ROGUES OF URFA written and performed by Araxi Arslanian, directed by Rebecca Brown. Presented by Alianak Theatre and Artword at Artword Alternative (75 Portland). Previews Tuesday (March 23), opens Wednesday (March 24) and runs to April 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$20, Sunday pwyc-$15, preview $10. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Sometimes it takes a new pair of eyes to see a script's hidden strengths. In the past five years, Toronto director Rebecca Brown's proven she has 20-20 vision. This summer she gave new life to Sarah Martyn's revised Sheroes at the Fringe. Barely a month later, she brought real smarts to a new SummerWorks show, Hannah Moscowitch's love triangle, Giving It Up.
Now she's tackling a SummerWorks piece, Araxi Arslanian's Rogues Of Urfa, in a revised production for Alianak Theatre. In the demanding piece, which draws on family history, Arslanian plays both her grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and a younger version of herself, dealing with a debilitating neurological disorder.
"Playwrights often know what a piece is about, but sometimes that knowledge is intuitive," explains Brown, who didn't see the SummerWorks production.
"They need someone to help them say it out loud and name what they already know."
That's especially true when the artist involved is both writer and performer, as is the case with Rogues.
"You can only go so far with the writer. At some point, the instinct of the performer takes over and becomes a filter for what works and what doesn't work with the material."
Brown's previous outing as director of a solo piece was the highly successful richardthesecond, Matthew MacFadzean's fascinating multidisciplinary piece about a young man who volunteers for a scientific experiment and finds himself cloned ad infinitum.
"The script - and I'm sure my mind is exaggerating this - was a thick as a phone book," she recalls with a smile. "At first I couldn't tell you what it was about.
"I only started figuring that out when it was performed, and I learned that sometimes the performer knows more than the writer. It was a lesson that a performance can be more than a written text."
Brown's used to flirting with cutting-edge theatrical ideas. When she returned to Toronto after studying at New York University, she realized that the scarcity of jobs for directors meant she'd have to create her own work.
The result, in a late-90s collaboration with Jennifer Tarver, was the Directors' Lab, which allowed a group of young directors - including Chad Dembski and Franco Boni - to practise regularly, like musicians. Provided with the tools of actors and space, the group's members began to play and riff with various small projects.
Seeing that younger people weren't coming to the theatre, she connected with the owner of System Soundbar, who had been in New York in the 70s and 80s when avant-garde artists worked in clubs.
"A group of us were residents at System Soundbar for a few months, doing what I called Rave Theatre. Our first piece was silent and the DJ animated it with his music. DJing is an improv artform, I think, so he played stuff that went along with what the actors were doing, and the audience could dance along or watch the show.
"It took us a while to get good at structuring and integrating the material so the audience did what we hoped they would do."
Brown's long been fascinated with teen women, a fact that's reflected in her own projects like Rave Theatre and also freelance directing gigs like Giving It Up and The Teenage Girl Diaries.
"I love that everything is so epic for them, that their lives are so inherently theatrical, that they create mythologies and believe in them. On some level, they're living the life of a romantic artist, and eventually they have to grow out of it. Before that growing up, though, they embroider realities for themselves and then outsource them to the real world."
As Brown herself gets older - "Maybe I'm ready to move away from my teenage girl fascination," she says, grinning - she's learning to balance the development material and the freelance work.
"The former is a major outlay of energy and I need time to recover. That's when I turn to freelance. These days I have to be picky.
"I'm convinced now that we have to look to 20-year-old artists to change the world. They're the ones who don't have to sleep. When you're pushing 30, it's harder."