AN INTERVIEW WITH THEATRE OCULUS
Written & Edited by Clarke Blair With Interviewees Rohan Dhupar and Macayla Paris
I had the pleasure of chatting with summer company member Rohan Dhupar and Macayla Paris about their company Theatre Oculus. Theatre Oculus is a movement-based theatre company based in Etobicoke/Mississauga that aims to illuminate existing theatre works (plays and musicals) through re-imagined and re-contextualized productions, and to provide opportunity to look outside and investigate beyond what we already know. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Clarke Blair (CB): Wonderful, hi, thank you for being here! Could you please introduce your lovely selves and talk a little bit about what Theatre Oculus is?
Macayla Paris (MP): Hi my name is Macayla Paris, my pronouns are she/her and I am the Producing Artistic Director.
Rohan Dhupar (RD): I’m Rohan Dhupar, my pronouns are he/him and I’m the Managing Artistic Director. Macayla and I are both the co-founders of Theatre Oculus.
MP: We are a movement-based theatre company based in Etobicoke-Mississauga; Rohan is from Mississauga, I’m from Etobicoke. There is a need for art in both of our home bases and we really wanted to bring professional theatre to those communities, and to produce work that is telling stories that they would be interested in and would be able to see themselves in. And to explore outside of what the “Toronto scene” is too, because then it’s not conforming – I don’t think the word conforming is the right word – but outside of that big pool, we’ve got a lot of space and freedom to figure out what we want to do.
CB: You spoke to this a little bit already, but why did you start this theatre company?
RD: Yeah, definitely. As Macayla already said, we’ve identified two – and we’re combining them into one – culturally underserved geographic areas and we’re interested in bringing art there. Also, Macayla and I collaborated a lot on creative projects throughout school and we want to keep that collaboration going. So Theatre Oculus is a platform to be able to do that on our own terms as well as a platform to really encourage the not just the development of emerging artists, but the evolution of the art forms, and to have that come from the people who will continue to be the future of the art form. So yeah, making the art that we want to create and also serving the purpose of getting people who don’t normally go to the theatre because they’re far away from downtown Toronto to be interested in going to see theatre.
CB: Yeah wonderful. Macayla do you have anything to add?
MP: We both have the desire to create our own work and it is sometime very hard to do that unless you actually fully just, do it yourself? In the grand scheme of things there isn’t a lot of funding in the arts, period, so basically we want to jump in and open up opportunities for other people as well as give ourselves a platform to create. And then also hopefully bring other people in to then create more opportunities. It’s our goal to start here and then expand and to just reach more and more people! With the pandemic and operating digitally, we have been able to reach a lot of people who we never would have met at all. It’s all very exciting and we have no idea what’s going to happen, but it’s just sort of moving forward and we’re putting it out there and hoping for the best!
“A circular opening known as the oculus lets the only light in to the Pantheon. The purpose of the oculus was not only to illuminate the interior but it was also built to let those in the temple contemplate the heavens.” - Quoted from @theatr0culus on Instagram
CB: That’s a wonderful segue into my next question which is: working digitally? I know you have upcoming/current projects that are going to be working digitally, so what was your decision-making process for deciding whether or not to work digitally, and your thoughts on this medium for art making/sharing?
RD: We definitely were a little bit reluctant, as I’m sure everybody was to… well, I hate the word pivot because we weren’t even doing anything to begin with. There was nothing to pivot from.
CB: That’s almost sadder because you were in the process of getting stuff ready, but you didn’t even have a foothold yet!
MP: (Laughs) Like, bye ok, toss it!
RD: We had started advertising our first workshop for arts school students that was going to happen in person, and people were registering for that, and as soon as the shutdown started to happen we were like, ok we’re just gonna delay it because its only going to last 3 weeks…
RD: …Four months later, that’s not the case. So, at first we were like, should we do it as an online thing? But we were like, no, let’s just wait it out, let’s not do anything until everything is back to normal. But there’s also this idea that this is going to be an ongoing thing even after the pandemic is over, I’m sure that there’s going to be a lot of digital/online/socially distant ways of working that are going to be incorporated into all sorts of arts organizations’ ongoing operations. So, this is a good way to start learning that. And also, we announced ourselves at the end of February, so then if we’re suddenly really silent and not doing anything – not that there was pressure that we had to do something, but we did feel like since we were announced we didn’t just want to you know… disappear. And when we announced who we were we also announced what we wanted to do, which was about evolving the art form, so this is definitely playing into that.
CB: What is evolving if not moving to an entirely different platform?
MP: Yeah, exactly, (laughs). And with Reverb, our whole thang that we’re doing right now –
CB: Wait, can you define that real quick? What is Reverb?
MP: Yeah! It’s a three-part series: we have the Digital Creation Residency where four selected artists will be paired up with a mentor and they will create something that can be presented digitally. So, you have space to create and the opportunity to work with someone else as an outside eye, and you also get a learning experience out of it, which is very important to us in terms of working with emerging artists. And then we have Cue’s and Q’s which is our video podcast/interview series where we’re talking with some really incredible artists in within our community who are all amazing people and leaders in their fields. Then finally we have our creation project, which is a dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, which he wrote during the London plague when the theatres were shut down. Rohan had this great idea to use this piece of text and it was like, this is perfect, of course, we must use this!
RD: For the Venus and Adonis, we’re presenting it digitally as a work-in-progress alongside the creations from the Digital Creation Residency, but we’re developing it with the intention of continuing on to a live, full-length work that can be presented with an actual audience in an actual theatre on a proper stage when its safely feasible to do so. And for the Digital Creation Residency, it’s worth mentioning that all those creators will be receiving a prompt or an article or something that they will respond to for their creation.
CB: The concept of a digital work-in-progress showing is like a fun contradiction, because when things are recorded, it’s a very permanent snapshot of something that would otherwise be very impermanent in live performance. That’s very indicative of the times – a work in progress that’s also a video that will exist forever.
MP: Aah! That’s so…yeah. (Laughs)
CB: On the topic of digital dancing and digital arts, is there any digital work that you have watched that you have found to be really successful? Or some things that have been frustrating or not quite as successful?
RD: I think at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a Zoom play was definitely like, okay, we can somehow use our creative tools to do something given the parameters of how we are currently living. As time has gone on and has the pandemic has dragged on, I feel that its honestly gotten a bit tired. I don’t know if there’s no other way to do something digitally? Because technology has its own limits and as users of technology there’s only so much that we know how to do. Macayla brought this up in a recent conversation, where sometimes when you’re watching one of those Zoom plays it gets really tiring on the eyes because there’s no actual dimension shifting, and I’ve seen a couple livestreams – one of them was the one that Macayla directed with Dandelion Theatre, what play was it –
MP: As You Like It!
RD: – where she had the actors actually coming up to their screens and doing stage combat things to their screens while another actor reacted. Or just ones that have somehow incorporated a sense of depth in their work. Just that added dimension I think that’s what adds to the success of keeping someone engaged, especially if it’s a really long piece. There’s been stuff that I’ve loved and there’s been stuff that I – not that I’ve disliked it, but it was… meh.
CB: Definitely, I’ve seen stuff that makes me be like, ah I wish that I could experience this in person! And stuff that I watch and I’m like, you know what, this was fine, I’m happy that I got to see a recorded version, but I don’t have to see it in person, (laughs).
MP: (Laughs) For sure. And I think that there’s also a lot of value in watching other forms of performance media other than what we deem as ‘originally supposed to be live’. Like I have to say, and I hate to say it, but you know, I’ve been watching all these TikTokers come up with some crazy ways of filming! I dont really want to make TikTok theatre, because that would just make me so sad –
MP: – but the way that they use the camera and the way they use themselves on the screen adds so much depth. It’s such a successful platform for that. I think that seeing Zoom theatre… it’s really hard to watch theatre on Zoom. And it was very challenging to direct and work with actors on Zoom because it’s such a physical thing. And I think that for me, just trying to find ways to make things interesting online…I feel like, TikTok, man! They’ve got it figured out, they really are successful! So, taking those techniques and applying it to the digital form of our artform to make it more interesting and less like…. a box. Like you’re in this weird cube world. Getting out of that I think is the most important thing moving forward.
CB: That’s so interesting. It’s so hard on the eyes when it’s just flat squares.
MP: Yeah, oop –
CB: Oh no…
MP: Oh, you’re back! (Laughs)
RD: On the note of TikTok, I think it’s also worth noting that it’s its own thing, and that when we say ‘Zoom theatre’ I also want to – and there’s been a few articles that kind of address this as well, but it’s not actually theatre. Like, there’s no actual way of doing digital… digital theatre is not theatre, it’s its own thing. And I don’t think we’ve actually found a way to do it effectively? Whereas you have dance as a live performance medium but then dance on film is actually its own thing and has been done really really well. Theatre on film like, you go see a movie? Is that what theatre on film actually is? Or is there another way to digitalize theatre that can be its own medium going forward, like dance on film?
CB: There’s ‘dance that has been filmed’ and then ‘dance film’ as like, separate entities. And yeah, I guess ‘theatre film’ is just like movies? Question mark? But then also there’s Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit on MarqueeTV, and honestly Hamilton on Disney+ too, that had directors of videography and clearly so much thought that was put into these filming of these live productions. But even when we have these filmed versions of live shows they are still significantly different than the original live experience.
RD: Yeah, and with those pro-shot versions of live performances, there’s still… the actual live performance itself. But, how do we digitize theatre when there is no live thing to begin?
CB: Yes, good point! Very good point.
CB: Cycling back to something we touched earlier, you’re interested in remounting and retellings of existing works? Can you speak to that a little bit more, where does that inspiration come from?
MP: Well, yeah, I remember a dinner we had Ro, and we were talking about plays that we love, that are older plays, that have been recently redone in Toronto, and one that really stuck with me was Soulpepper’s Streetcar Named Desire, which was just an incredible remounted version of that play. And just seeing how something that we know is such a classic piece – like, people know “Stella! Stella!” from the movie, people have seen it, people understand Streetcar Named Desire generally. If you are in the theatre world, that's what's up. But the way this company reimagined this piece to be accessible to today's audiences, they really were being careful with the material, really handling it with care and saying, hey! This is not so good anymore! Not good, no, we've moved forward from that! But then also saying, okay, we have it, we see it, it's on paper, you can't just erase it because it's still there. They handled it so thoughtfully, and put it onto the stage in a way that you're like, oh!... The audience feels exactly what you want the audience to feel. Because that's not cool, we know that's not cool anymore, and it's handled in a way where everyone can see it from the lens of today's eyes, which I think is so important when you're retelling older stories, especially within the classics. So, moving forward from that, how can Rohan and I take material that is so of the past but retell it? And especially make it accessible for the audiences of Etobicoke-Mississauga.
"Take material that is so of the past but retell it?"
RD: And it's not so much like, watering it down? It's more recontextualizing it so that it's actually saying something worth saying. Not erasing any part of it, but like it's actually making an argument that we also stand by, Macayla and I, as creators of it. Also, coming from that conversation, we had an idea about doing a production of The Pajama Game, which is a very old musical, and doing it at the Small Arms building – which you know and which Frog in Hand has done many things in as well – because it's a factory, and the musical itself is about factory workers who go on strike. And that's the premise of the story, but also such an afterthought in terms of the plot itself. But setting it in that kind of space would highlight and reemphasize the significance of that part of the story, and then possibly have that part of the message come to the forefront a little bit more. So, it's less about doing things to the play and to the material and more about our way of working, because as Macayla said, we also work with movement-based creation. So, we're not just going to sit around the table and read the script and learn the songs and then get on our feet after, we want to be on our feet right away. And these ideas come to us from many people too, like this idea of being on our feet right away comes from working with Allyson McMackon from Theatre Rusticle because she's a physical theatre director. And that's her way of working, not because she's doing something to the play, that's just how she gets her actors to embody text. So, we're deriving from all these other experiences that we’ve had with the goal of wanting to recontextualize and make strong arguments. Because a big part of our mandate is to initiate social-minded discussion, community engagement, artist-as-citizens, and to do that through the pieces that we do. So that can happen with doing a piece that is very political, but it can also happen by doing a piece like Pippin, but then what if Pippin was cast as a woman? How would that change the perspective of the show in terms of bringing to light messages about queerness and about sex positivity? And not changing the material itself because of copyright issues (laughs), but also still saying something that is worth saying. Because a lot of these shows are annoying on their own, the way they exist historically.
CB: Oh yeah, that's wonderful. And that also brings me to my last question which is also very open-ended, because there is a lot that is going on in the world right now between this pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement – what is an artist’s responsibility right now?
RD: Yeah. I think the first thing an artist can/should do/needs to do? Question mark? I'm not one to tell anyone what they need to do – but is to understand what their identity as an artist is, first, because that's going to inform whether they are going to be the ones who need to have their voices heard personally, or if they're the ones that need to make space for other voices, and to amplify those. That understanding first. But I do think an artist’s responsibility in general is to shed light on what's not being talked about and what's needs to be talked about more. To highlight, or just to bring forth the unheard, the under-represented, the invisible, and to present them in ways that are digestible, that are accessible and entertaining and bring people joy, bring people hope, but still challenge people and still asks them hard questions. And then also as a human being, because artists are not just people who make and perform things, they are also human beings – to be educated enough so that you're also performing this and saying this with a background of information so that you can engage in that conversation yourself.
MP: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think that starts with listening, really listening, and talking to a lot of different people, having hard discussions, and surrounding yourself with people of different backgrounds, of different stories and different opinions. And really communicating, however you do communicate, with one another. Back when we were recording our Cue's and Q's episode with Diva Day, I was so overwhelmed with how openly they were able to talk about everything. And because they were so open with one another, they were also comfortable talking about who they are as people, what they believe in, and their organization as Diva Day. And that was so overwhelming to me because like, wow, imagine if that was the whole world! Imagine if everyone just spoke so openly about what they care about, what they are confused about, what they don't know, what they are afraid of? And also have the bravery to say, I don't know! I don't know, please explain this to me, please help me to understand. I feel like there is there's a lot of opportunity for humility within the arts that is very hard to access – I mean, it's just hard to access for everybody on this planet, but I think the artist’s responsibility is to take a step back, really take a step back, and look at what's happening. And really figure out, okay, what do I need to do? And then do it. And whether that is learning, whether that is – well it's always learning, learning is just happening, but then, are you talking to your relatives? Are you talking to your friends who are not within the same circles as you, artistically, and are not having the same conversations? Is it reading, is it consuming art, is it creating? Your role is just to communicate with other people. I love to say this, but I think artists are some of the best communicators. That’s, you know, that’s kind of the job, to communicate but through a medium, whether that’s music, or visual arts, or dance, or all the mediums that we have and beyond. It’s your job. But, like Rohan said, we are also people, human beings on this planet navigating the world and feeling things very deeply. It's very important to take care of one another and to go inside and figure out what is actually important and what you need to do, and then to do it.
RD: And also recognizing that as artists, anyone that performs has the tools or innate ability to take on another person, to take on another character, to take on another human being's life and their circumstances and to empathize with and perform that – so take that into your day-to-day life. Because I think with those tools and with that ability, artists can be some of the fiercest allies in these political movements, because they have that ability to really empathize and take on someone else’s circumstances as their own.
RD: And I find that also because the arts are so underfunded, and so just, unappreciated in general, that as individuals, artists also feel the need to be very strategic, like with self-serving career moves to maintain a steady income, financial stability, and a career path that progresses so that they can find their own success. But then, bring that idea of being able to empathize with a movement or a moment in time and turn that into action. We’re seeing the Artistic Directors of Young People's Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, B Current Performing Arts – they're all stepping down to make space for a new artistic leaders who can serve their organization in this time and going forward, and implement changes that need to be made. Musical Stage Company appointed Ray Hogg as a Deputy Artistic Director for a similar reason, I'm assuming. But these are people who have long been leaders in their community and are realizing that space needs to be made, and they're taking that upon themselves to begin the process of making that change. So, artists no matter what capacity they’re in, do have that ability and that responsibility.
Artists can be some of the fiercest allies in these political movements, because they have that ability to really empathize
CB: Yes, wonderful, thank you for those answers. Those are all my questions, I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for doing this! What have you got upcoming, what can people look for?
RD: The Digital Creation showcase on August 27th! We will be presenting Venus and Adonis as well as the creations from the Digital Creation Residency. There's an Eventbrite link for pay-what-you-can tickets.
MP: You froze, Rohan, in the middle of your sentence.
CB: (Laughs) You've been a bit of a robot, but I can still understand what you're saying! Digital spaces!
MP: (Laughs) Digital spaces!!