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All the world’s a stage

We spoke to Weyni Mengesha, Soulpepper Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, to discuss Around the World in 80 Plays, a forward-thinking, immersive theatre experience like no other.

Soulpepper around the world

Image courtesy of Soulpepper Theatre Company.

For its 2021 season, Soulpepper Theatre Company is taking a new approach that’s deliberately forward-thinking and barrier-breaking. Around the World in 80 Plays shines the spotlight on eight audio dramas from all over the world, produced by Gregory Sinclair and performed by more than 60 of Canada’s most talented theatre artists. Presented online, audiences are taken on globe-trotting adventure to celebrate the artistry found in multiculturalism—no (real) passports required. Launched on April 21, all of Soulpepper’s programming is free for those 25 years and younger and free for frontline workers and their families.

To help bring this creative undertaking to life, Soulpepper tapped other arts and culture organizations across Toronto to collaborate. Each of the eight countries featured has an Extend Your Stay companion piece, designed to help enrich the stories told in the audio dramas. Alongside contributions such as a podcast series produced by CBC Ideas, film recommendations by Cameron Bailey (Co-Head of the Toronto International Film Festival) and culinary explorations by Toronto Life, artwork from the AGO Collection is highlighted in short video analyses.

In each video, members of the AGO’s Curatorial and Education & Programming teams give audiences an overview of the origin and art historical context of the work being highlighted, often finding parallels with the stories being told in Soulpepper’s audio dramas. Italy features work by Michelangelo Pistoletto; Argentina features work by Adrián Villar Rojas; Canada features work by Meryl McMaster, and so on. “The collaboration with Soulpepper has been a wonderful opportunity for our colleagues at the AGO to engage in this multidisciplinary project,” explains Audrey Hudson, Richard & Elizabeth Currie Chief, Education & Programming. “The videos provide personal reflections on some of our favourite artworks and ideas specific to place.”

We chatted with award-winning director and Soulpepper’s Artistic Director, Weyni Mengesha, to find out more about the inspiration behind this theatrical, global tour.


AGOinsider: Can you explain how the concept for Around the World in 80 Plays originally came to be? What was your team's initial vision, and how did it evolve?

Mengesha: Around the World in 80 Plays is a celebration of our global city and our collective global canon of stories. Soulpepper was founded over twenty years ago, and one of the programming focuses was to present the classics in Toronto’s downtown core. Classics that are rare and not as widely known in the Western canon. 80 Plays continues this mission but also asks “Classics from whose perspective?”.  

One of the reasons I came back home to Toronto to take up the role of Artistic Director at Soulpepper (after living in the U.S. for almost a decade) is because of the unique position we sit in as a global city. This series aims to capture a taste of that. We started by speaking to scholars, actors and cultural leaders about different classics and influential pieces of theatre from around the world. We ended up reading many plays from across the globe and had the most exciting experience. There were so many plays we wanted to do, and it was tough to make choices, but we thought we would start with these eight countries featured in the series, and hopefully, we can continue this in years to come. We also really wanted people to learn about why these pieces were significant, and how the cultural traditions played into the way stories were told. We partnered with CBC Ideas to present a rich deep-dive into the cultural context.  

Soulpepper around the world 2

Image courtesy of Soulpepper Theatre Company.

AGOinsider: This project underscores the importance of re\telling global stories by a range of Canadian theatre artists. In which ways do you hope audiences see themselves reflected in these productions?

Mengesha: Stories play such an important and personal role in our lives. They often shape our world view, create empathy and act as the catalyst for connection. In sharing these stories that hold such high significance to these countries, we are creating bridges between communities. These audio experiences are like whispers in the dark about some of the different cultural pillars that we hold most dear. I hope people feel seen, celebrated and enjoy a sense of pride while learning about the cultural richness of our city.

 AGOinsider: How do you view the Extend Your Stay content collaborations, such as the selections from the AGO Collection, as being complementary to the stories being told through the productions?

Mengesha: Normally when we invite audiences to the theatre, the experience extends into the lobby where people engage in conversation about how they feel, how it relates to other cultural or political events, and more. It is one of the most beautiful things about the theatre—each night a temporary community exists and together we interpret what was shared. Our experiences together, before or after it, can contextualize it or give it new meaning. We really missed this aspect of theatre and missed the chance to connect with all of our city’s cultural centress, which is why we asked them to join in on this journey. With Extend Your Stay, we are giving these stories more cultural context, as a way to fill the senses and make them more three-dimensional. 

We are so proud to have the AGO, TIFF, Toronto International Festival of Authors, Small World Music, Toronto Life and CBC partnering with us in this endeavour. It has been so rewarding to hear audiences say things like “I loved hearing the play Moonlodge and listening to the character speak about the memory of Indigenous fry bread when she was a child, and then be able to take a fry bread cooking class from Chef Joseph Shawana through your collaboration with Toronto Life!”  Or when we did the play from Italy called Six Characters in Search of an Author. Our director Daniele Bartolini, who grew up in Florence, was so excited to see the AGO pair it with Grey Pedestal, Centered (1962–1979) by Michelangelo Pistoletto because his work has been a personal inspiration to him. It's wonderful to see cross-sections of our city share and enjoy the incredible cultural landscape we have and discover the threads that connect us. We really appreciate the AGO and our cultural partners coming with us on this adventure.

AGOinsider: Given the challenges of the past year and the impact the pandemic has had on audiences, what excites you most about the future of theatre and the next generations of storytellers?

Mengesha: I am most excited about how the pandemic has centred our humanity. How we worked differently and considered coming together and collaborating among cultural institutions—as we all did with Around the World in 80 Plays—to be stronger as a sector. How we took the time to think about the inequity in our sector and beyond, to see organizations step up to start having conversations about how we can build holistically inclusive spaces for people in our city to enjoy. I think the next generation of storytellers are fierce and bold, and hopefully, the work we do now to make our workplaces more equitable will make it easier for a diverse generation of theatre practitioners to soar. I think this is what is truly going to make our city shine on the world stage.

 Weyni Mengesha

 Weyni Mengesha. Image courtesy of Soulpepper Theatre Company.

To buy tickets for Around the World in 80 Plays, please visit Soulpepper’s website. For more on the arts in Toronto, read other AGOinsider stories, like this one about the National Ballet of Canada and the AGO’s Virtual School Programs, and this one about Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

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