Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
When we spoke with Steffi DiDomenicantonio last fall, we knew instantly that she is an artist to watch. (Read that article here.) A versatile performer with a striking presence and arresting voice, she draws the eye. In conversation, she reveals herself to be a rapier-witted storyteller, relaying hilarious anecdotes (accompanied by candid photos) with a puckish twinkle and an infectious enthusiasm. Who can resist an artist who includes in her spontaneously-generated, “all-about-me” profile:
Well, why bother to try? Adult audiences can see her in Théâtre français de Toronto and Canadian Stage’s bilingual co-production of Five Faces for Evelyn Frost/ Cinq visages pour Évelyne Frost, a part of Canadian Stage’s Winter/Spring Saison du Québec series, showcasing innovative stage creations from Québec.
Though she is trilingual (French, English and Italian), this play marks Steffi’s first time performing in two languages. Her biggest learning has been that each version requires a different set of performance skills: “The content and the emotion are the same in both languages, but the resonance, sounds and turns of phrases are completely different.” Even though she is performing the same show, each version feels unique. “Language influences everything!” she marvels. “Not only because of the words…but the tone and musicality of the piece feel very different to me as a performer. And I’m not gonna lie,” she confides with a wink. “It can also get pretty confusing too!”
The cutting edge multimedia play, which combines live acting with visual projections, was originally written in French by award-winning Quebecois playwright Guillaume Corbeil, and then adapted and translated into English by Steven McCarthy. Steffi describes it as a thrilling and thought-provoking piece of theatre written in a “very, very (very) challenging way,” with the “poetry” of social media. It has required hours and hours of work and months of memorization. “I could write paragraphs and essays and perhaps a novel about how terrified and nervous I was to learn this script in English, let alone in French,” she sighs. Rehearsing it also proved herculean, given that the 5 cast members were scattered. As recently as January, two were in Corktown, one in Leslieville, one in Montreal and yet another in Costa Rica. To prepare, they leveraged technology to run lines in both languages via Skype from their various locations.
And though the prep has been linguistically and geographically challenging, the cast’s tireless perseverance has paid off. While Steffi deems this show the “most challenging theatrical experience I’ve had in my career to date,” that challenge was what drew her to the project in the first place. “Come see it!” she enthuses, her thoughtful reflection giving way to her customary energy. “Heck, come see it in both languages. You’ll understand something no matter what, because emotion and human experience are the same in every language. (Like math. Blerg.)”
Well, hopefully not quite like math . . . based on Steffi’s intense response to Corbeil’s script, a multimedia production which she describes as “a choreography of words,” and a newly-invented language precisely structured “down to the last millimetre” to mirror today’s narcissistic society and “how we fabricate our identities with our ephemeral intimacies on media platforms.” When she first read both versions of the play from start to finish, she had a visceral reaction: “As I turned the pages eagerly and read on, my heart started beating so fast, I thought it was going to jump out of my chest or my mouth! I was shaken by how compelling and current the subject matter was.”
She likens the show to a live Facebook feed among five friends. Nameless and known only as numbers, they profile themselves and recount the events of a night where facts, secrets and fabrications change and combust in the heat of competition, to the detriment of reality, time and space. The stakes are dizzyingly high, and these characters go to dangerous heights to “win” at a game of peeling off layers to gain notoriety. “What is public, what is private, how far are we willing to go for that “like” button?” Steffi muses. She attributes the show’s appeal to a subject matter that is timely and timeless, and to strong imagery of the deepest and darkest corners of virtual reality: “The script really hit home for me, especially being a millennial in this day and age where we relate to each other through technology and social media. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have this exceptional gift as an actor.”
A glance at Steffi’s ample resume of stage and screen work suggests that she frequently attracts such “gifts”. TV audiences first heard her name on the 4th season of Canadian Idol. She didn’t win that competition…and it hasn’t mattered a bit. The opportunities that have come her way have been unique and transformative. In particular, she speaks passionately about two roles that have affected and changed her as a person and performer. The first was the tormented free spirit Ilse in the first Broadway national tour of Spring Awakening, which Steffi says changed her life altogether: “When I first saw the show on Broadway years prior to being cast, the production took my breath away. I felt like it understood what I was going through, and I related so much to the piece and to the characters.” Her 2 years on the road with the show, during which she performed in 44 cities, catalyzed a personal self-awareness and a professional maturation: “I never graduated from (George Brown) theatre school, so that show was kind of like my education. Even after performing the show over 600 times, I was still in love with it as much as the first time I saw it.”
The second role to have affected Steffi deeply is Sally Bowles in Cabaret, a show which she likens to “the women’s Hamlet”. For her, the Sally Bowles character is “truly one of the best roles ever written for women in musical theatre. There is something so profoundly sad and complex about her, and there is no one way to play the character.” Sally is “intriguing, enchanting, ‘strange and fascinating’ and ‘perfectly marvelous’…. I could have run that show for the rest of my life and felt fulfilled as a performer!”
But Steffi is still young, with lots of other shows and lots of career still ahead. What will the future hold for her, given her motto “Fortune favours the brave/ It’ll make a good story later”? If she had her druthers, she would live her teenage dream of playing Kate Monster in Avenue Q, ideally with her duet partner from childhood, Ben Durocher, who is currently playing Princeton off-Broadway. Other dream roles include Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Harper in Angels in America. Acknowledging the chasmic range between the two, Steffi offers, “I’ve always wanted to tackle heavier straight theatre acting roles.” She then adds that she would also love to play a doctor on TV in a medical drama or comedy. This last is for her family, who are all in the medical field: “They’ve always wanted me to be a doctor, so playing one on TV would be the next best thing!” And if these roles are not enough to test her range, “I’ve also always wanted to be a scream queen in a horror movie or a zombie flick. And if I could choose my co-stars,” she quips, “I’d pick Joseph Gordon Levitt, Leo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga. (You never know!)”
You never know, indeed . . . This boldness has brought unusual opportunities Steffi’s way in the past – such as her gender-bending, muscle-suited star turn as Jean Valjean in her high school’s production of Les Misérables. On behalf of aspiring artists of a similar high-school age, we sought her advice. Her first pronouncement was, “Age is just a number! Performers have the amazing ability to transform themselves. Be fearless, be bold, ‘Show Off!’ and break a leg!” And she had specific counsel, for one young artist about to tackle her first lead role as The Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone: “In a comedy like this, don’t be afraid to be a bit of a ham and make people laugh. The Drowsy Chaperone is such a great show, and it’s an honour to be the title character. I’m certain she won’t disappoint, though I’m sure she has little experience with being ‘drowsy’ in the show’s sense of the word. ‘As We Stumble Along’ is an important anthem, if you ask me, with a great life lesson in there somewhere!”
“How Steffi got stripped of her ESL card”
As our interview nears its end, we can’t help but recall Steffi’s “Pringles in the Night” anecdote from our last conversation, and we’re curious if she might have another. (A tall order, since readers tell me they couldn’t read it through without laughing out loud). Nonetheless, we challenge her to top it. Never one to resist a challenge, and always able to laugh at herself, she comes through “in true bilingual fashion,” with a story à propos of Five Faces for Evelyn Frost:
“I often jokingly brush off mispronounced words and vocabulary mistakes by blaming my ESL. My fondest memory of this was in rehearsals for Spring Awakening…During a note session, the director said to me: “When you say ‘Listen to what’s in the heart of a child,’ make sure we hear the D at the end of ‘child’. Right now it sounds like ‘chil’,” to which I responded, ‘We wouldn’t want the audience thinking I’m talking about the country.’ I was referring to the country Chile, which, at the time, I didn’t know was pronounced like the popular game-day dish ‘Chili’. My answer was met with an uproar of laughter from my castmates. After being corrected, I sheepishly said: ‘Oh, what can you do! I’m ESL.’ A cast member, who shall remained unnamed because of recently gaining notoriety in the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, reacted sourly and said, ‘You can’t blame everything on being ESL!’ That comment has stayed with me ever since. I no longer blame everything on being ESL . . . which is really such a shame!”
News You Can Use
What: Five Faces for Evelyn Frost/Cinq visages pour Évelyne Frost, a play by Guillaume Corbeil, translated into English by Steven McCarthy; featuring Laurence Dauphinais, Steffi DiDomenicantonio, Tara Nicodemo, Nico Racicot, Alex Weiner; directed by Claude Poissant
Who: Recommended for audiences 19 years and older
Where: Berkeley Street Theatre (Downstairs), 26 Berkeley St, Toronto, ON
Steffi Next: On the small screen in the new French children’s TV series Amelie et Compagnie and on stage this summer at the Charlottetown Festival to reprise the role she originated in Bittergirl:The Musical
Finally: Photos of Steffi in Spring Awakening, Cabaret, Avenue Q and in front of show posters appear courtesy of the artist
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya