NOT MY STORY by Silvija Jestrovic, directed by Dragana Varagic, with Cynthia Ashperger, Hume Baugh, Jason Jazrawy, Rena Polley, Gregory Thomas and Varagic. Presented by April Productions at Artword (75 Portland). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, October 28), opens Saturday (October 30) and runs to November 14, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18-$25, previews and students Tuesday-Thursday $10, Sunday pwyc. 416-366-7723 ext 290, www.artword.net Rating: NNNNN
We all invent ourselves so others will see us as we want to be seen.
But there's added poignancy to the game-playing that goes on among the characters in Not My Story. Three women from the former Yugoslavia, all involved in the arts, have immigrated to Canada and find themselves forced into less creative work that has nothing to do with their skills.
When an old friend, a central European filmmaker now living in New York, visits to make a documentary about them, the women go to great lengths to live up to the expectations they think he has of them.
It's a story that Cynthia Ashperger understands. The Zagreb actor had an established career in Europe when she met a Canadian director and moved here in 1986 to marry him.
Ashperger's now the head of the acting program at Ryerson, finishing a PhD at the U of T and performing.
"In some ways, this is the my story," she says of Lela, her character in Silvija Jestrovic's play, workshopped in the 2000 Fringe as Happiness Channel.
After settling here, Ashperger was visited by Croatian journalists who wanted to see what her life was like in Canada, whether she was still the famous star she'd been in Europe. And like Lela, she felt compelled to keep her former self alive through the stories she told the writers.
"I am now at a place of complete acceptance about my choice to leave home, but it took a long time. Back then I went through a genuine struggle trying to fit in, feeling that I had run away, that I was being rejected.
"It wasn't the rejection of an actor who's not getting work, though, but rather, feeling like someone's who's so different that she won't be accepted."
Trained as an art historian, Lela has to take a very different job to make ends meet in Canada. She's rooted out all sentimentality about her choices.
"She's still a rebel deep down inside," smiles Ashperger, who appeared in Richard Sanger's Not Spain.
"I really was a rebel back in the 80s, back in Communist Yugoslavia," she recalls. "As part of a Zappa-esque new-wave company called Relatively Free Group Jardin, I went onstage in a red leotard and a punk jacket full of zippers and pins."
She laughs delightedly at the memory, admitting that playing Lela allows her another chance to thumb her nose at conventions.
"We felt free to shock audiences by laying it all out, which wasn't done at that time in a Communist culture."
Ashperger's interest in the script isn't just autobiographical. Both its author and its director and fellow performer, Dragana Varagic, are people she bonded with at the U of T's graduate drama centre. She's also drawn to the fact that it has so many layers.
"It's Chekhovian in the best sense of the word. On a surface level, the characters, all of whom come from somewhere other than Toronto, are ordinary people talking about ordering Chinese food. But beneath that, metaphoric castles are burned, hope is destroyed, old loves are rekindled."
Not surprisingly, the script has echoes of Chekhov's Three Sisters, whose title characters dream of going to Moscow.
"Not My Story is a bit like Three Sisters: The Sequel," smiles Ashperger.
"These three contemporary women have made it to their Moscow, and it's not what they thought it would be."