THE ALIENS premiere in Toronto at Coal Mine Theatre

We opened our fourth season with Pullitzer-Prize winning playwright, Annie Baker. THE ALIENS held it's Toronto premiere at the best theatre in town, Coal Mine

JASPER | Noah Reid (Schitt's Creek

KJ | William Greenblatt (Even Steven's

EVAN | Maxwell Haynes (Toronto debut)

(L to R) MAXWELL HAYNES, NOAH REID, and WILLIAM GREENBLATT | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

(L to R) MAXWELL HAYNES, NOAH REID, and WILLIAM GREENBLATT | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

Having read the reviews before watching the production on stage, I realized I was preparing myself for all those moments the critics reported: silences, the feelings of loss, frustrating unrealized potential, the perfect play for millennial misfits, etc.

What I didn't expect was the tears. I was barely able to clap and woot at the end, so much was I chocking on emotions that Annie Baker brought out through sparse dialogue.

I hand it to Mitchell Cushman. The direction was unbelievable. You (audience) are in the back of this cafe for the whole two hours and the world feels so much larger than it really is. We were seeing this "space space" the way Kevin Janos (KJ) and Jasper saw it. 

Here are my thoughts as to why Annie Baker is pure genius - the kind Jasper and Kevin talk about.

THE ALIENS

We find out in one conversation early on that "The Aliens" was a proposed band title for KJ and Jasper. Jasper said he thought it was lame. Near the end, though, KJ lists off the band names once more, stopping at "The Aliens." We then understand the relevance of the name and how it resonated with KJ. He never says this, but we get it. This is the name he holds dear to his heart.

UNREALIZED POTENTIAL

This is a big theme running throughout the entire show. Jasper never goes off to college but is an aspiring author; Nor does he know KJ in high school. They meet after KJ drops out of college first year and have been together ever since. There blossoming friendship seems to be founded on silences, hearty "bro" statements, and an inability to express any sort of emotion outside of anger and excitement. They are two passionate people. 

NOAH REID (forefront), WILLIAM GREENBLATT (left) and MAXWELL HAYNES ( right) | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

NOAH REID (forefront), WILLIAM GREENBLATT (left) and MAXWELL HAYNES ( right) | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

Would I read Jasper's novel? YES. What was so interesting is how Jasper chose to reveal parts of his own personal past through his fictional main character (a character without a name). For example, when Jasper found out his ex was dating a new person named Sprocket, he transforms his rage and feelings into hard work, producing "20 pages." The end result is that his once placid and content character decides to become nomadic and move away. We can only imagine that had Jasper remained alive, he and KJ would have planned the same road trip and been thoroughly disappointed with what they saw in America. 

Evan's poignantly shy and awkward comments also factor into Jasper's work. After admitting he doesn't celebrate the Fourth of July because it's weird to "sit in a football field and watch things explode in the sky," Evan blurts out that he hates America. Jasper looks at Evan - maybe even for the first time - seeing something more than a loner teen working at a coffee shop. 

Perhaps this is the bitterness evoked in Jasper's main character after arriving in California and realizing it all looks "the same" as the rest of America. "Was Miller lying? Is he curled up underneath some billboard writing this shit with the drive in movie theatre offering a dim light?"

THE MAKING OF JASPER

What really struck me a few days after thinking about the production is how Annie Baker sets up Evan to take over Jasper's place. There were three important moments in which this became apparent: 

  1. At the beginning during an early conversation in which KJ talks about what their friends are doing, he mentions one guy - Jasper's weed dealer - who now lives on a wind farm. Jasper asks, "how does he live on a wind farm?" Later in the production, two weeks after Jasper's funeral, KJ brings up the wind farm as a potential destination for him. And Evan replies, "how do you live on a wind farm?" 
  2. After KJ storms off to the other side of the cafe, Jasper continues to belittle him - playfully - and talks about KJ's mental breakdown. We at this point begin to see KJ's character unfolding and get a glimpse into how he has coped with a mental illness. Jasper said KJ would walk towards people on the street and go "zip" to their face while touching their forehead gently. Like a baptism of sorts, KJ also does this to Evan after Jasper passes. He asks Evan to kneel. Evan respects the process and allows KJ the dignity of committing this act. 
  3. Jasper sees Evan as a potential protegee - asking him if he smokes and if he writes poetry. Evan says occasionally - and coughs after inhaling. And he says he writes occasionally but comes full circle and says no, he doesn't write. In the final scene, KJ notices Evan smoking and asks him if he is addicted. Evan's response is, "yes. Well hopefully." 

Further to these, we see Evan beginning a potential relationship with a CIT he met at "band camp" - Nicole - and we can only assume Evan's timid and shy behavior will lead him to be a good and loyal boyfriend. We also hope Nicole is a good person too. 

The end offers us a glimmer of hope. KJ tells Evan he "loves him." Evan allows KJ to cry and to express emotions outside of anger - something KJ was not able to do with Jasper. KJ even tells Evan, "it's okay if you don't know how to cry." Evan later apologizes for running away from KJ after finding out about Jasper's overdose. These two moments of human affection give us hope that their blossoming friendship might allow for greater emotional connections - the type KJ needs and Evan is able to offer.

MOTHERS

There are three mothers that factor a lot in this work:

(L to R) MAXWELL HAYNES, WILLIAM GREENBLATT and NOAH REID | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

(L to R) MAXWELL HAYNES, WILLIAM GREENBLATT and NOAH REID | Photo by TIM LEYES | PROPERTY OF COAL MINE THEATRE

  • Jasper's mom who died when he was 15 years old - this we find out when he is reading a part of his novel and the main character loses his mom at age 15
  • KJ's mom - the eccentric new age woman that Jasper is keen to mention whenever he can,
  • Evan's loving mother that contradicts him over the phone about what to eat for dinner

We don't know much other than Jasper lost his mother. KJ at first says that that part in the novel seems too fabricate or obvious; at which point Jasper opens up and admits, "my mom died when I was fifteen." 

I think the most heartfelt scene is at the end, when KJ tells Evan the story about "ladder." When KJ is unable to stop saying ladder his mom holds his hand and says, "you can say it as much as you like. I'm going to sit here and hold your hand with you." We feel for KJ. He clearly has a bright mind - having gone to school for math and philosophy. But there are so many other underlying issues that he may never have received proper support for. The sadness he feels at the moment is described in relation to his thesis: the logic charts,  if p then q. This becomes his way of explaining this issue to Evan.

Moments before, Evan's mother had called to ask when he would be home for dinner and if he would prefer "carrots or asparagus." Evan seems annoyed by this question, but all of this is trivial in comparison to KJ's recent remark, "I want to kill myself." Evan doesn't leave him and stays to talk and listen. They bond over stories about their mothers.

-----

There is so much more you can say about this production. I'll leave that to the other critics. All I can say is that it just really affects you. It's tough to verbalize in a way, so strong do you feel near the end. My heart goes out to KJ and Jasper and Evan. And my heart goes out to Noah, William and Maxwell for giving each of their characters respect and dignity.

Stay connected to the Coal Mine Theater for the rest of the fourth season: subscribe here.

Thank you Coal Mine for continuing to challenge your audiences with relevant and insightful subject matter.

- Jennifer

At Shutter Speed - So Far This Year

As TIFF is coming around the corner, I had a moment to reflect this morning about my year. I looked back on all the wonderful people I have had a chance to work with and some truly outstanding projects. These I shall relate to you in a JAMES JOYCE rambling sort of way. Apologies:

My year started off with a bang, and I was able to work with a dedicated team to produce a local award show that honoured ingenuity and entrepreneurialism in Canada.

SPIN MASTER

Working with a truly creative team at SPIN MASTER and maintaining a connection with my favourite creative director of all time, MIKE ARNOTT, and all my friends (cough cough Rachel, Dave and Sylvia).


GINUWINE CONCERT

Next came a GINUWINE concert at The Danforth Music Hall. I met two ambitious and hard working producers from IMPOSSIBLE Productions and we nailed it. Literally!

GINUWINE | DANFORTH MUSIC HALL

GINUWINE | DANFORTH MUSIC HALL

DELON | BTS | DANFORTH MUSIC HALL

DELON | BTS | DANFORTH MUSIC HALL


DOCUMENTARY PROMOS

I have also been working closely with two talented producers / directors to help them create documentary promos that aid with outreach and funding initiatives.


HOT DOCS

OH, and of course working with the best team ever at Hot Docs 2016 this past year was a journey I shall never forget! I got to see 15 docs and met a wealth of talented people. If you can, go see: HOLY HELL, LEAGUE OF EXOTIQUE DANCERS, UNDER THE SUN, and MR GAGA.

ME | HOT DOCS 2016

ME | HOT DOCS 2016

BLOOR TEAM | HOT DOCS 2016

BLOOR TEAM | HOT DOCS 2016


SHORT FILM

Working with an amazing group to produce a short film! We filmed at a local shop called Tatyana's Boutique and braved the five degree Canadian weather (it was a piece of cake, eh?). Looking forward to seeing the final results!

TATYANA'S BOUTIQUE | TORONTO

ACTORS AND CREW | TORONTO

ACTORS AND CREW | TORONTO


TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

I am currently partnering with an outstanding team who will be producing videos for The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. All 24 concerts, and here we come!

ROY THOMPSON HALL | TORONTO

ROY THOMPSON HALL | TORONTO


LADIES SOCIETY

Just a week ago I got to spend an entire evening with the most inspiring and wonderful group of women. SHELLEY SAYWELL (Emmy nominated director), Deborah Parks (outstanding producer), Mary-Ann Bedard (City of Toronto, and the most heartfelt person), Jackie Garrow (Impact Producer, and mother of two), and Jean Stevenson (Maddison House, and the life of the party). 

We talked about everything under the sun, unrestrained. I felt as if I were in some secret society and club in which we wile away our time drinking wine and talking philosophical jargon. 


COAL MINE

I was invited back to work with the team at The Coal Mine this season and AHHHH it has already be crazy and fun and amazing. Looking forward to some rock'n'roll theatre on The Danforth!

DESIGNED BY KOSTIS PETRIDIS


MUFF SOCIETY & HER-STORY

AND, if that isn't enough, I have been so honoured and involved with The MUFF Society for 2 years and now will be spearheading out Documentary Series called HER-STORY and oh my, I cannot wait to tell you the line up of amazing female documentarians we have in store for you Toronto!


I haven't even begun to process just how blessed I feel.

I must close with a final note. My mind is overwhelmed in the best way possible and my heart is ready to burst. Thank you thank you thank you to all the people who have made my life amazing this past year.

- Jenn

A Night with Ann Shin and Gerry Flahive - DOC Masters Series Class

As a DOC member now for the second year running, I am continually thrilled at the level of professional programming that they offer. From hands on courses to talks with local talent, it is always a pleasure to get together with people in the documentary community and hear success stories.

ANN SHIN (LEFT), TORONTO FILMMAKER, with GERRY GLAHIVE (RIGHT), TORONTO PRODUCER

This time, I had the pleasure to hear from Ann Shin, a Torontonian and extremely talented filmmaker, and moderator Gerry Flahive, a top producer involved with NFB projects.

Gerry led the conversation for the evening discussing all the available platforms that are available to filmmakers today. Ann Shin says the best way to determine how to tell the story starts with understanding the story itself: the "WHY" factor. Determining the heart of the story and then working outwards.

"I want to move people" - Ann Shin says to the crowd.

Ann Shin has a background in literature and has published poetry of her own. Poetry helps her distill emotion, she says, which perhaps offers her a unique lens to see story through.

Once you have determined the heart of the story, you can decide on the medium: a documentary is a cinematic story / interpretation of an event. An interactive project (VR) asks one question, usually one part of a story, and forces the viewer to feel in that moment what the subjects feel. Then it asks them to make a choice. The interactive should solve the question. A game or website can be a companion to the feature length doc or it can stand on its own today. HIGH RISE is a great example of a web documentary that stands on its own, offering the viewer a different experience and non-linear story line. 

Ann described this process of deciding on a medium in scientific terms: "pretend a story is like a liquid. You can pour the liquid into an mould (medium) and the shape will always be different." 

Ann much prefers a cinematic approach to her storytelling versus relying solely on verite (a journalistic approach). Verite will not always capture emotion and it is impossible to always be where the action is. At that point you have to question: okay how do I tell the story now?

In regards to her short film, My Enemy, My Brother, the story about how this film came together is very interesting. It wasn't always planned as a short. In fact, Ann pitched it as a feature length doc but no one budged with funding. Then her producer asked her to apply to BRAVO fact, which had a 15 minute limit. This forced her to pick what was truly important in her story. It was introduced at a few festivals and simply went viral. It screened at Tribeca, SWSX, and many others. Ann realized how potent a short form was on its own. It was shortlisted to win an Oscar!

The story doesn't end here, Ann has continued to find ways of telling the story through a documentary web series. She has also re-written her feature length documentary, realizing how the story has changed and even strengthened over time. 

Ann and Gerry talk about some of the current dilemmas with new technology, the "need to producer across all platforms" for every project. 

Again they both suggest that you have to consider four main areas when converting an idea into  a project:

  1. what's at the heart?
  2. who is the audience?
    1. bridges personal motivation with the world
  3. who will support and fund the project?
    1. support: broadcaster
    2. fund: financial, helps realize the project
  4. how will it be marketed?
    1. what is relevant?
    2. be active
    3. using SM to build audience

Gerry also points out that it is imperative to dig deep into research,

"find your storytelling prism."

Part of the creative process is understanding how to measure success. With interactive, it is about understanding that people will spend no more than 5 minutes at a time online. That is why it is important in the creation process to understand how to tell the story that encourages people to continue coming back. With a web series, each episode has to be written and edited with a cliffhanger, encouraging people to stay tuned and watch next week's episode. Part of creating that success is having a good community manager (online / social media). A documentary film has to elicit empathy in the viewer, and can be enjoyed / viewed all at once.

The night was wonderful, both Gerry and Ann were wonderful speakers and excellent creators in their own right.

Until the next master series class

- Jenn

A Night with Tassie Cameron, Showrunner Rookie Blue

I had a rare honour of sharing a few hours one evening with Women on Screen. This month's salon event was hosted by Tassie Cameron.

Tassie Cameron is an award winning screenwriter and producer. She has worked on Degrassi: Next Generation (TV), Cake (2005, film), Flashpoint (TV), and my personal favourite, Rookie Blue (TV).

Among many things, what sincerely sparks my interest is her ability to write witty, humorous and emotional characters with fully developed lives.  Characters that draw you into a storyline that never seems to "get old."

Graduating from University with a BA in English Literature (like myself) she pursued her MA at NYU. After completing school, she entered the film industry and explored many post-production roles. Not really enjoying being on set or coordinating post work, she landed a job working for HBO and found her calling.

She said with a reflective smile, "in my twenties, I was making rent, and enjoying life." But, at HBO she felt different somehow. The change happened when she was introduced to the writing process: highly creative and in her field.

She had some great honest wisdom to pass down to the eager ladies (and one gent?) sitting in an intimate room on King Street West. Here are her writing tips:

  1. don't be too personal
  2. write with act breaks
  3. never leave a character too long on screen
  4. dig deep, be real
  5. feel your writing ("if I don't cry in a sad scenes then something is wrong")
  6. speak out loud when you are writing
  7. try an improv class
  8. go to CFC (Canadian FIlm Centre)
  9. be a part of the film community
  10. volunteer on short films
  11. cut out children, night scenes, and car chases to preserve the budget
  12. practice your pitch a MILLION times
  13. speak with authenticity and passion
  14. use coloured pens when you are recording different feedback on your script to keep your head sane
  15. don't worry so much about outlines

With some extremely insightful and some more humorous tips and tricks, I feel very blessed to have been sitting in a room with an intelligent, hard working, and dedicated Canadian writer.

- Jenn