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Svetlana Dvoretsky: The Woman Behind Theatre

A Russian-Canadian Impresario

Have you ever heard of the word “impresario”? That’s someone who organizes and maybe even finances performing arts events, including concerts, plays, ballets, operas, and more. It’s a very risky profession, and likely not one taught in arts management programs. And yet, impresarios are in part responsible for expanding our interests in the arts precisely because they always stand on the cliff of audience expectations. An impresario calculates the risks with bringing in various performers, and if the risk doesn’t pay out, the impresario loses out, often quite a lot. But it’s a risk impresarios like Svetlana Dvoretsky, owner of Show One Productions, are willing to take. Why? Because they love the arts so much.

Who Is Svetlana Dvoretsky?

Her name is likely unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know her: she’s one of the movers and shakers in the Toronto arts scene, and she’s ready to take risks.

Born in Russia, Dvoretsky spent eight years studying piano. It inspired her to make a living in the arts, but not as a performer. Instead, she moved to Canada and eventually—by accident—became an impresario. 

Studying piano in Russia means something almost entirely different to studying piano in North America. Dvoretsky’s music education included not only direct piano instruction but also hours devoted to other aspects of music, like music history and conducting. After school, she’d spend four to five hours a day, four days a week at her music school. By the time she emigrated here, she had an appreciation for music that only a few dedicated music students in Canada likely possess.

Arts Culture in Canada

When I speak to people who’ve immigrated here, I often hear a common lament: that arts programming in Canada is weak. My local newspaper backs me up in this impression. Despite my living in an area with almost 500,000 people, the arts section in our local daily is only two pages long, with ads occupying about a quarter of that space, at least once a week. On good days, it’s a few pages long, but with even more ads.

Another example: Canada, to my knowledge, has only one magazine devoted to dance (the other one folded earlier this year). Moreover, if I enter into small talk about something arts related, it’s usually a movie, TV show, or pop artist, and rarely about relatively unknown shows or acts.

So why become an arts impresario? Good question.

Music and Pop Culture

It’s probably easiest to see the development of pop culture through music: the Dave Clark Five has a vastly different sound from Drake. But that could only happen because those artists (and the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, between them) learned and experimented to develop an audience.

In the world of the performing arts, like dance and theatre, it’s impresarios who help bring this experimentation to the fore to expose these artists to a broader audience than the artists could do by themselves.

Dvoretsky and Experimentation

For Dvoretsky, that experimentation often is bringing Russian artists to Canada. These names in the Russian world are huge, and yet they may be unknown to us, meaning we’re much less likely to go.

But this year, Dvoretsky brought a world-famous name to Toronto: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The show was called Brodsky/Baryshnikov.Which you’d think would have the entire dance world flocking to Toronto.

But Baryshnikov wasn’t here to dance; he was performing poetry by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, a friend of his, in Russian. Although Baryshnikov was no newbie to acting, he has always first and foremost been known as a dancer.

So, Baryshnikov in a one-man show in Russian about poetry?

Dvoretsky’s risk paid off: according to The Toronto Star, all four shows sold out.

Dvoretsky’s Latest Risk: Clowning

One clown inside a plastic bubble; another clown bounces a large bubble on a stick.
Photo by Pascal Ito

The latest show Dvoretsky is bringing to Toronto is called Slava’s Snowshow. Its package may be unfamiliar and “untrendy” to many viewers: instead of talking actors, the show’s stars are clowns. Instead of a well-known story, none is advertised. And yet, despite these problems, the show has been on the road since 1993 (with breaks in between, of course), spent six years on Broadway, called London’s West End home for a time, and has performed in dozens of countries around the world. It’s won a Drama Desk Award and Laurence Olivier Award and in 2009 was nominated for a Tony Award.

Clowning is an art form that, as I understand it, connects the deepest parts of the performer with their audience. Clowning is perhaps less about putting on a personality, the way stage acting is, and more about bringing out something hidden within you and sharing it with the audience. Some people have fears of clowns, others consider them relics of a bygone era.

But not Dvoretsky.

To present art, you have to be confident in what you’re presenting, and Dvoretsky’s confidence about this show is unshakeable.

“This show makes people kinder, at least for a little while,” she says. “That is guaranteed. Those two hours are guaranteed. The rest is up to the person. It’s an emotional and visual spectacle. It’s really, really amazing.”

And emotional, visual spectacle that guarantees to make you a kinder person, at least for those two hours.

Sounds like the perfect, snowy, winter night, doesn’t it? Only you get to sit in the comfort of a warm theatre, sharing the experience with thousands of others.

Slava’s Snowshow runs December 7 to 16, 2018 in the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.

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Mitchell Cushman is on a Curious Voyage

It’s another Hollywood cliché (I seem to be taking a lot of digs at Hollywood lately): the loner who wants to risk it all for his (sometimes her) goal, and no matter what anyone says, he (sometimes she) will punch through all that negativity and succeed. But is that what real creativity looks like?

“I do my best work in collaboration,” says risk-taking Toronto-based producer, director, and artistic director Mitchell Cushman.

Cushman is anything by the stereotypical loner who’ll risk it all. When speaking with him on the phone, he sounded…normal. You know, conversational, a little introspective, comfortable talking about work. And then there’s this thing called collaboration—a word usually saved for job descriptions—that he thrives on.

Working With Humans

For Cushman, collaboration is his path to dreaming big. Not big as in lots of money (though maybe he wants that), and not big as in a huge house (but maybe he wants that, too), but big as in big ideas.

Take, for example, his 2015 project Brantwood: 1920-2020. Done in collaboration (there’s that word again) with Julie Tepperman and Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, it’s a play that consists of approximately 15 hours of material.

No, this wasn’t Goethe’s Faust plays rebooted; it was a site-specific production that was staged in an old three-storey, 20,000-square-foot school building, with different scenes taking place in different rooms throughout the entire space. Audience members could roam about and peer in on any scene they wanted to. A bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but you could decide when the adventure continued.

Dreaming Large

“I’ve always been attracted to work that allows you to dream on a large canvas,” he says. So when Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak needed someone to join him on a crazy project, he called Cushman.

Headshot of Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak.
Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak. Photo by Scott Cooper.

The crazy idea is called The Curious Voyage, costs between $1,950 and $3,600 plus flights and meals, and spans two continents. My first thought was, “Theatres have a hard time selling tickets for $35 a piece sometimes. Who’s going to pay this much for a theatre show?”

The Risk: “The Curious Voyage”

And that’s where the risk comes in. The Curious Voyage is a three-day experience that immerses the audience in a theatrical experience that starts in Barrie, Ontario, on day 1. On day 2, they’re shuttled to Pearson International Airport, where they’ll fly to London, England. On day 3, they’ll get to watch a Tony Award-winning musical, whose title is being kept a secret.

I told Cushman that I don’t know if I would jump on board for that kind of price. What if the musical was Kiss of the Spider Woman? That’s the last musical I’d want to spend over $4,000 on.

“I can tell you it’s not Kiss of the Spider Woman, if that’s scaring you off,” he said. Whether to advertise the musical or keep it a secret was debated, but keeping it zipped was the final decision.

Surprise!

“We’re offering them an unexpected experience where you should never know what’s going to happen next,” Cushman explains. “We felt that our potential to get underneath people’s skin with the project would be a lot stronger if they didn’t know what they were in for.”

Before you worry if you’re about to be slimed on stage in front of your fiancée or asked to eat cheese curds like a cat, the FAQ for the show confirms that, although audience members are meant to participate in the experience, no one will be asked to do anything potentially demeaning or embarrassing.

Details of a Big Project

Headshot of Curious Voyage Co-Director  and DopoLavoroTeatrale Artistic Director Daniele Bartolini.
Florence/Toronto Director Daniele Bartolini. Photo by Philip Zave.

Cushman’s job in this wild adventure is to direct The Musical That Must Not Be Named, in London. Director Daniele Bartolini will look after the Ontario elements of the production. There’s of course an entire production team involved, with Spivak heading it all. When I asked Cushman about the logistics of pulling off a project like this, he could only say, “A lot of equally enthusiastic, equally crazy people working on it together.”

Not even his musical in London will be “normal.” The little clue he did give me about the musical is that it’s one that normally requires a big theatre and will be staged in a very intimate setting. Audience count is limited to 36 per Curious Voyage (there are several trips).

Granted, most musicals I’ve seen need a big theatre, so that’s not much of a hint. In my mind, I’m thinking Les Mis in my living room perhaps, or Phantom in my office, minus the crashing chandelier. Would either musical be as powerful if you could see everyone’s wig lines? Hmm…

Is There an Audience for This?

Cushman finds it’s hard to make any kind of art, and that it can be harder to find the right people to come and see it. Add such a large ticket price, and your potential audience becomes incredibly small.

“But also, I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says.

Audience Expectations May be Changing

I associate theatre with leaving the house, sitting in some large, cavernous room, and sitting back and enjoying the show. But Cushman thinks times have changed.

“There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.

Cushman + Big Ideas = Collaboration

But it takes a lot of work—and a lot of collaboration—to pull off ideas like these. His work with Tepperman on Brantwood took place over two years, beginning with three months in an apartment working out the concept. More collaborators entered the scene after those three months.

“It’s about surrounding yourself with the right artists who all have equal buy-in and all have different vantage points, so that every part of the piece is an integrated experience,” he explains.

Collaboration for Your Art

This blog is meant to help you explore your own creativity. In recent months, I’ve introduced you to several professional creators, talked about their work, and given you a glimpse into their creative world. How do you approach your art? Is it in the closet, where no one can see it? Do you talk to anyone about it? Ask anyone for help?

Mitchell Cushman can create big precisely because he collaborates so much. He has an extensive history of immersive and site-specific productions and some pretty big ideas. “So Spivak knew I wouldn’t be scared off by the scope of what he was looking to do.”

Don’t let your big ideas scare you off. Finding the right people to help move your creation along can give you the confidence you need to pull it off.

Details:

Talk Is Free Theatre presents: The Curious Voyage

October 23 to November 10, 2018

Performances begin every second day

$1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals

curiousvoyage.com

1. 705.792.1949 ext. 122

Tickets on sale only from May 8-June 27, 2018