Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Feature: Kristen Zaza on 52 Pick-Up (Fringe, Toronto)

Play The Game
by Kristen Zaza

Kristen Zaza is a Toronto-based actor and founding member of The Howland Company. She received her Master of Arts degree in Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies at University of Toronto after graduating from Sheridan and UTM’s Professional Actor Training program. Select Theatre Credits include: Piecing Together Pauline (Fire and Air Productions); Pieces of Penelope (New Ideas Festival); Mythos: The Crimson Chorus (Big Red Productions); Marat/Sade (Soup Can Theatre); The Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, String of Pearls (Theatre Erindale).

The Howland Company is a Toronto-based theatre ensemble made up of 12 artists. Our curiosity is in stories that impact our generation. Through our own development as an ensemble and by bringing people together through workshops and readings, we seek to build a community ready to take on tomorrow’s challenges.

I wanted to introduce our upcoming production of TJ Dawe’s 52 Pick-up by iterating our company mandate. After all: while the Howland Company has been around for over a year now hosting group play-readings and participating in workshops and community events, 52 Pick-up will be our official introduction to Toronto theatre-goers as a group of practitioners and creators, and we think it’s the perfect way to get to know us and what we’re about. We focus on stories that speak to situations, conflicts and relationships that we as 20-somethings relate to and understand. The characters in 52 Pick-up are specific and brilliantly thought out, yet so relatable that each actor can truly make them their own and express themselves uniquely and theatrically. 

Paolo Santalucia, one of our intrepid directors and actors, notes: “I keep realizing as the process evolves how incredibly apt it is that our first play is about couples and relationships. Artistic relationships are equally intimate, as inspiring, as personal, and as passionate as romantic relationships can be sometimes ... you’re revealing a very vulnerable aspect of your personal life.” He adds, “Accessing those aspects of our experiences as young adults allows for this piece to be pretty close to the bone for a lot of us.” So, not only will the play be a chance for audiences to get to know us as artists, but as our first public collaboration, we will be getting to know each other and the different flavours that each of us brings to the theatrical process.
                                                                (photo by Vincenzo Pietropaolo)

In case the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s named after a game: “Do you know how to play 52 Pick-up?”, someone asks. The other person answers no, has a deck of cards thrown in their face and consequently has to pick them up.  Thinking about “play”, I’m reminded of something I once read that explained how an integral feature of games – card games, video games, board games, playing pretend, anything – is the concept of Randomness. Adapting and reacting to random occurrences. 

“You can plan – but you can’t plan too much!” says Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, our second director (and, as it happens, my scene partner). We don’t know what will happen next in a game; that’s where the fun of it lies. And certainly, TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up embraces Randomness completely: it tells the story of a romantic relationship between two people from its beginning to end with 52 scenes, one card in a card deck representing each scene. The cards are thrown in the air, and the couple picks up scenes one-by-one and performs them in that order – a completely random order. No two shows are the same, and the play becomes not only a story, but a game between the two characters and actors alike. “The magic of this play is that the structure will always require some improvisation from the actors”, Courtney goes on to say. “There’s also the magic of letting the audience in on the ‘joke’, letting them know that you as the actor are just as unsure of what’s coming next as them. ... You just have to be open to the randomness, and ready to share it!” On that note, while the play has two characters, we’ll be rotating the cast between four pairs of actors; so, not only will the order of the scenes be different every night, but the cast will be different every night. Paolo adds, “I feel very lucky to be working on this piece with the actors in this company because they are always willing to make each other laugh, make each other cry, and do whatever it takes to perform the acting acrobatics this play requires”.

                                                                    (photo by Vincenzo Pietropaolo)

Before I get too caught up on the 'game' of the show (which, I have to admit, is an extremely exciting challenge!), I have to mention that the writing is brilliant. As I mentioned earlier, the couple at the heart of the play is made up of two characters who are fascinating and complex both together and independently from one another. Their relationship is both a marriage and a clash of two personalities. The characters are both products of their generation, yet they are at odds with it. There is a brilliant unease that Dawe and Bozi establish so naturally in the piece. “I think I relate most to how being in an intimate relationship has the potential to change you,” Paolo says. “There are moments in the play where the characters act totally outside of their comfort zone, where they compromise the things they may normally hold dear for a moment. ... Navigating that tension, and trying to be a better person, a better partner, and the reality of not being able to do it sometimes is both the scariest and one of the most beautiful parts of the relationship in the play for me.”

In a world with romantic comedies to spare, though 52 Pick-up is about a romantic relationship, you will never feel that this is a play of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ (especially since two of the casts explore the relationship with two men and two women); instead, it is a play of two individuals’ wants, needs, strengths, weaknesses, and how they either mesh or clash with each other. This is why we’ve decided to mount four different versions, two with a man and a woman, one with two men, and one with two women. “The story of two people meeting, falling in love and trying to make it work holds up no matter the sexual orientation of the characters,” Courtney says. “It works perfectly, whether we’re working with two men, two women, or a man and a woman.” Paolo agrees, adding: “Nothing we’re doing is making any sort of ‘gender’ or sexually political statement. The reasoning behind casting same-sex couples is that the piece celebrates relationships. And we’re lucky that we have the opportunity to have the chance to reveal those relationships in a few different ways and showcase, in a unique way, I think, that love is love.” 

Leaving you with that thought, I’ll simply add that 52 Pick-up is beautiful, it is funny, it is heartbreaking, and it is wonderful. And we can’t wait to show it to you! 

July 3 - 13

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