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From the legacy of Philip Akin to the hybrid efforts of Factory and Outside the March, here are some stage standouts in an otherwise bleak year
This time of year I normally weigh in on the thriving theatre and comedy scenes in Toronto, choosing what I think are the top productions and artists from among hundreds of shows. But of course, the pandemic happened, and live theatre as we know it stopped. Still, there were two-and-a-half months of regular shows. And after lockdown, artists and companies turned on their ring lights, upgraded their microphones and made us rethink everything about this centuries-old art form.
Here are 10 people or things that deserved standing ovations, even if they were merely from the comfort of our homes.
Last June Akin stepped away from helming Obsidian Theatre after 14 years, where, among other things, he directed unforgettable shows like Topdog/Underdog and Pass Over, and nurtured a generation of gifted Black artists, including his successor, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. Before the lockdown, Akin was to have directed Trouble In Mind at the Shaw Festival. Instead he proved an invaluable voice in the discussion around anti-Black racism and equity in theatre and the arts. The fact that after his departure his colleagues announced the Philip Akin Black Shoulders Legacy Award – which gives five Black theatre figures $5,000 each to pursue their craft – speaks to his inspiring example and ongoing influence.
What will theatre look like after the pandemic? It could be very exciting, and a lot more diverse – onstage, behind the scenes and even in the all-important (and usually lily white) boards of directors. That’s all thanks to the stock-taking theatres big and small did after the George Floyd murder inspired another wave of activism against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Whether they handed over their social media platforms to underrepresented groups, apologized for past actions or committed funds to new hiring practices and programming, most theatres did a lot more than upload a symbolic Black square on Instagram.
After cancelling their seasons, many local theatre companies presented script readings, classes and retrospectives of past works. But under the leadership of Nina Lee Aquino, Factory boldly explored the possibilities of virtual theatre. First came a one-night live-streamed performance of Daniel MacIvor’s solo play House, starring Kevin Hanchard from his own home (with his son, Quincy, ably helping him as the “house technician”). Then, Aquino announced a full season of live virtual theatre, beginning with a two-week run of David Yee’s Acts Of Faith, which was so effectively done it made us feel like we were watching actor Natasha Mumba in the theatre. Maybe one day.
Great artists respond to the times, and no local theatre company did as much with their resources during the pandemic as Outside the March. A few weeks after lockdown, they introduced the playful, interactive week-long phone-based experience, The Ministry Of Mundane Mysteries, which has “travelled” all over the world and spawned sequels. Then they announced a season of live and virtual performances and invested in exciting new artists who are destined to create exciting immersive projects once the world returns to normal.
How can women pee when they’re taking a walk? How are parents coping with sending their kids back to school? What do you do if your roommate breaks quarantine? Second City vets and real-life couple Natalie Metcalfe and Christian Smith skewered these and other issues in a series of smart, savvy, beautifully produced sketches on their YouTube channel.
Back in January, Abbey delivered a stirring performance in Julius Caesar (co-produced by Crow’s Theatre and Abbey’s own Groundling Theatre) that would have earned him a spot on this list on its own. But after lockdown, and the cancellation of his Stratford shows, he and friend/colleague Dylan Trowbridge created GhostLight, a theatre mentorship program that is so smart and essential that it will hopefully still be around after theatres are packed again.
How fitting that the first live, in-person theatre performance in Toronto following the spring lockdown should be a revival of Wajdi Mouawad’s life-affirming solo work about the importance of imagination and freedom, two themes that resonated strongly this difficult year. Alon Nashman directed the Theaturtle/Shakespeare in Action co-production, alternating in the role he’s done many times with Kaleb Alexander, who put his own astonishing stamp on the part.
Shakespeare’s bucolic comedy is probably the most produced play in the city. But in January, Allyson McMackon and Theatre Rusticle completely reimagined it, adding physicality, BDSM elements and a refreshingly sliced and diced text to immerse us in this miraculous world. Appropriately, its elements continue to haunt my dreams.
Back when the pandemic was still relatively new, comic Pat Thornton and wife Maggie Maloney’s adorable infant, Larry, made us all feel a little less anxious with photos of him as everything from Madonna and RBG (RIP) to pretty much everyone in the Harry Potter universe.
Toronto waited years to see Lin Manuel-Miranda’s revolutionary musical about America’s founding fathers. Alas, the stellar touring production barely played a month of its scheduled five-month run before lockdown. But then Disney+ released a spectacular filmed version of the original Broadway production a year before it was set to come out. The result? We were more than, um, Satisfied.