Review: TO LIVE–Living Rooms

by Lynn on August 8, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

What: TO LIVE—Living Rooms a series of 100 artistic episodes created virtually by artists living in Toronto for the most part.


When: Now.

Why: A chance to champion the many independent artists living in Toronto and is a celebration of the power of the arts to heal and inspire.

Who: See Why above.

There’s a wonderful initiative here intitled TO LIVE—Living Rooms. (TO LIVE is the name of the organization that manages The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Meridian Hall and Meridian Arts Centre in North York.)

TO LIVE—Living Rooms is a series of 100 performance pieces created by independent artists living mainly in Toronto and presented from their living rooms (for the most part) to us. Each episode is about five minutes or less. The selection of artists spans cultures, ethnicities, race, gender identification and the performing arts.

Josephine Ridge, Vice President of Programming for TO Live wrote of the artists who contributed:  “Their contributions have given us a remarkable snapshot of this moment in history and together are a celebration of the power of the arts as a force for healing and inspiration….In addition, we knew that independent artists would be particularly hard hit so we decided to focus on them.”

Besides referencing their art the artists were asked to address three questions:

How is art helping you get through this challenging time?

What’s your favourite part about your neighbourhood?

What would you like to share with people to help?

I found every single one of these artists who did answer the questions to be thoughtful, compassionate, open-hearted, generous of spirit and in many cases, spiritual. Often an artist ended by telling us to be safe, take care of each other and be kind. I loved how Indigenous artists in particular thought of the earth and the land and how we should take care of it as well as ourselves.

This is just a taste of the cross-section of the artists and the broad spectrum of their performance genres.

The episodes began recording in March and finished in mid-July. It started with OKAN, a musical Cuban duo of Elizabeth Rodriguez, (playing what I’m describing as a mini-marimba) and Magdely Savigne who played the box she was sitting on as a drum. They sang a beautiful song acapella. And because they grew up under communism, they are used to doing without. Their advice to us was to think of community and do what you can for your community.  

The last episode recorded in mid-July waspresented by Tawiah M’Carthy, a Ghanaian-born, Toronto-based theatre artist, playwright, actor, director, curator, and facilitator. He recited a speech from his play Black Boys about the idea of being a man and not crying when grief overcomes the person. Quite moving.

Singer-songwriter Quique Escamilla learned music in his native Mexico from his mother. He now lives in Toronto and is celebrated for his world music. He sang a song beautifully in Spanish of hard times. At the end he said: “Be safe and take care of each other.) He has a wonderful, clear voice and he sings with passion and conviction.

Emmanuel Jal got hisstart in life as a child soldier in South Sudan in the early 1980s. He has survived immense struggles to become an acclaimed recording artist, actor, author and peace ambassador now living in Toronto. He performed his song as free style rap and sings of piece and hope. His spoken words of wisdom are simple, clear and wise:

“Creativity comes out of pain.”

“Fear will make us see obstacles.”

“Courage will make us see opportunities.”

Irma Villafuere is a Salvadorian-Canadian dance artist, involved in community arts initiatives and performances in Toronto, Latin America and the Caribbean. Her work speaks out on violence against women through artistic expression, storytelling, and the moving body. She performed her dance piece on her balcony. Her concerns are for the planet and that we should care for it.

Some episodes were not performance driven, but were personal statements and were intensely moving such as the ones for Ronnie Burkett and Chief Lady Bird.

Ronnie Burkett is a prolific writer, avant-garde designer, and acclaimed puppeteer who has been entertaining audiences with theatrical productions for over 40 years. As a playwright, he focuses on original and innovative work, creating puppets of his own design. His stories are deeply thought and illuminate a dark side of society and issues.

He didn’t perform a scene as much as he joyfully showed us his meticulously kept work space where he designs and creates his puppets. He calls it the best place in the world to work. He is buoyant in the telling but there is a tinge of concern.  He worries about his community and the businesses in his neighbourhood. He says that we will be changed (when we come back from this) and he will make a story about it and can hardly wait to present it to us. This episode gives us a glimpse into his creative world but also the ideas that he ponders and worries about. I found his episode so moving and personal.  

Chief Lady Bird’s episode is also personal in nature. Sheis a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist, illustrator, educator and community activist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation. She is Toronto-based and uses illustration, mixed media painting and street art to bring empowerment to the forefront of discussions about the nuances of Indigenous experiences.

Her episode is a very personal philosophical look at the whole question of creation in this pandemic. She questions if it is important to create art during this time? Her answer is poignant and thoughtful. She delivers this message from Rama First Nation to where she returned to reconnect. She is outside where the sky is a rich blue, there is snow on the ground and high brush behind her. Towards the end of her episode one of her paintings is ‘recreated’ on the screen. Beautiful. Self care is the most important aspect in this piece. Loved it.

Santee Smith is astonishing. She is a multi-discipline artist from Six Nations Grand River. She’s a choreographer who created a gut-twisting dance piece called The Mush Hole about the notorious Mohawk Institute—a residential school. Santee Smith is the Chancellor of McMaster University in Hamilton.

For her episode she shows us pottery made by four generations in her family that is beautiful and symbolic. Her grandmother, Alda Smith, revived the lost art of pottery-making to Six Nations.  Santee Smith and her daughter Sehmia created and sang a glorious song. (Her daughter’s pottery is also beautiful and full of symbols.)

d’bi.young anitafrika is a Jamaican-Canadian feminist dub poet and activist. Her work includes theatrical performances, four published collections of poetry, 12 plays, and seven albums.

d’bi.young anitafrica has created a piece of writing that is a letter of sorts to a person named Ranka (sp?) expressing the fear of being under ‘lock-down’ or as she describes it: ‘house-arrest’ because of the pandemic.  It vividly expresses concern over every twinge of pain, sore throat and flu-like symptoms making the person fear she has the virus. She writes about running out of food, being afraid to leave the house to shop and wondering when it will end. d’bi.young anitafrica delivers it with seriousness, in a musical, lilting Jamaican accent that flavours the particular language and expressions of that culture. It’s funny, vivid, bracing and captures all the mixed emotions people are going through.  And when she is finished d’bi.young anitafrica smiles her broad smile and says, “Thank you, Toronto” and somehow you get the sense that it will be alright.  

Not all the presentations are serious as exemplified by Tita Collective. This comedy group of six women created a very funny song of the trials of quarantine—toilet paper hording for example. The song was funny and the technical difficulty of jumping from one screen to another, with close-ups etc. and the proficiency of carrying it off, was really impressive.

Sometimes an artist veered in another direction from their ‘usual’ form of expression to present a fascinating episode. Such a one is Susanna Fournier.

Susanna Fournier is a Canadian theatre-maker, actor, and educator. She is best known as an award-winning playwright but for this episode she recited a poem she wrote (as part of a book of poems) in January before she knew theatres would be closed down. It is a poem for two voices who talk of connection, reaching out and forgiveness. Fournier’s graceful, sensitive reciting of the poem offers comfort in these difficult times. Her gentle care and concern filled that poem.  Wonderful.

Yolanda Bonnell is a Queer 2-Spirit Ojibwe/South Asian performer, playwright, and poet originally from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay. She praised TO LIVE’s Living Room series as “an amazing way to connect us all.”

She performed a ‘hand-drumming song’ entitled “Moon-Eye Song” from her play Scanner now in development at Factory Theatre. She says about the song, “At the base of it the song is about connection and surviving through something terrible and how we’re connected through that. And I thought it was apropos considering that we’re all going through this right now.”

Yolanda Bonnell’s drum is obviously important to her: her sister ‘gifted’ it to her and also painted meaningful aspects of Indigenous life on it. The drumming melds beautifully with the song. The lyrics reference another story than the pandemic and Bonnell melds that story to what we all are experiencing. The lyric: “We will not forget” has particular resonance. Indigenous life, tradition and the land grounds Yolanda Bonnell’s life to its core and it’s to her credit as a poet and writer that she is able to convey that importance to those who are not Indigenous. 

Suzanne Roberts Smith is a critically acclaimed actor, director, theatre maker, and dynamo collaborator

Suzanne Roberts Smith performed a scene from the play Offensive to Some by Berni Stapleton. The scene was filmed in her apartment on a cell phone by her husband Sérgio Xocolate.

The scene hits you in the guts especially because of Suzanne Roberts Smith’s light, delicate touch as the character gives details of the story. That juxtaposition of the breezy manner with the telling of how the character’s husband was physically abusive makes it all the more hard-hitting. This scene is an indictment of spousal abuse, insidious mental illness that goes undetected and a legal system that toys with the ‘prisoner’s’ rights.  The writing is spare yet full of details that create a full story that makes you suck air at its implications. It’s very ambitious to film on a cell-phone as Suzanne Roberts Smith plays a woman obviously in a prison uniform as she flits around the apartment as we realize how mentally fragile she is. I appreciated the ambition of the episode.

TO LIVE—Living Rooms is a wonderful initiative to address what we are all going through as seen through the eyes of independent artists. Bravo.

You can check all 100 performances piece of T.O. LIVE—Living Rooms at:

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