Chris Abraham talks to The Grid

Chris Abraham (Photo by Carlos Osorio, Toronto Star)

Chris Abraham (Photo by Carlos Osorio, Toronto Star)

FRI NOV 8, 2013, The Grid

THEATRE

What do you say, Chris Abraham?

The theatre director and Siminovich Prize recipient talks about winning, losing, and building a Crow’s nest in the city’s east end.

His epic win was followed by a repair bill.

Chris Abraham’s latest show is called Winners and Losers, and there’s no question that the 38-year-old director belongs in the first category. Last month, Abraham pocketed the much-coveted Siminovitch Prize—Canada’s richest theatre award, which grants the winner $75,000, plus an additional $25,000 to bestow on a protégé. The win topped off a stellar year during which he also nabbed a Dora for his revival of John Mighton’s The Little Years at Tarragon and earned raves for his power-packed production of Othello at the Stratford Festival. But it hasn’t been all roses. “The morning after I won the Siminovitch, my furnace broke,” he says, laughing. “So that took care of a chunk of the prize.” The kudos are likely to continue, however, whenWinners and Losers hits Canadian Stage next week. In the well-received touring show, directed by Abraham, writer-performers Marcus Youssef and James Long engage in a wide-ranging—and heated—debate over what constitutes winning and losing. Was Charlie Sheen a loser or a winner? What about Rob Ford? Abraham says their theatrical duel, which premiered in Vancouver last year, examines the competitiveness that fuels our capitalist society, informs our culture, and marks our friendships. “We look at whether this drive to compete is innate to humans, or whether there are alternatives.”

 

The audience is his true collaborator.

His success with work as diverse as comic solos (I, Claudia), gripping docu-dramas (Seeds), and Shakespearean tragedy may be partly due to his directing philosophy. No ivory-tower auteur, he tailors his shows to the people in the seats. While Abraham doesn’t compromise his vision—he’ll be doing a gender-bending version of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford next season—he says he keeps in mind whether a show will be playing to downtown hipsters, say, or classical-theatre mavens. “It’s about what I think I can communicate to the audience.”

 

Go east, young theatre companies.

Abraham, who was born in Montreal and spent his teen years in Markham, is now a proud east ender. He lives in Leslieville with his wife, actress Liisa Repo-Martell, and their two children, Hazel, 7, and 18-month-old Leo. That’s one reason why he chose the east end as the first permanent home for his nomadic company, Crow’s Theatre. Crow’s launched an $8-million fund-raising drive this year to build a venue at the northeast corner of Carlaw and Dundas. Plans include a 200-seat theatre and 100-seat studio to occupy the lower floors of The Carlaw, a 12-storey condo complex now under construction. As Crow’s artistic director, Abraham hopes to fill the space with programming by his own company as well as other homeless troupes. “I’m really looking forward to being a curator and a matchmaker, [and introducing] our neighbourhood to great contemporary theatre artists.”

 

Money won’t change everything.

Apart from that furnace, Abraham hasn’t earmarked his Siminovitch cheque for anything just yet. Certainly, taking a sabbatical right now is out of the question. “At this point, my life for the next three years is spoken for,” he says. “There’s not really a moment for me to think of hitting the pause button.” As well as planning for the new venue, he’s collaborating on another documentary project with Annabel Soutar, the writer of the play Seeds. Where that work dealt with genetically modified crops, this one focuses on threats to our water supply. They hope to have the show ready to open alongside the Toronto Pan Am Games in 2015. Of course, there’s also his 2014 Stratford production of Dream, with a cast that includes Repo-Martell. Abraham says he finds as much satisfaction grappling with a time-honoured Shakespeare text as he does crafting important contemporary work. “I think I’ve got a great life as a director because I get to do both. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Winners and Losers runs from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., 416-368-3110, crowstheatre.com.

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