EIGHT NEW PLAYS REVEALED AT THIS YEAR'S HAMILTON FRINGE FESTIVAL
2022 is a year of anniversaries. For the Hamilton Festival Theatre Company; the local organization that produces the annual Fringe Festival every year in Hamilton; they're celebrating 20 years as an organization. As part of that process of rebirth and reexamination, they're rebranding the company; because most people would know the organization as simply as, the Hamilton Fringe, the name that they have operated under since the first festival back in 2003. They are instead reverting back to the legal name of the non-profit corporation.
While producing the annual 12-day Fringe, every July, will remain core to what the organization does, increasingly the company is now more heavily involved in the development of local artists, and in creating educational opportunities for the community.
The journey has been a long one, with many people involved over the years, but I'm happy to acknowledge that the company has never lost its passion for connecting artists with the community we all share; and now is also focusing more heavily in creating a platform for social justice issues. Inclusion, diversity, and accessibility have become increasingly important for what the Fringe now stands for.
2022 is also the 50th anniversary of Playwright’s Guild of Canada, or PGC, the national association for playwrights across the country. They have dubbed 2022 the “Year of the Playwright”, in a very clever social media marketing campaign to establish an umbrella under which many diverse writers can celebrate the reasons why we write dramatic works of literature.
“The play is the thing”, is a famous quote from Hamlet. It's also a reminder that even the classics, the ones that are universally acknowledged as worthy, ultimately started with a pen and quill and a blank page. Or a battered Smith-Corona typewriter, and a blank page. Or a MacBook Pro with Word open. Depends upon how old you are I guess; pick the one that fits best.
For first time playwrights, or for those who have many plays and productions under their belts, the Hamilton Fringe Festival represents every year, an important opportunity; a safe and yet challenging space in which to create something new to share with a local audience.
Looking over this year's Fringe program, I was struck by the huge number of interesting synopsis’s of plays. Here follows then, a discussion of a number of upcoming productions in the festival that caught my attention.
The first playwright, I will examine is Corin Raymond. I have this powerful memory of being blown away by his first solo show Bookworm, which debuted as part of the 2011 Hamilton Fringe. I recall sitting in the 300 seat Downtown Arts Centre, and watching a well-established musical artist and singer-songwriter pivot into performing an original play for the first time.
It had all of the hallmarks of things, which to me, make a really good production; it told an engaging story, it was personal because it dealt with things that mattered a great deal to the writer, and it really deeply engaged the audience. That particular play, which Corin later went to perform right across the country, has inspired a brand new sequel, Bookmarks, which will be making its debut as part of this year's Fringe.
Corin tells me that “the incident that became the show's starting point was that in 2018, I lost a book in the Melbourne airport. The book was True Stories, a selection of non-fiction by Australian writer Helen Garner. The question was, "How could the loss of a single trade paperback hurt so much?" I mean, it felt like I was dying. Again, like the steel-toed thoughts that had me cornered during the pandemic, the feelings of devastation that followed the loss of this book are connected to very old things in my life; most significantly, the deaths of my mother when I was born, and of my second mom seven years later.”
I am such a fan of Raymond’s storytelling plays, precisely because they are so personal to him. The stakes are very high, while watching him, because all of this is real; it’s taken directly from his life.
“I wanted this new show to be situated in the present. As I did with Bookworm, I wanted to speak through the megaphone of my love of books, but this time I wanted to explore things I'm dealing with in the here and now. So the unexpected emotional impact this lost book had on me felt like the right doorway; I knew it was going to reveal something to me that I needed to be shown; and it sure did.”
One person shows are indeed a staple of the Festival. Often there are many of them, and it can be hard to pick one out of the plethora of many amazing storytelling productions.
Another show to catch is Carly Anna Billing’s production of Meat(less) Loaf. All writers have different intersectionalities, different backgrounds, different perspectives to offer us; I think that needs to be celebrated at the Fringe.
Carly explains that, “the two people who inspired the show are named Anna and Minnie. Anna is the name of my Nonna, she was my maternal grandmother from Italy who I grew up around the corner from and saw everyday, sometimes twice. Minnie is the name of my paternal great-grandmother who passed when my dad was in grade two and who is the reason our people are the Mississaugas of the Credit. They are the two women in my mind who are responsible for two of the biggest cultural identities, that make up me.”
Billings is both an actor and playwright; the current popular term around the Fringe movement these days for this to be called a “creator” of a play. Her experiences distill lots of different memories, and reimagine them into a live performance. All of us bring a particular skill set to a production, and In Billing’s case, preparing food is one of the themes that led her into finding a structure around telling her story to an audience.
“It might sound strange coming from someone who’s written and performing a solo show, but I’ve never understood the lone genius trope. I have no clue what I’m doing, really. If Meat(less) Loaf was relying on just me, it wouldn’t exist, period. It exists as it does now only because I was chosen as one of four recipients of the 2021 Garden Project, a local funding initiative from Porch Light Theatre and Industry that provides BIPOC artists with seed money and mentorship for a new project.”
It’s been long overdue that artists from more diverse cultural backgrounds are given the resources to create their own work, and earn some money.
“Without that opportunity and the mentorship it provided me, with celebrated Métis artist Michaela Washburn, a first draft of this show would never have existed. Without the Garden Project and Porch Light’s Karen Ancheta, I would never have met Derek Ritschel, the Artistic Director of the Lighthouse Festival Theatre, who invited me to join their Play Development program; their support meant we could workshop the show in depth and leave with a show-ready script. Without how much help I had already received (and knew I still needed) I never would have had the courage to apply only to the Fringe Xchange program as an BIPOC artist and relying solely on winning that spot to provide further outside mentorship and support around getting the whole show in front of an audience. “
In every Festival you will find first timers, people embracing the rare opportunity to get their script from the page to the stage; self producing the play, getting together the actors, designers and technicians that you need to realize a production can be a daunting task, particularly, if you are not part of a community that knows how to do these things.
So there's always balance, between veterans who have done it many times before and who have a well-oiled team of collaborators, and the “newbies”; who literally are learning how to do this for the first time.
I've already mentioned Raymond's Bookworm, as a first-time production by a brand new playwright that absolutely blew me away, when I first saw it back in 2011. So which of these playwrights will have the same impact on me in 2022?
In the first-timer category is Peter Rosser. He was inspired by the tragic story of a family of children who was wiped out by a drunk driver. Prior to taking up playwrighting, Rosser was the Executive Director of the Catholic Youth Organization of the Diocese of Hamilton, spending 37 years in youth work - athletics, camp director, outdoor education. That’s a lot of experience to draw from in writing a play.
“My previous play had dealt with two issues of injustice – the effects of abuse and war on children. I decided to stick with this theme and write again about injustice. Somewhere on one of my longer bike rides, I found myself thinking about the Marco Muzzo story of 2015 and the death of the Neville-Lake children. This tragedy was to become the focus of my new play, A Question of Justice.”
It seems very timely to be discussing the consequences of getting behind the wheel of a car while under the influence. Rosser's play is a powerful drama that addresses this issue.
“My play describes a wife who suddenly loses her husband and two children to an impaired driver. It’s a topic that is contemporary, newsworthy and relatable to our society. Will she be successful in her quest for justice? How would the members of the audience react in the same situation? The Marco Muzzo story is back in the news with the death of Edward Lake, the father of the children killed in the crash in 2015.”
For the first time being a theatre producer, Rosser has assembled an interesting group of actors as well as an experienced local director.
“I luckily connected with Gregory Flis, who agreed to lead the production. Further, we had a slate of very good people audition for the roles. The timing of this production, after two years of no live theatre, has been quite fortunate for me, as the actors are very keen to get back on stage. Their enthusiasm at rehearsal is palpable.”
The 2022 Fringe will also see productions from veteran playwrights such as Tottering Biped Theatre’s creative powerhouse Trevor Copp, Stephen Near, with Same Boat Theatre, and Sondra Learn, all of whom have had plays in the Hamilton Fringe, many times before. Due to their past experiences, they understand how important it is to get the message out early on why you should attend.
Last fall, I saw an early workshop production of Trevor Copp’s solo show, Bulfinch's Mythology. I am very excited to see the more fully realized version of the play.
Copp tells me that he had “the idea to do a mythology cycle. I picked up a copy of the text I'd studied in school - Bulfunch's Mythology, thinking I'd read through the myths to try to get myself some kind of through-line for the story. I didn't get past the introduction. Just a couple facts that set me towards this play: in addition to his famous translations of the myths (the standard in the West for over 100 years) Bulfinch also published anti-homosexuality tracts which he promoted to local government. He also published a memoriam to a young student of his who died - and whom Bulfunch, a 'confirmed bachelor', had himself buried beside. I just had to know how this closeted, oppressed and oppressive man related to this young student. So I made it up from there.”
Trevor Copp has had very successful productions before in the Hamilton Fringe; that bodes well for another success this time round.
“One thing that I find limiting about the local scene is that people tend to pack everything into one run - and then the play is never heard from again. Successful theatre practitioners whom I admire don't work like that. We don't know - we can't know - if a piece works or not until it has been in front of a crowd. So I perform several workshop productions with small invited audiences to start. I've thrown out 90% of a show once I see how it works in front of a crowd. I hone the movement, the text, the design, everything - get out all of the mistakes early and don't put it up in front of strangers until it's as good as I can possibly make it. This show was staged twice in front of tiny masked and tested crowds already - and this iteration is still in process.“
Even with a proven track record, it’s always a risk in producing a new play. Still Trevor has a great deal of experience to bring to the table.
“I'm a mime - I studied at the Marcel Marceau School in Paris. It's a unique skill that I've been discovering how to create with for years. My aim in this piece - as my last piece, 'Searching for Marceau', is to find a text/movement hybrid where these distinct languages are used in ways that make sense, that become necessary to tell the whole story. In Bulfuinch's Mythology the characters exchange translations of the myths - sections which are done in mime. Some plays begin with movement for me and others in text or design; in the end I want a piece that feels like a harmonized blend of all its elements.”
Trevor is enthusiastic about his collaboration with others involved, the designers and the director.
“I am working with is an out and out genius; Ric Knowles is one of Canada's leading practitioners on intercultural theatre and I've worked with him as a dramaturg for years. Persuading him to direct this piece is the single best thing that ever happened to this show.”
Looking at all of the plays in The Fringe program, it could be daunting to try to figure out which ones that you should go see. Another interesting company is Soul Gem Theatre Productions who are presenting the premiere of Dedication by Burlington director and playwright, Sondra Learn .
According to Learn, “I first wrote the play as a two-hander. But then, I added a cameo part for a particular actor for a production I filmed independently. That cameo evolved into a much larger role, when I decided to enter the 2022 Fringe. I think it’s now a much more interesting and intriguing play, with this three character version.”
Learn’s play is more of a chamber piece, exploring the relationship between three sisters, as they go through the memories of their lives. It is reputedly a tear-jerker.
“I mostly write in isolation. But after I have a new draft, I’ll do workshop readings so I can hear the play read aloud; to discover lines, or plot details that don’t work. Writing plays feeds my soul and my need to be creative. My characters often live in my head and ‘nag’ me to keep working on the play. Once the characters come to life on the page, I know I am on the right track. I am very excited to be back as part of the Fringe”.
Writing a play can be a challenging endeavour, without others to give you feedback. Stephen Near was part of Theatre Aquarius’ new play development program for many years. His script Whale Fall, is a very personal one, taking inspiration from his daughter's childhood obsession with orcas.
“Ever since my daughter was very young, the ocean and the animals of the sea have captivated her imagination. I wanted to write a play about that. About that sense of wonder and magic… that anything is possible in the world. Rebecca loves so many sea animals but her true love is for the orca. The biggest species of dolphins, orcas (or killer whales) are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. But they’re also some of the most endangered. But even at an early age, Rebecca already knew so many details about orcas and just had this hunger to know more.”
Climate change is the issue that is most personal to Stephen; the stakes are very high for him.
“The more I thought of my daughter and her desire to study whales, the more I wondered how many of these great ocean animals would be left for her to study. The impact of climate change has been especially hard on Canadian orcas with salmon stocks plummeting, increasing boat noise and pollution in the waters off B.C. Ultimately, I had to ask myself what sort of responsibility I bear in a world where orcas are dying? So, what started as a sort of performative bedtime story involving monologues about whales became a quest about a young woman’s need to find the last surviving orca while struggling with issues of family. The play essentially features a ‘possible’ version of myself and my daughter. It made writing the play a strange, existential experience. But it’s definitely made the story much more compelling.”
Writing his play has become a form of affirmation, that a better future is indeed possible, if only we have the will to create it. Near is fortunate in having long time collaborator Aaron Joel Craig, returning as the director of his play.
“It’s a play about a father and a daughter searching for hope while confronting the painful reality of climate change being guided by the haunting song of Canada’s most iconic animal. It’s a play about memory and family, but it’s also about transformation and what we leave behind for those that we love. I think those are universal themes that will capture the audience and leave them thinking of many things once they leave the theatre.”
Since 2007, the Hamilton Fringe Festival, has hosted an annual new playwriting competition. The winner of that gets a free slot in the festival plus some money to mount a production.
The winner of the 2022 Hamilton Fringe competition was SAMCA by Natalia Bushnik & Kathleen Welch. The First Runner-Up was Whale Fall by Stephen Near, the Second Runner-Up was Recovering by Claud Spadafora. And for the first time in the history of the contest, an “Honourable Mention” award was given to A Pineberry's Past by Jordan M. Burns. The jury for the competition included Theatre Aquarius’ Artistic Director Mary Francis Moore, and Carly Anna Billings, and Davin Babulal.
Billings was on the jury that that picked these plays; she told me that, “I was lucky enough to be one of the three jurors on the panel this year! There were SO many different, exciting, unique, heartwarming, heart-wrenching pieces. Nearly every human emotion and every writing style felt represented, it was so hard to choose my top picks so I was really grateful for the deep and stimulating conversations we had as a jury, that resulted in a really cool show receiving a spot this year. I can’t wait to see SAMCA”
Taking that recommendation, the next play I will examine then, is the first place winner this year; Natalia Bushnik and Kathleen
Welch's play SAMCA.
According to Bushnik, “Originally the play came about through research of my Romanian background through the lens of folklore. I came across the creature 'Samca', a forest hag who attacks pregnant women. Interestingly, this particular form of the ‘Baba Yaga’ figure has very little information or lore surrounding it, just the premise (at least that I’ve found so far). Given the current climate where abortion rights are being stripped away, we definitely felt there was a story there. Kathleen Welch and I had previously worked together when she composed the music for my play, Just Across the Causeway. We decided to co-write SAMCA, and Kathleen also composed gorgeous and haunting original folk music for the show.”
Collaboration is essential to creating a good show. Brendan Kinnon is in the director’s chair.
“SAMCA has had a few iterations now. We held our first workshop last March, with the support of the Ontario Arts Council as recommended by Nightswimming. The main focus was the music, since it was the first time we got to work with our beautiful and talented cast! Finding what could be told through music and sound rather than text was an important step, especially since we needed to condense it down to 60 minutes for Fringe.”
The strict time limit of being in the fringe, forces a writer to edit and condense their work.
“Both mine and Kathleen’s writing is influenced by our music and movement background, which we’ve been told is a through-line in our writing styles. The choral text especially tends to be rhythmic in nature. An important aspect of the show is that we always envisioned it as a roaming site-specific piece on a forest trail (our next goal!), so it was essential to find multidisciplinary artists. The team is so incredibly talented, and they have added layers and richness that we had never imagined. I’m personally very excited for Brendan’s direction, because I know that he’s a stunning movement actor and creative mind!”
Natalia admits that entering the competition was not on her mind originally, as she developed the play. I was particularly impressed with an earlier production, she presented in the Hamilton Fringe six years ago.
“Robin Luckwaldt and I performed our show ‘The Bathtub Girls’ at Hamilton Fringe in 2016, and it was a really formative experience coming right out of theatre school. The audience was incredibly receptive to the unconventional form of the show, and we ended up winning the Critics’ Choice Award. That's what motivated me to submit SAMCA to the 2022 New Play Contest, because I know that there’s really cool art cookin’ up here, and it’s exciting being a part of it! Folk music, monsters, and horror, oh my! Look for our bloody clothespins…”
The second runner up in the New Play Contest was Claud Spadafora, while that specific play is not in the festival; they are acting in Medusa, written by Brianna Seferiades, which looks to be a compelling reexamination of the ancient myth of the female Gorgon, but from a more contemporary perspective that includes examining trauma and mental illness.
Seferaides explains, “I am really interested in drawing inspiration from mythology/lore from my own cultures, which is why I used characters from Greek myth as a starting point. From there, I took a lot of liberties until I had something new.”
I find it always interesting to mix together different influences in creating new work; the core of this group has sprung out of the creative wellspring of McMaster University.
“I developed the play in isolation until rehearsals began, at which point I had creative support from my cast and crew. I come from a devised theatre background, so having the script ready before rehearsals, rather than writing the script based on what was devised in the rehearsal space, has been a new experience for me.”
Brianna is supportive of the the Hamilton Fringe, and what it provides to local artists.
“I think the Hamilton Fringe New Play Contest is a great idea! It’s another opportunity for playwrights to show their work in an exciting way.”
Again the importance of the Fringe Festival, as a platform for playwrights cannot be understated. While it is more common now for other local theatre companies, including community theatres, to actually stage the work of original playwrights, it is an obvious truth that the Fringe annually presents more new plays than any other organization around the Golden Horseshoe. If you aspire to writing plays then the Fringe represents a golden opportunity that cannot be ignored.
There are at least a dozen more productions that would have qualified for the theme of this preview article, only the limitations of space prevent my discussing even more productions. Inevitably, this is but a small sampling of what is on offer in the 2022 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and certainly reflects my own interests and biases.
While artistic creation is subjective; it is in the end, the audience that seeks and discovers meaning from the work being presented here. But I can confirm, as a playwright myself, that staging something for the first time is an absolutely terrifying, and yet incredibly rewarding experience.
I hope that audiences will find some of these plays meaningful, entertaining and thoughtful. Even after all of these years, I still get great satisfaction out of seeing the productions of my peers in Hamilton.
THE 2022 HAMILTON FRINGE FESTIVAL
July 20 - 31, 2022, at twelve venues in the city
A QUESTION OF JUSTICE
By Peter Rosser,
Player’s Guild of Hamilton Studio
By Corin Raymond,
BYOV # 3 - The Staircase Studio
By Trevor Copp,
BYOV # 5 - Mills Hardware
By Sondra Learn,
By Carly Anna Billings,
By Brianna Seferiades
Theatre Aquarius Studio
By Natalia Bushnik & Kathleen Welch,
By Stephen Near
BYOV # 2 - Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts
Reach the Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 289-698-2234.
Tickets will be available for walk-up sales at all in-person venues 60
minutes before the scheduled start time.
Direct weblink to buy tickets online