Thursday, 15 December 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michela Sisti

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michela Sisti will train in artistic direction with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre in Toronto

(December 7, 2016)

“It’s called a Baumgartner Stradivarius.”

The words sound hilarious coming out of my mouth. I want prance around chanting them, but I’m on the Dundas Streetcar. 

“I think that means tree-gardener in German. The actual guy—Antonio Stradivari made it himself in Cremona, Italy in like 1689. SIXTEEN EIGHTY-NINE!!! That’s when Isaac Newton was writing about his laws of motion!”

I’m talking to my dad on the phone about Andréa Tyniec's violin. Andréa will be playing it in the remount of Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity, a play that tells the story about the love between a violinist and a theoretical physicist. The script of Infinity is waiting in my inbox—I’m itching to read it right now, but I have a few things to take care of first.

I volunteered myself for a strange assignment during this first week of my internship in artistic direction with Ross Mansion and Volcano Theatre. I’m going to trace the history of Andréa’s Baumgartner Strad through time and space and find stories about all the people who ever played it, and then I’m going to link those moments to world events, specifically transformations in scientific thought (Red Violin film Volcano-style.) It’s for a fundraiser.

The thing is, when you play a game like this—tracing an object’s journey through time—you inevitably begin to see a picture of the finiteness of human life. You begin to see that we are a continuation of small line of mammals, threading through a something that is staggeringly larger than us. For me, this perspective is always accompanied by the feeling of wonder, which today somehow verges on joy. And that puzzles me. Why shouldn’t I feel frightened? Why shouldn’t I scream or cry? Why do I, in this moment, feel stronger in the face of immensity?

All this week, three things have been running through my mind: love, death and justice.

It’s 2 am. The last day of November. I’m in the back seat of a vehicle on its way Ottawa. Two young artists I’ve met a few hours before are also passengers. Kevin, my friend and fellow theatre-maker, is at the wheel. He’s struggling to see through the wall of fog that surrounds us. The road’s all but gone. In a flash of desperation Kevin tries switching on the high beams and for a moment we’re blasted with white, reflected glare. The lights switch off again. “Ok, bad idea,” he mutters. We all laugh. Then there’s silence.

We’re on our way to stand in solidarity with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and Clyde River Inuit, who are challenging the government of Canada at the Supreme Court level. The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are battling to overturn a permit given to Enbridge to expand and reverse the flow of the Line 9 pipeline, which runs through the Chippewa's traditional territory. The pipeline is 40 years old. One of its branches crosses the Thames River, which is a source of drinking water to the people living there.

In Clyde River, Nunavut, a Norwegian conglomerate has been given the ok to do seismic blasting for oil exploration. If they go ahead, these blasts can cause a lot of harm to the marine animals of the area, which the people of Clyde River depend on for food. The decision to allow this blasting was made without Clyde Rivers Inuit’s consent and they are asking the government of Canada to overturn the permit.

With both these cases, the health of the land, the well-being of these communities, and the future of how the government consults with Indigenous groups on energy projects are all hanging the balance.

I look out into the fog and darkness and I feel a familiar mental scratching growing. Is this a responsible use of my time? An all-nighter on the road in the middle of a busy week, followed by another day of travelling—all for two hours of rally. Maybe the trip’s a mistake. Maybe I should be doing other things – theatre things. Like…like… My mind is snowballing: TCRs due this week, emails I haven’t yet responded to, that phone call, my run—sh-t, I’m putting on weight again, your writing practice, laundry, Infinity, more TCRs, infinite TCRs, that research, that blog.

Even before theatre became my religion I’ve lived in a constant state of anxiety that I will not do all I need to do before the end of the day, before the end of the week, before the moment it’s too late and my time is up.

In the cramped commons of an Ottawa community centre people sit in chairs and wait. The Supreme Court hearing, which is being live-streamed to us, has frozen on the screen and the loading wheel is turning. The atmosphere in the room is like that of a wake: hushed, solemn, some moments of cheer in short-lived bursts. People shift in their seats, some get up for the bathroom, some engage in quiet conversation. People have left their daily lives and gathered here from all across the country in order be present for these court proceedings. The morning rally is over and protest signs bearing the words “Water is life” now lean against walls and chairs: Small children run around with slices of pizza. An elderly lady is knitting.

“The good news is that it’s not our connection,” one of the organizers announces, “It’s the government of Canada site. Which is good: it means lots of people are watching.” I see a familiar face in the crowd, a playwright I know from Toronto, and we chat briefly across two rows of heads about lodgings. Finally, the screen stutters and unfreezes. “The relevant law is settled and no question of public importance arises in this case,” the Crown attorney is telling the Justice.

Two days later I’m bawling my eyes out in a pub in Kensington Market. I’m reading the script of Infinity, by Hannah Moscovitch (draft 8.0), in preparation for rehearsals this month, and the thing is knocking the life out of me. “I’m f--ked up about love,” Sarah Jean says at the beginning of the play.

Why is that, Sarah Jean?

The answer comes quietly and in disguise, and when it comes you sit and weep because you know it is the answer.

On my way home I pause at a door that’s open. I check my winter coat and my backpack with a gaunt-bodied woman at the desk and I spend the next hour and a half leaping to electric thuds and pulses in a basement with other humans. At the end of the 90 minutes I collect my belongings and continue walking home.

Volcano’s 2016-2017 Season is centred on three productions, each markedly different from each other in both form and content, and each at different stages of development. Together they present an enticing theatre gym for a director-in-training. Infinity, by Hannah Moscovitch weds heartbreak with theoretical physics and classical music. Assisting on this production will allow me to explore text-work from a directorial perspective and to helping prepare a show for regional touring. A Night in Tunisia, to be co-created by Ross and Tunisian dance/theatre maker, Meher Awachri will give me the opportunity to witness the first development stage of a piece from the ground up. Ross is continuing to look for new platforms to showcase Century Song, which I assisted on last year, and I look forward to furthering my understanding of show pitches by supporting him in this work. All three of these Volcano pieces explore the tension between the individual and the colossal.

I knew very little about Pipeline 9 and the blasting off Baffin Island until Kevin brought both these issues to my attention. When he asked me if I wanted to drive to the solidarity rally with him I struggled for a moment. Over the past year and a half I had become increasingly indifferent to the growing environmental battles being fought against blind progress. It’s hard for me to admit, but basically, I didn’t want to have to deal with it anymore. I wanted to think about other things. So how could I dare to show up at this rally? I wasn’t ready. You haven’t committed yourself to any of the work.

That’s when I knew I had to say yes. 

What are the qualities of an outstanding artistic director? I googled “artistic director job description” and got some of the following results:
Clarity of artistic vision and ambition, with a passion for contemporary theatre that explores and addresses social and political issues as well as theatre that engages and entertains • Strong track record of professional theatre production, direction and developing new work on contemporary issues for the stage • Proven ability to programme and commission new plays combined with an ability to provide dramaturgical support to writers • Proven ability to attract and collaborate with artists of the highest calibre • Strong artistic, strategic planning and resource management skills • An entrepreneurial spirit, commercial acumen and ability to lead [said theatre company’s] fund-raising initiatives • Demonstrable knowledge and understanding of education and community work • Demonstrable knowledge of marketing and audience development • Good knowledge and understanding of the theatre industry and arts funding • Proven ability to work in partnership, connect and collaborate with others both internally and externally • Ability to inspire and motivate others • Ability to delegate, negotiate, resolve conflict, be responsive to others and manage performance • Outstanding analytical, communication, advocacy and presentation skills Qualities • A genuine commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, cultural diversity and broadening access to the arts • Resilience and responsiveness to the changing external environment • A supportive and empowering management style…

What is love? 

An old friend of mine and very promising artist gave up theatre in order become a doctor. Theatre, in her mind, was not a direct enough way of affecting social change. She wanted to stop talking about problems and get to work. This friend is always on my mind.

The thing about love is that there are too many ways that it behaves. For instance, how can it be both a thing of joy and a thing of pain? How can it be both a feeling and a form of perception? How can it be both a drive and a place of stillness? Anything I write about love today may not be true tomorrow.
I tried to write about love last night. I wrote eight pages. Then I realized that might not be suitable for a Theatre Ontario blog, so I deleted everything.

What do I know?

I know I want to make good art. I ask myself,  “Am I ready to make good art?” and my answer is: do the work.

I want to be a good leader. “Am I ready to be a good leader?” It’s the same thing.

I want to do everything with great love. I realize I am setting myself an impossible task. But someone thought it was possible.

What is happening now with how we respond to fossil fuel extraction and transportation on this continent is a matter of environmental justice, a matter of social justice and ultimately a matter of life and death. It’s also a matter of love—for the land that sustains all of us, for the people in our lives that share it with us, for the future generations who will live here.

Part of me feared I might forget all this, which is why I’ve taken the time to write my blog this way. I will use these thoughts to help me remember.

I need to do a lot of work. I will probably make a lot of mistakes. I am looking to the people in my life—the old friends, family, new faces, people I have yet to meet—and myself to help me to live and make art rigorously, mindfully, justly and with love. I want you to challenge me to do better, and I will in turn challenge you.

The time is earlier this week.  I’ve taken a moment to listen to my roommate who I rarely speak to because we are both so busy with work.   She’s an architect and she’s writing her thesis on imaginary space and time. “I am so full of hope,” she’s telling me.

-Michela Sisti

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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