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After months of planning, Zoom rehearsals and rain delays, Anna Stassis and a two-person production team from Perchance Theatre met at the corner of Bannerman and Military Road in St. John’s, ready to capture the heart of a classic story. They made the first footprints in the fresh snow and set up quickly, with only the occasional sound of a car passing. With a little chat, Stassis found her mark at the top of the front steps of the Colonial Building, between its Corinthian pillars. She pulled back a piece of her dark hair and breathed deeply, before looking directly into the lens at the foot of the concrete stairs.
The call came: “Action.”
The speech that followed from Stassis was not in English. It was not Shakespeare.
It’s worth soaking in, since Perchance Theatre has arguably been tied to all things English and Shakespeare as much as any theatre company in North America. The company’s purpose-built playhouse is modeled after The Globe in London. Its base is in the Town of Cupids, where a giant Union Jack (7×14 metres) was flown overhead as the Prince of Wales visited in 2010. The Governor General of Canada at the time described Cupids as, “where the adventure of the first British explorers took root, giving birth to English Canada.”
It’s centuries later. And local communities, theatre and film companies are filled with the descendants of other settlers. Stassis happened to grow up in this part of the world and came to love theatre. She inevitably learned Shakespeare, but her knowledge—her personal experience of “the Classics”—also included Greek stories from her family, Greek language, comedies and tragedies.
Her performance on this January morning is in Greek. It’s not the Greek of her parents or of everyday conversation with friends. Just as Shakespearean English is to English, it is a different form and required study in preparation for the day. She reached out to a language coach in prep. And she built her understanding and interpretation atop her base in modern Greek.
The words are from Lysistrata, a comedy from playwright Aristophanes circa 411 B.C. A comedy, yes, but for Stassis, this portion stands apart. Her scene begins with one side of a back and forth on the steps of the Propylaia, gateway to the Acropolis. It is a woman leading women of the Greek city states, and it becomes a monologue, demanding an end to the death and destruction of the Peloponnesian War. She makes a case for peace.
Her gestures are telling. There is an attempt at basic persuasion, as one hand falling forward while she makes a point. Unsatisfied with the response, two hands are flung out, arms apart, as she tries to invoke reason. From open palms, she pinches her fingertips together and needles the air. Pigeons fly from the pediment overhead as her speech rises again. It’s louder, tighter, as the words press in. On fresh crescendo, her voice cracks. Her eyes, determined throughout, tear up in frustration. She powers through, until she makes her final remarks, closing out. The city corner returns to a relative, morning silence.
Director Danielle Irvine is the one who makes the call, facing Stassis and standing just to the side of a tripod. She doesn’t jump into a flurry of comments and questions but simply pauses, with breath visible in the air.
It’s clear Stassis was feeling something. She doesn’t immediately move from her place on the steps, now a stand-in for the entrance to the Athenian citadel.
“It’s over 2,000 years later! The same goddamn conversation,” she then says, cutting into the quiet, choking up and with visibly less control than only a moment ago. And she laments the existence of war profiteers.
“Sorry,” she adds, cutting herself off, clearing her throat. She breathes in through her nose and swipes at her eye; checks for any run of her makeup. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Irvine replies. “This is why we do classical works.”
Stassis takes a drink of water while Irvine checks in with cameraman and director of photography Graham Godden. He provides the director with a quick run of notes on sound, light and framing through the take. All of the elements are important. The short performances making up Perchance Theatre’s “Power of One: World Classics” project are being released as a series of online videos, to be a single shot, or as close as possible. Overall, it’s good. The take is cleared.
“I did put in a little more hand gestures (…) That’s how Greek people talk,” Stassis says across to Irvine, who has given Godden the nod. “I’m just letting (the gestures) come as they come.”
“It’s good. It’s coming from a real place,” Irvine replies. They ready for one final take.
Stassis was the first in her family born in Canada. She grew up, from the age of three months old, in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both of her parents are Greek. She enjoyed theatre and eventually produced it, including a praised project of place-based experimental work with Irvine years ago. When she came across a Perchance Theatre call for proposals on Facebook, asking for ideas from performers on the theme of “World Classics,” she thought it was a project whose time had come in Newfoundland and Labrador. The population is still largely homogeneous, when you look at statistics on English as a primary language for example, but there has long been more behind the stats. Personally, Stassis thought of her family, and then Aristophanes came to mind.
She easily recalls her first time seeing Lysistrata. She was traveling in Greece at the time.
“I was on a walk with some relatives in a park and there was a local theatre troupe performing it in a small amphitheatre. It was just an amateur production, but we sat down. It was free,” she says. “So, the first time I ever saw it, it was in Greek.”
Greek comedies and tragedies are still “Western theatre,” but less common in local study and performance than a Shakespearean play, or the work of more modern American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Stassis originally pitched performing an English translation for her contribution to the Perchance project. She said it was Irvine who later got in touch and asked if she’d like to try it in Greek.
Stassis is one of at least 25 performers contributing a piece to “The Power of One: World Classics.” Videos of every performance are being hosted online. Stassis was excited by her piece but also in thinking about what other performers might bring to the table and then create with the project team. She was excited by representation.
“I don’t think people really know how much diversity we do have in this province,” she said. “As somebody who kind of comes from a different culture than your usual English, Irish, Catholic, Protestant, the usual suspects in terms of stories that are told here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the local stories or the stories we see on stage, this has opened up a whole opportunity for those of us who come from different backgrounds and cultures to share a little bit of where we come from and the worlds that we inhabit, that straddle our experience growing up or living here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Perchance Theatre released another “Power of One” project last year, similarly involving recording of short performances mainly by a single actor, with the videos released online. It was aimed at employing local actors struggling in the pandemic but had the bonus effect of featuring scenic locations all around the province, including locations not often captured on film. The project recorded monologues from each of Shakespeare’s plays.
Irvine is also Perchance Theatre’s artistic director. She said, this year, the company wanted to continue on the theme of classics. The provincial and nationally recognized director (she is also a casting director) said, yes, she also is very aware of and wanted to engage with the active discussion on diversity in North American theatre.
How active is the discussion? Last year, at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the leadership was spurred on by consultants and an anti-racism committee to establish an equity diversity and inclusion department, while a statement from artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney declared the festival had “upheld white supremacy in the past.” They re-committed to being a platform with a greater diversity of voices. It was a year earlier, in 2020, a letter beginning “Dear White American theatre” made headlines, called for a minimum 50% representation from Black, Indigenous and People of colour theatre workers on stage and off, from Broadway to regional production. The initial letter was signed by over 300 theatre professionals including celebrities like Viola Davis, Lin Manuel-Miranda and Sandra Oh. And online, at weseeyouwat.com, they state principles for building anti-racism theatre systems throughout the continent.
The movement for recognition and inclusion is dated to no single year, but has involved new commitments for improving the theatre ecosystem coming out of the pandemic. And it has a place here. Long-time theatre and film professionals have been speaking about diversity in leadership, support for diverse casts and production teams, and opportunities for seasoned professionals and new talent. It’s not about any great ‘discovery’ but greater honesty when it comes to recognizing powers on set, the full pool of talent available and having people responsible for decisions, like decisions in casting, who have diverse experiences and, at a minimum, see everyone.
“A lot of performers we have this time, many of them have not performed on screen before,” said “Power of One: World Classics” assistant director Azal Dosanjh.
Diversity was, in many ways, a by-product of the effort to select “World Classics” as source material with roots in different countries. Setting aside the industry’s diversity issue, the project is at least seeing and giving a nod to the many different backgrounds and cultures of people living within the province.
“I’m hoping this opens up the doors for a lot of other people who feel they cannot be on screen or they cannot be on stage. And it also reminds white audiences in the province that there are other things that you can spend your time with. There are other artforms that you can engage with, rather than just white-centric stories, happening in the province,” Dosanjh said.
Dosanjh has history with the company. He met Irvine several years ago, through a university course and then was hired in an internship position with Perchance Theatre. He worked as assistant director on a staging of Julius Caesar at Cupids in 2019 and was hired on again, in rehearsals as assistant director for a staging of Hamlet in 2020, before the pandemic interrupted. He came to Newfoundland and Labrador from India and says, to the company’s credit, it has tried to explore what Classical means outside of Shakespeare before, even if the source material used was still what North American audiences would already be familiar with. He applauded the renewed effort.
It was an early “vision team” developed to set the latest Perchance Theatre project plan. The team included Dosanjh and folklorist Zainab Jerrett, PhD, with networking support from local storyteller Dale Jarvis, having long-fostered ties to a network of storytellers. Dosanjh said performers were not hard to find, with a world full of classic tales. He emphasized the team was effectively just opening space, then met by a wave of artists.
“It’s not something we should do because it’s the right thing to do. It’s just that this (diversity) is something that has been existing and we have just refused to put it into light,” he said.
A new video from “The Power of One: World Classics” is being released online each week. They are linked one by one onto a world map, with profiles of the performers and a summary of their chosen source material. All of the performers are artists living and working in Newfoundland and Labrador. There is Jing Xia, who shares The Legend of Boya and Zigi, a tale dating to 239 B.C. and shared in Mandarin, filmed at Flatrock. There is Navel Sarr originally of Senegal, sharing his version of the West African story of Le Coq Fâché. The first performance released in the new series was from Deantha Edmunds, presenting Sedna: Goddess of the Sea from Inuit Nunaat.
Performers were given the freedom to choose their story and to decide on things like the language, any lens applied, the means of performance (a song versus a spoken-word piece, for example). For source material Dosanjh and Irvine were unfamiliar with a language, the directors received translations and collaborated closely with the performers, as together they put in additional time as needed to work out beats, blocking and the overall vision for each piece, including shoot locations.
There have been discoveries for everyone along the way. For Jerrett, on the vision team, it was in reading the proposal for Edmunds’ telling of the story of Sedna. “Even though I study folklore, I have to be honest, I’ve never heard that story in the story genre of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve not read about it in any folklore textbooks as a student and I’ve never had someone telling that particular story,” she said, pleased the final video will be available for viewing by future folklore students.
The storytellers are presenting something they have a personal or cultural connection with, she said, which is why she feels the project is very special. “The storyteller of the person performing this monologue is part of it. It’s not like an anthropologist from here telling you a story about Aboriginal people in Australia or of the people from Papua New Guinea. The person telling the story is from that culture,” Jerrett said.
She is giving one of the performances. Her own piece comes from her experience growing up in northeastern Nigeria. She plans to perform most of it in English, apart from a song.
Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador professor and Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Cultural and Economic Transformation, Tony Fang, PhD said, in the context of cultural diversity, transformation in the theatre sector, including a broader base of source material for projects, is of value for existing residents and newcomers alike.
“The cultural industries is like a glue that actually attracts a lot of interesting people, diverse people, creative people,” he said, saying cities considered the most diverse, culturally vibrant and accessible are also desirable. And it demands fostering a break down of any systems of exclusion.
There is a lot involved in what might keep current residents and attract newcomers, but as for the cultural piece? “I think this is a very big part of the puzzle,” he said.
He emphasized cultural events, a project like that of Perchance Theatre, allows for seeing the threads connecting cultures and individuals, seeing shared humanity rather than the “other.” From the perspective of a newcomer, it’s a very powerful thing to find understanding and, then, a place where they can be expressive, share.
“They’re not from another planet,” Fang said, with a short laugh. “They want to enjoy life, they want to have a better life, for their children to have better lives. That’s the same. That’s human nature (…) That’s why I admire the project of Danielle Irvine and her company.”
It’s another morning in the capital city. Checking the blue sash around his waist, part of his traditional costume, Jaehong asks with a laugh that the camera view be kept away as much as possible from his very necessary snow boots. The Newfoundlander who immigrated many years ago from South Korea tells The Independent he learned of the latest Perchance Theatre project, the call for performers, through a Facebook post, but didn’t reply to it right away.
“The post sounded a little vague to me,” he tells The Independent. The idea of “classic” story was rarely used beyond describing old Newfoundland or Western standards, to the point where he wasn’t sure what they were really including. “And, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have a story to give.’”
Warming up still, bouncing left to right ahead of a first take, the sad thought is gone. Coloured fabric flares behind him and he sings, with the notes ringing out over Bowring Park. He ends a long note and, still moving, mentions he would usually be accompanied by a whole team of people, others with ribbon hats, acrobatics, different instruments, painting a picture. He has performed with groups before, but readies for a solo performance here. The story he will share, in Korean, includes a description of nongak also known as pungmul or “farmer’s music.” He will wind his performance around one of the older trees, before halting to give a short speech describing the rural cultural tradition to the camera, and dancing on.
“This is definitely related to the old beliefs. People believed there are Gods around and there was bad spirits around. When you play loudly and make some loud music, and people gather together and play together, wishing good luck, the bad spirits go away,” he says.
More than any old loud gathering, nongak became a means of community building for villagers long before the modern era. It offered a chance to check in on absent faces, to take notice if a family had fallen on hard times or when an individual needed support.
“This is part of the system people developed over time, through history, to check in. Because the winter is a harsh time for everyone and during the summer you notice if you don’t see a person for days because people usually work outside, they notice right away. In the winter you don’t normally see people as much outside, so it’s hard to tell how they’re doing,” he says. “You have a religious or spiritual meaning, but at the same time It’s a social welfare system of the past.”
He thought there was a story there to share, some wisdom, given the idea of isolation and challenges of the pandemic. The plan is to again use the morning light for the shoot and, as he moves, almost continuously once he begins, he is covered by the shadows of trees and a still-soft sun.
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