Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Top 5 Provincial Festival 2017 Plays

Nearly a week has passed since the 2017 Saskatchewan Drama Association Provincial Festival in Regina opened with a bang. (Quite literally, if you saw Walter Murray Collegiate’s risqué production of If You Really Love Me...) Every year, the festival is a whirlwind of activity that passes in the blink of an eye, and this time around was no different. While the sets may be dismantled, students back to regularly scheduled programming, and audience members returned to reality after twelve journeys into fantasy, the memories of Festival 2017 will live on for years to come.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon my personal top five favourite productions. By celebrating the breathtaking moments, performances, and emotions I experienced, hopefully my readers that were not able to be in Regina will be transported to the Riddell Centre stage, and those that were in Regina transported back. In no particular order...

THE HOTEL – Hanley School – For the second time in as many years, Hanley School won Best Overall Production for an original play written by Leanne Griffin. Last year they knocked my socks off with the moving drama Dust. This year they tickled those same socks by changing gears entirely and presenting a hysterical comedy. As soon as the spooky green lights came up on a chorus of ghosts dancing to Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” I knew I was looking at the winner. And the play only got better from there, with a kooky cast of odd-balls causing mayhem in a haunted Saskatchewan hotel. Over-the-top hardly begins to describe the performances because “the-top” in question kept getting higher and higher as one wacky scene after another piled on top of one another. Cast member Lauren Griffin, as the spastic and perpetually unhinged ingénue, was particularly noteworthy. She gleefully flitted about the stage with delirious enthusiasm and double-jointed elasticity, reminiscent of Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman and Kate McKinnon, all rolled up into one. I'm still laughing.

CIRCUS FIRE – Lampman School – Ambitious theatrical endeavour are the three best words I can use to describe this lavish recreation of a Barnum and Bailey circus that was engulfed in flames on July 6, 1944. Written by Janet Munsil and directed by Christine Branyik-Thornton, this was a dazzling production that boldly incorporated every theatrical trick in the book. It was a master class in lighting, sound, pantomime, acrobatics, characterization, set design, staging, and I could go on and on and on. The entire production clearly started with a singular vision, and every choice made was in service of that vision. I found myself giddy as I watched the cheerful opening passages, astonished by the miraculous second act imagery, and trembling during the catastrophic conclusion. I rode a tidal wave of emotions that haunted and delighted me long after the final whiff of smoke rose from the smouldering Big Top.

BEHIND A MICROPHONE – Luther College High School – Written, directed, and performed by the Luther College High School students, and carefully guided by drama teacher Kris Dueck, this extraordinarily ambitious production blew me away as soon as the lights came up on the enormous cast. Seeing such a huge ensemble of actors fill the stage, and remain omnipresent as one vignette after another emerged from among them, was such an overwhelming visual that they hardly needed to speak in order to make an impact. With so many actors, so many scenes, and so many ideas, the production did have a somewhat “messy” quality to it. At times this worked in its favour, while at others it could have used some editing and focus. However, I’m a firm believer in throwing theatrical spaghetti against the wall just to see what sticks, and far more stuck to the stage than did slither away into the pit. I could see there was a truly great play up there somewhere, and yet the writers left it up to each audience member to discover which moments landed, rather than making those decisions for them. In that sense, every single person in the auditorium saw an entirely different play. Whether by design or by accident, that’s what I call an astounding achievement.

MOVING – Kamsack Comprehensive Institute – On its exterior, there is not much to this comedy about five girls getting ready for a date, and yet I was totally smitten with Kamsack’s lovely production. They took a relatively simple play and produced the very best possible version of that play, which is no simple task, and why I fell in love with it at regional festival in Esterhazy. When done correctly, less can be infinitely more. Director Krystal Deveau elevated the play far beyond what’s on the page by incorporating scene changes, special effects, and even a fantasy sequence, all while remaining faithful to the playwright’s intent. I’m not sure if an audience member that had not read the script could fully appreciate all that this company added to the storytelling, but I sure did. Most impressive, however, was the solid connection between the five talented actresses. They seemed to read each other’s minds, rapidly firing off dialogue while tending to inventive physical business that never let up. Their exuberant energy made me smile then, and the memory of all five cavorting around the colourful piñata of a set makes me smile now.

STAGE FOUR – Swift Current Comprehensive High School – This original play, written by director Stefan Rumpel, had such a clever premise that it was able to overcome a few minor technical glitches and clunky scene changes. The high concept idea of a character with stage four Cancer grappling with the stages of grief by playing through the stages of a videogame was expertly embraced by the crew and cast, both visually and emotionally. The realistic world of hospital gowns and IV poles was juxtaposed by an alternate universe of loincloths and laser shields. I was particularly impressed by the awesome costumes and make-up. This production gave the audience two completely distinct worlds in which to lose themselves. I was delighted when they were awarded runner-up to Best Visual Production. By turns hopeful and tragic, through an equal measure of laughter and tears, this production was well played from “Press Start” to “Game Over.”

There are so many other moments and performances that moved and inspired me – among them Karlee Omoth’s astounding portrayal of Holocaust survivor Marianne in Indian Head School’s Goodbye Marianne, the inventive stunts devised by the superheroes in Carpenter High School’s To Be Continued…, the honest and remarkably mature portrayal of teenage sex by Walter Murray Collegiate’s If You Really Love Me..., the visual impact of Vanier Collegiate’s futuristic Match, the super creepy conclusion to LP Miller Comprehensive's Lockdown, the disturbing dream sequence in Kelliher School's The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note, and the exuberant spirit of Pinehouse Lake’s production of my own play Epic Fail.

I could literally keep writing about this for hours, which is why I set a 1,000 word count limit for this blog entry (which I’ve already exceeded). So I will end this here, and start counting down the days to Provincial Festival 2018…

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Top 10 Sask Drama Provincial Festival Plays

It’s no secret that the Saskatchewan Drama Association Provincial Festival is the one week of the year I look forward to more than any other. I’m always inspired by the hundreds of eager high school students from across the province that descend upon the University of Regina Riddell Centre to present their one-act plays. This is the tenth year in a row that I’ve attended and it never gets less exciting. Every single time the lights come up on a new production, I’m transported to new places by new faces, and I’m reminded that there is no place I’d rather be than in the company Sask Drama participants. 

In celebration of ten years at Provincials, I thought I would acknowledge ten of the most memorable plays I’ve had the opportunity to experience thus far. These are obviously in addition to the dozens of other worthy contenders that have advanced to the Provincial stage (every production that makes it to the main stage has its merits), but these are just a few of the particularly special productions that continue to move me in various ways whenever I think of them.

THIS IS A PLAY - Sacred Heart High School, Yorkton (2015) - The words favourite and best are words I prefer to not attach to theatre; memorable and exemplary are far more appropriate descriptors for something as subjective as an artistic experience. And yet, all four adjectives apply to This is a Play. Memorable was the moment lead actor Mack Tourand brilliantly shouted "LETTUCE!" in such a surprising, off-kilter way that it brought the house down. Exemplary was the deceptively simple staging by Greg Digout. There was not a single misstep from lights up to lights down, and any playwright worth his salt would be fortunate to have his words directed with such extraordinary attention to detail. Best was the way I felt as the house lights came up after I had been transported to comedic heights for forty minutes of pure hilarity. And Favourite, well, goes without saying.

CONFLICT – Lampman School (2009) – Any play with a cantaloupe as the star attraction is obviously music to my ears. I was so smitten with this extraordinary production because it exemplified the fact that sometimes less is more, and other times more is more. Director Christine Branyik-Thornton walked a very fine tight rope when she hurled her students into this deceptively simple play with many hidden challenges. Taylor Fornwald as the Protagonist took hold of the stage (like a good protagonist should) as a parade of oddballs made her life a living hell, in superlative comedic fashion. I will never forget as she faced Maya Branyik-Thornton, playing an over-the-top Gardener in over-the-top gardening gloves. Nearly a decade has passed and so the details are somewhat fuzzy, but the overall experience is one I will never forget so long as I live.

ROMEO REVISED – McLurg High School, Wilkie (2009) – If less truly is more, then much less is much more when it comes to this Provincial winner. Riley Sittler and Kaitlyn Cey as Romeo and Juliet had truly magical comedic timing in this send-up of Shakespeare’s tale of teen angst. Neither Romeo nor Juliet will kick the bucket, despite endless attempts to take their own lives. On a virtually bare stage, the strong acting and inspired staging showed audiences that good theatre does not necessarily mean three hours of falling chandeliers and flying helicopters. Sometimes all you really need is ten minutes and two actors.

ROSIE – Michael A. Riffel Catholic High School, Regina (2014) – Every now and then a piece of theatre comes along that truly sweeps you off your feet. Rosie is one of those productions that carried me away well beyond the footlights, over the balcony, and up into the clouds. I was humbled by student writer and director Emma Fiorente, who created a piece so magnificent that I still wonder if I could ever create something so marvelous. The memory of the opening and closing moments of breathtaking pantomime still brings tears to my eyes.

VAMP IRE – Carrot River Jr/Sr High School (2013) – I was planning to leave my plays off this list, as not to seem partial in any way, but it would be unfair not to acknowledge not only one of the best interpretations of my work that I’ve ever seen, but perhaps the most electric thirty minutes I’ve ever spent in the theatre. I’m still not sure what exactly happened, or how it happened, or why it happened…I’m not even convinced that it actually happened at all…but the energy in the room was palpable. Every single line of dialogue was received with gales of laughter, followed by even more laughter as the characters reacted to what was said in the first place. I have never seen anything like it, and don’t expect to again any time soon, if ever. I feel so fortunate to have had this experience, as both playwright and audience member. Plus I have two hundred plus witnesses that can verify it actually did happen. I have director Dean Armstrong to thank for elevating the play far beyond what I put on the page.

ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD – Luther College High School, Regina (2016) – I had the pleasure of adjudicating this production at the Region 9 festival in Regina, and to see how much it grew from Regionals to Provincials was an example of how a show is never truly frozen, nor should it be. Plays are meant to grow and adapt to new spaces, and Elephant’s Graveyard benefited from expanding its perimeters beyond its original stage to the larger venue at the University of Regina. I will never forget the moment that a large noose descended from the fly loft to hang a circus elephant. It was stunning, it was grisly, it was theatre. Of the highest order.

DOWN CAME THE RAIN – Clavet School (2012) – This was the first play that I sent to Provincials as an adjudicator and I was so thrilled that I was able to give such a small school its first opportunity to perform at the highest level of competition in the province. Down Came the Rain is a very difficult play to pull off because it’s a one hour drama with a lot of dialogue and very little action. This group managed to pull it off spectacularly well because of the chemistry between actors Evan Moyer and Adam Tweidt. They were believable as brothers because of the tight bond they shared both onstage and off. Two handers, or plays with only two characters, are among my favourites to see come to life because they rely so heavily on strong characterizations more than they do cheap theatrics. Clavet got everything right and so it was a real pleasure to see them go on to win Provincials just a few years later with Shuddersome: Tales of Poe.

KILLING BILL – Yorkton Regional High School (2014) – Wacky is not easy to pull off because it can turn into chaos in the blink of an eye. Yorkton Regional’s production of Killing Bill came perilously close to chaos, but managed to ricochet off the proverbial brick wall every time it needed a moment to take a beat and reset itself for another round of mayhem. Director Erin Graas and her cast of kooky oddballs took enormous risks that could have failed miserably. But it’s better to take a risk and fail than it is to play it safe and be average. Thankfully, the risks taken here were extremely successful, and I found myself laughing long after the curtain call.

ADMISSIONS – Cornerstone Christian School, Moose Jaw (2013) – Sometimes a play comes along that starts off slow, draws you in very carefully, and then takes you entirely surprise. This beautiful show did all of those things, and more. Theatre is all about making decisions that build upon the theme of the play. Every single choice, from the set design, right down to the shoes on each actor, was masterfully selected to portray the religious elements of the story without being overtly obvious. The way this play was directed by students Rosalie Donnelly-Rheume and Abby Falk made the audience work a little bit more than most. They didn’t give anything away easily and respected that people have the capacity to fill in the blanks. Those who did the work, and those who filled in those blanks, were greatly rewarded.

DUST – Hanley School (2016) – Last year’s winner, written and directed by Leanne Griffin, is what I would define as an astonishing theatrical event. It was simple on the exterior, yet making something appear so simple is far more complex in the execution than meets the eye. It was a joy to sit in the audience and watch as the acting, the lights, the sound, the costumes, all came together in a way that transported me to another place and time. Endeavour is one of the key elements that the Saskatchewan Drama Association looks for when awarding statues and medals and certificates of merit. Deservedly so, Dust went home with a mantle full of awards. But even more important, the audience went home with hearts filled to overflowing with emotion and a pocketful of memories.

With that, the lights are about to come up on the first play of Provincial Festival 2017! I can’t wait to see what these budding artists have in store for us all, and what might end up on my next list, ten years from now…

Sunday, May 10, 2015

SDA Provincial Festival 2015: Day 3

In what seems like the blink of an eye, the 2015 Provincial Festival has come to a close. The last of my playwrighting workshops was with the students from Moosomin and North Battleford. I had great fun with both groups, and another collection of monologues and memories was created. This was followed by the final two productions of the festival...

THE INVISIBLE CIRCLE - St. Pascal Community School - I was really impressed with this short drama, written and directed by the students from Green Lake. The participants from Northern region continue to grow each year, and this was the first time I had seen so much theatricality employed in a production. I was quite taken with a lovely sequence in which the actors silently acted out the entire play in reverse. They took their time, exercising admirable patience and precision. They concluded the play with a warm rendition of "True Colours" that was accompanied by sign language.

THIS IS A PLAY - Sacred Heart High School - This was, hands down, the funniest production of the entire festival. Its three players (Mack Tourand, JilliAnn Sawatsky, Casey Shields) gave the audience a virtual master class in comedy. Tourand in particular gave a virtuoso comedic performance, somehow managing to elicit a dozen laughs per line of dialogue where many other actors would have struggled to find one. He truly is a one-in-a-million original. Hats off to Sacred Heart High for a perfectly executed comedy that made me laugh so hard I nearly went into convulsions. And I was not the only one.

Congratulations to Clavet School for winning Best Overall Production (Shuddersome: Tales of Poe) and Vanier Collegiate for taking runner-up (Romeo Revised). I'd also like to send a special congratulations to Robert Southey School for all the recognition they received for I Don't Want to Talk About It. Cassidy Huber, Aislinn Roske, Alicia Kifferling, Kennedi Harper, and Shawn Nixon were all honoured by the adjudicators.

The last day of festival is always bittersweet. I look forward to Provincials all year long, and then it seems to be over before it even gets started. Yet as quickly as it passes, the memories last a lifetime. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Riding the school bus with the awesome crew from Carrot River Junior Senior High School

Until next year...

Saturday, May 09, 2015

SDA Provincial Festival 2015: Day 2

Day 2 got off to another great start with another great workshop, this time with students from Riverview, A.E. Peacock, Clavet, and Sacred Heart. After that, I was so happy that my aunt drove several hours to have lunch and join me at Southey's performance of my play. My cousins Melissa and Jared were also there, and although I wish I had more than an hour to visit, it meant the world that I got to see them and share this experience with the people I love most.

Now onto the plays, which were all terrific!

I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT - Robert Southey School - It's always special any time I get the opportunity to see one of my plays performed, but this production was special in a way that went above and beyond my wildest expectations. This play features 32 characters played by 11 actors and I was blown away by the cast's ability to portray each of them as a distinct individual. I'm so proud to have had my words brought to life by such an amazing group, and it was abundantly clear that their theatrical achievement had an extremely profound impact on the audience.

A.M.L. - Carrot River Junior Senior High School - Carrot River has delivered, and continues to deliver, the most inventive productions I have ever seen on the provincial stage. They also strive to present a wide variety of styles and genres. A modern comedy one year, nostalgic drama the next. This year they really pushed the envelope and tackled an extremely challenging, abstract script that pushed the actors, designers, and directors into entirely new territory. The result was utterly spectacular. The ensemble of actresses came together like a beautiful symphony of voices and the stunning visual design was second to none.

NO PROBLEM - McNaughton High School - I was really taken with the number of strong actors in this cast. There was not a single weak link in the bunch and they totally attacked the material with confidence. The sound design was equally impressive, with every important moment highlighted by a perfectly chosen effect. I'd also like to send a shout out to the follow spot operator. It's a tough thing to be steady and accurate with a follow spot, but the young man behind the light nailed each and every one of his many, many cues.

ROMEO REVISED - Vanier Collegiate - This has to be one of my favorite one act plays ever written and Vanier knocked it right out of the park. The two leads, Jake Heisler and Abbi Flanagan, left not a single comedic stone unturned. Their physical comedy abilities were nothing short of astounding, and the command they had over the audience meant that every person in that auditorium was glad to spend 20 minutes in the palms of their brilliant and hysterical hands.

PRESSURE - Rosetown Central School - The opening visual was so creepy that practically the entire front row fell out of their seats. That's the sort of visceral reaction that every director dreams about, so to have elicited such an immediate and involuntary audience response must have made each of this production's three directors smile wickedly from wherever they were located in the house. Note to self: pocket flashlights and white masks are all it takes to make a startling visual impact and scare the hell out of an audience.

Friday, May 08, 2015

SDA Provincial Festival 2015: Day 1

Day 1 of the Provincial Festival started off with a bang and never let up! The day began with my playwrighting workshop, Selfie: Using Social Media to Write Scenes and Monologues. I had the great fortune to work with students from Cornerstone Christian School, Robert Southey School, and Rosetown Central School. Believe me when I say that 90 minutes was not enough with these talented young writers. They came up with so many fantastic ideas in a very short amount of time. Some videos of what they created will be posted shortly to the SDA Playwrighting Workshop Facebook Page, just as soon as the wi-fi here at the hotel co-operates and allows me to upload them.

After the workshops were over is when the competition got started. The audience was treated to 4 very different, very creative plays. Here's a little bit about each of them...

MAGNA CARTA - Miller Comprehensive Catholic High School - This was an original play, written by the students from Miller Comprehensive. It was an intriguing mix of 12 Angry Men, Fatal Attraction, and 48 Hours Mystery. There was a particularly creepy scene near the end of the play where we witnessed a murder onstage. I thought the way this scene was handled was spectacular. The actress committing the murder made very choreographed movements to music as she poisoned a cup of tea. It was a very dramatic climax that had the audience on pins and needles.

SHUDDERSOME: TALES OF POE - Clavet School - I was blown away by the extraordinary use of movement, colour, ensemble, light, sound, and voice in this thoroughly inventive staging of a Lindsay Price play that I had never seen before. This stunning production was a wonderful introduction to the piece and I can only imagine that any productions I see in the future will be measured against the very high watermark set by Clavet's ambitious visual and emotional achievement.

THE 9 WORST BREAK-UPS OF ALL TIME - Swift Current Comprehensive High School - When the cast of a play is having fun, so is the audience. Such was the case with this delightfully giddy production. Every single member of the utterly enormous cast of 28 managed to take their small roles and milk them for every laugh possible. I also loved listening to the very vocal audience reaction. Several times I heard people in the crowd respond to what was happening on stage rather loudly, which is a terrific indicator that they were totally invested in the story.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM - North Battleford Comprehensive High School - I'm always impressed by the visual design of North Battleford's productions (they've been at Provincials many years in a row now) and this year was no different. The costumes, the set, the lighting, the everything was lovely. They even utilized the fly loft and hung a moon from the rafters. This simple touch, in tandem with a perfectly aimed key light, made a huge dramatic impact that made this midsummer night a dreamy one.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Like My Facebook Page!

Consider this an invitation to like my Facebook page. Just click on the picture below!