Proving that Canada has more in common with Britain than just the old woman on our banknotes, this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is placing special emphasis on theatrical work from the U.K. Partnering with Caravan—a group dedicated to advancing contemporary English theatre—the event will play host to five innovative performances and two artist discussions, each pitched to build new audiences for some of Britain’s most exciting thespians.
Every piece of theatre pays close attention to delicate issues. Focusing primarily on personal experience, the Caravan productions are united by the honesty of their scripts—and, by choosing a number of different media, including dance, poetry, and drama, each show finds a new way to explore difficult truths.
Sincerity and openness are the founding principles of the Point Blank Poets, the collective behind one of Caravan’s most hotly anticipated shows.
Exhibiting the work of five spoken-word stars who have between them published books, performed at Buckingham Palace, and racked up millions of YouTube views, the performance tackles topics ranging from immigration and politics to identity and—as group member Hollie McNish points out when discussing her flagship poem—breastfeeding.
“I was sat on the toilet when I wrote that particular poem,” she tells the Straight on the line from her home in Landbeach, England. “I was in a public washroom in Cambridge. My daughter was about six months old, I’d just finished feeding her, and she fell asleep.
“I sat there for nearly an hour because I was so knackered. As soon as she would sleep, I would just stay wherever we were for a little bit. I wrote most of the poem on a note on my phone while I was getting more and more annoyed that I was just stuck on this toilet.
“I normally write poems as things happen to me,” she continues. “I never sit down and think, ‘Right, it’s time to write something now’—it’s much more organic than that. Honesty is really important to me, and for all the other poets in the group. I’ve always written mainly for myself, and I didn’t perform my first poem on-stage until I was about 26.
“When I started doing a lot of spoken-word shows, I got worried that I’d stop being so candid—that I’d stop writing like a diary, and start worrying about the audience and what they were thinking. I’ve made a conscious effort not to do that, and to keep tackling topics that are significant to me.”
While McNish and the other Point Blank Poets create a sense of openness through writing in the first person, however, Caroline Horton & Co.’s play Mess addresses Horton’s personal experiences with a semiautobiographical script, taking aspects of the actress’s life and re-creating them through larger-than-life characters.
Like similar Caravan performances Backstage in Biscuit Land and Every Brilliant Thing—two shows that focus on Tourette’s and depression, respectively—Mess considers the difficulty of living with mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it.
“There was a really specific event that inspired me to create the play,” says Horton, reached by phone in Madrid. “A number of years ago I was invited back to my high school as an old student, and asked to talk about what I’d been doing since leaving. At first I discussed all the stuff that had happened to me on paper, like going to drama school.
“And then I also said—and I think the headmistress was a little surprised by this—that I’d been really ill, and had spent time going in and out of hospital because of eating disorders. And I told everyone that although recovery is never straightforward, I felt I was getting somewhere. I was stunned by the response.
“I ended up being there for about four hours, talking to pupils and parents who were worried. I wasn’t an expert, but because I’d said something about anorexia out loud, I had unleashed a topic that is usually hushed up. It made me really sad that people felt they couldn’t talk about eating disorders, and because I had started to write my own plays, that frustration created a show.”
Pitched at all audiences, Mess is not just an educational aid for anorexia sufferers. With a script that allows each member of the three-person cast to address taboo questions about the illness, Horton’s play allows the characters to explore eating disorders and their implications from multiple perspectives, often with a welcome sense of humour.
A number of other Caravan plays invite a multifaceted viewpoint of their tough subject matter, affording one-man show Every Brilliant Thing, two-person improvised drama Backstage in Biscuit Land, inventive dance show Wallflower, Mess, and Point Blank Poets a unique beauty and profundity.
As part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Mess is at the Waterfront Theatre from January 18 to 22; Every Brilliant Thing is at Performance Works from January 26 to 29; Point Blank Poets is at the Fox Cabaret on January 27; Backstage in Biscuit Land is at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from January 30 to February 1; and Wallflower is at Performance Works from February 1 to 3.