York playwrights and stage directors push the boundaries

York University playwrights and stage directors are pushing the boundaries of their art form with projects that cross multiple borders, engage alumni as professional colleagues and inspire creativity at home and abroad.

Theatre Professor Erika Batdorf is the director of a bold new adaptation of a 19th-century classic: Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s epic verse play Peer Gynt. Batdorf has reconceived the work as a two-hander in collaboration with actors Susan Coyne, cast as Gynt, and alumnus Matthew Romantini (BFA Spec. Hons. ’05), who performs everyone (and everything) else.

Right: Erika Batdorf

The creative team includes York theatre alumni, lighting designer Jason Hand (BFA Spec. Hons. ’05), stage manager Scott Seetoo (BFA Spec. Hons. ’09) and crew members Joe Bucci (BFA Spec. Hons. ’09) and current theatre student Dan Daley.

Peer Gynt is produced by The Thistle Project, a performance collective that Romantini co-founded with his former classmate Christine Horne (BFA Spec. Hons. ’04). Horne and Romantini launched the company in 2006 with Gorey Story, also directed by Batdorf and populated onstage and behind the scenes with York talent, which played to sold-out houses and received four Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations. Peer Gynt is the company’s long-awaited sophomore production.

Interweaving classical theatre, storytelling, dance, live music and shadow puppetry, Batdorf’s streamlined Peer Gynt brings a fresh new approach to Ibsen’s exploration of accountability, notoriety and unconditional love. In keeping with the company’s commitment to physical, environmental theatre, the work is fully integrated with its venue, with the audience following the actors through the space. The show runs Thursdays through Sundays until Feb. 21 at Toronto’s historic Church of the Holy Trinity next to the Toronto Eaton Centre. Tickets are available through T.O.Tix or by calling 416-536-6468 ext. 40.

Theatre Professor Judith Rudakoff recently flew to New York City to attend a reading of her most recent work, Beautiful Little Lies, at hotINK, an international festival of play readings. Rudakoff’s play was one of 20 selected for the festival from over 500 scripts submitted.

Left: Judith Rudakoff

hotINK brings together playwrights from around the world with distinguished actors and directors from the New York theatre, as well as students, alumni and faculty from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Many hotINK presentations have resulted in productions at leading theatres across North America, artist residencies and ongoing collaborations with artists and cultural organizations nationally and internationally.

“Being selected for hotINK has been an extraordinary experience,” says Rudakoff. “The producers brought together a multi-award-winning cast and director Jose Zayas, who shared the cultural understanding and had the tacit knowledge to bring the play alive. I am excited by the response from the artists, and have already had two theatres request copies of the play since the event.”

Billed as “a Cuban cocktail with a twist,” Beautiful Little Lies follows the adventures of Juancy, a Cuban transvestite performer; Suzanne, a Canadian tourist whose mother has just died; Moffi, a little white Cuban dog with attitude; Bob, a closeted male homosexual tourist; and Maria, a Cuban mother with a passion for all life has to offer.

The play was given a first reading at York just over a decade ago under its original title, Rum and Cola, and was workshopped in a public performance by Theatre Archipelago, directed by alumna Rhoma Spencer (MFA ’01), in Toronto last spring (see YFile, March 11, 2009). Beautiful Little Lies was featured at hotINK on Jan. 30.

Colleen Wagner, professor of screenwriting in the Department of Film, is celebrating two theatrical achievements: the publication of her play The Morning Bird and the premiere production of her new play, Home.

Right: Colleen Wagner

The Morning Bird explores a mysterious connection between strangers and the fear of getting too close to those who aren’t “quite right”. Doreen, a homeless woman, steals a designer coat from a hospital waiting room. It belongs to Beth, a working professional who has become hypersensitive since discovering she is finally pregnant. The pair embark on a strange journey after Beth discovers Doreen wearing her coat. 

The Morning Bird premiered in 2005 at NotaBle Acts Theatre in Fredericton, NB, and made its French-language debut at Theatre Populaire d’Acadie in Caraquet, NB, last March. It has now been published by Scirocco Drama.

Wagner’s latest play, Home, premieres at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax Feb. 21 to 28. It explores the complex issues around refugee rights, memory, family dynamics and the significance of having a place to call your own.

The story follows an elderly man who returns with his Canadian-born son to his native Estonia to reclaim the family home he fled 55 years earlier. Things turn out to be not quite as he remembers when he opens the door to find unexpected new occupants.

Wagner has been doing some travelling herself lately, having recently returned from four months of fieldwork in Africa. As part of her research for her current project, Theatre of the Wounded, supported by funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (see YFile, July 31, 2009), Wagner engaged in collaborative workshops with local women’s organizations, students, teachers and artists in Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, interviewing women and girls who have survived trauma. Her research materials will form the basis of a new play that puts women in the centre of heroic myth and gives them an empowered voice that is neither victimized nor diminished.

With Home and Theatre of the Wounded, Wagner continues to expand on her exploration of the impact upon survivors of the atrocities and dislocations of war and its aftermath – themes underlying her 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award-winning play The Monument, which has been translated into seven languages and produced around the world, most recently in Rwanda in 2008 (see YFile, June 27, 2008).