Theatre Review – Theatre Gargantua/The Wager by Michael Gordon Spence, directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas

Photo by Michael Cooper

I have often felt that Theatre Gargantua is the most under-appreciated company in Toronto. All their multi-disciplinary original plays are based on subjects ripped from today’s headlines or inspired by current zeitgeist. Writer Michael Gordon Spence creates a series of scenes that look at different aspects of the topic at hand, while the meticulous direction of Jacquie P.A. Thomas places those scenes within imaginative settings. Also embracing clever songs, intense physical movement, and laugh-out-loud comedy, The Wager is devised theatre at its finest.

The wellspring of The Wager is the current acceptance of misinformation, with a side trip into the strange things that people believe. The throughline of the play is the famous 1870 wager when British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace took up the challenge to prove that the earth is round. Flat-earther John Hampden had offered £500 as the wager, and the play does show how Wallace proved the round-earth truth. Hampden never accepted the independent referee’s decision. Incidentally, we all know about Darwin, but Wallace is considered the co-founder of the theory of evolution. It seems he independently came up with the concept of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, but Darwin got the fame.

The play is filled with a dizzying array of misinformation, each introduced by a projected title, be it anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, fake newsers, alternative facts proponents, and outright lying politicians. While Spence’s script deals mostly with various aspects of belief, there is also a vignette on not being believed, featuring a woman reporting a sexual assault. And then there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect (look it up!). The takeaway from The Wager is, while some beliefs are just plain funny or silly, some are dangerous, and can affect the well-being of future generations. Belief in scientific truth and good old-fashioned common sense is on the decline, and we should be very afraid.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Thomas’ main directing motif is ladders of various sizes that become many different things during the performance. She also uses a game show and a panel discussion as forums for distilling ideas. My favourite is the German opera, which features John Hampden harassing Wallace and his wife Alice post wager. Some settings are simply fanciful, such as the parody on religious beliefs with talking birds discussing why they, as Gourd People, are better than their enemies, the Pumpkin People). Several of the topics are turned into clever original songs, with the entire cast playing a musical instrument. A stunning round-robin introduces all manner of beliefs, by simply adding a hat or a prop to rapidly change character. Slides and projections also play a role, including an eye-catching use of handheld screens.

The four-member cast is very talented. The men, Spence and François Macdonald, move effortlessly between song and text playing a multitude of characters. As good as they are, however, the women, Teiya Kasahara and Olivia Croft, are outstanding. Both women rivet the eye, whether Kasahara and her astonishing operatic voice that could fill a stadium, or Croft with her wonderfully expressive face and body. Kudos to Laird Macdonald for his evocative lighting and projections, Spence for his utilitarian set, Sarah Delignies for her clever costumes, Thomas Ryder Payne for his ambient sound, and Payne and the cast for the pointed original songs.

My guest for the evening said to me at the end of the performance, that every high school student should see this show because it deals with really important matters. Through an entertaining and imaginative stage presentation, The Wager gives us an informative and provocative theatre experience.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Theatre Gargantua, The Wager by Michael Gordon Spence, directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas, Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Nov. 14 to Nov. 30, 2019.

Theatre Profile – Jacquie P.A. Thomas/Theatre Gargantua and the new work Reflector

Theatre Gargantua’s Reflector is showing at Theatre Passe Muraille Nov. 2-18. The production’s wellspring is the impact that photojournalism has on public consciousness, and how information can be framed and manipulated.


Jacquie P.A. Thomas

For 25 years, Theatre Gargantua has defined the term multi-disciplinary with original productions, built from scratch, that are an eye-popping mix of narrative, movement, music, stage design and state-of-the-art technology. The devised play is always about a substantive topic – usually concerning the zeitgeist of the day. At the helm of Theatre Gargantua is founder/artistic director Jacquie Thomas, and it is her unique vision of what theatre should be that underpins the company’s productions in terms of both process and performance.

To hone her craft of devised total theatre, Thomas took workshops with or joined the companies of acknowledged leaders in the field. Leonidas Ossetynski’s Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles. Centre Artistique International Roy Hart, Malérargues, France. The Actors Centre, London. The National Theatre of Greece. Wlodzimierz Staniewski’s European Centre for Theatre Practices, Gardzienice Teatr, Poland. Peking Opera masters. Another invaluable source for Thomas was studying archival videos of multidisciplinary creators/directors at Richard Gough’s Centre for Theatrical Research, Aberystwyth, Wales.

Photo Michael Cooper

TG’s distinctive productions have garnered for the company many awards and nominations in categories diverse as outstanding new play, direction, sound design, set design and lighting design.



 What was the epiphany moment that put you on the course of devised multidisciplinary theatre?

It happened when Don Rubin, my theatre history prof at York, recommended that we see the Polish theatre company Gardzienice at Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival. Throughout the performance, I was on the edge of my seat. In the play there was a half naked actor who performed literally under the falling embers from torches. I knew then that I wanted to make theatre where you could be on fire and not care. It was so different and inspiring.

How did you go about training in this specific kind of theatre?

After the Gardzienice performance, I wondered who else was out there – people making theatre – so I researched directors devising their own work, and then I wrote letters to those I was interested in, asking if I could train with them. That’s what started my journey. I grew up artistically with these directors.

Auditioning for Gardzienice in Poland and becoming a member of the company must have been the dream of a lifetime.

I was with them for two years. We spent one year just developing a show, but it was an insane time politically. It was during the fall of the Berlin wall. Inflation was rampant and it was hard to live there financially.

So you came back to Toronto.

I did get acting work but it wasn’t satisfying. I really wanted to find a group of artists interested in developing a show over time following the European model. New creation companies are very rare in Canada.

How did Theatre Gargantua begin?

I got a $2000 grant from the Toronto Arts Council and a donation from my dad. The first project took three years, 1992-94. It was about the trials of the Templars. I was fascinated by the accusations against these warrior knights, particularly the sensual language of the historical documents. I put an ad in NOW looking for actors, and pulled a group together. The Trials got seven Dora nominations.

TG’s associate artistic director, Michael Spence, was one of the actors in The Trials.

Yes, he joined in the final year, and I broke my own rule about no inter-company dating. In effect, I auditioned my own husband. We have two girls, Meghan, 15 and Zoe, 13.

Michael evolved into TG’s leading writer and designer.

I love set pieces that transform into something else, and Michael figured out how to do that. For our second play, Raging Dreams, he was an actor and designer, but his writing stood out, so he moved into that role. Our company has always given opportunities to actors who have a special interest, even if they don’t have the background.

What were the early years like?

Photo Michael Cooper

For the first ten years we rehearsed and performed at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, near Kensington Market, but every Saturday night, we had to take everything apart in order to get the sanctuary ready for Sunday. We actually ended up converting the backspace into a church hall – our gift to St. Stephen’s. We still develop our productions there, but as technology developed, we outgrew the church as a performance space. We needed a proper theatre for the sophistication of multiple projectors, for example. Reflector is at Theatre Passe Muraille which is a good space for us because it has height. Incidentally, St. Stephen’s has had a long connection with the theatre. Dora Mavor Moore rehearsed there.

How would you describe your “European model” process of play development? I understand it’s a two year cycle.

I use the skills that I brought back to Canada. We spend the first year creating the show. Initially, the entire conceptual team gathers, both creative artists and the actors. We open it up and invite people we’re interested in. That’s where the ideas start. Our plays always have a narrative, and everything springs from the text that we create. The writing starts collectively, but a specific writer has to ultimately drive the script. Part of the creation is how we blend together all the elements. We cast after the first workshop.

How do you blend the elements?

By breaking them apart. After we have discussions about the initial idea, people do research in the library, and what they bring back is the inspiration for the writing. We develop the story, text, movement and songs separately. The music track grows out of the musical improvs that we record. The movement is an allegorical language. Each show develops its own movement – a physical composition that pushes the narrative forward. The design is also linked to the narrative, and is sculpted to the space. The design, and how set pieces transform, is like another character. We have specific design workshops where we explore possibilities. After each unit is developed, we marry them together. A song goes here, that text goes

there. We throw out stuff as well.

What happens the second year?

Photo Michael Cooper

We hold public work-in-progress performances – usually six – and get feedback from the audience. At that stage the narrative, movement and score are prototypes. The public performances allow us to see what elements need the most work. We then amalgamate everything tightly together to distil the material down to the final show. Works are a living thing which means they are always changing.

How does the Canadian reality impact on your European model?

The impact is economic. In Poland, they did full time development. It was a union job and they came to work every day. We can’t do that financially. My solution has been to breakdown the work into phases. Allow it to sit with the artists. It’s a better mouse trap.

What’s the wellspring of your new piece Reflector?

It started with the photo of the young refugee Syrian boy who was washed up on the beach. It affected people all over the world. It affected the Canadian election. Just one photo galvanized the planet to act on the refugee question. It probably saved thousands of lives. The photo was an iconic image – a moment in time that imprinted itself on the collective memory. How did the phenomenon happen? What made the world stop and look? Those are questions we pose.

Who are the characters in Reflector?

Photo Michael Cooper

The main thread of the narrative is what happens to the conscience of a people – how a picture can affect us. We have four characters, all inspired by real people. We based our photojournalist on the guy who took the picture of the helpless child with the vulture about to attack her. There was a terrible backlash and he committed suicide. The second is inspired by the book The Woman Who Can’t Forget. Hyperthymesia is a condition where a person has total recall and can’t forget anything that happened to them. Their memories are stored in pictures. The third character is based on our daughters and their exposure to hundreds of images on the internet. Fluency on the internet means dealing with an avalanche of pictures. The fourth character is inspired by neuroscientists who study how images are processed in the mind. So the four characters are a psychiatrist and his three patients. The set is a waiting room. All four are reacting to a picture that has affected them.

What does the title mean?

Michael came up with the title. The central image for the show is a camera lens, a lens that can be replaced by an eye. Reflector is an active state – reflecting images that we see in the mind.