March 30, 2012

Three Actors Walk Into A Bar...

Ross McMillan and Sarah Constible in Steve Ratzlaff's Dionysus in Stony Mountain (photo credit Leif Norman)

Ross McMillan and Sarah Constible are two mainstays of the Winnipeg theatre scene. They’re being directed by Bill Kerr in Theatre Projects Manitoba’s upcoming production of 'Dionysus in Stony Mountain’ by Steve Ratzlaff. I caught up with them (on behalf of The Uniter) having a break at Elephant and Castle between rehearsals.

SC:       Is it recording right now (leans in to Android) Hellloooooo?

BK:      Do you know the British hen party tradition? It’s like a stagette… what they do, Ryan Air flights are so cheap that they spend like $150 to get to Dublin and they spend 48 hours getting tricked there. So you see these mobs of drunken women throwing up and yelling and fighting. And it’s another weekend in Dublin.
SC:       Oh my god. I’ve got to go to this place called Ireland.

SC:       We were doing a line run the other day and there was an old Winnipeg Sun sitting there and I started flipping through it and there were two articles within two pages of each other about different offenders from Stony... It seems like the Winnipeg Sun is filled with all these sensationalist stories and I think the play we’re working on, a lot of it goes ‘Why is this the society we’ve decided to embrace?’

MT:     Does anyone here have experience with the justice system?
RM:     No!
SC:      Twenty years. Twenty years, yep. Killed that kid.

BK:      My foster brother has been incarcerated a number of times, though not here in Manitoba. So I’m fairly familiar with the failure of the justice system as a place that 'certainly didn’t rehabilitate him' let’s put it that way… it’s hardly a place of reform, yet somehow it’s claimed to be.
SC:       And Steve’s not only touching on the justice system, he was a teacher in the regular education system too.
RM:     I asked Steve what he was doing with this play, after seeing its earliest draft. And he said ‘Well, I just want to take some Nietzsche and shove it in the faces of the middle class just to see. Just to go ‘how do you like that?’’ If you take the quite persuasive argument of one of the main characters in the play, it really recommends that you don’t take the weak members of society and revere them as victims. The implication left hanging in the play is that you let them die… I think he wants to provoke a discussion. That’s quite a piece of provoking, I’d say.

BK:      We can get caught up in the sense that nothing ever gets better. But there has actually been real change. Whatever -ism you care to look at, like post colonialism – we were just talking about Ireland – yeah, a lot of the problems are replicated but there is a country there and there wasn’t before. Partitioned, but certain things have improved.
SC:       I can now marry a black man…
BK:      Yes, you can! Exactly. So there’s always a ying and yang, but there is genuine change.
RM:     Yes, true. But look at the States. Look at all the social advances that started in the 60s: feminism and the civil rights movement. A lot of people on the Right are now talking very openly about taking these away, about rolling these back. These changes aren’t necessarily permanent. And the British could invade Ireland again.
SC:       Well the only reason they have a platform is because of the Internet. Now we have this democratization of communication - that’s the only reason these nutjobs are getting a chance to say their point of view.
RM:     Not necessarily. Look at the Republican nomination race. These nutjobs are mainstream now.
SC:       What? You’re saying Santorum is a nutjob? What is your problem?
RM:     He’s a fine man… He’s a good-looking man. He gives me the horn.
BK:      (laughing) There’s the quote right there.
RM:     And he’s doing it on purpose!

RM:     One of the most forcefully put point of views in Dionysus in Stony Mountain is not just critical of boot licking liberalism, but scornful of it. And not just scornful of it, but pointing an accusatory finger of it being the sentiment that is sickening our society. And that’s what he’s presenting to an audience and asking them to consider.  That’s definitely not preaching to the choir.
SC:       He’s going to offend everybody-
BK:      You mean intrigue!
SC:       Intrigue - that’s the word.
BK:      It asks real questions.
RM:     And underneath all that, there’s grief. There’s real grief that comes as a surprise. As perhaps it always does. That after all the blaming and guilt and anger, sometimes what you find underneath that is grief. Beyond which there’s not much to say… sometimes when you let people give vent to what appears to be their most deeply held grievances and beliefs - when they finally get it all out - underneath it is something as simple as grief that can suddenly transfigure a person and make everything they’ve been saying, not irrelevant…
SC:       Enhanced?
RM:     Enhanced, yes. But you can suddenly see that underneath all the arguments and moral haggling, sometimes what really needs to be recognized is simple pain. And real pain can’t be dealt with institutionally; it can only dealt with between two people. And if you ever experience that, you’re lucky.

Dionysus in Stony Mountain runs March 29 to April 8 - details and tickets here.

March 28, 2012

Journey for Justice Review

I gave some personal impressions after reading Journey for Justice and attending a lecture by author Mike McIntyre and Wilma Derksen (read the blogpost here) but here's a more formal review of the book. In case, you know, that happens to be the actual thrust of the assignment. Let's consider this blogpost part two...


Journey for Justice: How "Project Angel" Cracked the Candace Derksen Case chronicles the 1984 disappearance of 13-year-old Winnipegger Candace Derksen, her family's efforts to find her, the discovery of her body and, finally, the arrest and trial of her killer 26 years later. The book is written by Winnipeg Free Press crime reporter Mike McIntyre (who turned 10 the day Candace's body was discovered) and closely follows Wilma Derksen (Candace's mother) through her journey of devastation, grief and recovery.

A Reader's Perspective

Whatever faults there are in this book, ranging from punctuation to stylistic problems, they're overshadowed by the gripping story of family struggling to deal with the random murder of their young, innocent daughter. There's something so universal about her story: Candace is one specific person, but anyone who has had justice violated in their own life - who has watched the world callously crush innocence - will be moved by this story. You'd have to have a wooden heart not to. I don't know if McIntyre should be praised for this - or for the Derksens' remarkable choice to embrace healing and forgiveness - but he's chosen the right story to publish. He can take credit for that.

He also adds moments of quiet, domestic life to this tragedy, providing the reader moments of relief as well as giving his characters a more three-dimensional form. When he chooses to paint the picture of an environment - a suspect walking down a street, a backyard meeting - he can form a vivid scene that places the reader in the moment, walking hand in hand with story's cast. When Journey rises as a book, it gets some good height.

But there are also lows. Forensic detail and psych evaluations supply cumbersome detail and poor reading. A number of scenes and witnesses exist without description and form; they pass by as voices and moments not grounded in the real world of Wilma, Cliff and Candace Derksen. McIntyre's thorough descriptions of evidence and desire to give his many, many sources their moments of coverage mean the reader will go over the same facts and events several times. It's understandable why he's done this, it may be commendable. But it doesn't make great reading.

A Journalist's Perspective

Journey for Justice holds a number of lessons for journalists, the most obvious one being there is still a venue for long form storytelling (so often unavailable in print, television and radio journalism). It delivers the pay off of that long term investment can yield, by showing the full arc of people who grow, change and live with the events that make them briefly 'newsworthy.'

Hearing McIntyre speak about his long form writing, you're able to fill in the background work that you suspected went in to Journey; how McIntyre carefully built a friendship with the Derksens first, how he transparently and approachably set about documenting the loss of their daughter. His example of how to approach victims is one more journalists should copy.

A News Addict's Perspective

But journalists also need to know what a great leap it is to move from short form coverage to multi-chapter, long form print because that's where Journey stylistically falls down. In his regular column, McIntyre is forced to edit down cumbersome police reports and trial testimony. With the wider space a book provides, McIntyre is free to let these reports stretch, to the detriment of his story.

McIntyre does have a valuable quality as a crime journalist that I was happy to see carry over to Journey; a lack of preachiness. I've found other crime reporters underline and highlight their writing with moral outrage, rage and disgust as they cover their beat. And McIntyre doesn't stress this. He doesn't have to; the facts do it for him. There is still loaded language and his word choice gives away his perspective very clearly, but it's no more pronounced than in his regular column. For the most part, he stays out of the way of his story. And I appreciate it - it leaves more room for the incredible people who populate this tragedy.

March 24, 2012


If you haven't read any of the ridiculously positive reviews for WJT's Angels in America, you should.
Better yet, go see it (details on how to get in here)

My only quibble: having to wait five months for part two...

March 22, 2012

Required Living

Last week I was required to read Journey for Justice; Mike McIntyre's book chronicling the murder of Candace Derksen, her killer's trial 26 years later and how her family coped with their devastating loss. I'm required to write a blog post on this assignment. I'm required to think about murder, justice, forgiveness, and death.

And... that's not a bad thing.

I find it hard though. Right now, outside my window the sun is warm and children are playing. Hank the cat is rubbing his face on my leg. Somewhere else in the world someone was just shot. A young girl was just raped. Horrible things are happening. Right now. It makes you - it make me anyways - think some dark thoughts about humanity. About the future...

Part of the reason I left The Faith was inability to reconcile a loving, all powerful god with terrible things happening to innocent people. That wasn't the case with Wilma Derksen (clearly) whose faith (in part) sustains her through the ongoing tragedy of having her daughter taken from her. I thought about asking her if she's forgiven god. I didn't. Coward.


We don't often do things that make us uncomfortable. Even when we know we should. Even when we crave the prize that lies on the other side of action. Why? What can we possibly be afraid of, especially compared to the real horrors that are haunting the world?

So here's a deal I'll make with you, good reader. Give me something uncomfortable to do. Something that will stretch me, grow me as a person. Something along the lines of:

(Matt's comfort zone).......................(your suggestion)

Because being given something to do as a 'requirement' seems to be the best way to get me to do something. And in a very, very small way, I think it honours the dead: living as rich a life as possible for as long as we have that option...

March 21, 2012

Crystal City - Ads That Write Themselves

Not too long ago, I Facebook statused that 'you know your trip was stellar when every picture can be turned into an ad' endquote. I'm ready to back that statement up now. Behold, a few ads that might have been from my trip to Crystal City with Chantal Verrier and Chaley Voth for our CreComm Travel Assignment.

March 16, 2012

IPPs and Actors

This post is mostly for my fellow first year Creative Communications students - but the rest of you can tag along!

This Monday we're submitting our Independent Professional Project (IPPs) Proposals, pitching ideas for a creative project we'll conduct on our own (thereby proving our CreComm chops) between now and March 2013. These projects can take many forms - writing a novel, filming a documentary, hosting an event, creating a blog - so long as there is an end product that is marketable.

A number of these projects will involve acting (especially television pilots and radio dramas). And if you're a colleague considering such a project, I want to encourage you to use trained actors - people who have built up film and theatre acting skills through experience and education. They've learned how to use their bodies and voices to communicate rich, nuanced stories. Your IPP will be better off if you use trained actors.

Why should I use actors when my friends can fill the parts for me? Can't everyone act?

Yes, your project might be easier to schedule if your friends fill roles. And yes, everyone can act. Some people are naturals at getting into the mindset of imaginary characters (it's easier if the character isn't that different from their regular persona).

But good acting usually requires practice and instruction. Voice training helps actors deliver lines clearly, playing with the nuances of your script. Film classes teach actors how to fill a camera lens with just the right amount of action and expression. And acting instruction helps actors become emotionally available, so when they pick a fight, lose a lover, hug an alien - when they perform whatever made-up scenario you've created for them - they're able to act the part honestly and make it seem "real."

So yes, it's less work to fill the roles with your friends. But your final product won't be the professional, feather-in-your-portfolio that it could be.

I'm nervous about approaching strangers to act for me...

Really? Didn't you do streeters? This is way easier, because (and here's an industry secret) actors like being asked to act. They may turn you down (for whatever reason) but there's no actor who doesn't like being offered work.

Won't it be a problem that I can't really pay them?

This will be a sticking point for a number of professionals - especially established pros who have already joined Equity (stage actors union) and Actra (film actors union).

BUT there are a number of up-and-coming actors looking for chances to hone their skills. Some professionals might also be up for it if they're attracted by the material in your piece. The key is to keep the time commitment low. If you only need them for one day of filming, you can probably trade their services for food and drinks. Radio plays usually require even less time to produce - a couple hours of rehearsal, then another two hours of recording (depending on the length of your script).

Another bargaining chip you can use is the promise to provide actors clips for their demo reels (or just 'reels'). Like CreComm students, actors build professional portfolios. If you can give them a nicely edited clip that shows off their acting prowess, they have another arrow in their quiver to snag future gigs.

Head into rehearsals/performances with all your planning done and use your team's time wisely. And you're golden.

Okay, this doesn't sound too bad. So where do I find actors?

In bars.

I kid, I kid. Here's a list of places you can go to find actors for your projects.

The Universities
Both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba have programs training actors for stage and screen. Print up some audition notices (more on that later), attend the shows they put on, call up their administrators (both helpful people). Students tend to be very early in their careers (shocking, I know) and are looking to build up their reels.

Acting Studios
There are a few places in town where actors can go to be tutored by seasoned pros (mostly for film acting). Jeff Skinner runs the Actors Training Centre of Manitoba, Darcy Fehr runs The Acting Studio Winnipeg, and Onalee Ames runs Onalee Ames Film Studio (sorry, website in development (?) but a google search will bring up the phone number). These are the ones I'm most familiar with; I'm sure there are others. Give them a shout and see if they'll mention your project to their students (or recommend any of their pupils).

Theatre Schools
Prairie Theatre Exchange runs a good school, with a wide variety of classes taught by local professionals. Their students range from 10 to 70 years old, so you might be able to connect with some hard to find child/older actors. Manitoba Theatre for Young People also runs a theatre school for 5 to 18 year olds. Remember; you'll need to get parents permission to film their children!

(And before you make your careful-phone-call-trying-to-not-seem-like-a-creep-and-getting-police-visits, remember the old theatre maxim "don't work with animals and children." I've done both and wished I hadn't)

The Winnipeg Audition Network
Local actors run a Facebook page to publicize auditions. Post away and let social media overwhelm you with its majesty.

The Winnipeg Fringe
If only there was a theatre festival filled with local actors where I could scout out emerging talent. There is! The Winnipeg Fringe takes over the Exchange District from July 18 to 29. Tickets to see a show are cheap ($10, usually additional discounts for students), local companies are noted in the Fringe guide and if you wait 15 minutes after the show ends, all the actors will emerge and head for the beer tent. Accost them in person or send them a follow up email (the Fringe website will post links to all companies that have sites). Remember - actors are susceptible to flattery. It's thespian kryptonite.

Local, Year-Round Companies
There's a number of companies who don't just perform at the Fringe; they keep independent theatre alive in Winnipeg right through the calendar. Here's a list of the smaller ones (the large companies like RMTC, PTE, WJT, SIR and TPM mostly use union actors who have a harder time doing projects like your IPP)

Theatre by the River
Echo Theatre
Moving Target Theatre
Out of Line Theatre
Sarasvati Productions
Winnipeg Studio Theatre
Theatre Incarnate
Tara Players
Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre
Merlyn Productions

I'm sure I'm missing some good ones and I apologize (Please put down your pitchforks and torches; we both know they're just prop versions). Send these companies an email or phone call, asking them to notify their regular actors about your project.

Improv Companies
Some of the best actors are improv-ers; they know how to 'live (act) in the moment' and can make things up at the drop of a hat. Bonus: many are very funny. There's a local highschool improv league that you can give a shout. There's also a list of performers from last year's Winnipeg Improv Festival, plus this year's coming festival to look forward to in September...

Now that I have all these fabulous places to look for actors... how do I hire the right ones?
You hold auditions; the actor-ly version of a job interview.

First, create an audition notice (here's an example for an Arthur Miller play). List all the details of your project; what it is, when it's happening, where it's going down, etc. List the expected time commitment. Then list all the characters and provide descriptions (not too long; provide some good demographic details and key character points). Give your contact information so interested actors can get in touch with you.

There are two types of auditions you can run. In the first, you provide actors samples of your script ('sides'). They'll rehearse the parts on their own, attend your audition and perform them for you. Keep your sides short, maybe one or two pages. If an actor knows what they're doing, they can prove it in very few lines.

In the second kind of audition, you don't have to provide any materials. Actors come in with audition pieces they've memorized from other films and plays. The characters they perform might not match the ones in your IPP, but the trade off is seeing your potential actors do a part they've been able to practice and perfect.

So choose the type of auditions you want to run and announce that on your notice. When actors start getting in touch with you, make up your audition schedule. 15 minute time slots usually work well.

The actors will perform their pieces. Hopefully you're wow'd, maybe not. Be gentle. Auditioning is a scary, emotionally intense thing to do. Give them a bit of direction after their first performance - this gives them another kick at the can, plus it lets you see how well they can absorb your instructions. Let them do their piece again and see how it goes.

At the end of it all, go for a drink, mull things over, sleep on it, then choose who will play which part. Make some calls to references (actors should give you their Acting Resume and Headshot at the audition) to ensure you're not hiring a psycho. Unless you like having psychos on your team. You psycho, you.

And when all your actors are confirmed, be a decent human being and call the people who didn't make the cut. Just say, "I really appreciated your audition, but didn't think you were right for this part." They'll be glad you let them know. Or they'll be mad; in which case, hang up.

Now you're off to the IPP races with your team of experienced actors.

High fives?

I hope this is helpful if you're considering using actors for your IPP. Possibly I'm completely wrong. Check in with other people in CreComm who have acting experience - Lauren KayleyMike Trakalo and Josh Alao come to mind (I'm sure there are more - let me know and I'll add your name).

Break legs! I'm cheering for you!

March 15, 2012

Angels in America Preview (content warning)

Angels in America can’t be called ‘just another play.’ It would be like calling Neon Bible a decent LP. Or saying Mad Men is an okay period piece. The sprawling, emotionally charged masterwork by American playwright Tony Kushner ranges from New York to Heaven to Antarctica as a cast of gay men, Mormons, angels and hallucinations intersect during the AIDS crisis and Reagan administration of late 1980s America. It stretches over two parts – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. It’s won the Pulitzer and Tony awards. Its HBO miniseries adaptation (featuring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson) was similarly burdened with Emmys and Golden Globes.

So don’t be surprised that the cast and crew working on Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s run of Angels – the first part opening on March 21, the second in the fall – are being touched in different ways by the play.

That’s what happens when you work with angels.

Michael Rubenfeld (Louis Ironson) in WJT's Angels in America (Photo credit Dylan Hewlett)
The Flesh

The day before our interview, Michael Rubenfeld rehearsed anal sex.

“It was fine. It was just a scene,” he says. “He wasn’t really giving me anal sex - it might have been a different story if he actually penetrated me.”

The former Winnipegger is playing Louis Ironson in Angels. Ironson abandons his AIDS infected lover early in the play, eventually hooking up with the deeply closeted (and married) Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt. Their encounters are edgy, to put it mildly.

“Actually, it was kind of fun,” Rubenfeld continues. “I like the feeling of being uncomfortable in rehearsal – myself and others around me. It makes me feel, oddly, more comfortable. It’s a fun social experiment to see people giggly and curious. And everyone was super giddy, it’s such a tense scene.”

The Toronto based actor isn’t gay himself, though he’s played gay men before, on screen and on stage. The orientation of a role isn’t central, he says; nor does he find living in the skin of a gay character unusual.

The only challenge I feel is not playing into stereotypes; just playing the words and not trying to add some affectation on top of the part. I trust that if I play the truth of the emotions and tell the story, the rest will take care of itself.”

And homosexuality has been in my life since I was a child… I grew up with an uncle who was gay. I don’t think I’m someone who had to deal with any kind of internalized homophobia that I didn’t know existed…. I feel very comfortable within the culture.”

The actor points to other productions of Angels now running in New York and Philadelphia as signs of a renewed interest in the play and a reaction against resurging conservative politics in North America.

“It’s speaking to so many relevant conversations. It was written in the mid-90s but if you change around a few names… the western world is still having so many of the same conversations.”

It’s just a great fucking play.”

Ryan Miller (Prior Walter) in WJT's Angels in America (photo credit Dylan Hewlett)
The Heart

“I’ve heard the part of Prior described as one of those Everest parts,” says Ryan Miller, speaking about his role. “It doesn’t scare me when people say ‘I’m so looking forward to seeing this play’ but when they say ‘Oh! That’s a big part’… when people do that, it sort of snaps me back into reality and makes me ask if I’m capable of doing this.”

Miller is making his professional stage debut with WJT as Prior Walter, the AIDS infected, prophetically gifted character Angels revolves around. A core member of local sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, Miller admits to being intimidated by both the part and his more accomplished fellow actors. He draws on powerful personal experiences, however, to rise to the challenge of being Angel’s moral centre.

“Not that I have AIDS and my lover is leaving me… but I always relate my situation in the play to when my dad passed away from cancer. It was very quick, it was very sudden. So it feels like similar storylines, you know? The way Prior deteriorates very quickly into just shitting blood and he’s dying in front of the audience’s eyes… we watched my dad deteriorate right in front of our eyes. It happened so quickly and it was just so… earth shattering. So I’m able to relate to my character that way. Not that I’ve gone through a horrible disease of my own. But I’ve watched it.”

The Soul

“When I programmed this play, I was still married,” says Michael Nathanson, Artistic Producer of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. “I find myself separated from my wife currently - and my children - so Angels connects on an extraordinarily primal level for me right now. About the pain involved in relationships.”

Nathanson came on board as WJT’s Artistic Producer in 2006, in time to see his two-hander Talk produced that fall (and go on to be nominated for the Governor General’s Award). Since then, he’s programmed seasons combining new work, Canadian premieres and classics. Angels in America, with its large cast and fantastical plot, might be his most challenging choice yet.

“It’s the very definition of writing that comes from the gut and has blood on the page. It’s a cri de coeur. And it feels for me like such a deeply Jewish play... Israel means arguing with God and Angels in America, we don’t have the Hebrew word for it, but it would be arguing with America.”
It’s this amazingly vital, heartfelt, human exploration of our need for other people. And it’s impossible to listen to this play, let alone watch it, and not come away moved and changed.”

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs March 21 to April 1 at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (Asper Community Campus, Berney Theatre).  Details and online tickets ($15 for students) are at

March 9, 2012

New Word to Enrich Your Life (You're Welcome)

Lambvantage (lam-van-tage)

noun. (eng): strategic advantage or edge gained from being cute
I was competing for a job with Jen Thiessen - she totally had a lambvantage on me.

March 8, 2012

Balancing the Iconic and the Intimate

Big Friendly Designer - Brian Perchaluk looks wa-aaay down on his set design for August: Osage County

How do you fit a three-story house into thirteen feet of space?

That’s the task designer Brian Perchaluk faced when director Ann Hodges approached him one opening night last year, asking him to design the set (and costumes) for August: Osage County. The original 2007 production featured an onstage, multi-story house that proved so iconic, subsequent Broadway, touring and international productions have nearly always resurrected it.

"The Big House" set design from the Broadway run
But the Tom Hendry Stage at the Warehouse – the venue chosen for August: Osage County – only has 12 feet 5 inches between floor and I-beam.

“At first, we tried to be more naturalistic,” Perchaluk says, “to have more walls; more stairs. We had staircases with 8 steps at one point, separating the floors. But a person standing on the top floor of that configuration would have their head in the lighting grid. It felt forced. We just didn’t have the space.”

The solution: a more abstract, poetic concept.

“Ann and I talked about the ‘Big House’ set design, trying to figure out what statement it made on the family and the generations - what the family used to be. What could we find that could be as important to our production?”

Perchaluk kept coming back to the windows. Shuttered in the first two acts, the house’s windows are barriers that keep outsiders from peering in – and the Weston family from looking out. If windows are the eyes of a house, these eyes are tightly shut, like the absent eyes in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

The eyes are not here           
There are no eyes here        
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley

Other poetic sources, referenced by the script, also emerged to help guide Perchaluk’s design, such as John Berryman’s The Curse.

Only the idiot and the dead
Stand by, while who were young before
Wage insolent and guilty war
By night within that ancient house,
Immense, black, damned, anonymous.

Perchaluk has tried to weave these colours into his minimalistic set. The windows hang in dark voids. Rooms appear to be near each other, but have a distinct disconnect – a quality Perchaluk lifted from the central family. Tufts of dead, dry grass suggest a desolate, Oklahoma plains beyond the walls. The goal is to suggest a house formerly of substance, diminished by abandonment and neglect.

While layering in these stylistic elements, Perchaluk is blunt about his main goal as designer for August: Osage County – functionality. After all, a play with 13 actors onstage using five main acting areas (often simultaneously) requires a very particular arrangement to make logical sense to an audience. And prevent bodies from bouncing off each other.

“Most of the energy has been focused into the geography – fitting this play into this space... it hasn’t been frustrating, more a process of refinement.”

“It’s such a rich, well-crafted piece, the set just has to function so the story will happen as best it can. I really think the set should be an afterthought – that’s usually how I approach my work. You need to give the actors space to do the play. That’s where the bang for your buck is; it’s not about the set.”

“The poetry is secondary, but it’s simmering there underneath.”

Perchaluk’s attitude is backed up by a long resume of experience; this is his 50-ish design for RMTC (he says 50-ish after losing count over the years). The Roblin, Manitoba native actually credits RMTC with sparking his interest in theatre. As a child, he was deeply impressed by the touring productions the theatre sent to his school, eventually heading to University of Winnipeg and National Theatre School to launch his career in theatre design. He’s pleased for chances to give back to RMTC, particularly on a play as provocative and well-crafted as August: Osage County.

“With some plays, it’s an uphill battle and you work and work, but you know the play is going to be a dud. When you’re starting off with a great piece like this – it’s 80 per cent there, in the script. You just need to make sure you support it and don’t screw it up.”

Even with a tight playing space, that doesn’t seem likely. Director Ann Hodges sums up the advantages of Perchaluk’s design.

“We don’t have the iconic image, but we will place this family drama - this vicious play – 20 feet away from the audience. We will, instead of the icon, have intimacy.”

March 7, 2012

Countries Shaped Like Stars Preview

Once upon a time, countries were shaped like stars.
Sound was measured in pin drops
and time had no skin.
Words were understood by the spaces in between them
and anticipation grew on trees.

Two voices joyfully chant the poem in perfect harmony. They’re accompanied by a whirly-wind (one of those plastic tubes you swung over your head as a child). There’s a small audience with you in the tiny performing space; an audience, you’re told, made up of Birds and Constellations.

Countries Shaped Like Stars is one of those plays where you’re aware – even in the first few moments – that you’ve crossed some sort of threshold into a really magical place.  In an intimate venue, two actors sing you through the sweet and tragic fairytale of Gwendolyn Magnificent and Bartholomew Spectacular’s love, pulling out all the stops – puppetry, dance, audience participation – to bring the audience into the world of childhood dreams. The play was a runaway hit for Ottawa-based Mi Casa Theatre during the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival.  Getting a ticket during that run meant standing in line for hours (I know, I did).

Now Countries is returning to Winnipeg for an encore run March 14 – 17, helping the Fringe fundraise for this coming summer’s festival. It’s part of a cross-country tour that’s seen actors Emily Pearlman (30) and Nicolas Di Gaetano (31) trek through Montreal, Regina, Edmonton and Whitehorse – and have a fantastic time doing so.

“The tour is awesome. It’s really great to bring it to different communities,” says Pearlman during a phone interview to Whitehorse. “We love doing this show because it feels like a party – we’re all hanging out together as we create an experience for the audience.”

“Remember as a kid the first time you saw a squirrel and you went ‘Wow! Squirrels are amazing!' Then you acclimatize and lose that sense of wonder. My main interest is providing an opportunity for adults to feel that childlike wonder again.”  

Writing a preview/review for Countries is difficult. I’m resisting the urge to give away too many playful moments that kept my jaw dropped when I first saw the show. The snarling, snapping dragon fruit; Di Gaetano’s stellar mandolin playing; the cumin-scented moustaches. I’ve said too much.

Perhaps the best way to end is this: each year at the Winnipeg Fringe I usually see just one show that stays with me as an enduring reminder of the joy of live theatre. This is one of those shows.

Countries Shaped Like Stars runs Wednesday, March 14 to Saturday, March 17 at Studio 320 (70 Albert Street). Tickets are $18 or $14 for the opening show and Saturday matinee. Get info and tickets by heading to

March 1, 2012

Altar Boyz Preview

(l-r: Michael Lyons, Marc Devigne, Jeremy Walmsley, Joseph Sevillo and Simon Miron - the cast of Altar Boyz)

Prairie Theatre Exchange’s main space is in a state of controlled chaos as the media call for Altar Boyz – PTE’s current co-production with Winnipeg Studio Theatre – gets going. Lights shoot from every angle; the accompanist strikes a few chords on his piano; the five actors who make up the mock Christian boy band warm up their voices – each rehearsing a different song. Artistic Director Bob Metcalfe has to shout to rein everything in.

Then the guys leap into their first song and dance (We Are the Altar Boyz) for the gathered cameras. It’s a jumping, twisting number, welcoming Winnipeg to the final show of the ‘Raise the Praise’ tour. The Boyz harmonize and gyrate for the sake of their audience’s souls. The piece ends and the guys are covered with a light sheen of sweat. Their chests are heaving. Then they do it again. And again.

And despite 12-hour rehearsals over the past three days, the piece still sparks with energy. Three years after the satirical Altar Boyz made a sweeping run at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, these guys are pumped to be back.

“We’re so lucky that things worked out, that we get to be here with the same cast,” says Jeremy Walmsley, who plays boy band leader Matthew. He’s joined by Joseph Sevillo (Mark), Michael Lyons (Luke), Marc Devigne (Juan), and Simon Miron (Abraham, the band’s lone Jew) to fill out the cast of the 2005 Off Broadway hit. Each actor is nostalgic about the 2009 Fringe production.

“Every show sold out,” says Lyons. “We always had line ups. And the audience really got into it –”

“They got super loud,” Walmsley adds.

“Coming in for a show and having lineups stretch to the Globe, it was surreal,” Miron says. ”You do feel like a rock star doing this play.”

“It’s rare that you get a chance to do something you love twice,” says Winnipeg Studio Theatre director Kayla Gordon. With this co-production, she’s gained the budget for a full set, costumes and props – the original run was scaled down due to Fringe setup constraints. The cast has also gained the time to find a more refined, blended sound.

“We’ve switched up some of the parts to clean things up, make it more specific,” Walmsley says.

“To get five guys with different vocal training to blend, that’s hard,” Miron observes. “This time, we’re trying to sound just like the album; it forces you to lift up your performance.”

Walmsley looks at the lights and glowing stage, then smiles.

“It really feels like a concert.”

Altar Boyz runs February 23 through March 11 at Prairie Theatre Exchange renovated Portage Place location. 30 minutes before the show starts, any unsold tickets are available to students for just $10. Go to for more info.