Taking Talk is Free Theatre halfway around the world

Artistic producer Arkady Spivak discusses moving three shows from Barrie, Ont. to Auckland, and several holiday openings have been extended through January

Taking Talk is Free Theatre halfway around the world
Into the (New Zealand) Woods they go. Photo by Eden Graham.

I've always regretted missing Barrie company Talk is Free Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in the summer of 2021, performed in an actual woodsy area in Barrie. I also missed the three-night extension later that fall at Toronto's Winter Garden, where it earned seven Dora Award nominations.

But last weekend I got to attend a rehearsal of a remount of the excellent Michael Torontow-directed production – featuring a slightly different cast – before it heads to Auckland, New Zealand, with two other shows from January 10 through 14.

In addition to Woods, the company is taking Darrell Dennis's Tales of an Urban Indian, directed by Herbie Barnes and performed by actor Nolan Moberly, and What She Burned, an immersive installation created by Joe Pagnan, Clarke Blair, Cameron Fraser and Richard Lam.

Lately, Talk is Free has done some ambitious touring.

In 2023, it took its brilliant production of Sweeney Todd – which I reviewed here – to Buenos Aires. That show, directed by Mitchell Cushman, had earlier been the centrepiece of what remains one of the most audacious theatre events I've ever heard of: The Curious Voyage, in which, over three days, audience members travelled from Barrie, Ontario to London, England for a site-specific version of a Tony Award-winning musical (it wasn't revealed as Sweeney until the first note was played), with lots of one-on-one exchanges, pop-up encounters and installations along the way. (The experience was written and created by Daniele Bartolini, based on an idea by TiFT's artistic producer Arkady Spivak.)

"These have all been challenges, and they're all different," said Spivak, on a Zoom call a few days before the company flew to Auckland.

"How do you tour a major musical across the world on a shoestring budget? With Curious Voyage, we had to persuade people to give three days of their time and surrender themselves to the experience – it almost asked more of them than it did of the artists involved. These are all different challenges, but once we've sort of solved them we don't want to do them again. We're onto the next thing."

Spivak admits that immersive and site-specific work is difficult from a business perspective, but it does give artists opportunities to be inventive.

"You have to take advantage of what each venue gives you," he says. "Most theatre companies pay for set designs. We don't."

For instance, Dennis's Tales of an Urban Indian, about a contemporary Indigenous man's reflections of life growing up on a reserve and living in Vancouver, is performed on a moving bus. As the vehicle winds around the city, certain locations match ones the actor is discussing. It's travelled everywhere from Whitehorse, Yukon and Iqaluit, Nunavut, to Brisbane and Melbourne in Australia. Later this year it journeys to Fiji.

"In some ways touring shows like this provides an opportunity to take cutting edge works to communities that don't have a theatre infrastructure and that might not have a history of a theatre audience."

Last June, four members of the company flew to New Zealand to meet with the shows' presenters, A Mulled Whine.

"We wanted to look at certain locations so that they could be soaked organically and brewed over time, as we did with Argentina and London," says Spivak.

"We also considered things like sunlight, because we're doing Into the Woods in daylight and wanted to make sure the audience and the cast had the opportunity to leave before it got dark. We were also concerned about the weather – right now it's summer there – and wanted to know how humid it was going to be for the actors, which would affect what kind of costumes they performed in. We have a sort of checklist we go through. What's amazing is we get to invent the world from the beginning every time."

Sondheim, of course, is as popular as ever, with revivals of two of his shows – Merrily We Roll Along and Sweeney Todd – currently packing in audiences on Broadway. His final show, the partly finished Here We Are, completes its run at New York's The Shed later this month.

One of Talk is Free's breakthrough shows was its co-production, with BirdLand Theatre, of Assassins, a show Toronto theatre lovers still discuss reverentially.

Mike Nadajewski, who performs in the tour-de-force comedy La Bête in March, plays the Narrator in Into the Woods. Photo by Eden Graham

What struck me about watching TiFT's Into the Woods in this particular moment, with a gifted cast that includes Aidan deSalaiz as the Baker, Alexis Gordon as the Baker's Wife, Mike Nadajewski as the Narrator and Blythe Wilson as the Witch, was how deeply the second act hits. Especially "Your Fault," where its fairy tale characters try to get to the bottom of who did what to whom.

"One of my favourite things to do is allow artists and the organization to have a repertory – almost like a closet of clothes," says Spivak. "We're not interested in performing a show for five months on the road. We're interested in doing it, putting it away in a closet, and then coming back to the closet and thinking, 'What am I going to wear this year? Oh, I forgot this was still in my closet, and it still fits, or it fits even better now.'"

You can find information about Talk is Free's New Zealand tour here. TiFT will also be transferring its acclaimed 2023 production of La Bête, starring Nadajewski, at Harbourfront Centre in March.

Evan Buliung (right) and Divine Brown will immerse you in Great Comet's story. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Currently playing in Toronto

It might be a new year, with a bunch of new productions on the horizon, but many shows that opened during the holidays are continuing for a while yet.

Crow's Theatre and Musical Stage Company's excellent Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (Rating: ✭✭✭✭✭) has just been extended until February 11. Be prepared not to recognize the inside of the Guloien Theatre, where it's playing. Here's my rave review.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

The UK tour of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), the clever and very funny adaptation of Jane Austen's iconic novel, has also been extended until January 21 at the CAA Theatre. Here's yet another rave review from me (am I softening in old age?).

And the UK tour of the beloved backstage musical 42nd Street (Rating: ✭✭✭✭) is currently dancing and singing its way into audiences' hearts. The production has been extended until January 21 at the Princess of Wales. And yeah, I liked it a lot too, as you can read here.

I also got to chat with one of 42nd Street's performers, beloved West End and Broadway star Ruthie Henshall. We talked about the last time she was in Toronto – three decades ago for Crazy for You! – how 42nd Street has held up, her experience playing all three female leads in Chicago – and more. You can find the convo here.

Last year felt like a transition year in terms of work and employment, but I successfully pitched two of my favourite annual articles – the Top 10 Canadian comedy albums and my list of the Breakthrough Toronto theatre artists – to the Toronto Star. So that was a nice bit of consistency.

I love putting together both lists; the former because I'm still not attending live comedy shows the way I did before the pandemic (plus after the year we've all had, we could all use a good laugh), the latter because the Toronto theatre scene is constantly reinventing itself, and it's so difficult for emerging voices (young, mid-career and otherwise) to get the recognition they deserve.

Here's the comedy piece (all albums are available to download from music sites), and here's the Breakthrough artists list.

Oh, and because I follow one of those Top 10 album comics, stand-up comic Andrew Barr, on Instagram, I'd seen that he recently marked one year of sobriety from drugs and alcohol. So I decided to ask if he could talk about that and how difficult it must be to maintain it in the comedy world, perhaps to inspire others who are making New Year's resolutions. Here's that piece, which came from one of the most moving and affecting conversations I've had in more than 25 years of interviewing artists.

Happy New Year, and thanks again for following my ramblings on this modest site. I know some people have unsubscribed, but I also noticed many new folks have joined.

So please share, spread the word and tell others. There are some cool things coming up in the Toronto performing arts scene, and I can't wait to write about them.