Introducing… the breakthrough Toronto stage artists of 2018

It was easy to feel down this year, but these talented artists – from theatre, comedy and dance – make us optimistic for the future


Some have been working for years, some have been in hit TV shows, while others recently graduated from theatre school. Whatever their journey, here are the artists (in alphabetical order) who made us check their program bios during intermission.

Lovell Adams-Gray, actor

Judging from his packed IMDb page, Adams-Gray is busy doing TV. But let’s hope he finds more stage work like his peacock-like Levee in Soulpepper’s burnished production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As a strutting trumpet player whose songwriting aspirations are thwarted, Adams-Gray was electric, his emotional outpourings – in his music, his speechifying and his pursuit of one of the play’s women – were all extensions of his character’s soul. The performance rightly earned him recognition by the Toronto Theatre Critics Association and no doubt will be acknowledged come Dora time.

Brandon_Ash_Mohammad.jpg

Brandon Ash-Mohammed, comic

After taking an extended hiatus from comedy in 2015, this Humber College alum came back renewed and reinvigorated, and he seemed to be everywhere in 2018. He taped a JFL set opening for Julio Torres, and we saw him slay with his self-assured routine at the Bitch Salad finale. While he’s waiting for the audience to catch its breath, he’ll roguishly vogue to build momentum before moving on.

As well as stand-up, Ash-Mohammed excels at sketch and improv (he won a Bob Curry Fellowship at Second City Toronto, and subbed in on their current mainstage revue The Best Is Yet To Come Undone), and he made memorable appearances on Sketchfest’s Rapp Battlez and Improv Karaoke at Comedy Bar.

He’s been a commendable host, too, helping sell out multiple editions of The Ebony Tide in February (the show is now a monthly), and The Ethnic Rainbow, Canada’s first and only comedy show for LGBTQ+ people of colour.

What does he have left to try in 2019? Recording his debut album.

The Music Man.jpg

Devon Michael Brown, actor and dancer

Anyone who saw Donna Feore’s exuberant Stratford Festival production of The Music Man came away asking, “Who was that guy?” We all knew the lead, Daren A. Herbert, who was predictably excellent. The artist we were Googling was Brown, who not only brought passion and ardour to his acting as rebel/young lover Tommy, but also, in the ensemble numbers, kicked higher, leaped more gracefully and twirled with the kind of focus and commitment that only the best artists possess. Those years of training (he began at three) and experience on the hit TV show The Next Step obviously paid off. Forget Gaga. This year, a star was born at Stratford.

Breanna Dillon.jpg

Breanna Dillon, actor

One of the most harrowing experiences of the year was watching Dillon late in What Happened Was… deliver a monologue that gradually revealed her character’s complex psychological baggage. The actor, who up until that moment had presented a character who seemed relatable and even ordinary, nailed this difficult scene. Later, she brought that same intensity to her role as a woman who meets up with her ex in Wes Berger’s First Dates. Dillon has the ability to suggest layers of emotion and contradictions beneath a placid surface. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for another theatrical date.

DryLand_2018.jpg

Recent Ryerson grads Veronica Hortiguela (left) and Mattie Driscoll made a big splash in Dry Land.

Veronica Hortiguela and Mattie Driscoll, actors

In a banner year for female-led ensembles (see also: The Wolves, The ‘94 Club, Girls Like That), Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land – about teens dealing with sex, relationships and abortion – got the least attention. That’s a shame, because co-leads and recent Ryerson grads Hortiguela and Driscoll were utterly believable playing out their frenemy dynamic set in a girls’ locker room.

While some of the content was hard to watch (in a powerful way), the women’s performances, whether depicting savvy, sexually experienced cool (Hortiguela) or naive, trusting optimism (Driscoll), felt authentic. Keep your eye on them.

Chanty_Marostica_Pic_by_Ryan_Dillon.jpg

Photo by Ryan Dillon

Chanty Marostica, comic

It was a year of firsts for Marostica: first out trans person to win a Canadian Comedy Award to be named one of JFL42’s featured acts to win the Sirius XM Top Comic competition to have a #1 comedy album on iTunes and to headline at the Sydney Opera House, as they did this past month.

But it isn’t just personal performing accomplishments that make Marostica special. It’s also their tireless work to promote trans and queer comedy talent across Canada. Their Queer And Present Danger showcase has begun touring the country, highlighting emerging LGBTQ+ comics.

Marostica creates supportive spaces for performers to find and hone their voices. The more visibility they get (appearing on CBC’s Workin’ Moms, starting to tour the college circuit), the more they seem determined to share the spotlight with other trans and queer comics.

Natasha_Powell_35.jpg

Natasha Powell, choreographer and dancer

A champion for hip-hop, house and vernacular jazz dances such as the Charleston and the Shimmy, Powell has been flying under the radar for a few years now.

Powell’s company Holla Jazz blew up the Toronto dance landscape with Floor’d, their first full-length work in March. The show set the Winchester Street Theatre on fire over four nights that sold out before the run even began. Mixing dances from the jook joint phenomenon of the American South with a killer onstage jazz orchestra, Floor’d was crisply directed by Powell, brilliantly performed by familiar faces from the hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance scenes, and, most importantly, it shone a light on some exciting new/old dance perspectives. Here’s hoping for a remount – and more shows – in 2019.

Fringe2018_How-to-be-FEARLESS.jpg

Ali Joy Richardson, playwright, director and actor

Despite her busy role as the artistic producer of the Paprika Festival for young artists, Richardson directed the workshop production of In Real Life at Sheridan’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, she appeared in her solo show How To Be FEARLESS! With Roxy Roberts at the Fringe (scheduled for a remount next summer), and her plays Fool and A Bear Awake In Winter were workshopped at the Groundswell and Safe Words festivals, respectively.

Richardson’s writing starts out blithe and funny and slowly delves into weighty subject matter, such as her relentlessly upbeat life coach Roxy showing cracks of past trauma as her presentation unravels, for instance, or A Bear’s high school band dividing into factions as a bully in their midst provokes an assault. (She has a terrific cast for its stage premiere at the Next Stage Theatre Festival next month.)

Heath_V_Salazar.jpg

Tanja-Tiziana

Heath V. Salazar, writer and performer

One of our artists to watch at the Fringe, this charismatic trans Latinx writer and performer – up till then best known for their drag persona Gay Jesus – has since co-starred in one of the best ensemble shows of the year (The Wolves) and is currently appearing in Canadian Stage’s Territorial Tales project, which is touring (to a half dozen Ontario towns) with stories along themes of “displacement, migration and settlement.” They’re also making their debut with the Queer Songbook Orchestra on December 17, a dream gig for them.

Salazar will appear in Shove It Down My Throat at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre next April (where they also have a residency), and their Slam: Queer and Trans Positive Open Mic has just announced a monthly residency at Glad Day Bookshop in the new year.

Brand Voices

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NOW Magazine