This One Goes to Eleven: Medina Hahn

Sherman, set the WABAC machine for the University of Alberta in the year 2000. Here we find one Medina Hahn, young, ambitious, and industrious. Looking for a way to showcase her studied talents post-ed, she and fellow student/pal Daniel Arnold figure hey, maybe we should sit down and write something for ourselves. Novel idea, that. The result of their efforts was Tuesdays and Sundays (based on a true story), a lovely play about two souls lost in the ether who reunite and piece together their relationship and the eventual tragedy that befalls them. Meant for a one-off Edmonton run after they finished school, Medina and Daniel ended up touring the production for the last seven years, in festivals as far away as New York and Edinburgh, and it had its most recent run at the Waterfront in August. The pair have a busy production company together, and have both recently made Vancouver their home. Medina was good enough to sound off on her new city, which is richer for having her.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Up, down and all around.

2.) What are your thoughts on the current state of Vancouver theatre, as compared to Edmonton?

I’ve heard that theatre in Vancouver doesn’t really exist. I’ve heard that theatre in Edmonton is on a slippery slope. I hear that theatre is making a comeback in Vancouver. I hear people are bored in Edmonton.

Truth is…I don’t know…

I think that theatre is tougher to get done and be seen here in Vancouver. It seems to be way more expensive for smaller companies to give it a go – rehearsal spaces are hard to come by, rentals are expensive and it’s difficult to get audiences out when there’s a beach and an ocean just waiting…I feel like Edmonton has a very long history of theatre and that audiences and other artists are aware of what’s happening in town, seek it out, and for the most part support each other in their endeavors. It probably helps that it’s freezing cold a lot of the time! Also, the Fringe (once upon a time, the biggest in North America) has been such a staple in that community, I’m sure it helps the interest and awareness of theatre bleed out into the rest of the year…

3.) What are your thoughts on now being a resident part of the Vancouver theatre scene?

I’m excited. It’s like a whole new group of people to play with, learn from, create with, be inspired by, fight with, support… I’ve often heard how difficult it is for someone new to break into the Vancouver Theatre scene, so I feel quite blessed. So far, as a creator, playwright, producer and actress, I feel welcomed. And of course, a little frightened.

4.) Which factors in the resounding success of Tuesdays and Sundays would you try to emulate for your next project?

Oh my god…ummm…wow, I would love to emulate ALL of the good! No, seriously, I don’t think it’s possible to emulate anything. That project was what it was, did what it did – it was a magical, surprising gift. And very much it’s own thing.

The biggest thing I’d like is for our next project to speak to the hearts and minds of as many people as Tuesdays & Sundays has. I want this new story to be able to cross cultures, borders, age, language… to be able to speak to mankind, not just certain parts. I know, lofty dream, but one’s gotta try…

5.) How has performing the same show for so many years affected your characterization of Mary?

I think the longer I sit with a character, the deeper I go and the more I learn. Playing Mary has been extraordinary. Time after time I was able to delve deeper and find out new things and be open and surprised by place, time, moment – whatever Daniel was throwing out that day… the various audiences… the venues… the countries… I know it sounds funny, but I often felt like she was there. The more I learned about her, and began to understand her, the more I felt her presence and could delve deeper.

6.) What’s the secret to a successful writing partnership?

Everyone always asks that one and truth is…I’m not sure I have a clear answer. Trust. Lack of ego. The ability to argue and not take it personally. A strong, deep belief in the other artist, your own voice and what you are wanting to say…not from your head necessarily, but from your gut.

Also, knowing and embracing that you don’t necessarily work the same way.

7.) Any words of advice for the aspiring playwright?

Just go for it. Write – whether it has form or not in the beginning…you can start with your heart and then mold it with your head. And do not fuss too much with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. Great things can come from not knowing the “right” way to do something. Be brave. And know that writing is scary. And hard. For everyone.

Also…read and see as many plays as you can, especially when you’re traveling. It can open your eyes to so many new possibilities…

8.) From your experience in other cities, what does Vancouver indie theatre need to do to popularize itself?

It’s a catch twenty-two that one. I think a big thing is getting audience in…and how do you do that? Publicity. With little money sometimes that gets pushed to the waste side, but truly it’s one of the most important things…audiences will go to things they hear about over and over, see on tv, etc. Maybe we all need to help each other out more. It would be fantastic if the larger theatres would allow some publicity for the indie shows going on in town. It seems like they have the larger audience base and it would be so helpful to the smaller scene if they could get press in their programs at a low low rate. Or if the weekly arts publications could give free space when there was room…Big guys helping the little guys could do wonders…

But that being said, I think first and foremost, create great shows. Take risks. Do the things that the bigger theatres won’t and can’t. And touring gets the city’s name out there and people start to see press from other places and are more likely to give it a shot. But in the end, with indie theatre, you have to do it because you love it, believe in it and feel like there is no other option. Passion can do wonders…

9.) How important are the critics to a successful run?

Critics are great for gathering press – not only for the current show, but for future works, grants, etc. Other than that, it’s helpful in getting attention a bit, but it won’t necessarily get someone to come to your show. Especially reviews in the dailies. They’re there for a one day hit, then they’re gone… I find word of mouth and publicity (images, articles, etc…) the most helpful. That being said, if you get completely nailed in a review, I’m sure it impacts your numbers. It also all depends on the city, I find. In some cities, people trust the reviewers, and in others, they don’t respect their opinions. But sometimes if a critic ends up liking the show, they may be able to push for extra “what’s hot” excerpts throughout the run…yet I’m still not convinced that leads to more audience coming…

In guess it seems like a bad review can hurt you and a good one doesn’t necessarily help you in a successful run…where it helps you is further down the road in remounts, grants, etc.

10.) What are your top three reads for the aspiring theatre artist?

I have read soooo many books on theatre, acting, history, etc… I have been racking my brain and in this moment, I pick…

A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine and various others.

This book I come back to time and time and time again. You think it’s basic, but you would be surprised how helpful it is.

Audition by Michael Shurtleff

Another oldie but goodie I seem to crack open again and again…

A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn

I always like reading about peoples lives. Hearing about the ups and downs is somehow comforting. This is the one I finished last. When I started it, I wanted to quit the business, as I read, I decided against it. For the 30th time!

11.) What’s next?

I’m not a person who can sit still easily so…

Acting:
His Greatness (Arts Club) – Recording for a small character never seen on stage.
Tideline (Touchstone Theatre) – Feel priviledged to be doing a play by this Arabic playwright!
Any Night (Belfry Theatre/Firehall Theatre) – After years, we’re finally doing this play…
The Dissemblers (Touchstone Theatre) – Excited to work with old friends and get to play someone…not so nice…

Writing:
Any Night (play)
Annie Logo (musical)
Tuesdays and Sundays (feature film)
Alberta Bound (tv pilot)

This One Goes to Eleven: Rhonda Dent

Rhonda has been a TV/film actor here for over a decade and decided 3 years ago to roll up her sleeves and start producing independent theatre with a vengeance. Most recently she produced and performed in Spanish Girl at the Havana. Somewhere in her busy schedule she finds time to be a freelance photographer.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Happy and content

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the condition of Vancouver indie theatre.

Small, hard working, and growing day by day.

3.) What prompted your move into theatre production?

A friend’s storytelling and success of producing a showing of Hamlet on the North Shore. A conversation that took place in LA before making my move home again to Vancouver.

4.) What informs your choices of stage material?

The size of the cast, the set design, and content.

5.) What is the responsibility of theatre to our audiences?

To evoke people, to awaken their inner souls.

6.) What has been the biggest challenge in running your theatre company?

Finding people to run the box office.

7.) Where will Vancouver theatre be in five years, and what must we do to get there?

Well, with a few people I know and have worked with I think it is on the up and up and will develop to a scale of beauty in no time, and with the only thing that gets you anywhere: HARD WORK.

8.) How do you view the relationship between the theatre artist and the critic?

I think UNTIL a group of hardworking theatre critics get together for FREE in their spare time and put together a full play, and invite a long time standing thespian to sit through it, make notes and pick it apart for all it’s worth, their opinions don’t really matter, because the only point of having them there is to help fill the seats and so far we have no trouble doing that (LOL). Unless of course they are of the positive sort, then they are invited time and time again.

9.) What’s the best experience you’ve had at a play that you weren’t involved with?

I’d say a showing of Cabaret on the North Shore had solidified my decision to one day produce Moulin Rouge on stage.

10.) What are your top three must-reads?

A Sense of Direction by William Ball, The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin, and The Actor’s Checklist by Rosary O’Neill.

11.) What’s next?

Thinking about doing a documentary, or perhaps directing another show, haven’t quite made up my mind yet.

Jazz Hams

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A few months ago I was stumbling home from work at around one in the morning, tripped, and fell into this searing jam session at O’Douls, courtesy of the Jazzfest. It had been so long since I’d seen any live jazz, especially any with the chops this crew was throwing around, and I was lifted onto a little cloud that I wish I could sit on more often. I was struck by the comparison of the art of jazz to theatre and, pushing my Jack rocks aside, jotted down some thoughts into the ol’ moleskine. I had forgotten about this until I sat down to write my Beyond Robson Fringe lead-off tonight, and the habit of keeping notes on experience justified itself. So now all I’m thinking is: why should the Jazz Festival and the Fringe Festival give Vancouverites a bye on the rest of the year? What’s it going to take to make the arts a trendy thing to support here? Seriously, what?

This One Goes to Eleven: Ellie O’Day

Vancouver indie theatre, allow me to introduce you to Ellie O’Day, super-publicist. The reason you want to keep making money is so that you can one day hire her so you can work less and make lots ‘n lots more money. She began her career here in the ’70s as Western Canada’s first female rock and roll DJ, then started interviewing artists, then started writing for the Georgia Straight in the ’80s while also contributing to the CBC, then doing, like, a zillion other things in the arts industries here. O’Day Productions provides promotion, publicity, and consulting to the arts community, mainly in theatre, music and festivals. So until we can afford her, I thought I’d see if we can at least get some advice from her that we can use in the meanwhile. Or at least finally figure out what the difference is between marketing and publicity.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Hectic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I spent 25 years working in the music industry, and in 1999 Norman Armour asked me to do publicity for Rumble Productions. “I don’t know anything about theatre publicity,” I protested to Norman. He said he knew I attended theatre, and that I’d figure it out. Norman has this way of pushing you just beyond your comfort zone.

Little did I know that I would fall in love with indie theatre, just the way I did with indie music. But what I liked even better was the team that was assembled for each production. I learned so much about theatre craft in production meetings, and met incredible people who are superb problem-solvers through creativity. So just as the music biz was going into a bit of a cyclical tail spin, I fell for theatre.

What excites me about the indie theatre scene is that each company has a “personality” and I had come into the scene at a time when many key theatre grads, instead of waiting for the phone to ring, had started their own companies. So there was amazing enthusiasm as much as there were tremendous challenges. It reminded me of the D.I.Y. scene that revived rock music in the late 70s, and I was indie-born-again!

However, the indie scene – whether you’re talking about music or theatre – really only becomes a scene when there is cooperation and collaboration. So See Seven helped to market many indie companies who didn’t have the capacity to produce a full season. And last year’s HIVE showed how indie companies could collaborate on a great project that incorporated Vancouver’s well-known site-specific theatre, while each company created a small piece of theatre. No two experiences over that weekend in November were alike. And the central “cafe” allowed patrons and participants to talk about it. Buzz buzz buzz.

3.) Why is theatre a necessary component of our culture?

As a live experience, theatre allows us to explore the human condition. But like music arrangers, directors can adapt a piece of proven theatre in a new context giving it new or refreshed meaning. It’s important for the audience to experience live performance, which grabs your attention in a different way than a recorded one. But I can also see now what the theatre process means to those who create it. The immediacy of reaction is also something that you don’t get in a recorded performance.

4.) For the neophyte companies around town, describe the role of the publicist.

All independent companies have limited budget for advertising. So publicity is the way to get notices and editorial without buying it. You are paying for someone who has relationships with the media to try to get preview articles, and to get reviewers out to the show. However, a publicist cannot ensure that seats are filled. That is a combination of marketing (which includes paid ads, posters, postcard and media sponsors), the publicity, and the success of the piece of theatre and its performance. Today, a publicist is also working with radio, TV and all kinds of electronic postings.

5.) Can you reconcile the adversarial image of the critic to theatre artists?

I once was a music critic, so I understand the critic’s role. Like many of our local theatre writers, I also considered myself to be helpful with constructive criticism. Many actors do not read their reviews, which I never encountered in the music business, but I’m quite sure all the directors and Artistic Directors do. With all the blogging and web sites today, we are seeing exposure for writers who do know theatre, but aren’t employed by mainstream media, but it also opens the door to wannabe critics. As publicist, when I assemble media reports, I try to sift through and find those with genuine comments.

6.) Any words of wisdom for zero-budget theatre crews to help get bums in their seats?

Get noticed. Use the internet. Pitch good stories to the mainstream media. Get to know the media so that you know which writer or producer would find your piece appealing.

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7.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

In one respect, Blackbird Theatre has done it, as well as some productions by United Players at Jericho. As much as I like original work (and I have a particular fondness for staged readings of new works), I feel like a young student, still, in learning the great works that preceded us. So I’d like to see more great works on stage so that I, too, can experience them. You didn’t ask, but what I’d like to see less of is sit-com style theatre. I don’t like it on TV either.

8.) How useful is the internet becoming as an publicity tool?

It’s great, but it’s still lots of work finding the legitimate web sites. I just finished Boca Del Lupo‘s Quasimodo, and even found it mentioned in people’s personal blogs.

When I started in 1999 people would ask for big media kits and 8 x 10 glossies. I talked them into jpegs. I hardly print a thing anymore – it’s all emailed, or a link to a web site.

9.) What kind of impact will Magnetic North have on Vancouver as a theatre town?

Magnetic North will be exciting. It was already exciting that the 2006 edition was dominated by Vancouver pieces. Maybe after next June the word will finally be out across the country (and particularly in Ontario) that there IS a theatre scene in Vancouver, and it’s HOT!

10.) Can you recommend any good reading for the aspiring theatre artist?

I didn’t really study theatre, so all my theatre education has been experiential.

11.) What’s next?

Look out for the first professional production of Bent in Vancouver in 26 years. In 1981 it set records in a 4 month run here. I was so excited when Meta.for Theatre called me to work on this one, opening Oct 31. Then in November I’ll be working on Tideline, a tale of war, exile and individual discovery by Governor General’s Award winner Wajdi Mouawad, a co-production between neworld theatre and Touchstone Theatre. In December, I’ll be working on Carousel Theatre‘s month-long run of Seussical!, and then right into the PuSh Festival.

But before all that, I’m Media Director for the Vancouver International Film Festival, Sept 27 – Oct 12.