Cultures clash between mother and son in comedy Brimful of Asha

Brimful of Asha

Image from http://theatrewhynot.org/brimful/

Brimful of Asha by Why Not Theatre comes recommended by several sources – with high ratings from national and international critics. Within the first minutes of curtain it’s easy to see why.

We are welcomed into the Studio at Centre in the Square by friendly ushers who inform us that we should make sure we are ready to sit for 80 minutes without an intermission – those who leave will not be able to re-enter the theatre. This becomes important. In this production, not a single line, quip, or anecdote is extraneous, and the production itself is deeply immersive. They all weave together in a tapestry to create a big-picture story about an Indian son and his mother.

Asha (the mother) was born in India. She moved to Canada to be with her husband in the context of an arranged marriage. (Important – In Jainism, parents arrange marriages based on data about the individuals and their families… but the marriage does not happen unless both of the people to marry agree.) Her two sons are born in Canada, and the story unfolds to show not only how cultures cross with differences between Canadian and Indian expectations around marriage, but also how the characters are also prone to generational expectations in rapidly changing times.

Asha is not an actor (she tells us), but her son – theatre creator Ravi most definitely is. As he tells a story, he welcomes his mother to contribute her angle on the circumstance of marriage, and when she and Ravi’s father attempted to arrange a marriage for Ravi. Asha is not shy. Throughout the storytelling, she interjects and clarifies details according to her perspective and reckoning.

The set is minimal. An iridescent curtain of lush Indian fabric drapes the back drop, a digital display which serves the purpose of display of information hangs mid-way down the curtain. And finally, a table decorated with a cloth, set with tea and samosas complete the set. Upon entering, you are greeted by Ravi and Asha, offered a homemade samosa, and then welcomed to sit. This simple act has the effect of transporting the audience away from a theatre, and into Asha’s kitchen.

As the story is told, the display takes the form of a laptop: Showing bio-data for match-making of potential marriage partners, Facebook profiles, videos and photomontage of the family. The effect is clever and suits the immersive quality of the show. The fourth wall is non-existent.

Brimful of Asha is co-presented by the MT Space – a local theatre company that focuses on multiculturalism. One of most interesting aspects of this piece is how plural identities collide within a single Indian-Canadian family. Both characters find themselves clashing with their own identities as much as with each other. When it isn’t geographical, religious, traditional culture related, it’s generational.

The layers of depth beneath the light-hearted comedy left this audience member thinking deeply about the implications of assimilation, identity, progress, the things we have gained, and what we have lost – and how much we are willing to compromise.

The show runs at Centre in the Square until Saturday the 3rd of May, 2014.

Occupying the Stage – The MT Space Delivers a Powerful New Creation

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What do you get when you combine three major world movements, an ensemble of artists, the powerful media of storytelling and physical theatre, and projection?

Occupy Spring is an examination of a world in conflict through the eyes of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and Idle No More. The MT Space wowed audiences in a powerful first workshop of its latest creation.

As a testament to this company, this piece has only been built over five days rehearsal, and typical to Majdi Bou Matar’s process as the artistic director of this company, he opened the floor to a talk back by audience for the development of this new work. The commentary was vibrant with lots of feedback from an audience left impressed. Could Occupy Spring eventually resound with the same power as MT Space’s The Last 15 Seconds?

The Staging of Innovation

The audience enters the Registry Theatre with the stage covered in a scrim. This device immediately removes the audience from the stage and serves the purpose of separation and inclusion as lighting and projection onto the scrim highlights, adds images, paints scenes and builds a conceptual set decorated in moving and powerful images. The projection closes the stage through overpowering the scrim with its brightness and then opens hole when darkened with the performers lit from the backstage. In this moment when these holes open, the actors emerge with monologues, and then the physical ensemble builds metaphors for the stories told.

The stories themselves range from an indigenous woman (Monique Mojica) describing a 1960s protest against the Bureau of Indian Affairs; a man from Halifax NS (Nicholas Cumming) speaking about the long term effects of herbicides on the health of his community; a Syrian woman (Nada Humsi) reminiscing about her peaceful life in her home country compared to it now – torn in conflict – and its terrifying future as she waits to see the outcomes of foreign intervention on her beloved home. Each actor of the cast of seven presents how their hearts, their philosophies and their bodies are affected in a world torn.

Despite the abstraction of physical theatre, the metaphors presented by the ensemble are clear. From comparing extreme human behaviour to instinctual animal reactions, to a humourous display showing a sleeping, boastful Parliament Hill, the stories come alive with the well honed control of this cast so well experienced with telling their tales through their bodies.

The use of projection, sometimes too distracting in this first go, creates an ever changing and animated set. Bou Matar has proven in this minimalist concept by Alejandro Valbuena that opulent effect can exist despite the lack of physical set. Light designer Jennifer Jimenez showed extraordinary capability in her offset from the projections with lighting ranging from the subtle to the highly dramatic. This blend of animation and stage has placed the flexibility of film and the powerful connection of theatre into a single venue. The combination of lighting, projection and movement theatre provides flexibility and power on a stage, but will require more consideration to minimize distraction from monologues and ensemble work.

This innovative development left this reviewer hungry for The MT Space and their unique style. Seeing the addition of projection and stories of a large ensemble brought to life in an experimental, yet accessible way connected me to actors and left me desirous of bearing witness to the entire process of creation.

You can witness this iteration of Occupy Spring tonight at the Registry Theatre at 7pm.

The Impact of Drift – Denmark’s Kitt Johnson at IMPACT 13

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Last night I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing DRIFT (or Drive) – a solo performance by Kitt Johnson X-Act from Denmark in downtown Kitchener at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts.

Kitt Johnson was on the stage as the audience entered. She was looking outwards trapping every audience member as a subject of her gaze. She would slowly turn – but then fix her eyes on the audience. This wasn’t a breaking of the fourth wall – or was it. The notion of the gaze is complicated, and in this reversal, the normal audience passivity was hauled into question. Who is watching whom? Importantly, there was a profound connection instantly, and reinforced the disallowance of total subjectification of this performer.The sound/music started (performed live – same for the lighting), and her turning increased in momentum – we were off on a journey.

A bit of a disclaimer: This is an abstract piece and therefore prone to many interpretations. I am sure no one felt the same about the piece last night. The artist has a statement about the piece, and I found the piece very cohesive with that statement. Also, it should be said that contemporary abstraction in performance is something that is meant to be experienced in a sensual way. My review will be a paltry grouping of words about something that is meant to be seen, heard, and felt.

Johnson tells a story of disconnect. She starts the performance in a large fur coat that becomes a very obvious burden. In the watching, I couldn’t help feeling like what I was witnessing was Judith Butler’s notion of identity as a performance come to life – but this particular performance not being about the gendered body, but instead about the struggle with conforming with any identity – the place where biology and culture meet, and the conflict in that meeting. It’s about the primordial drives, and our constant struggle to keep these at bay. The impact of being cultured beings who want to eat, yearn for sex, who have biological imperatives – the things that drive us: the id vs the ego.

The piece is a non-narrative – based instead on concept rather than plot or character development. Think of the notion of the drift (la dérive): this is not the casual wandering through a landscape but instead the mindful exploration of the everyday.  We are taken on a psychogeographical tour of impulse. Johnson makes a concrete show of how our physical wakening builds into an intolerably hegemonic need to fit in. Instead of characterising another passing day in representational terms, the performer looks into the sense of identity as an overbearing and itchy fur coat – this object as a representational vestment of identity.

As a female audience member, I emphatically identified with this character who is clothed in an identity that masks and covers so much that it becomes an impenetrable discomfort. In effort to conform and avoid rejection, we build layers hiding the parts of us that want to break free and occupy the space in our bodies as unrestrained beings. From putting on the clothing that builds the outside of an identity to the inner work of constant restraint to maintain that sense of being to the outside world.

When we can liberate ourselves from these moments, we begin to find our inner strength and our ability to act out. When we remove the layers of itchy imposition, our bodies, our selves become the intensity… This play is not about the triumph. It’s about coming close, and feeling what it is like to stand too close to a fire, and then waking once again into our hegemonic selves. Conformity, and self examination through being examined – the discomfort and struggle is palpable. Johnson’s sense of a biology trapped in a culture is thoroughly examined with every ripple of well controlled muscle with contortions reflecting struggle, and then finally, the even more devastatingly (un)comfortable conformity.

You can see this performance tonight (September 25) at 7:00pm at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts as a part of IMPACT 13

DRIFT (or Drive) – trailer – solo by Kitt Johnson from Kitt Johnson X-act on Vimeo.

A Solo Performance/Kitt Johnson

“We civilize in the morning” as the poet Kirsten Hammann wrote. Sure, but before noon the instincts have thwarted the shiny surface. Taken over from the inside, some would rightly call it. The driving forces of the instinct operate subtly satisfying its own needs. Either slowly and out of control they make changes in our inner life as continental plates in operation. Or fast as snipers who seek out and hold an object on the grain, only to kill it with a snap. Civilization under attack.

DRIFT (or drive) represents part one of a two-part study of human instincts caught between culture and biology. The second part is an ensemble work FORUM HUMANUM planned to open 2013.

Why I moved here, why I stayed: art matters in Waterloo Region

I moved to Waterloo Region originally around 2000 to work in the new and budding tech industry. I came with no idea of what Waterloo Region was outside of knowing I was heading into post-industrial, post-manufacturing, Oktoberfest and Mennonites. None of these held any interest for me. My first dance with the Region was with a small tech company in Waterloo. I lived in old Doon, old Preston, Waterloo near Chapters and finally in Old Westmount. I mostly worked. When I didn’t work, I would go to the Button Factory for life drawing. I attended festivals and appreciated the culture  as a pure consumer.

My life then moved me away from the utterly soulless world of tech for the first time (remember that first time you learned a tough lesson about something and then thought after enough time had passed things would have changed enough to try  again? Like re-dating that person you broke up with all those years ago, and finding out they hadn’t changed? Yeah, tech is my bad boyfriend. I don’t re-date people. I re-date an industry.) Don’t get me wrong… I loved coding. I love making things, and I love math. I love logic and algorithm. However, as an industry, it is deeply problematic. Especially for women and creative types.

I moved to Guelph for a bit to live through an utter devastation, and then moved to rest my head in Elora.

North Queen Elora

My beautiful wee cottage in Elora before I moved in. The gardens expanded, the house stayed the same. Now it is gone, replaced by a mondern monstrosity.

Elora was convalescence, rest, respite, heeling, solitude, quietude, gardening, bread baking, and perfectly introverted. I have nary a friend from that time and location other than the plants, the wildlife, insects, the falls and rocky gorges, a now stolen super heavy fixie pink bike that was impossible to push up steep or large hills, my extensive gardens, my writing. These are now all gone and I am left with nothing but nostalgic memories of beauty.  After some time in Elora, somewhere around 2006, I had the precious ability to choose any city with a university where I could want to live. Oddly, I chose downtown Kitchener.

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From my beautiful Elora cottage to my brownfield balcony-view flat in Kitchener

My family expressed concern and apprehension regarding my choice, and others who had seen my beautiful half-acre property and ancient house in Elora couldn’t possibly understand why downtown Kitchener held any appeal for a young mother with two babies who had just become single. Kitchener it was with Bread and Roses cooperative as the replacement for my sweetly quaint Elora home.

Once here, I became quickly integrated into the city. I developed a strong passion for the downtown in which I was a new resident. I became active in the happenings of the inner city street, advocating for small locally owned business, downtown residents, and the daily goings on that affected the health of this new and amazing place (context: I have lived in several cities). The tenacity and care of the people active in the core was infectious. The community up here is wound together through commonality and stays very open – you are all accepted and we do our best to take care of those in our community. Really a perfect spot to land for a penniless single mother.

There was one word that often came to mind that counted for everything…

Possibility

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In the downtown, my first stunning experience with art in Waterloo Region came from CAFKA: Haptic in 2007. I was blown away by the art-as-found-object nature of the show. The work was playful, filled with wonder, and haphazard and completely unexpected by this author in my first experiences in this city.

I was desirous to talk about it, and wanted to be as much a part of this stunning world that I hadn’t known in my previous existence in this city. I started a salon in the Exhibit Cafe (now where Imbibe is located at the base of  TheMUSEUM) to discuss art, food, philosophy, poetry, and civic issues. It featured researchers, specialists, poets, artists, farmers, and other amazing people who were willing to share their passion. We ran for over a year and I met so many interesting people. Among these were Dan Forsey who is now the owner of the Tannery School of Music (at the time, art event organiser extraordinaire), and Brian Scott (events department for the city of Kitchener). These two pulled me into an arts landscape that was to change me forever. I had other critical mentors in the shape of professors and friends who had no idea of the power of their words. Sometimes creativity takes a grand kick in the ass. Sometimes even that doesn’t work to get us there. Many people ignore this calling forever because there are several indications of the impossibility and pain of it all. Those people – I feel badly that they were discouraged. It’s tough. Really tough. But it is a worthwhile rollercoaster ride.

Eventually the salon folded when my schooling required more of my attention.

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Around this time, I had been introduced to the MT Space with the early workshops of The Last 15 Seconds. I was blown away by the quality of the work. I expected to see this type of art in Montreal, but not in my surprisingly more-than-just-Mennonites! downtown. I had moved my expectations beyond the tourism focus on quaint German-ness and Oktoberfest, but I had not expected this level of experimental and avant garde artistry.

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With a new-found passion for this local and exciting form (in visual art, theatre, and music), and my love of critical thought and communication (what I was studying) with support from Forsey and Scott, I founded a burlesque company (look at that hair colour! I am not sure how I did it… Aside this cast was outstandingly talented. I have such profound respect for all of these artists, many of whom have continued performing in one way or another). After a year of hard work (for me, there was an importance in having a critical perspective on the nature of burlesque. It had to be about more than the costumes and partial nudity. It needed to possess a reflexivity, a critical dialog in the arc of the performances… but man the costumes were a blast) we were invited to participate in IMPACT 09.

Our company impressed, but more important, I was impressed by the nature of art making in the city to a point that I could no longer be silent. The theatre/performance art community, as well as the Three Amigos and the discussions on multiculturalism, inclusion and art had absolutely grabbed my attention and has held me for all of these years. I was brought into the arts, and guided patiently by the likes of Majdi Bou-Matar, Paddy Gillard-Bentley, and so many others. The wealth of ability and creativity in this community is beyond words. IMPACT 09 and CAFKA Veracity saw the beginning of my reviewing art on my now defunct blog Urbanely Urban.

In writing Urbanely Urban, I had attended hundreds of art, and art related events in the region, and outside the region if it pertained to artists from here. I encountered all types of artists from high art mucky mucks, to people who are experimenting in transformative media, to graffiti artists who did little more than tag. I met composers whose work reached the sublime as well as those who worked with sound and noise: taking me on visceral journeys through abstraction. I reviewed blues, jazz, symphony, contemporary, outrageous, odd, dance, ballet, theatre, art talks, exhibits, solo artists, lectures, the Canadian famous, the brand new, the outsider, the insider and anything I could find at all interesting. My writing was quoted in several newspapers, magazines, some academic journals and in other various media. If nothing else, I gained a wide perspective on art and art making in this region, how it travels and has a knock-on effect on other locations. I also gained perspective on why people leave, which they continue to do in droves, and where they go when they have left. We have a serious case of creative brain-drain.

As for myself, I am a writer… an observer. I am also a playwright. I watch and write. And after a previous 15 years of changing my address several times per year every year, I have finally settled into downtown Kitchener as my long-term home. It’s been 7 years so far.  I won’t claim expertise on downtowns, Kitchener, Waterloo Region or the art made here, but I have put in my 10,000 hours of looking, making and writing here to feel a certain confidence in some of my observations.

Our grassroots arts are critical to the act of making art in this region. They are also critical to the health of our overwhelmingly diverse population. They are our stories and artefacts. They say something about us as a city and as population who are sometimes only held together by geography but still share a common experience within this. You see, Elora was a place of respite, and immediate heeling for a very sore and broken soul. Waterloo Region art is what breathed the life back into that something that still limped around even though it thought itself strong again. I am a part of this diversity. I am proudly a downtown Kitchener artist.

The next blog will be about this… the grassroots.