The second time’s a charm for Sheila Ingabire-Isaro’s return to TfT’s Les Zinspirés 7

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Sheila Ingabire-Isaro; photo by Marc Lemyre

I’m so excited to be back!” enthuses Sheila Ingabire-Isaro, of her second turn in Théâtre français de Toronto’s hit series Les Zinspirés, a French-language festival of plays written by GTA high school students, refined with experienced creators and performed by professional actors. Two years ago, she was a part of the ensemble of the Dora Mavor Moore Award-nominated Les Zinspirés Puissance 5. This year’s festival Les Zinspirés: L’âge de raison (The Age of Reason) marks the series’ 7th edition, coordinated by Pierre Simpson and directed by Chanda Gibson for the third (and final) time. Ms Isaro’s reason for returning to this project? “Very simple…getting to work with Chanda Gibson…. She is an exceptional director / mentor / friend, and is still one of my favorite directors I have worked with.” Ms Isaro is far from alone in her admiration of Ms Gibson’s talents. Last season, after several previous nominations, Ms Gibson won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction for Les Zinspirés: 6 degrés de séparation.

Ms Isaro is also passionate about the festival’s young audiences and young creators. “You really have to work to win them over. But that makes it that much more challenging and fun.” This work of winning over audiences is even more satisfying since it involves interpreting and presenting the stories of burgeoning local playwrights, whose ambitions, concerns and preoccupations find a creative outlet in Les Zinspirés. “For the first time ever, all five writers are women,” she emphasizes. “This is the 7th year of this project, and [in the past] it usually featured like one or two.” This shift is “huge and exciting” for Ms Isaro, “but, more than anything, it shows that having different types of representation only adds to more nuance in storytelling. What I love… is that three of these plays still have the main characters as guys, and if I had not mentioned the gender of the writers, you could never have known.” The particularly “beautiful thing” about these stories about their male protagonists is that they are universally relatable because they explore what “every single teen goes through, regardless of gender, race, and sexuality”.

Happily, she pronounces that this year’s stories are also “so good”: a reflection of both the writers’ talents and their motivations. As a result, “it’s so much fun bringing each of these characters to life.” Ms Isaro feels a special affinity with the play “J’ai fait quoi?’’ (“I did what?”) by Errine Jean Charles. Because she plays the main character Jenny, she has “by default, spent the most time obsessing over it”. Jenny begins to feel sick while at a party. As she begins to lose consciousness, she finds herself alone in a room facing a boy she doesn’t recognize, leaving her ultimately trying to reconstruct the sequence of events. The story resonates strongly with Ms Isaro, as she expects it will (“if I do my job right”) with anyone who has experienced or empathizes with the main character’s experience. She hopes that young audiences pay particular attention to the different themes in the different plays, and she points with pride to the representation within the plays, which should allow young audience members to find themselves in at least one of the characters’ stories (and if not, to find elements of their journeys to empathize with).

Cast of Les Zinspirés 7; photo by Marc Lemyre

All that said, her truly most “favourite part” of Les Zinspirés is its basis in student voice and the authentic reflection of student perspectives and experiences in dramatic form. “When I was in high school we barely had a theatre department,” she laments. “An opportunity like this, to write a story that could possibly be brought to life would have been a great motivator for me.” Moreover, when she was a high school student, she never considered acting to be a viable career path. Once again, access to a project like Les Zinspirés would have “silenced those doubts early on”.

For these reasons, she views the initiative as both personal fulfilment and a significant opportunity for newer generations of youth. “Regardless what they want to eventually pursue as a career path, creative writing helps everyone. And Les Zinspirés is giving that amazing opportunity of expression to these kids, and that’s special.”

Getting to Know Sheila!

1.    What do you like most about performing for young audiences?

How honest they are. Young audiences don’t necessarily have theatre etiquette. If they aren’t with you, you’ll know but when they are you’ll also know. You really have to work to win them over. But that makes it that much more challenging and fun. I also love that they are just learning and dealing with these issues, so a lot of times what we do could really shape their outlook on certain things.

2.   When was the last time you were starstruck?

The last time I was starstruck was when I saw Cate Blanchett on stage in a play called The Present. It was surreal; she’s someone I really look up to. A friend and I took a bus to New York just to see the play and took a bus back to the city that same night. I know we will never do that again, but Cate Blanchett was worth that trip!

3.    What can we see you in, beyond Les Zinspirés?

I’m also working on television and will be featured in a new show called Coroner starting in the fall of next year.

4.   What have you learned through performing in Les Zinspirés that you didn’t learn at theatre school?

Honestly, performing in Les Zinspirés taught me to completely trust my instincts and to not be afraid to fail. In school, it always felt like you had to get it right, and that always frustrated me. I’m someone who really needs to be bad before I could find how I could bring a character and scene to life. Working on Les Zinspirés, especially with the amazing Chanda, built the confidence in me to trust my choices, regardless of the results they produce. The whole process is a discovery for every single member of the team. If it weren’t for the opportunity to fail in rehearsals, we would not have that great of a show, to be honest!

5. What would you like us to know about you that we wouldn’t know from reading your resume?

How I wanted to become a volleyball player for a really long time all throughout high school, but quickly realized I would have no future at all in the sport. Then I thought I would study communications in university because every one of my classmates were going to university. I’m thankful for my mom; she knew I had acting in the back of my mind but was not confident that it would be a career path for me or that I could even be any good. She convinced me to take a year off and try out for theatre schools the following year. Now I’m here!

Cast of Les Zinspires 7; photo by Marc Lemyre

News You Can Use

What: Les Zinspirés: L’âge de raison (The Age of Reason), A Théâtre français de Toronto production; Texts by Olivia Cyr, Mariam Guira, Errine Jean Charles, Cathlin Jiaqi Han and Abigail Morin; Directed by Chanda Gibson; Project Coordinator: Pierre Simpson
Performed In French (with English surtitles) by Nick Di Gaetano, Ziad Ek, Bianca Heuvelmans, Sheila Ingabire-Isaro and Eudes La Roche-Francoeur

When: November 30 – December 7, 2018; Running time: 75 minutes

Where: Berkeley Street Theatre (Upstairs), 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: 416.534.6604 or

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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