Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
C’est le moment le plus merveilleux de l’année!
Les Zinspirés, Théâtre français de Toronto’s (TfT) popular, Dora-Award winning youth playwriting series, is back for its 6th edition.
And Meilie Ng couldn’t be happier. “I simply love this project!” she enthuses. “It’s the one show that I see every year, and I’m still left floored by the different stories.” Her enthusiasm is high praise, considering that her own performances range from stage to screen, in English and French, from Shakespeare to voiceover acting (and some musicals in the mix). And her actions speak even larger than these words: having performed in Les Zinspirés, take: 1 in 2013, she is entering her 2nd year in Les Zinspirés 6. She knows whereof she speaks.
In her estimation, the allure of the project is an hour-long opportunity to enter “5 very different brains, full of worries and wonders. It’s just like going to Cirque du Soleil and wondering which world they will bring you [to] this time, except that with Les Zinspirés, you get 5 different worlds! It’s incredible to see what comes out of these teens’ imagination.”
Audiences new and familiar with Les Zinspirés will appreciate what makes it so remarkable: all of the short plays presented were written by teens in Ontario with various levels of facility in the French language. “And that didn’t stop them from writing their wildest and deepest stories,” Ms Ng smiles. This creative daring should inspire (or “Zinspire”) audiences with varying degrees of fluency in French to come see the plays. No “brushing up” is required: “It has English subtitles on both sides of the stage, so there really is no excuse.” Now in its 6th year, the series is a prime example of giving youth an avenue for creative expression . . . and the youth running away with it! Les Zinspirés has not only given GTA youth a vehicle to communicate their unique perspectives — it has also yielded great theatre. Since 2013, it has garnered multiple Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Performance – Ensemble and Outstanding Direction, which Sébastien Bertrand earned in 2016.
What also distinguishes Les Zinspirés is the diversity of its playwrights and acting ensemble, which reflects the prevalence of French within various cultures – something of which Ms Ng makes special note: “I am just so grateful to theatre for hiring the best person for the best role despite race (something TV has to catch up with). It’s so refreshing to play a role not just because it’s an Asian role.” As such, the diverse audiences will find connections to the plays’ themes in multiple ways.
The plays themselves range widely. Some are so mature that they make the cast and creative team “pause and wonder.” Others soar . . . “carefree and limitless.” As an actor, Ms Ng enjoys the fun of a play that doesn’t stop itself on technicalities: “If [the playwrights] want a helicopter, a zombie, a god or to be half way across the world in a split second, they just write it in. Then we, the production, have to figure out how to recreate all of this,” she smiles, before summing up the enterprise as a “beautiful challenge that leaves place for so much imagination and creativity.”
This year’s edition, called Les Zinspirés: 6 degrés de séparation and directed by Chanda Gibson, will recall the movie of the same name. The premise is similar. Everyone in the world is connected to one another through 6 degrees of separation: “meaning that I know you through my friend (1), who knows a friend (2), who knows another friend (3), who knows yet another friend (4), who knows yet again another friend (5), who knows your friend (6) who knows you.” Of course, the worldwide reach of the Internet and social media might make the typical degree of separation even closer: “That is why we believe that every story will touch everyone because we all know someone living such stories.” She explains that even the costumes and props used in multiple stories for various characters are connected, and will prompt such wonderings as, “Who are the people who wore these before, or made these? What were their stories, toils and joys? Who lived in this house before, and what memories live inside these silent walls? Perhaps every story is ultimately connected, and if so, what then…?”
The diversity of this year’s plays is as far-reaching as in the previous 5 editions. When I ask Ms Ng which play moves her the most, she likens the question to forcing a parent to choose their favourite child. “Since it’s such a team effort, and . . . we have invested in shaping all of the stories and characters, I can’t pick a favourite. They all move me in different ways for different reasons:
Likely, the ideas in the 5 plays will resonate long after the house lights come up. Ms Ng hopes they spur the audience to reflect upon the connectivity of everyone in the world, to consider the important subjects that matter to their teens — and to value their perspectives. “Often, I think teens are dismissed,” she confides. “But as you will discover through their tales, they have many ideas and deep reflections that can help shape the world of today and tomorrow.”
Getting to Know Meilie
MN: I like performing for young audiences because they aren’t afraid of reacting. They will laugh out loud when it’s funny and scream OOOooooohhhs when a character is shut down. They seem to watch theatre as if it were a live movie on the big screen without paying attention to the fact that the fourth wall is actually see-through and not soundproof. Some actors find it distracting to hear their reactions so present, but I believe it makes for better acting, since they will call you out when you are not acting truthfully. They are a much more honest audience.
MN: I don’t think I was ever star struck, but then again I haven’t met Prince Harry yet. I do remember, however, being nervous while on set across Roy Dupuis. I was self-conscious even before we started filming because, even though off camera, he stands at TV distances from you in real life (meaning really close), and I had just drank coffee…(You
see smell the problem?!)
MN: I would encourage adults to see more theatre for young audiences and theatre in different languages with subtitles. Every culture and age group has their own style in delivering messages and I believe there is something to gain from learning from different cultures and age groups.
MN: Acting is always an ongoing thing. You learn from every actor, director you work with and even from daily life experiences. Acting is like a muscle, you always need to work it out to keep it defined and there are always different ways of working out a muscle. However, I realized that having a good direction that creates a safe and respectful space to create is primordial. It’s what can make the show that much better. Many minds are better than one, so if we are all working towards the same goal and giving each other the generosity to play, discover and permission to fail and start again, then we can make magic. Our director, Chanda Gibson, has created such an environment for magic to take place, all the while being an external set of eyes and nudging us towards what works. We have all been such a great ensemble and I feel very fortunate.
MN: Haha. I would hope that there is so much more to me than just what is on my resume. Hehe. But I guess an inside scoop to all actors is that we are always scared of never being hired again.
News You Can Use
What: Les Zinspirés: 6 degrés de séparation, a Théâtre français de Toronto production, featuring Constant Bernard, Mathieu Bourassa, Meilie Ng, Mélanie Paiement and Nabil Traboulsi; Directed by Chanda Gibson
Creative Team: Competition Coordinator: Pierre Simpson; Sound: Ben Gibson and Martin McLaughlin; Set Design: Glenn Davidson; Costumes and Accessories: Jennifer Goodman
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: December 1-9, 2017
Where: Théâtre français de Toronto at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: theatrefrancais.com and 416.534.6604
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya