dossier: Natalie Frijia for WHAT ARE YOU DOING UP THERE?

The last time this year I did something truly wintery I was skating with some friends over at Christie Pits. This is where I glided into Natalie, someone I haven’t seen probably since our days in University together. I directed a show of Natalie’s in my fourth year, an experience that really helped shape how I would approach directing and general theatre-making for years after. So, while we were out on the ice, me stumbling, her stumbling more gracefully, we chatted about the upcoming WHAT ARE YOU DOING UP THERE? festival her company Back Burner produces and curates. Seeing as how today I’m doing another truly wintery thing, having no place of work to go to because of bus cancellations and instead deciding to stay in my pyjamas and watch the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, I decided it would be fitting to share this now.

So, without any ado, on to dossier # 5:

natalie frijia

Who are we talking with?

Natalie Frijia, one of the coordinators of the What Are You Doing Up There?! Festival with Back Burner Productions!

What drew you to this? (to theatre, to WAYDUT, to each other, to wherever you are right now?)

One day, I presented a playwriting exercise in front of an audience. I hated speaking in front of people. The result: not great. Mortifying, actually. One member of the audience told me it was the worst piece of theatre they have ever seen. Ouch. As I was walking out, contemplating my decision to be in theatre, someone ran up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. I vaguely recognized the person, having seen him around the school halls, and I knew his name, but I was also fairly sure he didn’t know me. He said, “I really liked what you did. I run a theatre company, and we’re organizing a theatre festival. We want to reach out to more emerging female playwrights. Would you be interested in bringing a show there?” Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

And then, he filled in the details. The festival would be in the basement of his house.

Right. A festival in the basement of a house. Sure, that’s a real thing. I had images in my head of walking into a horror story, all because I was excited that someone didn’t hate my work – or, more specifically, the idea that I could have a second chance in front of an audience.

But I asked around school. This guy – Guy Doucette, in fact – people said good things about him. People said, “If Guy says he’s having a theatre festival, then he’s having a theatre festival.”

Curiosity got the better of me. I went to check it out.

And LOVED it. The mix of emerging and more established artists, the air of collaboration and constructive criticism between artists, the sheer joy of just sharing your work in front of an excited and accepting audience. It was a great space to both develop work, connect with fellow artists, and grow in a theatrical community.

In 2009, Guy asked if I’d want to help him out with some festival organizing.

Five years later, here I am, excited to keep creating opportunities for artists to put their ideas on stage, just like the festival once did for me.

Why What Are You Doing Up There? Haven’t I heard of this festival before, but with a slightly different name?

This festival has had more than a few names. We started out at the What Are You Doing DOWN There?! Festival back in 2007, in the basement of Guy’s house. After four years there, and more than a few festival nights filled with audience members making each other’s acquaintances by sitting almost directly on a stranger’s lap, we moved into the back space of the Dominion on Queen – and became the What Are You Doing Back There?! Festival. As we want the festival to keep growing, keep reaching out to emerging artists and developing our connections with artists we’ve worked with in the past, we wanted to move UP to a new space – at Siren Rock Studios. And, as fun Back Burner history connection: Andrew Cromey, one of the owners of Siren Rock Studios, was Guy’s old housemate, and used to be a part of running Back Burner Productions when it was still down there in the basement.

Back Burner has humble and quite charming origins. Tell us your favourite story from the house.

February 20th, 2010. We had twelve acts scheduled that night, plus an MC, and at 7:45pm, the basement was full.

Not just full.

PACKED.

I was squished into the “tech booth” (which, at this point, was little more than a corner of the basement, covered by a curtain, that was already being pushed in by audience members sitting up against it) with Guy, our technical, Alyksandra Ackerman, and the MC for the evening, Kristian Reimer. We debated our options. We could close the doors to incoming audience members, ask any participating artists to sit outside… Or, we could dismantle the tech booth, stack up a few rows of chairs, put some pillows on the ground, and ask people to get cozy and make friends with their neighbours.

We opted for the latter.

Our stage went from an already tiny space – maybe a 5′ or 6′ by 4′, if that, to a square, two steps across, right up against the back wall. Our opening act for that evening was musician Corrina Keeling. She walked out on stage, stepping over audience members, took a look around, sat down on the floor, and just played.

At one count, we had about 80 people in the basement. Plus Luna, the house cat, Spanky, the dog, both of whom made frequent and unannounced appearances in the acts. We may have been squished, but there was a fantastic sense of community there that night.

What is the earliest memory you have of wanting, or needing to do this?

The idea of the What Are You Doing Down/Back/Up There?! Festival is to get those projects we’re working on, off our back burners, and onto the stage. I think a lot of times, we wait for perfect moments to show our work to an audience – when the script is just right, or when the opportunity arises, and it’s hard to develop as an artist if you don’t show your work to an audience. We want to make that opportunity.

Personally though, I was drawn to the festival because it was an opportunity to do something and connect emerging and established artists NOW.

Years before I even heard of Back Burner, I schemed with a good friend about starting up an arts festival. He was a musician and filmmaker. I was a playwright and working in scenic art. We wanted to pool our resources and create a gigantic, magical arts festival… someday. After we graduated, and made a bit of money, and got a name for ourselves in the art community, etc. There was a lot of scheming, and a lot of saying “someday”.

To make a long story short, he died, and we never followed through on any of those ideas we had on the back burner. And we had some GREAT ideas.

So the earliest memory I have of wanting or needing to do a festival like this is that: you can’t wait for great opportunities to develop your work, connect with fellow artists, and get your ideas on stage, to just pop up, fully formed and fantastic. You have to make opportunities, and the more you work on them, the better they’ll become.

Which is what we hope for the festival: that every year is going to be bigger and more fantastic than the last, and that the artists who participate will grow from their experience.

In a sentence, tell us what to expect from WAYDUT.

An eclectic, eccentric and exciting mix of emerging and established artists in a celebration of the arts, where every night will bring you something very different.

Describe the event in three adjectives or phrases.

Celebration

Community

Artistic exploration

Do you have anything you want to share with us? A story? A photo? A song? A video?

I attached a photo of the really crowded night at the festival. It’s of performer, Jeff Giles (who’s in the festival this year as well), surrounded by audience members.

Back Burner Feb 20-2010 Jeff Giles

Check out Back Burner’s Facebook page for the WAYDUT Festival. The line-up is impressive and multi-faceted each night. It’s guaranteed to be an enjoyable time. Nicole Ratjen, a good friend of mine, will be MCing the first night as her clown Princess Penelope Pamplemousse as she searches for her wayward Prince Charming on Valentine’s Day. On Saturday, the 16th, come on out and see me in a staged reading of a new play by Michael Bedford, tentatively called [play]. 

Back Burner Productions

dossier: Helen Donnelly of FOO PRODUCTIONS and the FOOLISH CABARET

Today I’m proud to present a dossier for the generous and lovely Helen Donnelly! Aside from being my current clown teacher, Helen has had a long and illustrious career in both clown and circus performance. She’s with us to talk about the latest instalment of the Foolish Cabaret, an event I am happy to have debuted my clown at in 2012. 

Right then. On to it. dossier # 3:

Helen Donnelly

Who are we talking with?

Helen Donnelly. I’m a circus, theatrical and therapeutic clown. I’m producer of the new ‘Foolish Cabaret’ and Artistic Director of Foo Productions where I produce and create solo and group shows for festivals, theatre and circus events.

What drew you to this? (to clowning, to theatre, to wherever you are right now?)

Coming from a theatre background, I was an actor with designs for the stage, tv and film. But after a few years of auditioning, performing, wrapping up, back to auditioning again…I started to crave more of a through line to my craft. Where could I satisfy this? I was also seeking something in physical theatre. And so this led me naturally to the world of clown. I never set out to clown, and for the first few years I was awful. Truly. Crickets out there when I went on stage. But gradually (with the help of keen and talented outside eyes), I got better at it. I have no idea what made me stick to it. Stubbornness, I’m guessing.

Why the Foolish Cabaret?

I felt it was time to fill a void in Toronto to have a dedicated space for established physical theatre artists to promote their work & share their artistry while at the same time an opportunity for emerging artists to put polish on to their pieces in order to give everyone the best experience possible. So it’s about serious fools wanting to present polished pieces and give the audience the best value for their time and money. It’s also around educating people new to mime, clown, mask and bouffon. I feel there is so much talent in this city that needs to be encouraged and treasured.

What is the earliest memory you have of wanting, or needing to do this?

As soon as ‘The S.P.A.C.E’ closed back in 2003. For the last 10 years we have been orphaned and that is hard for a community. That said, the majority of clowns in our small community are newer to it, so there is not that history of knowing Mump and Smoot and training in a central spot. But I miss it. It was a special time.

Tell us a bit about therapeutic clown. I’ve heard stories about that Dr. Flap.

Ah, man—how long do you have??! Basically, this hidden art form has been an incredible opportunity for me to continue to be challenged emotionally and artistically 3 days a week. I’m currently working in pediatrics at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital and I have also worked for years at SickKids and in Long Term Care Facilities primarily with elders suffering from dementia. At Holland Bloorview there are over 60 inpatients who are brain injured, multi-disabled or have musculoskeletal rehab concerns. It has been my joy to work there as Dr Flap for the last 5 years but also as trainer of new nose hires and program coordinator. I love my job there and I especially love how it balances out my life. To be able to be in service to this unique population in clown and with a clown partner…I feel so lucky. I am dedicated to the growth of this emerging profession.

What is your favourite memory from a past Foolish Cabaret?

Oh…that is a toughy! I would have to say being backstage with master mime Giuseppe Condello….pinching myself as we both warmed up backstage together with me thinking “Is this really happening? Am I really sharing the space with this man??” So thrilling!

Describe the cabaret in three adjectives or a phrase.

‘A space for serious fools to call home’

Do you have anything you want to share with us? A story? A photo? A song? A video?

Sure! I’m attaching The Foolish Cabaret promo video. Also a video of me in clown as Flap in a day care facility with elders with early to mid-stage dementia. And my brand new promo video of my show Saucisse which I’m quite proud of; hot off the press! And the Foolish poster. See you all on Monday at Foolish! Doors open at 7:40 so get there in good time! Thanks Andrew for this great opportunity to plug it!

The Foolish Cabaret

The Foolish Cabaret promo:

Dr. Flap:

Saucisse: A Foo Musical promo:

dossier: Dave McKay of TORONTO CLOWN and the RED NOSE DISTRICT

For the next dossier, I was able to get in touch with Dave McKay of Toronto Clown and the Red Nose District. I sent him some questions and he opened up a beautiful vault of treasures to show me his answers. It blew me away. You get a real sense Dave’s been around for the development of clown in Canada and has been very important to its current framework and popularity here in Toronto.

That said, here’s dossier number two:

Sketchy

First off, who’re we talking with?

Dave McKay. I’m the co-producer of the Red Nose District show, Lunacy Cabaret, Belleville Ville and the Toronto Festival of Clowns.

What drew you down this path? (to the Red Nose District, to being a clown, to being wherever the hell you are in life?)

I used to play in a band and we put out and album and toured around. The other guys got married and had kids so we stopped playing. I guess I was more of a rock star than a musician. I always preferred the performance aspect of being in a band. In the mid-nineties I read a review of clown duo Mump and Smoot – the clowns of horror. I thought I would love to see that. I went to see them and then I wanted to do what they did. I had no idea where to start as a clown so I got into improv comedy instead. While in the Second City Conservatory program I met people who had studied clown with John Turner and Mike Kennard of Mump and Smoot. So when the time and money became available I took Mike Kennard’s Baby Clown/Clown Through Mask course. Sometimes while doing improv I would connect with a character and the audience and it would all just flow naturally. However while clowning it always happened. I had found my thing. At the time I was still doing improv, theatre, music and tv/film work. So in 2006 I told myself, “nothing but clown this year.” That year I started up TorontoClown.com, the Lunacy Cabaret (with Dan Nimmo, Jeff Krahn and Eli Chornenki) and the Toronto Festival of Clowns (with Srah Buski and Adam Lazarus). The Lunacy Cabaret has a very wild audience so you need to be an experienced performer to handle them and the Toronto Festival of Clowns features hour long shows. There needs to be a place where people who are starting out can get some experience in front of a friendly audience. In the past there were some small clown cabaret shows that people could get some stage time with, but eventually they ran their course and stopped. I created the Red Nose District show to fill that role. A place for new clowns who have just taken a workshop, experienced clowns to work on new material and for people who have left clowning to come back and try it again.

What’s you earliest memory of wanting, or needing to do this?

As I kid I had no affinity for clowns. In fact I just kind of ignored them and thought they were for little kids or unsophisticated people. It wasn’t until I started seeing several Pochinko style clowns that I got into it. In particular I was doing improv in a show that Neil Muscot produced and he had Helen Donnelly on doing her Foo character. Foo did a very simple turn where his ass was itchy and he searched the room until he found a box of Gold Bond powder in a bag in the back of the room. Foo looked into the bag and then up at the audience several times before revealing the contents. Each time he looked in and then out it was a completely different face and expression. This was beyond mugging, there was a whole story behind each expression. At this point I made the commitment to study Pochinko clown.

What can we expect, if anything, at the Red Nose District?

You can expect the performers to recognize that there is an audience in front of them and sometimes to engage the audience in their act.

Tell us about your favourite moment from this event in the past.

Once a year we put the Red Nose District show in the Toronto Festival of Clowns. We get Morro and Jasp to host it. They really take the hosting job seriously and put together one of the best nights at the festival. One year at the end of the show they started a popcorn fight with the audience, there was popcorn everywhere. We have pictures of the whole audience engaged in throwing stuff with huge smiles on their faces.

Describe the Red Nose District in three adjective or phrases.

Surprising, engaging and adult.

Do you have anything you want to share? A story? A photo? A song? A video?

I recently found these videos on Youtube of Richard Pochinko teaching a clown class. He is recognized as the father of modern Canadian clowning or as we sometimes call it Pochinko Clown. I never met him but he seems like at delightful, enchanted nutbar who created a wonderful thing that has turned into a tradition. I like to watch these videos once in a while so that I don’t take the whole clown thing too serious.

He gives a good description of what he is trying to accomplish at around 2:50 in this video.

Mump and Smoot with some of their dark humour, it starts getting really dark around 4:30.

A montage of Foo clips

Red Nose District

red nosed hello

Good day. And welcome to my new webpage.

This is my first post! And you’re reading it!

I plan to make this a sort of meeting place, like a library or cafe, for the many interesting things happening in my wonderfully artistic community here in Toronto. In such a big city, with such a diverse crowd of talented and passionate people it’s quite easy to lose track of the many smaller events happening all across it. I plan to use this space to help advertise events that have come to my attention. Usually the events I showcase on this blog I’ll have had some personal experience with, either from attending or performing as part of, but sometimes they’ll be brand new to me! Like the one I’m actually starting this blog with. Exciting!

My plan in the near future is to also begin posting interviews with the organizers behind such events, or the artists involved in them, so we can all get to know each other a little bit better.

And what would a personal blog/website be without a little shameless self-promotion every now and then (read: all the time)?

To start us off, let’s talk a bit about this:

Red Nose District

Now, I’m new in the world of clown so I’ve never actually attended one of these. Flatteringly, I’ve been asked to perform at this one.

If I can talk to anything in the Toronto clown scene, I’d speak to how astoundingly accommodating and friendly it is. Especially to newcomers. I find it always makes for a good night out. The variety of clown acts in this city is staggering. There’s always humour, but more often than not there’ll be one turn that takes you completely by surprise and messes around with your expectations. So if you’re into that sort of thing, why not check it out?

There’s a pretty great line-up, including:

The Host:
Sketchy the Clown
Along with:
Trip Phoenix
Eric Miinch
Stevie Jay
Issac Luy
Andrew Gaboury
Matthew Pazzol
and more to be announced!

Here’s the description from their facebook page:

The Red Nose District show was created to provide a space for new clowns, returning clowns and veteran clowns to create and hone new material in front of a supportive audience. The Red Nose District continues in the tradition of classic Toronto clown shows such as Space Night, Cirque du Poulet and Clown Chowder.

For more info contact shows[at]torontoclown[dot]com

I’ll be performing as my new clown, Rutherford’s Best Friend, who you can see in the photo section of this website.

And maybe before his next show I can get an interview with Dave McKay, the organiser of the event and also the brains and body of Sketchy the Clown.

Cheers.

A.G.