that is the most overtly theatrical and therefore non-realistic and with the most fantastical content is, in a way, the only one completely based on events that actually occurred in real life. As a dramatic script the text itself is not particularly remarkable, but it is very much enriched by the knowledge of the process that produced it.
Mr. Eff – The 2nd clown show and last of the first weekend is also the one with the highest professional quality. Jesse Buck has Philippe Gaulier training and has also spent almost 5 years with Cirque du Soleil among his many credits, but don’t be fooled – far from being pretentious, this show is probably the most crass out of all of them (none of the others, as far as I recall, involved extended toilet humour). Buck plays Mr. Eff, a homeless man living in (presumably, based on his accent) Montreal who scavenges for food from garbage cans but tries to convince the audience that he is really the rapper Sisqo who is taking us on a tour of his house on an episode of MTV’s Cribs. The contrast between Mr. Eff’s illusion and his reality is clear – his “shoeshine boy” is a pigeon, which is promptly eaten by a stray cat – and made even more manifest by the artistic choice to to present everything in Mr. Eff’s world as cardboard cut-outs in the style of old-fashioned 2-D animation. After the lengthy toilet humour sequence (caused by food poisoning from eating a rotten apple from the garbage), Mr. Eff’s embarrassed reaction upon turning back to the audience as “Sisqo” tacitly acknowledges the harsh reality that is far less attractive than the obviously fake one that nevertheless he relentlessly constructs by virtue of performing it. Despite his preference for playing the part of “Sisqo,” Mr. Eff’s false reality never physically overtakes his trash can existence, and the result is comically grotesque. There is one moment where the sublime shines through, during an “absurdist interlude” (as Mr. Eff himself calls it) where Mr. Eff temporarily dies and finds himself in a 2-dimensional heaven where he conducts a choir of singing stars. Sublime and also meaningless, the interlude passes quickly and we are back to Mr. Eff’s alley which by comparison now seems even more grotesque, although it is almost time to wrap up the episode of Cribs and leave “Sisqo” to make more phat beats. The professional quality of this show is not just in Buck’s obvious skill as a performer and the beautifully drawn and painted cut-outs, but also in the dramaturgical irony it creates. This show is (and I do not hesitate to say it) side-splittingly funny, but it does so in spite of (and probably because of) some truly depressing subject material. Sometimes the show where you see a guy use a fire hydrant as a bidet is the most sophisticated out of all of them, and that’s what Fresh Meat is all about.
The other half of the festival takes on a more sombre tone, along with a decided preference for performance art that uses the whole space of the Arts Court studio beyond the stage.
Pan-dora – The most serious piece is also the one that is mostly performed not in English. Performers Elise Gauthier and Alex Zabloski speak about 80% of their lines in French, which resulted in alienating the mostly Anglophone audience save a bilingual minority. I was able to get most of what they were saying, but I should preface everything I say from this point onward with the disclaimer that as a non-fluent French speaker I may have missed important aspects of this performance.
Zabloski spends most of the performance onstage with only a tower of audio-visual technological components parts cobbled together to form a Frankenstein-esque tech monster, complete with a portable television (with only a 3-inch screen) as its head. A microphone is attached to its midsection, into which Zabloski speaks in the manner of an urban street preacher, his words distorted by reverb and echoes. To the side Gauthier, dressed in layers upon layers of long skirts in a manner reminiscent of bag ladies, mutters to herself as she walks around the audience and eventually finds herself to the left of the stage where she constantly drops her many rings into a bowl, resulting in a plunk-ing sound undoubtedly meant to evoke the collection plate during a church service. Technology and religion become equals in this performance, both of them overtaking and consuming human lives while simultaneously promising to improve them. The tech-tower is referred to as the “tower of Babel,” through which Zabloski often tries to coax Gauthier into coming over to him and to “give,” though what is meant by “giving” is intentionally left vague (money definitely, but it seems as if more is implied). It also becomes clear that the persona that Gauthier embodies has been through some kind of traumatic experience, shown through her distribution throughout the audience of cell phones playing a recording of her voice saying things like “laissez-moi sortir… gentiment, monsieur…” but the many layers of her voice speaking these phrases throughout the audience results in a cacophony that unless you have one of the phones up your ear verges on unintelligible. Both religion and technology can be helpful and hurtful to people who have been through such situations, and Gauthier’s eventual unplugging of the tech tower (thus ending its endless echoes) is akin to the shutting of the box that Pandora tried so desperately to do in the Greek myth. If only it were that easy in real life! While this show was possibly the most inaccessible in terms of language (and given the references to the tower of Babel, that was probably intentional), it is also the richest in terms of possible meanings, as there was definitely no clear narrative being enacted for us.
MISE-EN-ABYME – We begin with a loop of sound bytes representing the mundane cycle of the daily grind that repeats every 20 seconds or so, from waking up to getting in the car, Starbucks, typing, and all in reverse at the end of the day. Megan Carty, strapped to the floor, enacts these motions with excellent fluidity as the loop continues. When she speaks she narrates her own mental processes as she realizes that the daily grind is grinding her down and she needs to break the cycle. As she explores her options, Martin Dawagne sits centre stage, expertly negotiating the sound loops and eventually breaking out the guitar. The exploration to find an existence that doesn’t depend on endless cycles goes from vacation to the realization that changing routine only begets new routines, and the reasoning behind her inner exploration grows more and more circular. Carty’s narration is poetic in its playfulness with repetitive sounds and double meanings of words, but it does come at the cost of some clarity as to what she’s actually talking about. Her introspection continues as a sort of poetic Möbius strip until she eventually realizes that routine is inescapable and she should calmly accept it, with the understanding that things can change if they have to. Her journey is made clearer through Dawagne’s handling of the sound board and guitar. The sound loops, which give way to a single sonorous note before erupting into guitar chords, perfectly underscore Carty’s growing tension before coming to her moment of epiphany. While the journey to the message of this piece is confusing and twisting, the overall message is clear and certainly viable.
Slow Burn – A non-scripted improv performance, this piece is radically different each time it is presented – reviewing improv is not easy for this reason. However, I can comment on the lack of comedic tension in the performance that I saw, which caused it to fall a bit flat. Improv scenes tend to follow a formula, but it is a very general one that allows for tension to be generated and to flow in a way that keeps the audience interested. After the ask-for (the performers will ask for a suggestion from the audience that becomes an element or theme of the scene they are about to present), they create a ‘platform,’ in which they establish their characters, their setting, and most importantly the relationship between their characters. Out of this platform a conflict – and therefore tension – arises, and suddenly there’s a problem that needs to be solved by the end of the scene. It’s simple and it works on the same principles for narrative no matter the format (novel, play, campfire story, etc.) The weakness I found in this performance was that conflict simply did not arise, and when it did it could not be sustained for the whole scene without being reabsorbed back into the platform. I’ll explain: the ask-for, in this case, was ‘elevation’ as the theme for the scene, so the scene featured one performer as an amateur biologist studying pelicans in the wild. The biologist’s friend is down about breaking up with his girlfriend, to which the biologist says he needs to get out more: “I’ve got my pelicans, what’ve you got?” Boom. Conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict was almost immediately resolved and folded back into the platform, with admission on the friend’s part that he needs to branch out. While there was no overarching conflict, several smaller ones did come up before being shunted off in similar ways. On the promotional poster, the description for this show reads “Realism creates a kind of improvisation you haven’t seen before.” While I’m all for experimenting with a given genre of performance, I’m not sure that realism/naturalism is the best way to go with improv. The pace of this show was agonizingly slow, with some very indulgent pauses between lines. Some lines were by themselves chuckle-worthy, but the lack of flow made it difficult to stay engaged in the performance the whole way through. I did like the ongoing use of the word “gullet,” but overall the tone of this show was too subtle to really be funny.
TOLERANCE – Alternatively titled “THUNK!Theatre Explains why It Is Important to be Kind to Every Fucking Thing on this Planet” (sic), this piece was the most interactive but then again also the most predictable in terms of “I see where they’re going with this.” Each member of the audience is given a mandarin orange and a marker, and told to write a single word on the orange that represents something they find grating and hateful (in my case ‘ignorance,’ which I personally find to be an increasingly unconvincing excuse in this age of Google), and then to join up with their neighbour and decide which of their oranges they will discard. This process repeats until the audience is in groups of 8 with a single mandarin, at which point the three groups of 8 are each given a musical note to hum, resulting in a musical triad. Then the absorbing of groups continues, with oranges and notes being discarded until the entire audience is onstage, humming one note and ‘throwing’ their hate away.
While the through-line of the performance was very simple, the process of getting up and interacting with other audience members (including Richard Hemphill, whose mandarin I had to prise from his unyielding fingers in order to keep the performance going) was probably the more likely goal. The goal of the process escapes me somewhat though, especially as uniting one group against a common hatred (in this case, ‘mandarins’), works very well in bringing people together although it worryingly ignores the alternate title to this very piece. Additionally the markers supplied were woefully inadequate to the needs of writing on a surface as oily as orange peel, but that’s really a secondary quibble. The performers keep wonderful personalities as mad scientists directing the ‘experiment’, especially Gabbie Lazarovtiz as the no-nonsense one of the group, although I would have thought that the mad scientist motif would suggest something a bit less intuitive than equating musical harmonies with human concordance.
Ethel – Madeleine Hall is stuck in mourning limbo: her (great?) grandmother Ethel has recently died and she is stuck, sitting with a tape recording of Ethel’s voice but not ready yet to press play and listen. Instead, she ponders questions that come up, things like “was the war ever, like, kind of fun?” and “you attain consciousness at 7, and before then you’re basically a cat. If the average woman in Canada lives until 83, then wouldn’t she become a cat again at 76?” Relating her experiences with visiting and taking care of Ethel in the 95th and last year of her life, Hall experiences the curiosity and confusion that every young person goes through when they start to come to grips with aging, mortality, and grief in a real, concrete way. No one’s experience is the same of course, but this is something that everyone goes through and for a festival primarily aimed at emerging artists (who tend to be young) this is a particularly apt programming choice. Hall’s performance is apparently the first she has created using words instead of movement, which may explain the occasionally timid nature of her delivery (though given the subject material it is somewhat understandable), and the recording of Ethel’s voice has been beautifully mixed with music for the opening sound cue. This is a performance that is at times funny and rarely sympathetic – though the empathy it generates is its strength.
An eclectic mix for this year’s Fresh Meat: DIY Theatre Fest, in terms of topic, genre, and quality. My favourites, hands down, have got to be Stephen and Me, Mr. Eff, and Pan-dora, though I commend all the artists for putting their best face forward and showing off their creations to an engaged public. This year was my first outing to Fresh Meat and I’m excited to return next year to see what the next course is! While my fellow reviewer Brie McFarlane has comments on the festival itself, I’m more interested in the accumulation of independent festivals at Arts Court. Over the last few years more and more smaller festivals have moved to this space, so that the building now houses, among others:
As well as others that I may have missed. I personally am a fan of this centralization (it makes it much easier to keep track of all these smaller festivals when they occur in the same places, though you’d be hard-pressed to call Fringe small now) and while I realize that not all of them are run by the same administration, most of them deal with promoting emerging artists who seem to be continually emerging (witness how Hall, Balcome, Paton, and others are repeat performers at Fresh Meat alone). Whether this is due to a lack of resources outside of festivals for independent artists or a stagnation in the local theatre scene is beyond the scope of this review, though I would gladly explore the question for a later essay by talking to artists and event organizers. Instead, I would caution the Arts Court administration to consider what makes each of these theatre festivals its own unique experience (beyond the obvious differences in eligibility as regards age, professional experience, etc.) and to promote them along those lines, as the institution creeps closer and closer to monolithic status among Ottawa art institutions.
Fresh Meat 4: DIY Theatre Fest 2015
Festival Director: Emily Carvell
Madeleine Hall: Media & Marketing Director
Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha: Box Office Manager
At Arts Court
October 15-17, 2015
Created and Performed by Karen Balcome and Kara Nolte
Written and Performed by Mike Kosowan and Joel Garrow
Directed by Adam Zimmerman
Stephen and Me
An Egodeath Production
Created and Performed by Norah Paton
In collaboration with Cory Thibert
Joseph and Amarise
A Resounding Scream Theatre Production
Based on the chat transcripts of Jessica Dunfield and her first boyfriend (AKA Sinful Goldfish and LilTaz104)
Adapted and Directed by Catherine Ballachey
Performed by Chandel Gambles, Jake William Smith, Alain Chauvin, and Danielle Savoie
Created and Performed by Jesse Buck
Dramaturgy by Allen Michael Brunet
October 22-24, 2015
A Filament Théâtre Production
Performed by Élise Gauthier and Alex Zabloski
Music by Alex Zabloski
Props by Nicolas Gignac
A Cart Before the Horse Production
Created and Performed by Megan Carty and Martin Dawagne
Created and Performed by Chris Hannay and Leslie Cserepy
TOLERANCE or THUNK!theatre Explains why It Is Important to be Kind Every Fucking Thing on this Planet
A THUNK!theatre Production
Created and Conducted by Karen Balcome, Geoff McBride, and Gabbie Lazarovitz
Performed by Everyone, and we mean EVERYONE in the goddamn audience!
Created and Performed by Madeleine Hall
Directed by Jodi Morden