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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

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Inspiration Isn’t a Eureka Moment: Laurence Lemieux’s “Looking for Elvis”

One myth I want to take down with this interview is the romanticized image of inspiration. Yes, we all get eureka moments: I have plenty of them. However, in my case, they’re never actually good ideas. Instead, those moments of inspiration are actually doors to the real idea, but I get too caught up in those moments to make use of the gateway they are it. (Which hurts when you realize you need to delete half your novel because it’s full of eureka moments.)

Laurence Lemieux also puts to bed the myth that inspiration comes in a flash of lightning. She’s the artistic director of Citadel+Compagnie and the choreographer of Looking for Elvis, which plays at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018, alongside renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s work The Man in Black.

The idea for Looking for Elvis began back in 2012, when Lemieux travelled to Graceland as part of a road trip to Nashville with her daughter to celebrate a milestone birthday.

“It was not at all what I thought it would be,” Lemieux says about Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. She was expecting a mansion. “And you get there and it’s a little home.” (I agree with her: I had the same experience when I visited in my teens.)

But visiting Graceland opened up her artist’s mind: “I could imagine living in that home, because even though it was the 70s, it was really cozy. And I was like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’ I wanted to know more about Elvis.”

It’s not that Lemieux didn’t know who he was—she has always been a fan but “not like a crazy fan,” she says. But who was the man behind the performer?

She believes all performers experience what Elvis must have experienced, though admittedly usually to a smaller extent.

“You do a great show, people clap, you take a bow, you feel like a million bucks, you take your make-up off, you go home, and, you know, you eat a sandwich. The glamour is really sometimes in the moment on stage and then your life is actually not that,” she says.

Even though the question was planted with this visit, Lemieux says she didn’t have the idea at that time to choreograph a show that would answer it. She did listen to more of his music, but not even then did she have the moment of inspiration. It took a commission from another local dance company before she realized she might be on to something. Later, when Kudelka was remounting The Man in Black, Lemieux felt the two pieces would complement each other nicely for a show.

Lemieux never saw Elvis in a negative light. He wasn’t “fat” or “tacky” in her mind. Instead, she believes Elvis had a talent, and everyone wanted to make money off him: “They want money, so they want him to perform. So the damage that does to the person himself, that’s what I wanted to look at,” Lemieux says. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating: Michael Jackson, Prince, and many more.

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"
“Look for Elvis.” Photo by John Lauener

To Lemieux, if Elvis were an office worker, he would have probably been sent home for a few weeks to rest and recuperate. I’d have to agree with her on that: a sick employee could actually cost a company money, whereas sending them home for awhile and having their short-term disability insurance cover the bill would save money. With performers, it’s the opposite: A performer can really be “here today, gone tomorrow,” and if the performer doesn’t perform, then the entourage doesn’t get paid.

Each choreographer has their own way of working. Some know exactly what they want and direct the dancers accordingly, whereas others have ideas in their mind and work with the dancers to embody those ideas on stage. Lemieux’s style more closely matches the latter group. She directs the movement but has her dancers find their own personal journey through it. “But I tell them emotionally where it should be sitting,” she says. “I tell them who they are in that moment and what they should be thinking. So, I give them a lot of feedback on their character more than the actual steps. Sometimes I think I direct them more like I would an actor.”

Kudelka has been the resident choreographer at Citadel+Compagnie for ten years now. Former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, the New York Times has called him “ballet’s most original choreographer.” The Man in Black, though, is not what comes to mind when you think of ballet. A homage to Johnny Cash, the work’s backbone is four dancers in cowboy boots. In contrast to Looking for Elvis, which Lemieux describes as more emotional, The Man in Black is Kudelka’s response to the music as a score. (Kudelka was not available for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him how the idea for this piece came about.)

James Kudelka's "The Man in Black." Citadel + Compagnie
“The Man in Black.” Photo by John Lauener

The beauty of creativity is exploration: Lemieux describes one sequence in The Man in Black where Kudelka explores what cowboys would do if they had to dance. (Picturing Clint Eastwood trying to line dance makes me smile.) In Looking for Elvis, Lemieux choreographed a sequence where one dancer embodies Las Vegas Elvis, with all the bling, and she puts a microscope on what happens once he begins to falter: some of his friends turn their back on him, ignore him.

Inspiration doesn’t always come with a flash of lightning or a crescendo in orchestral music. It sometimes comes to us slowly, seeping via little windows into our minds until something pushes us to create a whole out of the pieces. If you find yourself frustrated with your own creative endeavours, see if you’re waiting for that eureka moment. Because if you are, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The world around you is already speaking to you, and those ideas are already in your head, waiting to be expressed. Lemieux works her ideas out on her dancers, and just like her, you can work your ideas out in your art form. That’s where you’ll find your creativity. And your inspiration.

Looking for Elvis and The Man in Black will be showing at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018. Tickets are available here. 

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Evelyn Hart in “Love, Sex & Brahms” by James Kudelka

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The cast from #lovesexbrahms, 2015 (clockwise): Andrew Burashko (piano), Louis Laberge-Côté, Evelyn Hart, Victoria Mehaffey, Andrew McCormack, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Bill Coleman. Photo credit: John Lauener.

“If you went to a salon in the olden days, for example, or a house concert, and you just listened to music and you’re there and you’re experiencing the music and you’re experiencing the people around you…it’s like that.”

 

That’s how Evelyn Hart, the former principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, described the new James Kudelka show she is in: Love, Sex & Brahms, a presentation by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie (CLC). I chatted with Evelyn over the phone on Wednesday about the show.

Love, Sex & Brahms

A collection of vignettes about love and relationships, Love, Sex & Brahms is an expanded version of Kudelka’s Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms, with each vignette set to an intermezzo by the German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

The vignettes are not entirely separate from each other nor entirely connected, and sometimes the characters come together and sometimes they don’t. “But the relationship in the music is what we’re painting,” Hart said.

Although the same characters may return to the stage, they’ll relate to the other characters in a different way. Hart said, “It really is that each time the music starts, it’s like watching a scene and the relationships in that scene.”

The show takes place at the Betty Oliphant Theatre of Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which seats just over 250, making this an intimate performance, a concept Hart said Kudelka is keenly interested in. It also seems like a fitting venue based on her descriptions of the set: a piano and chandelier. The only other item on the stage is a carpet made of light that changes with each piece.

“The lighting designer was quite brilliant,” she said. “So that defines the dancing space and the room that we’re in.”

Evelyn Hart on Stage

Hart enjoyed a 30-year-long career at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the vast majority of it as their headlining prima ballerina. Although she retired from dance over a decade ago, she still searches out opportunities to perform on stage, even if it doesn’t involve long series of fouetté turns and big passés.

Hart still does barre everyday. However, she does admit that retiring from dance was a grieving process for her. And yet, in this production, she says, ”I certainly didn’t feel that I wasn’t dancing. In my limited capacity, what it felt was it’s all the emotion through movement.”

Which is exactly what Kudelka is exploring, according to Hart: “He keeps saying, ‘It’s more like actors dancing.’ […] He wanted people to be very real. We’re not trying to be dancers per se.”

Hart always welcomes opportunities to perform again: “It’s an incredibly fulfilling thing to be able to go out on stage.”

Kudelka, Puppets, & Dance

It’s not just humans the audience will see on stage. Kudelka has previously explored puppetry, an experiment he is continuing with Love, Sex & Brahms: In 2014, he choreographed and performed a show called Malcolm, which involved an eponymous puppet and was a far cry from the puppetry of children’s shows many may be used to.

The Globe & Mail wrote of Malcolm, ““The piece is also a tender portrait of the human condition, in turn loving, jealous, amused and bewildered.”

The Toronto Star gave Malcolm 4/4 stars: “It might seem odd for Kudelka, acclaimed for such spectacular National Ballet productions as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella, to resort to puppetry, but then Kudelka has always been a little odd — in the most theatrically stimulating ways. And he’s no stranger to puppetry, having portrayed a mad inventor who believes he can infuse life into a cherished mechanical doll in the ballet Coppélia.”

The Star explained that puppetry has been making a resurgence, citing Crystal Pite’s fascination with the art form and a 2009 Canadian Opera Company production “that created theatre magic by deploying puppets.”

Who Is Sarkis?

The puppet in Love, Sex & Brahms is Sarkis, a clothed, bald, child-like creation.

“The puppet is the way that they speak to each other; the thing that keeps them apart or that pulls them together. It’s quite interesting,” she said. “Everybody in each piece deals with the puppet in a different way.” She says he is simply another person in the room; sometimes the whole focus is on him, and sometimes he just sits there, watching.

The show is about 40 minutes long and runs from March 16 – 19. Tickets are only $25 ($20 for artists, students, and seniors). I’m certainly going to try and make it. For full information, visit Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie).

“It’s very quiet, but there’s drama in it, there’s beauty in it, there’s love,” Hart said. Sounds like a wonderful evening to me.