Review: THE ARCHIVIST (The Riser Project)

by Lynn on April 19, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Riser Project

The Archivist

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Shaista Latif

The Riser Project is a wonderful initiative of the always inventive and creative Why Not Theatre. It’s a new collaborative producing model to help emerging artists with resources, mentorship and expertise as they collaborate with senior theatre makers to take their productions to the next level.

There are four productions in the Riser Project this year—this is the third year of the project. The participating productions are: Dead Roads, The Archivist, Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape and The Other. I will write comments on the productions as I see them.

The Archivist.

The definition of an archive is a place in which public records are kept; therefore an archivist is a person who is the keeper of the archive. In this case The Archivist is Shaista Latif, the writer and performer of the piece. Latif has expanded The Archivist which first played in a shorter version at the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, last year, when I saw it. The Archivist is now about an hour long but the intention is the same—to keep a record of her family history and her own, as an archivist would do. The public place in which they are gathered, kept and referenced is the theatre.

Latif is a Canadian of Afghan decent. Her parents fled Afghanistan leaving everything behind for a better life eventually settling in Canada. Her mother was pregnant with Shaista when her parents arrived here. And yet Latif has always felt an outside, either because of insensitive teachers etc. who ask where she comes from and don’t believe her when she says, “Canada” or because she feels she has a connection to Afghanistan where she’s never been. So there is distance from both places.

She collects ‘artefacts’ that will help her keep her memories fresh: family photos which are passed around in the audience. I note that none of the photos is identified on the back with the date, the place and who the people are—perhaps a theatrical device to show the difficulty in keeping memories clear and sharp. She also has to keep the memories of her family clear and sharp which is difficult since they come to her second hand. A home movie of her parents wedding is projected on the back wall of the theatre but part of the film is obscured by a covering that blocks part of the film. Perhaps another theatrical device to show the ephemeral quality of memories and remembering.

Latif’s is a life full of upheaval not only for her family, but also for herself. She talks of her parents and their challenges with easy grace, floating over moments that sound devastating. We get the point and don’t need moments belaboured. She spent time between two parts of her family; she was shunned and moved away; she was bullied in school. One scene took place in the dark with odd sound effects. I learned later when I asked what that was, that that represented a sexual assault. As the show is in constant flux, being explored and developed that might be a moment that needs more clarity. In another recollection she laments that she is loosing her ability with Farsi her parent’s native tongue. A recorded voice recites the alphabet in Farsi. After that the Farsi alphabet is replayed but this time Latif quickly gives the English letter after the Farsi letter as she remembers. But in a wonderful moment that shows how memory can get away from us, she begins saying the English letter before she hears the Farsi letter until she rights herself and gives the English after the Farsi. It’s a subtle moment and I appreciate that Latif makes us in the audience work for it.

Shaista Latif has a natural actor’s ability with her audience. She is also a natural and gifted storyteller. Those who saw her previous show Graceful Rebellions know of her ability as a storyteller and a performer.

The Archivist is different with every show in subtle ways, but the main story is there, harrowing at times, but always poetic; the performance is compelling and the heart of it beats strongly.

Plays until April 22, 2016.

Tickets: or 416-538-0988

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