In December 2020, Toronto theatre lost one of its most original and dynamic figures when VideoCabaret’s co-founder, Deanne Taylor, died of cancer.
To hear her collaborators tell it, though, there was no chance that this would halt the veteran company’s work.
Putting on satiric shows in their trademark black-box style “is what we’re here to do,” said Michael Hollingsworth, VideoCabaret’s co-founder and Taylor’s partner in life and art.
“I think Deanne would’ve said, ‘You have to keep going,’” said Mac Fyfe, one of a younger generation of artists stepping up to a leadership role at VideoCabaret.
“She’d be pissed if we didn’t,” said Aviva Armour-Astroff, another new VideoCabaret leader.
In that spirit, the company is both turning a page and renewing its commitment to core principles with “The Cold War — Part One,” a remounting of its hit 1995 production. Fyfe is co-directing the show with Hollingsworth, and Armour-Astroff is producing along with Layne Coleman, who acted in the show’s 1995 premiere. Fyfe and Armour-Astroff are also former VideoCabaret performers.
They agreed that it’s hard to make a show without Taylor. “There was no aspect of the process that she didn’t have a hand in, from marketing to costumes to lighting to acting to directing the actors,” said Fyfe. But with VideoCabaret, “there’s a certain mentality that you soldier on, you just do. And no matter how difficult things get, you just keep working,” he said.
“The Cold War” is part of Hollingsworth’s epic series of plays lampooning Canadian history. The first part of that series, “The History of the Village of the Small Huts,” covers pre-Confederation through the Second World War. This play inaugurates the second part, “The Global Village,” and covers the time period 1945 to ’63, taking inspiration from film noir and B-movies. John Diefenbaker, Mackenzie King and Franklin D. Roosevelt appear as characters, along with a fictional Canadian family navigating the postwar emergence of mass media.
The cast includes VideoCabaret veterans Aurora Browne, Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Richard Clarkin and Cliff Saunders, as well as newcomers to the company Valerie Buhagiar and Kimwun Perehinec.
The company’s signature production style involves actors in whiteface makeup and stylized costumes and wigs performing on a small stage surrounded by a black frame, to create an audience experience that’s like watching TV. Vignettes are played out in tightly focused lighting and there are hundreds of behind-the-scenes quick changes as actors move between characters.
Performing in these shows is like entering a “ring of fire,” said Hollingsworth. “It’s a ferocious thing, to be able to go through the hoops of switching characters rapidly. And having a strong take on each of them can be very difficult,” said Fyfe. “All acting is difficult, but this is a bit more gymnastic, almost.”
“The actors that are successful in this medium, they have a great balance of being free and fun and open and funny,” said Armour-Astroff. “But there’s such specificity in the work. If you move two inches to your left, you’re done. You’re out of your light. You’re lost. So it’s contained, but also free. And that’s a hard balance.”
The company was planning to revive this production before the pandemic, with increasing media discussion of a shifting world order given the mounting absolutism of the Chinese Communist Party. The current context of Russian-led war in Europe only makes the show more topical. “The conflict in Ukraine started to happen as we were recasting and getting back to work. It’s kind of spooky,” said Fyfe.
Hollingsworth’s history cycle ends with “The Life and Times of Brian Mulroney” and he’s reluctant to write further segments in which still-living figures such as the current prime minister would be parodied. Fyfe agreed: “An audience would be more reserved if you were performing a satire about a political figure that was still alive.” In shows such as “The Cold War,” audiences encounter figures such as Diefenbaker and King, “and can laugh at their foibles and kind of be potentially surprised at their virtues,” said Fyfe.
The current production of “The Cold War — Part One” is 90 minutes long; we can expect “Part Two” in 2023. Other plans include making the company’s premises on Busy Street in Leslieville a cabaret space by night and a theatrical workshop space by day. There are also plans to revive a strand of the company’s work, the combination of recorded material with live performance: a style of theatremaking that has come to the cultural foreground during the pandemic.
Without Taylor, but in her spirit, VideoCabaret is back being busy on Busy Street. “She was the heart and soul of the whole process,” said Hollingsworth. “I miss her, but it’s going to be fabulous.”
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