Live from Totnes

Photo by Briane Nasimok.

Photo by Briane Nasimok.

By Briane Nasimok

(TOTNES, ENGLAND) – To recap: As part of the Totnes Festival of SouloTheatre (one person shows), six of us Canadians, who were involved with the Toronto Festival, had ventured to this borough of sensitive, caring Brits.

Leading up to performances by three of us, split over five days, there was a jam-filled agenda; communal vegetarian meals, jumping into the very cold yet refreshing river, missing the boat three times, three market days including one where the vendors dressed in period costumes, yours truly getting lost in the woods on the path leading to his communal living space, and an intensive workshop.

Over Skype I had suggested to Mo Cohen, the local producer and driving force behind our Exodus to the UK, that one person who would be essential to the running of the Festival was a technical expert, to help with the sound and lights, and stage management.

He agreed.

However he did nothing about it, due to all the other things he had to organize, so when I showed up, you can guess who got to handle that stuff, on top of stressing about how my Canadian humour would go over in the Motherland.

Really I wanted someone competent in the job. But I guess they had to settle for me.

Historically, and in eyes of Actors’ Equity, I am a professional stage manager. But I just fell into that position, as a bonus job when touring North America as an operatic mute, my one-person show.

The Canadian Opera couldn’t afford to send me out as just a mute, nor could I afford to tour on the $25 extra dollars in compensation that I received for appearing in shows, to move chairs, deliver food, throw tenors offstage.

So I was the logical choice for the job, at least in this part of the world that has been twinned with Narnia.

The Green Fuse at Riverstone Bereavement Centre, our performance space, also alternates as a funeral home (this is the first such occurrence of theatre at the Centre while many have been launched on their career to eternal rest here).

On one hand, this might not be what you would call, the ideal space for theatrical offerings. It’s was intimate, with room for 50 chairs, which we had to reset most days because of the day trade.

But the lighting was pretty non-existence (and as there are not many funerals held after dark, outside illumination to get people to their cars was not present). However, it is a fine location for people to reflect on their lives, but the subject of those reflections does not deliver the stories, as they are for the most part, deceased.

Marj and the author outside the bereavement centre. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

Marj and the author outside the bereavement centre. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

Mo had procured two very bright lights, which might have taken out a retina if anyone stared into them, so, when used, they spent most of their time on the floor, lighting the walls.

One standing lamp was used, tipped so it shone on the centre of the playing area, and the subtle overhead lighting helped.

A ghetto blaster was available for music playback, which would’ve been adequate had people not brought their cues in on computers, I-Pods, cell phones, and eight track tapes.

The opening night was composed of locals who did not need my services, so my only job was to make sure that artists were cued and music was blasted into the house pre-show, during intermission, and post production.

I had been asked to bring a mixed bag of Canadian performers’ CDs, so Lorena McKennitt, Gordon Lightfoot, The Guess Who, and the Rankins, throughout the Festival, serenaded the locals.

Tuesday night, the Festival opened with Matt Harvey, a witty local poet who inspired me to spend the ten pounds to buy his book, and Agata, an ex-pat Pole who shared her odyssey through health problems and immigration woes that led to her liberation in the United Kingdom.

Compared to her story, my life has been a sit-com, and not even an American one. I thought to myself that I’d better add more angst before I hit the stage on Friday.

Night two, Wednesday, saw our first Canadian Marj Wingrove, take the stage. Here the show starts off in fine Canadian fashion; she screams obscenities off-stage as she enters. Great opening when it played in Toronto, although some of the local soft-spoken Totnesians were a little taken aback with the rage, passion, and expletives.

Remember, twinned with Narnia.

But they got over it, and very soon into her performance she had them in the palm of her hands. By the end of her 30-minute presentation, she killed (yes, I know not the best reference at a Bereavement Centre).

After the show, during the meet and greet, the favourite comment she shared from one of the patrons was, “Who are you?”

Thursday night was devoted to a talkback with SoulOTheatre creator, and designated-muse, Tracey Erin Smith, and a round-the-circle discussion about the art form.

And then it was time for the ”Big Friday Night Show”; two Brits, two Canadians, no waiting.

Lucy had some props and, once she was set, I sat backed and watched her riveting piece. She had just written her half-hour presentation over the previous few days. Her story was engrossing and her technique amazing. Gee, maybe I should’ve studied acting.

The Totnes high street. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

The Totnes high street. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

After intermission, and setting my props, a table with a box of make-up, a chair, and a rack for my costume and wig, it was time for the Canucks. I would open and Lesley would close. I still felt that that, compared to the other shows, I was pretty light.

“Confessions of an Operatic Mute” was not a weighty production filled with revelations, major self-disclosure, world-changing themes or abuse. It does talk about romance, mostly gone wrong, and self-deprecating humour; my life so far.

The only part I was really worried about was a joke that my sister and I used to do when I was eight. Lady Featherbottom featured me as straight man, doing a lousy British accent and I thought, since I have not elevated that specific non-talent, I’d be run out of town, hopefully without tar and feathers.


And now Briane Nasimok in “So Far So Good”. That is the current title as my thirty-minute piece only contains one opera-based story. When I get to an hour it’ll be chock full of operatic incidents.

I start, standing centre stage, relating the story of the man who falls out the top floor of a 40-storey office building and, as he drops by each floor, the people inside hear him say, “So far so good”. It gets a chuckle and I proceed to sit on the edge of the table to talk about my first theatrical experience.

As I have not rehearsed in the space, and I am using a smaller table than usual, my backside brushes by the make-up box and it goes crashing to the floor. I acknowledge the boo-boo so the audience is wondering what I am going to do about the mess and continue on to Lady Featherbottom.

It seems the audience loves Canadians doing bad British accents and I play the joke to the hilt.

I continue.

During a laugh I pick up the make-up and start applying it. It’s time for the costume changes and the new wig. Somehow I have lost the last hairpiece and so I fumble with the red “mop” and do not get it on properly. More laughs.

I build to the big finish. A few sad moments, a few laughs, and I’m done.

Lots of applause. Afterwards I got hugs and compliments and no one asking ”Who I am”.

But I can’t revel in the moment, as I have to put my stage management hat back on and set up for Lesley.

Showtime again and I couldn’t have guessed that, in Lesley’s solo show, I ‘d have a co-starring role.

My history with Lesley goes back some seven years when she was a student at Humber College and I was a visiting lecturer and we’d kept in touch throughout the years. So when a cue was missed and then she was unsure of where she was in the script, I became her prompter. And this turned into a dialogue, which continued for the first half of her show; her asking for support and me giving it.

The assembled masses could not tell whether this was part of the show and were laughing throughout.

The relationship worked because of the likeability of her character on stage. When finally I brought her script to the stage and suggested she continue on her own, I made my exit from her presentation.

When she was done, the audience gave her a well-deserved ovation.

Saturday saw two more locals, take the stage. First a former West End performer with a series of funny songs performed by what I had always envisioned as your typical British “mum”, and then Lloyd with an intense personal performance, that combined music, martial arts, and story-telling.

Sunday showcased the 14 locals who took Tracey’s classes and they presented their “works in progress”.

The afternoon was filled with many highs, and, at the end of the whole Festival, you could not help but feel that you had made true connections with many of the Totnesians.

Monday morning the four of us boarded the train back to London, not realizing that more adventure was in store for me.

The author lost in the woods. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

The author lost in the woods. Photo by Briane Nasimok.

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About the Author

Ian Shalapata
Ian Shalapata
Ian Shalapata is the owner and publisher of Square Media Group. He covers politics, the police beat, community events, the arts, sports, and everything in between. His imagery and freelance contributions have appeared in select publications and for organizations in Canada and the United States. Contact Ian with story ideas.