I’ve had my eye on Toronto-based Panoply Classical Collectivesince its inception. Led by “Core Four” Artistic Directors, Olivia Tharme, Paige Madsen, Alyssa Pothier, and Sienna Singh, this troupe of young conservatoire graduates is quickly making a name for itself in the larger Toronto theatre and performance scene.
I reached out to the collective following their successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with some questions about contemporizing the classical canon, dynamic theatre making, feminism, making space as “emerging” creator-performers, and more. Here’s what they had to say.
THE CAMILIAD: First and foremost, I want to thank you all so much for participating in this Artist Roundtable Series. I’ve been trying to engage with a diverse range of local artists and groups undertaking provocative work — and reaching out to you all was one of my first impulses.
I’ll start with a basic introductory question: Panoply defines itself as an “actor’s initiative”, dedicated to challenging audience’s preconceptions of classical theatre by using “modern sensibilities” to bring new life to plays from the classical canon. You’re also known for sourcing site-specific spaces for your productions that, to quote your mandate, “reflect and compliment the unique worlds of each play.” How exactly, did this mandate — and your collective — come into being?
PANOPLY CLASSICAL COLLECTIVE: Our collective was born out of a desire to create and play. Initially, and because we were all in different years of the same training, we were looking to collaborate with our friends and apply some of the actor training we’d garnered at Ryerson. We wanted to find out what we could create on our own!
Our mandate, and the name Panoply Classical Collective, came later that year during our production of Macbeth: More Than Man. We all gravitated toward classical theatre. This led us to big questions like: What Defines Classical Theatre? and Is Classical Theatre Still Relevant Today? Classical theatre is everywhere. We all grew up sitting in the school-trip-rows of the mezzanine at Stratford and then watching 10 Things I Hate About You in high school English class. We wanted to bridge the gap between taut classical performance and modernized adaptations.
We believe there’s a difference between modernizing and contemporizing. You don’t need to take classical texts out of their context to make them relevant. You need to bring life into their original contexts. Each play exists in its own unique world. The excitement lies in developing these worlds; using movement, design, and style to create something “other”. Something unique.
I’m interested, specifically, in the shows you chose and why. Your company is comprised of young adult actors. Romeo and Juliet seems like an obvious choice — the most obvious of the three — but why Macbeth? Why Much Ado? What does breathing new (kinetic) life into these productions, in the year 2019, do?
As a young actor, Shakespeare can seem so mammoth and intangible. It doesn’t have to be. It’s important to us that the young actors in our collective are given the opportunity to dive into luscious work like this. When we began working on Macbeth, our ensemble had many discussions about the content. How can a group of twenty-something actors in 2019 relate to an Elizabethan drama about a tyrannous king?
In a Macbeth rehearsal chat, Isabelle Ellis, one of our collective members, said it best: “I’m not a mother and may not be a mother for a long time, but I know how to comfort, to discipline, to listen.” We’ve discovered that our youthful energy can bring a tremendous amount of life to classical material.
When you first produced Much Ado, what were your expectations for the collective? Did you think it would keep growing into the entity that it has? How have you surprised yourselves with its development?
It’s safe to say that we had no expectations initially. The best part of Panoply has been discerning specifically what sort of theatre we’re interested in. Our mandate and vision evolves every day, which means we’re always challenging ourselves and each other. We’re more surprised, grateful and excited than we could have ever imagined!
I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to come up to Toronto to see Romeo and Juliet (in collaboration with Mixtape Projects, directed by Margot Greve), but that production had a stunning active aesthetic — how did members of your collective develop an interest in hyper-physical theatre? How has this interest developed over the course of your three productions?
In our final year at Ryerson we worked with the UK-based devised theatre company Frantic Assembly. It was then that Margot in particular took a special interest in physical theatre.
Our production of Macbeth was heavily physical too, as much of the rehearsal process was comprised of movement-based ensemble exercises. Margot developed a lot of the movement for Macbeth as well. While both productions were physical, the movement styles were entirely unique to each play. As a collective, it’s been important for us to devise movement collaboratively giving each production its own unique kinetic energy.
I also have to make note of the fact that this company has four Artistic Directors, all of whom are young women – which, of course, is wonderful. How has this fact informed the productions you choose and how they are produced? I understand Macbeth was gender-fluid?
Yes! Our collective is run by four women and is largely made up of women as well. We choose our productions with Project Proposals submitted by collective members looking to develop their visions into realized plays.
Gender is just as important a topic in our modern world as it is in many classical plays. Macbeth: More Than Man featured a female Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Malcolm. It was fascinating to examine this play (a play largely about being a man in a man’s world) through female relationships. What happens when a woman betrays her female best friend; is convinced to kill a man by her female spouse; and is then defeated by a man to be succeeded by a young woman? How are the themes the same? How do they get subverted when genders are swapped?
That said, as significant as it may be, we want to avoid capitalizing too much on gender. We believe it’s more important for the actor to focus on the relationships and actions of the character. The significance should be illuminated to the audience through the truth of the connection and their honest portrayal of the character.
How has it been for the bunch of you, as “emerging” artists (although I, in many ways, contest that label because I feel that it can infantilize instead of empower) to disassociate from the Ryerson School of Performance — now that you’re graduated — and emerge into the Toronto theatre community, going forth as professional artists?
It’s easy to feel underqualified and infantilized as a recent graduate. We’re taking the steps to build these qualifications for ourselves. As we define our mandate we become more assured; we develop our own artistic voice. We’re all about giving voices to young artists even if that means creating our own platforms to do so.
Where can anyone go — online or otherwise — to hear or learn more about Panoply and/or your upcoming productions?
We’ve just launched a new website and, with it, an announcement about our upcoming winter production of The Bacchae. You can learn more about us and our collective members at www.panoplycollective.com or through Instagram and Facebook.
Last question — what is for you all? Where do you see the collective headed? What projects are in your future and what can we expect from you moving forward?
Our next project is a feminist punk production of Euripides’ The Bacchae inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement.
As a company, our next step is to seek new collective members. We hope to host general auditions sometime in the next year! There’s a lot of competition out there— we want to challenge that by creating a compelling and collaborate cohort of young actors.
On September 27th, 2019, Canadians in over 85 cities participated in mass marches, or “Climate Strikes”, calling for government and corporate leaders to take bolder action on climate change. Speaking more specifically, the grassroots groups at the helm of the movement have spoken out against the federal government’s treatment of environmental issues, urging leaders to refuse new gas and oil enterprises and cut emissions down to 1/4th of what they were in the year 2005 by the year 2030.
Canada is on the verge of a federal election. Environmental issues have taken a front seat in the debates. But climate strikes are now a global phenomenon, one which precedes and exceeds my home country.
The global movement originated with the school strike for climate campaign, inspired by Swedish climate activist (and, as we can only speculate, future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) Greta Thunberg — although it’s important to note that the movement has faced criticism on the basis of its exclusion and erasure of POC climate activists, including (but not limited to): Autumn Peltier, appointed chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation (nominated for the International Childrens Peace Prize 2019), Isra Hirsi, co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Earth Guardians Youth Director, Indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist.
Thunberg arrived in Montréal, QC to participate in the strike on the 27th. The city’s mayor, Valérie Plante, gave her the keys to the city and waived all fees for public transit, allowing residents to easily get to and from the sites of action. Plante, herself a climate activist, has been vowing to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. She estimates that half a million people showed up in Montréal that day.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Liberal Party) who has, as of late, been the subject of much controversy, Elizabeth May (Green Party Leader), and Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc Québécois Party Leader) marched with the crowds in Montréal, meanwhile Jagmeet Singh (New Democrat Party Leader) participated in the Vancouver strike. Conservative Leader (Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada) Andrew Scheer did not march. Remember that, folks, as you go to the polls.
Over a million Canadians participated in these marches.
I was not one of them.
Days earlier, I had made my move across the Atlantic to West Hampstead, London, England. I was unable to march and sing and scream alongside all of my friends, peers, and political comrades. I didn’t realize how negatively affected I would be via my lack of involvement in the strikes until I saw all of the propaganda, signs, posts made by everyone back home. I felt helpless. I felt angry. September 27th was something like a beacon of light amidst all of the political ugliness that has surrounded the upcoming federal, amidst the alt-right rallies and fascist rhetoric.
And what was I doing instead of marching? Getting ready for twelve months of art school.
Now that’s self indulgence.
I was wrestling with the guilt of political helplessness. I began to feel sick when I thought of my artistry. I began thinking negatively of my chosen endeavour. Everything felt masturbatory, not in any way productive. Yes, my work (as of now) has been politically driven and motivated, but it hasn’t been enough. Not nearly.
I made a list of the affects of my work to date: queer visibility, debunking conservatism, following anti-capitalist and anti-fascist threads, contributing critically to conversations surrounding technology and feminism, technology and sexual violence, the #MeToo and post-#MeToo late feminist (some would say postfeminist) movements, preaching sexual liberation via confessional discourse, tackling rape culture, and then of course there was Adrik’s Story, which was a commissioned fundraising piece for Rainbow Railroad.
But what, really, are those affects? What does all of that mean, beyond the label/text? I am nothing. I felt slimy attempting to articulate, to justify, my chosen craft. We know how live theatre and performance work is. Work on such a micro scale is slow moving. The medium is transient. We are living in a world where everyone is an artist, curator, content creator. The art world is rapidly changing. We have not caught up with it. We are dying. We are dead.
And so, with all these threads in tow, I brought myself to crisis.
After a few good sleeps and morning walks through graveyards, I figured out what I needed. I was hungry to find new models of artists. Artist-activists, if you will, to learn from – to experience, to let fuel my work, to one day work alongside and be in critical conversation with. I called my entire body of work into question as I sat, quite morbidly might I add, in cemeteries. I thought of our world on fire. I’ve been chasing false idols.
It was in this state that I was referred to the Tate Modern by my American roommate, Maddie.
I’d been to the Tate once before but, this time, it was for a special exhibition – In Real Life by Olafur Eliasson. I’d never heard the name Olafur Eliasson before. I knew very little about what I was getting into, but I am now writing this article to chronicle my experience of going through the Eliasson exhibition in hopes that I may be able to offer new ways of thinking about the 21st century artist in relation to activist practice, using Eliasson as a starting point through which to productively engage with the mass guilt (or, on the other side of the spectrum, mass ignorance) of climate catastrophe.
Eliasson’s “In Real Life” brought together 40+ of his works made in or after the year 1990. The Danish-Icelandic artist’s diverse body of work includes photography, paintings, sculptures, and installations; the materials used range from fog, to light and reflective materials, to moss, to glacial melt-water. The Tate’s official exhibit descriptions cites three main interests from whence his work comes:
One. His concern with nature, honed through his time spent in Iceland.
Two. His research into geometry.
And three. His investigations into how we perceive, feel about, and shape the world around us.
Experience is at the centre of Eliasson’s work. The artist has both said and written, on many occasions, that he believes art can have a powerful impact on society outside of the walls of any museum (or otherwise institution), and that we as creators and patrons of the arts must be looking to essentially transform these quasi-elitist spaces into forums for community learning and engagement.
This is the creed that I’m looking to expand on today.
So, what is exactly is In Real Life?
A series of chambers with no set path between them. A cave of angular mirrors. A dark room with a flashing light. A fog-filled hallway. Water and dirt. A wall of moss. A series of geometric sculptures and designs.
Any attempt of mine to summarize the experience would miserably fail, especially because (as I previously stated) direct spatial and temporal experience itself was at the heart of the exhibition.
In this series of interconnected installations, you are essentially experiencing yourself experience while simultaneously experiencing others experience experience. (Come again?) Eliasson’s In Real Life is something of a masterclass for community building through gallery art. Eliasson calls [the spaces that he forms] “temporary communities”, in which you are brought together with others to form a heightened awareness of yourself, and of other people, to create an increased sense of responsibility. Through the process of experience, and of the experience of watching others experience experience, you are brought to a heightened awareness of your own being in the world and your own affect as a human body, mind, life.
The experience of awe is also, I would say, at the show’s core – the experience of submitting to something much greater than oneself. Let me delve into some specifics here.
The exhibition forcefully begins with Model room, a geometric exploration of space, object, and our shifting perceptions of these things. These threads define much of Eliasson’s early work, but here Model room achieves a greater purpose. At first, we observe these foreign objects through panes of glass, which is to say at a distance. Our perceptions of space and form are immediately challenged and provoked. Then we leave this space and are asked, by the following chambers, to participate with the “knowledge” or “expectation” of abstraction. We then watch ourselves shift and bend, we consider ourselves as art objects, we become part of the observed form.
As I went through the exhibit, I took note of a series of photographs depicting Icelandic landscapes: The glacier series(1999), The river-raft series(2000) and, finally, Melting ice on Gunnar’s land(2008), wedged between more experiments with colour, perception, and direction – specifically Suney (1995) and Adrift compass (2019). I understood that these were direct calls to rapidly changing (and deteriorating) climates, that Eliasson is calling for a shift in thought when it comes to these threats. There is something about the slowness of a series of photographs that I find compelling. I think to myself – is this due to my identity as a “Gen Z”, who has been raised in a chaotic flurry of transient digital images? Do these nonmoving entities allow me to experience slowness – that is the slowness of geologic time, of forces much greater than I/us?
I watched other people observe the landscape photographs and thought: what is Eliasson, what is the Tate, what is Eliasson in the Tate, trying to accomplish here?
The answer came to me in the form of How do we live together? (2019).
A room with a mirror ceiling and a curved dividing line. People sitting, standing, watching, being. This, I thought, was truly a community space. A temporary community space, to reference Eliasson’s term. I watched participants watch other participants enter the room, observe, look at the ceiling, see themselves in an abstract manner, see others in the same manner, take a seat on the floor, and continue the cycle of watching.
I brought a very political interpretation to this work, noting the stark “divide” between the right and left-winged political communities in our global sphere. Coexistence is a dance. In my experience of experiencing contemporary gallery-and/or-installation work, I’d never seen people brought together in this way – everyone isolated and belonging to their own world of senses and perceptions, but contributing to the same spheres of being.
Having just seen the previously mentioned sets of environmentally-conscious images, and now after having participated in this installation, I understood the ways in which Eliasson was coming up against, challenging, and then reinventing the space of the Tate.
I had a similar experience with Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) (2010): a 39 metre long fog-filled journey through a narrow corridor.
In front of me, a man held his small daughter as she clung to the back of his shirt. A couple of friends were taking edgy selfies in the mood lighting. But no matter who you were with, who you were – the experience of going through passager was shared. I looked behind me, in front of me, saw my “temporary community” experiencing the same things I was – thinking, of course, of climate catastrophe (smogs, whiteouts, monsoons), blindness, ignorance, our shared sense of claustrophobia and helplessness andmost of all endurance.
There were moments as you walked, disoriented, alone – completely segregated from those who entered the space in front of or behind you.
Your spiral view (2002) did much the same thing. Your physical image and perception(s) of that image shift, as do your perceptions of others and their apparent reason(s) for participating in the work.
I oftentimes find myself annoyed by museum goers shoving their cellphones to the front of any work, attempting to capture shots to make their instagram profiles more compelling, but personally I found the desire to capture bits and pieces of the installationsinteresting, apt, and important because these things simply can not be captured. Capturing your own experience was a part of the overall experience. Big Bang Fountain comes to mind here – one of my favourite works exhibited in the gallery space. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wicked. Posting alluring photographs from the exhibit is also a way to get others intrigued enough to purchase a ticket and experience the experience for themselves.
The installation ended with Eliasson’s more recent work, which delves into his activist practice alongside his creative endeavours — Green light (2016), Little Sun (2012), and The structural evolution project (2001). I implore you to read up on these practical advancements he has made, specifically in solar technology with Little Sun. Eliasson herein becomes artist-made-activist-made-artist in a practical, wide-scale sense.
We are made subject to recreations of the chaotic notes and writings on his studio walls, an “A-Z” manifesto for global change. It’s an ideal space to reflect after the intense sensory overstimulation. Once you leave the gallery, you’re led to an array of “Further Reading/Study” books available for purchase (and the consumerism took me in, Tate! You won!).
I almost never buy “companion” books or guides to special exhibitions, but I did that day. It was well worth the 20 quid. For this guide, Elaisson transcribes his talks with artists and creative workers from all walks of life and differing industries: dancers, chefs, musical artists, architects – who are all somehow in creative (and/or activist) conversation.
I have thought, and I think, to myself: Are these the new faces of our poets, our artists, of our sages and prophets, in the digital world?
I wonder if theatre and performance is my medium at all. After Objects, I’ve yearned to work more visually. But more on that later.
I went and read up on some of the critical reception to In Real Life online, and I can’t say that I agree with a lot of it. I personally don’t know how to critique something that I don’t know how to talk about. It feels like there are some critics out there who don’t actually know how to talk about the work, how to experience it, how to surrender their biasses about what gallery work should or shouldn’t be, what it should or shouldn’t do. And perhaps I’ve succeeded in talking about Eliasson’s experimental practice and its resonance in the contemporary art world, and in other ways I have failed. This is the nature of the form I have chosen to express my critical thoughts.
Still, this exhibition (and lots of other works by Eliasson, which are easy to Google and read about online) gives us a “new model” of 21st century artist/activist/environmentalist that I feel is incredibly compelling and crucial as we move forward in our individualistic practices of art making. This new model of artist conceives of a radical form of individual experience at the helm of the art, which leads to further self and community awareness and (eventually) activist practice.
I only hope that I can continue to converse with creative colleagues and peers on these matters, and that I keep experiencing experiences in this way as I move forward in my camiliad.
Thank you for reading. This one took me awhile to compile and write (turns out moving across the world takes a lot out of you.) More to come.
PAUL DANIEL-TORRES is a 22-year-old Ecuadorean-Canadian award-winning youth worker, facilitator, director, screenwriter, spoken word artist, and actor born and raised in Toronto, Canada. His films have been screened worldwide, from the TIFF Bell Lightbox to Los Angeles to the Middle East. His latest film, Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup?, an action-adventure dramedy about the LatinX-Canadian identity and the immigrant dream, is currently on its festival run.
I met Paul-Daniel four years ago. He used to read me his slam poems at heinous hours of the early morning. We have been in creative conversation ever since. When I realized I wanted to do an Artist Round Table series on the blog, his name came to mind immediately. You’ll soon see why.
THE CAMILIAD: I should probably let you know that you’re my first interviewee. I wanted to get that out of the way. This Artist Roundtable series is still in its early stages and, well, I wanted to start with someone who I have mad respect for as a creative — that’s you — someone who’d be an alluring start. You know I’ve always found you alluring.
PAUL-DANIEL TORRES: Hah hah. Thank you. “Alluring” is a big word for my ass.
I’m genuinely curious — what made you agree to let me interview you today?
What made me agree? I fucks with you. You’re a dope person. You’re an amazing artist.
Oh god.Not what I was fishing for.But thank you.
I respect you as a creative and I think that you’re amazing and great. I think that you definitely are a generational talent — like a young Michael Jordan. Hah. So why not get interviewed by a young Michael Jordan? And — uh, why not talk about myself? Ha ha. I have a tough time doing it, so yeah.
Okay, okay — I’m just going to delve in here. First off, congratulations on all of your successes. They’re hard to keep up with. How are you processing everything?
I don’t process it, honestly. I don’t keep track of my festivals, I don’t keep track of my wins — and I should start because I always have this impostor complex, like I’m not an artist, like I’m not a filmmaker. And I have proven myself, but I keep the underdog mentality. And a part of that comes from — I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet.
For me, making it is like making a big blockbuster film. Getting into a big festival. And, you know, my goal — of being, like, at a Raindance, a Tiff, making a big budget movie. It’s the same mentality I had when I played soccer — wins are great, but they last for one night. You want to win a championship.
I want to start at the beginning with you. I already know all this, but for readers — tell me who you are, where you came from.
Um — my name’s Paul-Daniel Torres. I’m the son of two Ecuadorian immigrants, raised by my grandma, my mother, my father, and my sister. I’m born and raised in Toronto, in and around North York — then we moved up to Thorn Hill.
I was one of the only Latino kids in a primarily Korean, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Italian, Filipino neighbourhood. In a racial way, I never had a place to ‘be’ myself. I was always a wallflower, fly-on-the-wall, I think that’s why I’m a writer — I’ve always been an observer, like, watching but never a part of things.
I was lonely as a kid. But I had a really nice childhood, surrounded by a lot of love. What we didn’t have in money, we had in love. That was really dope.
I know this is a loaded question. Brace yourself. How’d you get into filmmaking?
Okay. So — starts off when I’m a little kid. First movie I watch is Tarzan, then I start walking around the house in diapers beating my chest like I’m Tarzan. Then I fall in love with Spiderman — I just want to be Spiderman. He was like a regular joe who wanted to help people. I really saw myself in him. But I realized I couldn’t become Spiderman, but I could help people like Spiderman.
So I thought — how could I be like Martin Luther King? Or like, Malcolm X? And like — move people? And make movements? Time went on and I decided to be a lawyer. My dad let me do drama class in high school because he thought that would make me a better lawyer. I was an artistic kid — I could dance, sing, create stories with action figures — I loved dancing, I would dance salsa and when I was around 12 one of my uncles called me a faggot (in Spanish) and that really stunted me, but that’s a whole other conversation about toxic machismo. I had this very creative soul but my parents were like, “math and science, math and science — we came to this country so you could have security.” So that’s what I was doing.
Thing is, I loved making movies. My parents would take me to the movies every Tuesday, then we would rent movies from Blockbuster every Friday. I was watching 5, 6 movies a week. I was in theatre every week. My dad instilled his love of film in me — which is funny because he was mad when I got into it — which I get now ’cause he came to this country so I could have an easy life… and I decided to make it harder.
In high school, my depression and anxiety got really bad and I became suicidal. I wanted to kill myself — but then I didn’t, because I heard Kanye West’s “Lost In the World.” And I hadn’t seen The Avengers yet. I told myself I’d been waiting for the movie for more than five or six years — and if I don’t see this fucking movie — I can wait, you know? When I was down, I would tell myself: “Rocky could get up for one more round! Be like Rocky!” Movies have always been a safe space for me, a place to escape — a safe haven. They helped me through a lot.
Film should be accessible — that’s why I don’t knock big blockbuster films because they’re films for the everyday person. I see film as a public service. Because the people who make the film industry go aren’t the critics, aren’t the bougie ass people with film degrees and the people who show up at Tiff. The people who keep the film industry going are the people who fill up the seats on a Tuesday. You know what I’m saying? That’s who I want to speak to.
I just want to help people. I want to give a kid a character like Spiderman. If I do that, I can die happy.
All of your films, in some way, speak to the experience of growing up Latino in Canada. It’s an integral part of your artistry. I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit.
I’m pretty far away from the Latin community in Toronto. That’s because my family moved away from them — we’re not just “Latino”, we come from so many different places. We’re Ecuadorean, Bolivian, Columbian, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican. I was raised Ecuadorean in every respect. I was always surrounded by Ecuadorean culture — I only spoke Spanish at home, the food I ate, the telenovelas, soccer, the music we listened to at home, all LatinX. And I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so it feels like I was born Ecuadorean, grew up Ecuadorean, and my Canadian identity developed later and is still developing (though I was born at St. Mike’s, right in Toronto’s core).
Plus my dad didn’t push for us to be surrounded by other Latinos because he wanted us to be “Canadian.” He wanted us to assimilate to Canadian culture because, in Latin America, there’s this saying — “if you don’t love your country, you don’t love your mother.” His Immigrant Dream was to assimilate. But I’m not — Canadian, you know? I’m not a play-hockey-drink-maple-syrup type of motherfucker.
My generation of kids, we all had this understanding: we’re Canadian, but we’re from somewhere else, too. When you ask someone, where are you from? You don’t mean the neighbourhood, you mean: where are your parents from?
Right.And I think that’s a complex part of second and third-generation mentality.
This has always been a big fight in my household. I say I’m Ecuadorean, my dad says no, you’re Canadian. I feel Ecuadorean-Canadian.
The experience is one of being lost. It’s not in the States where you have a giant block of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans — around you. A lot of the time, I feel more Latino than Ecuadorean. Because when you’re a Latino in Canada, and when you’re removed from the community, the most predominant Latin media comes from Mexico and Columbia, or it’s Cuban-American, Dominican-American, Mexican-American, Puerto Rico-American. And I have so many roots artistically in Latin music like salsa, bachata, merengue, and reggaeton. And so many of the greats of those genres come from those cultures. Latin media’s informed my identity here in Canada because I’m so removed. To be Latino is very, very fucking complicated. I can’t really say I’m a part of the Latin community. It’s just now that I’m starting to interact with other Latin artists and people.
That’s really interesting, actually. One of the most provocative things I’ve heard you say — and I read this in some online promotional material for Turtles — was that Canada as a country is this kind of liminal, between-space for you. And that’s a loaded space to play in, creatively. You’ve written about the subway and the marketplace as being racialized spaces, spaces for people of colour to exist at the limits and boundaries of the city. Peter Parkour — he’s a liminal figure. You also write, I’m reading here, that your identity has been experienced “in between two worlds, the outside (Canada) and [your] home which [is] a microcosm of Ecuador.”
And I read in the Turtles promo that you call Canada a “beautiful dilemma of multiculturalism.” Beautiful dilemma — why beautiful?
It came from a few things. It came from when someone called me a burrito n-word. Right outside of my condominium. Me and my sister have also been called sand n-words (which, in a lot of ways, is ten times worse and is proof of even bigger problems) multiple times. People have told my sister she’s not a real Canadian. These events have made me question, you know, what’s my place here in Canada? The white people don’t like me. What the fuck even is Canada? It’s not even a real place — we stole it. Actually, I didn’t steal it. White people stole it. And I’m here because a bunch of white people stole my shit from South America so I had to go follow the funds, which happen to be here in Canada.
The weird thing though is, that like — let me get this right, Camille. Multiculturalism comes from immigration.
Yeah, and immigration and colonization are sister forces.
Immigration is the direct cause of colonization. We had a bunch of white people come to all these places, okay? The conquistadors, colonizers, whatever you want to call them — they took all the shit that we had developed ourselves into big, beautiful nations as if they never happened — so you have all these people living in third world and developing countries. So what do we do? We follow where the money and resources went. That’s Canada, America, Spain — wherever you want to go.
But here’s the thing — Canada has a bunch of people moving there because they’re suffering the consequences of colonization. But why do we have Canada? Because Canada is a colonized nation — it’s stolen land.
Multiculturalism is beautiful! But it’s also built on the blood and death of Indigenous people. And my relationship with that is — I’m a Latino, I’m the product of genocide and rape, ’cause of the conquests. You feel me?
Yeah. I’m with you.
It’s a beautiful dilemma because multiculturalism is a beautiful thing that’s a result of colonization and conquest. It’s beautiful — look at when the Raptors won the playoffs. That’s why I love Toronto. We look like a fucking rainbow. You get on the subway, you hear 7 different languages and nobody looks the same. That’s a beautiful, amazing thing. But it’s also built off of something really fucked up. And that’s the macro — but the micro, as Canadians we use multiculturalism as a “forget about genocide, racism, and residential schools and segregation in the 1980s!” We’re supposed to be peacemakers, hey?
But — people of colour are racist to each other! You feel me?! We have prejudices against ourselves — Look at Latinos, we have beef with each other rooted in Colourism and Nationalism. Multiculturalism has lots of growing pains. We have to recognize that it’s an ideal. So we need to reflect and analyze when we’re having destructive thoughts, processes, and actions — so we can continue and strive towards the beauty perfect multiculturalism is. We need to be honest with where we need work so we can move forward.
The thing about Toronto is that what makes you accepted is that you’re different. If you’re here, you’re allowed to be different. That’s the beauty of the city. You walk through Toronto and you’re walking through different microcosms. Kensington Market — Augusta’s very Latino — then Baldwin’s Caribbean, Jamaican, and a bunch of other cultures, which is right next to Chinatown. It is beautiful.
Growing up in that multicultural, kaleidoscopic landscape – I know you said you felt a disconnect from the Latin community in Toronto – but were there any LatinX filmmakers and/or artists that you admired as you came into the early stages of your career?
I didn’t look up to a lot of LatinX filmmakers. As a young child of lower middle class immigrants, my parents didn’t show me, like, European cinema. I grew up with superhero movies, animated movies.
The people that I looked up to as a kid were Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee — athletes and activists. People who were greater than themselves. I didn’t understand art’s influence on me until I was a teenager.
Even now, I don’t look up to a lot of Latin filmmakers. Look, the Latin diaspora is very complicated. So many cultures, dialects, languages. And people like to throw in my face when I complain: “Oh, what about Guillermo Del Toro? Alejandro Iñárritu?” Here’s the thing. They’re white guys from Mexico. Their experience is a lot different than mine as a visible minority Latino in Toronto. The filmmakers that inform my art are Taika Waititi, he’s a Polynesian filmmaker in New Zealand. Edgar Wright, he’s another one. I also look up to Spike Lee. He’s so political — and Ryan Coogler, and Frank Capra. Except for Edgar Wright, they’re all men of colour and immigrants near big cities.
In high school, I got into theatre so I discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda. I really loved him. And I started looking into Big Pun, Fat Joe, Cypress Hill — looking for Latinos in rap — then Desi Arnaz, Gina Rodriguez, Rita Moreno — I discovered all these amazing Latin creatives.
But even Lin-Manuel Miranda — his dad’s a politician. They came to New York with connects. You know what I’m saying? At the end of the day, I’m much more blue collar than [Miranda]. It’s so hard, as a young Latin person, to find people who are like you. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of people making art that speaks to my experience as the child of Latin immigrants living in Toronto. It’s scary, but comforting — that I can be the first.
Yeah, I can really feel the Lin-Manuel influence in Sit Down/Rise Up — but you also cite your influences as being Casablanca and The Get Down. Your work comes from a chaotic hodgepodge of places, but it’s so cohesive. Your film Here We Go is an ethnic magic realism rom com. In Sit Down, you’re taking on sacrifice, revolt, resistance — using art and music as a political mechanism to focus on social change.
So what is it that, at your core, motivates you in your work? Rage — against sociopolitical bullshit, racial oppression, classism? I understand it’s hard to pin down forces, but — if you could?
Ha. Ha. HAHAHA. (He laughs so hard he coughs.) This is a really funny question, Camille. I’m going to chalk it up to the fact that I’m just a pissed off brown kid.
HA. I love that.
Here’s the thing — rage against sociopolitical bullshit, classism — that’s just my experience. Ugh. What motivates me in my work? Um — Camille, this is a hard question.
I’m motivated by two things. I’m motivated by being an entertainer — I want to make movies for the everyday person, for the people who come to the movies on Tuesdays.
But — um, growing up as a young kid of colour, I also just want to make the movies that I wish I had when I was a kid. That’s why I made a rom com with an Afro-Latino dude. Because, you know, why can’t people who look like me fall in love? The reason why I never saw myself on screen as a kid is because of sociopolitical bullshit — classism and racial oppression.
Yeah, I’m a hodgepodge of a lot of things. Like — I talk about a lot of whack shit, but I’m motivated by love. Love of my life. Love of the world and people around me. I love life, I love my country, I love where I’m from, I love my family — and things like racism and classism, these are things that threaten what I love. And I make movies to defend that shit.
I’m also a product of Toronto. I was raised in the multicultural mosaic of Toronto. I’m all over the place because Toronto’s all over the place — the people, architecture, music, art — I walk Toronto as a young artist, happy to have a space to grow and create, as a social worker, aware of its shortcomings and defending what I love about the city, and also as a grateful son of LatinX immigrants, grateful to be a part of the mosaic. This unique relationship with the city is a big chunk of what informs my art.
Your Sit Down/Rise Up short film made waves — I’m seeing a long list of showings here, among them Toronto New Wave Film Festival, Los Angeles CineFest, Toronto Youth Shorts, AM Egypt Film Festival – and it won Best Student Film at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival. Did you ever have, like, a “holy shit, I did it” moment?
I have not had a “holy shit, I did it” moment because I feel like I haven’t done it yet. I’m very much doing a bunch of baby steps right now — I will feel like I did it when I’m on the Jimmy Fallon Show, promoting Avengers 25.
HA. I’m looking forward to watching you on Fallon. Then there’s your latest film, Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup? – which, if I’m summarizing this appropriately, is about a Latin teen coming up against racial stereotypes and choosing whether to succumb or to rebel against. As you know, I’ve read it and seen it — several times — and the-importance-of-you-telling-this-story-as-a-Latino-Canadian aside, you’re one hell of a talented storyteller. How did Turtles come to fruition? What was that process like?
Thank you. Turtles came from a weird storm of shit. I touched upon racism, my identity, my Latino experiences — but also, uh, after I made Here We Go, I heard that one of my professors — in a closed room — said that one of the reasons they didn’t screen my movie is because audiences would be confused as to why there was Spanish narration over two black leads because “black people don’t speak Spanish.”
So — that was the first time I felt that because of who I was, and the stories I was telling, I was being stopped purely for that. So I was just really mad. Between getting called a burrito n-word and that, I was really fucking upset.
I was also coming off a really, really bad breakup. My ex — uh, there was this alt-right rally in Nathan Phillips Square where a bunch of protestors were yelling at refugees and immigrants to “get back to where they came from” — and I took a moment to sit down because it’s literally a bunch of people telling me I don’t belong in my own city — and she looked at me and said, “why are you so dramatic?”
Turtles was a way of trying to find myself after getting beat up by strangers, my professors, and my ex. It was a process of trying to find myself again. Turtles is also a love letter to my mom — she hasn’t seen the film yet, actually — and to my dad and family to say thank you for all the sacrifices that they’ve made.
It’s weird, because it came from rage, love, and anxiety. I have anxieties about not being good enough because people count me out — because of the way that I look and talk.
Even in very white, liberal spaces, I go up and use my slang and people look at me like I’m some random street rat that doesn’t deserve respect — but then they go up on Instagram and talk about how “woke” and “with the movement” they is. Same thing with teachers. You know?
The artistic process was just like —I don’t know how to describe it. A lot of mental and physical pain.
There were, I think, twenty-nine drafts of Turtles before it went into production? I just kind of delved into it. Visually, it was inspired by Do The Right Thing. Thematically, by The Iron Giant. [Giant] is about this alien robot who everybody thinks should be a gun or weapon — but he decides to be a good person. That’s what a lot of men of colour go through, especially Latin and black kids — people villainize and demonize them, and tell them that they’re bad. Those kids have to make a choice. Do I succumb, or do I fight against those stereotypes? And how complicated the answer to that question is — And how it shines some light on the pressures that go into answering it (living in a postcolonial world that took advantage of our ancestors, and now takes advantage of us). That’s what Turtles is about. Our choice, how WE make it.
So you’re creating space. You’re transgressing. You’re disrupting. This is what I love about you – you’re unapologetic and loud about who you are and what you’re doing. And you’re pissing off your old white male professors at Sheridan, because of that. That’s why they’re threatened. I love that. That gets me off.
Ha ha. Transgressing and disrupting — it’s like — yeah, I want to do those things, but it’s just the way that I tell stories. You know?
Yeah, I get it.
It’s not that I want to be edgy. I just make whatever movie I want to make at that moment and it’s usually inspired by what I’m watching.
I guess that I’m just a disruptive, transgressive, unapologetic, and loud person. Ha.
Actually, I’d love to hear more about Sheridan College. I commend you for going through a practice-based film program like that. I always say — I don’t let the university get their grimy little hands on any one of my projects. This is really what I’ve been dying to ask you: what was that like, studying film there?
Um — Sheridan was weird for me. I met a lot of beautiful, amazing people there. But I wasn’t expecting the culture shock. It’s a lot of international students, lots from small towns. There’s two different kinds of Canadians — Letterkenny Canadians and Kim’s Convenience Canadians is how I like to describe it.
Haha. That’s funny. That’s good.
I felt like I was alone — going through college and university as a person of colour, your eyes get opened to white academia and how that fucks with you. My eyes opened up to anti-oppressive frameworks, the effects of colonialism — how capitalism and colonialism have essentially crafted all of the problems that I’ve had to face.
When you’re a person of colour in a prominently white — and white as in, like white-away-from-urban-centres, white people who aren’t always around people of colour or people of other cultures — you start to feel really alone. As a person of colour, I felt lonely.
When something racist would happen, I would talk to one of my white friends and they’d do that thing where they’re like, “Are you sure? Are you sure that really happened? Are you sure they meant it that way?” And you feel like you’re alone and you’re crazy — as opposed to when you’re in Toronto and something goes down, you turn to your POC friend and you’re like “that was whack” and they’re like, “yeah, that was whack.” So it was hard.
What about the actual faculty?
Well I had this one teacher who was reading our scripts aloud — and this is the first script I ever wrote for Sheridan, in first year — and this is when I knew I was fucked: He read the line, “Yo what’s up, fam?” And he’s like, “What are you trying to do? Make these characters talk like black people?” And I’m like — oh my god. I’m absolutely fucked.
So I started writing Turtles in Bill Robertson’s class and that was fantastic because he really kicked my ass and pushed me. Then Turtles got green lit and Elinor Svoboda took us on as our supervisor — thank God she took a chance on me and Turtles so we could make it. Then they sent it out to the rest of the faculty supervisors, and I got a note about, like, the “burrito n-word” part. And it said, “I don’t believe something like this would happen.” That happened to me. There was another note: “I don’t think Latin people would experience this level of racism.” So I read that and I broke.
I cried talking to my supervisor, Elinor, on these notes made on my script — I was just trying to make a movie. And be fucking understood.
My two films Sit Down/Rise Up and Here We Go did not get screened at Sheridan. But they got screened around the world. Sit Down/Rise Up won two awards, went to the Toronto Youth Shorts, played in Poland and Greece at humanitarian and social justice festivals…. but it didn’t get screened at Sheridan. Here We Go didn’t get screened at Sheridan but it was screened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as a part of a conference about multicultural storytelling — and at the AGO. Here We Go also got a distribution deal in New York and it got shown around high schools and colleges for this mental health initiative through a non-for-profit. But yet Sheridan doesn’t put my shine on.
So — how am I getting recognized in the outside world but not at school?
But then you walked away with two major awards — Best Screenplay for Turtles, which was your thesis film, and Best Critical Paper for an essay you wrote about Reclaiming the Latinx Identity from the Colonial Lens via film.
The tango with the neoliberal university is really tough. I have a lot of complex feelings about liberal arts education — you know that already. Those departments can be provocative, but for me they were also frustrating and regressive. Especially when you’re trying to make breakthroughs, when you’re trying to experiment, when you’re trying to figure out who you are as an artist. You can’t do that within the confines of “structure.” That’s my experience anyways. What ended up happening with the racist professor?
Yeah, that professor said those things about my script and the Latin experience, and I was so attached because so much about Turtles is — it’s really just me. It deals with my insecurities: am I good enough? Is my effort sufficient to my parents’ sacrifices? My insecurities about my relationship with my mother, myself, my own level of authenticity… it’s a very personal film. So when I saw those comments, I lost it. But I know that they’re also really ignorant comments made by someone who is really ignorant.
As a person of colour, I don’t think that they’re making strides with trying to tell stories of colour. They’re doing a phenomenal job when it comes to white women, but when it comes outside of the “minority” of white women, they’re not doing a lot.
That’s, sadly, true for a lot of institutions that like to label themselves as progressive.Speaking as a white woman.
That’s the shitty thing about film school. You really can’t teach directing, writing. You can teach people how to be a technical force. You can teach people structure, all that jazz. But film school, really, is about helping you find your voice. And if you have teachers that understand your lens, you’re good. But the issue at Sheridan is that directing teachers don’t understand those different lenses, don’t understand that different people from different cultures and different places have different modes of storytelling and different ways of seeing things.
So — white academia and white art says that, because you’re presenting this in this way, it’s not good enough. But it’s not that it’s not good enough. It’s not white enough.
It’s a shame. A few other people of colour at Sheridan fell through the cracks because the proper teachers with the proper lenses aren’t there. I always felt like I was operating alone because I didn’t have those teachers either.
Trying to make art in a predominantly white space is that — Ugh. You want to get a good grade, but you forget that art’s not for a grade. But then also, you want to be able to get a scholarship? Because you’re broke? And also, you have to fight being conditioned into thinking what’s white is right. But then, you think — am I being authentic? To me, to my people, my ancestry, my culture? When it comes to that, white people can’t tell you if you’re being authentic. Thank God I had my friends to go to — Christian Anderson and my sound recorder, mixer, editor, and foley artist Naomi — a Latin woman and an Afro-Latin woman. Christian would call me out if I was being problematic, lacking a lens of empathy, if the script was villainizing people of colour — especially at the end, where there’s a stand-off between Tony and another Latin man. My friend Naomi would double check me on my Spanish and cultural references and would keep me honest and remind me of who I was making the movie for. Her and my DP, George Bull, really were partners in crime, always in the trenches with me — obviously led by our amazing producers.
But when you work in a white environment, it’s hard to do that. I did not feel safe at Sheridan, and I really hated that.
That’s a part of a way bigger issue when it comes to postsecondary education and these spaces of art and culture — they’re not there. Look at Black Panther. It’s a great film. When you watch the film, it feels like all the crew members understand how important that film is. You can feel the difference between projects for paycheques and projects that are really important to everyone involved. Black Panther — they care. You can sense that throughout the film. It’s because they’re a predominantly black cast and crew.
But when you’re a person of colour in a student environment, trying to make something that’s racially motivated, that’s based in your race and culturally motivated… they don’t feel the experience of the subject matter in their soul and at their core. You know?
The other thing, too, that really broke me at Sheridan — Sorry, this is so long…
No. Please — keep going.
So — the Canadian Consulate in Georgia wanted to make a film with a Canadian school and a film from Georgia. So they sent out this competition to make pitches to a bunch of different schools in Ontario. I was asked to make a pitch and my pitch got selected. So I was responsible for writing a script with a writer from Georgia — I don’t remember which college it was for.
I worked really hard on that. It’s like I was writing another thesis film while making my own thesis film. It was a really proud moment for me. It was a really proud moment for me. Because, as a writer, I got to represent my country. Like — one of my childhood dreams was reppin’ Canada at a world cup. I always wanted to get good enough at something to represent my country. Especially as the child of immigrants. That’s the dream. I know I’ve talked all my game, but I’m so critical of our country because I fucking love it. That’s why this experience was incredibly heartbreaking when it went sour.
But what ended up happening was… uh, this is really hard to navigate and people don’t know this and I’m not sure if I want the world to know this —
It’s okay. Say whatever you’re comfortable with. Besides, probably like four people read my blog.
By the end of it, I felt like I won the pitch because I was a person of colour. Because I brought that level of authenticity. But when it came to bringing that authenticity, and keeping in mind that it makes the script — that was thrown out the window when it came to other aspects of the film.
So — it was supposed to be the story of two Syrian refugees who were separated at birth while trying to escape, and one of them lives in Georgia, one in Toronto. By the end of it, I felt tokenized. I felt like the school used me to “get it.” Like, “Oh! We have this brown kid! We’ll use him.”
Then when I kept writing it, I kept asking the school — Hey, I need a mentor who’s actually Syrian, or someone who’s actually a refugee, to help me out here. I’m not Syrian. I’m not a refugee. But they never helped. So I was running around to my friends with similar experiences like a chicken without a head trying to get a sense of authenticity and respect.
The school always showed that they were excited to do a co-production on a movie that was “woke”, but they never took the necessary steps into making sure things were authentic. I felt weird about doing it because it really wasn’t my story to tell. I feel ashamed and tokenized by the entire experience.
Another weird thing about Sheridan — the favouritism. I got an early “green light” on Turtles. I put together a 60 page package, a whole crew, a finished script — to get in. Other people didn’t even have, like, a producer. Some teachers were like “your script was bad, but we like your group.” We couldn’t get a lead and I had to act — we almost got “red lit.” But other groups got month-long extensions for not having a script ready after being “green lit” and having casting issues… which were things we had, yet we almost got “red lit” for them instead. The favouritism is rampant. That’s why I’ve taken a break from film. I’m so sick and tired of the bureaucracy, of being pushed around by white people. You feel me?
Yes. I mean no, because I’m white — and I feel like I should acknowledge my status as a white interviewer, because this is delicate ground. I only hope that I’m doing my appropriate part to serve the conversation that you want to have.
I understand why you’d want to take a step back. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you giving me all of this energy.
Yeah. I don’t want special treatment because I’m a brown person. That’s why I have an issue sometimes when I win shit. Did I win shit because I deserve it or did I win shit because I’m brown and got a handout?
That’s what people don’t understand — we don’t want handouts. We just want to be on an equal playing field. We want to earn it. It’s like this feeling of having to work twice as hard to get half as far.
Before, I let all that anger about race really fuel me. But that anger and that hatred just consumed me and — you know, I’m just tired.
That was all the bad shit. But for the good shit — I was really lucky that I had a teacher, David Barlow, take a chance on me. He really pushed me, he’s amazing and phenomenal and put as much work teaching you as you would into a script. He really taught me structure. Then Bill Robertson, he taught me how to trust myself and develop my own style, be my own artist and writer. He would always push me. He believed that I could be better. Then my teacher Elinor Svoboda, who helped me when I was going through a tough time — after the strike. She is just so kind, knowledgeable, and tells it like it is. She was always in my corner, she understood that I was trying to tell stories differently.
Then there was this teacher, David Gray, who told me the most important thing that I’ve ever heard from somebody about my art — about my movies in first year. He said, “the movies you’re making are reflecting the person you think people think you are.” Like, I was making movies that reflected the image that I thought people had of me. I told him I wanted to help people and he said — if that’s what you want, go volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a non-for-profit. And now I do social and youth work. I haven’t told him. I probably should.
But I don’t feel like I grew at Sheridan. My growing happened in Toronto, when I came back home. [Sheridan’s] a small, tiny place. I had a fucking terrible time. But I met amazing, beautiful people who I’m so grateful for. Yeah.
Were most of your teachers white? Because I imagine that’s tough — vying for the “respect” of an audience that your films aren’t even for. That racial tension in the film school world — how did you deal with that? Overcome it?
Yes, most of my teachers were white. There were two teachers of colour. I was taught by Tracy German, who’s Indigenous, and Aisha Jamal.
I’ve had some amazing teachers, like this one teacher Desiree who is always behind everything that I make, every single little thing that I did. She would always be open and listen.
How did I overcome it? I’m really fucking stubborn. I don’t know — you’ve just gotta be stubborn and believe in things. You have to keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it, and that you’re not making films for white audiences. Turtles was not made for Sheridan. It was made for children of immigrants. For children of colour. For Toronto.
We’re also always taught that, you know, you’ve gotta hustle every day! Go for it! Fight fight fight! Nah, G. You know what I’m saying? You’ve gotta do self reflection because fighting every day takes an emotional and physical toll. That’s what Turtles was. Playing the playoffs with a sprained ankle. I know I’m capable of doing that. I know that I have that fight within me. But that capacity, that amount of work, better be fucking worth it. That’s the question I’m trying to answer right now: is this gigantic fight worth it? That’s the relationship between what you love and what you want to do. If you love it, you make it work. Film isn’t sunshine and rainbows. It’s fucking insane. So this thing that I put this warrior spirit into — I just want to make sure that it’s worth it. Film school can take that burning desire, that interest, that mystique, away from you.
That’s a huge lesson to learn, one that I’m still learning. On the subject of the hustle, with Turtles, you really went for utmost visibility — you wrote, directed, and starred in. That’s insane — but the film never seems self-indulgent. And I think it’s tough to do that without self-indulgence, it’s impressive. How did you juggle those worlds?
Um, I don’t know how I did it, Camille. Thing is, I’m a writer/director. I have to write what I direct. I think you can relate — it’s like singer/songwriters. When you have a singer who performs a song that they wrote, you feel that shit. You feel that. You feel the emotions. But when someone sings a song that isn’t their own, it doesn’t have, like — it loses, like, a layer of emotional complexity and authenticity. And both versions are authentic, but when you’re showing people your soul — you know? That’s how I feel about writing and directing.
For me, writing and directing are synonymous. They’re part of the same thing. I don’t see them separately. You know?
That’s why I have a weird relationship with film — because some people just love film. They just love working in it. I really can’t say that I love film. I love storytelling — that’s why I’m also a poet and an actor and I love music and I love plays. I just love stories and their emotional affects — what they can do and how they can help people. Film is just the manner in which I’ve chosen to do that.
The starring thing, I never wanted to do. I was like, I don’t want to be that douchebag. But we just could not find a lead. So everyone stepped up. We were a real team. Everyone stepped up, took pressure off of me, and allowed me to perform. Everyone put their confidence in me, my crew was the only reason I pulled it off. They were all in my corner and I am eternally grateful.
As a director, your job is to take the talents of everyone and collaborate. My job is to develop with my crew and help develop each other. Directing should be a symbiotic relationship with your head creatives, where you go back and forth and learn and grow stronger together. If you stay genuine and authentic, auteurship comes naturally? Trust your vision and style and it’ll happen. If you’re trying to be different and not BEING different by being you. That ain’t it, chief. And the beauty of film is collaboration. So collab!
I think I could have done a better job as a director if I wasn’t acting. I could have done a better job acting if I wasn’t directing. That’s a big question, Camille, and I’m so sorry that I gave you that answer. If I ever come to England, can I buy you lunch?
No, I’m buying YOU lunch if you ever make your way over here.
I understand you’re doing the festival run thing now, which is nuts. What’s the festival experience like?
The thing is, I haven’t been to a lot — I have lots of coming up.
I feel like I really can’t comment on it because I’m still very much in the minor leagues. But you just show up, see your movie, see other people’s movies, and if you think a movie is dope, you go up to that person and you say “Hey! Your movie’s dope! Can I get your number for networking?” Essentially it’s like going to a bar and trying to get laid but getting laid is getting someone’s number so they can give you a job or work on your set or you can work on their sets.
It’s a fun time. You get to be with other filmmakers and share your art with people and they think it’s dope, you know? It’s always great when you love somebody’s film and the person whose film you love comes up to you and is like, “yo, I think your film is amazing.” It’s super nerve-wracking, watching people watch your movie with theirs. You just put a movie in and hope the right person watches it.
And you find people. I found my Production Designer for Turtles at Toronto Youth Shorts, two years ago. It’s not about the big things, it’s about the tiny connections that really come in clutch.
You’re making waves in a predominantly white industry. I know Toronto is a very multicultural city, but I suppose that multiculturalism is performative if we’re still having issues getting people of colour to the front lines of their respective creative industries.
Do you feel like intercultural film (or theatre, or art in general) is still looked on as lesser? I think that’s a big mistake white people make — they (or, I should be saying ‘we’ — I’m Northern European, I’m the whitest) don’t understand the experience of being racialized, so we try to measure your stories up to our own — because we’ve had textual authority for so long — but there’s nothing in our canon that they can be compared to. So we express our critical disinterest. I’ve been seeing a lot of that nowadays. White critics (and even just patrons of the arts) don’t know how to productively and critically talk about race. Most are afraid of the word.
Yeah. I think that telling stories of different cultures and races really gets lost in translation. People of colour have a different viewpoint. When you’re a white artist or critic, I think for them, it’s about “telling a story.” But for people of colour, we’re just getting excited about telling our own stories for once, we have this really different relationship with storytelling. We have that personal relationship and the pressure – will it serve our cultural communities and the general audience? We have to balance those two together. You don’t know who is going to understand the sensibilities of these two cultures.
I think it’s true that people kind of look down upon that intercultural – when you have characters speaking in slang. Because it’s a world that’s different from where they come from.
I think that we’ve just gotta keep making space.
How do you want to see the landscape of Canadian media change? In representation/diversity, POC voices getting out there — What’s it gonna take?
Here’s the thing, a lot of the emerging filmmaking programs aren’t really for “emerging” filmmakers. They’re for people who – like, they’re for young filmmakers between the ages of 28-36. And that’s not really where the young filmmakers are. For you to apply to these programs you have to be deep into your career and have a lot of shit to start.
So it’s like, you have to deal with an immense amount of bullshit to get your foot in the door and get into programs where – ugh, this is a hard question, Camille.
We don’t make enough space for people of colour. And because of that, they don’t think that they should or can be in the media. We’re in a world where people of colour are told they can’t be doctors or engineers – why the fuck would you want to be an artist?
If we need more POC voices out there, we need stronger art programs in our schools. We need more grants for emerging artists – but like super emerging, who are only one or two short films in. We need more agencies, communities, safe spaces for people of colour, but also more networks between POC. We need more ways of developing.
I really don’t know the answer. For me, I do my workshops at work and I try to tell the kids that they should go into the arts and I offer them help. That’s a part of it, reaching marginalized and racialized communities and giving them the resources where they can delve into it, or even ask the question: Should I be a director?
Then our film schools aren’t good for POC. They don’t take care of us, nurture us, help us grow. We need spaces where people who are like us can mentor us properly.
I’ve been talking to other industry professionals and asking, like, where are the writers of colour? And they say, well, they’re not good enough. So I ask myself, why are they not good enough? But the answer is that when you’re a POC, you don’t have the resources or places to go to really hone in your craft. To get your foot in the door as a POC, you have to start the game incredibly talented. You need a lot more talent and luck to really get places because opportunities aren’t set for you properly as if you were a white person to grow or practice. It’s like practicing soccer without a ball, basketball without courts. So the vast majority of us aren’t improving fast enough, so we have to be fucking exceptional. You have to present yourself as fucking exceptional. Your work ethic has to be ridiculous.
With all that being said, I think CBC – between programs like Kim’s Convenience and Tall Boys, who they have staffed in their positions of power, they are really great. They have POC, women of colour in high-ranking places. And they’re making room for really distinct Canadian multicultural voices. The CBC’s doing a really great job.
What’s it going to take? Not voting Conservative, because they want to cut CBC’s funding!
Amen to that.
And Tiff has to do more. What kind of working class person can afford to go watch a movie for 50 bucks at 3PM? How the fuck do you expect a family to go enjoy a movie?
I get that pirating and stuff is ruining the film industry but, like, these movies have to be made more accessible. If there were rulings at, say, Cineplex – like, 10% of all played films have to be Canadian – we could get an audience for diverse voices.
We’re forgetting who we make movies for! I know there’s the art and the critics and the people who to go film school, like myself, who can sit down and intellectualize a film about a white dude complaining about how terrible life is but – we are the ones who are dealing with how terrible life is, and WE don’t want to GO TO THE MOVIES! We don’t want to go to the movies! We don’t want to go to the fucking movies because we don’t want to feel like shit, we want to go to the movies and come away humming the Rocky song and feeling like we can beat any of our problems!
People forget about that. People hear the word “general” and think “unintellectual.” But nah, man! You can move people! The indie and big-budget film games – they’re different skill sets.
We have to stop waiting for POC to navigate white academia, learn shit from school, and then enter that “intellectual” hemisphere of filmmaking. You have to start looking at the general audience more. It’s a really complicated thing. And what’s it going to take? A lot more energy and time into the development of young POC.
There has to be a lot of more done at the absolute bottom. Kids. Give them chances.
My last question isn’t really a question. I just wanted to say how proud I am of you. My respect for you knows no bounds. I believe you can go anywhere and do anything — I’ve loved and respected your artistry even before you started winning shit and going to LA or wherever. You know I’ll support you however I can, without being too annoying of a white person — you know what I mean? Ha. Thanks for being my first subject. Hopefully these questions weren’t shit.
These questions were not shit. You’re the best. Thank you for supporting me.
And you’re not an annoying white person. You’re a really nice white person.
WAIT. One last thing. Where can people see your stuff? Anywhere online? Sorry. Should have asked that earlier.
Follow the film up on Instagram – @turtlesfilm, and then follow myself on Instagram @pauldanieltorres. I will be posting up the full length version of Here We Go – just go to my website or send me an e-mail to view any of my fucking movies. You can watch them if you like.
Actually, there’s one thing I forgot to mention. You’re going to hate me. A LatinX artist that influenced me – Celia Cruz. The Latin artist who has affected my work the most. She was a woman who, when she came down with brain cancer, she made la vida es un carnival – it’s about how life is a carnival, life is beautiful, you have to take the good with the sad. In these last moments of her life, she made all these songs for people to enjoy and appreciate life. And to dance. She faced death with such fucking vigour and courage. She doesn’t give a shit what people think. I try to be like her.
Anyways, that’s me. I hope you’re having a great day up in England. Thank you so much for interviewing me. You’re the best. And I’m sorry for how long all of this has been.
No. This is amazing. You are amazing. Thank you.
PAUL-DANIEL TORRES’s FULL BIO:
Paul Daniel Torres is a twenty-two year old, youth worker, facilitator, director, screen writer, spoken word artist and sometimes actor. His films have screened all around the world, including in the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the AGO. He is the son of Ecuadorean immigrants, born and raised in Toronto. His art is informed by his upbringing, as he delves into topics such as race, multiculturalism, the Canadian identity, and his love for Toronto. Always the black sheep, he enjoys telling stories of lost misfits trying to find their place in the world. His love for writing and acting came started as a coping mechanism for his depression and anxiety. He believes art has the power to teach, unify, inspire and help. The main motivation behind his work, is that hopefully through trying to understand himself, he’ll help others feel understood and as well be entertained. He makes movies for the everyday person who go to the movies on Tuesdays to escape. His style is eclectic, he’ll switch tones narratively and visually on a dime without a care for consistency. This is because he draws great inspiration from the multicultural mosaic that he grew up in and his belief that life isn’t just sad, or just happy. His favourite movies are The Iron Giant, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Do The Right Thing. His favourite directors are Frank Capra, Taika Waititi, Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler and Edgar Wright. His latest film “Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup?”, an action-adventure dramedy about the LatinX-Canadian identity and the immigrant dream, is currently on its festival run.
On June 22nd of this year, mere weeks before my playWe All Got Lost opened at The Westdale in Hamilton, transgender activist Cedar Hopperton was arrested just outside of Gage Park’s annual Pride Festival for their involvement in a violent confrontation between religious anti-LBGTQ+ protesters and queer counter-protesters, one which made regional headlines and triggered several anti-hate demonstrations outside Hamilton City Hall.
In a statement issued to the public, the Hamilton Police Service attempted to justify the arrest by claiming that Hopperton violated their parole (the local resident pled guilty last November to their involvement in a Locke Street vandalism spree) by participating in a “public demonstration where peace was disrupted.” No anti-LBGTQ+ protesters (with hate signs) were arrested nor jailed.
This, of course, passionately enraged(there it is!) members and allies of the local 2SLGBTQIA+ community, especially given the Hamilton Police Service’s long and frightening history of violence against queer people. The HPS were originally not welcomed to participate in Pride for this reason.
Protesters who had witnessed the violence testified that Hopperton, a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate, was actually not responding to the hate in a violent manner and was, instead, attempting to intervene and defend their queer allies. When Hopperton came back at the police force with a heated anti-hate speech (that essentially expressed their distrust in the cops for not keeping queer people safe) at city hall, they were jailed.
It was in this sickening climate that We All Got Lost, our queer-feminist anti-conservative beast of a play, was getting ready for a run on the Fringe circuit.
The show had already picked up a New Play Contest win (after placing as a finalist in the Winnipeg competition) and, on that note, was only the second instance in Hamilton Fringe history where a woman had won the contest – and the first time a young, local woman with a story about young women had won it.
To say that I felt the weight of this would be an understatement. It led me to a series of complex questions, one in particular that plagued me:
How and where do (or should?) my identity politics overlap with my artistry?
There’s a provocative essay written by Jeanette Winterson in her Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery collection in which she explores the paradox of being publicly labelled as a “lesbian” artist. This essay is entitled The Semiotics of Sex, and any attempt of mine to condense or summarize her musings would fail miserably – some of it I agree with, and some of I don’t (the published year is 1997 and the year, today, is 2019 – of course art and theory, and specifically queer art and theory, evolve) but here are some juicy, digestible bits that would fit this post well:
“In any discussion of art and the artist, heterosexuality is backgrounded, whilst homosexuality is foregrounded. What you fuck is much more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. It may be because the word ‘sex’ is more exciting than the word ‘book’. Or is it? Surely that depends on what kind of sex and what kind of book? I can only assume that straight sex is so dull that even a book makes better reportage.” (Ah, Winterson – always cheeky!)
And, only a few lines later:
“I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.”
What is it about? Prurience? Stupidity? And as Descartes didn’t say, ‘I fuck therefore I am.’? The straight world is wilful in its pursuit of queers and it seems to me that to continually ask someone about their homosexuality, when the reason to talk is a book, a picture, a play, is harassment by the back door.”
The first time that I read this essay, it struck me as being relevant to a number of discussions I’d been having with queer friends and colleagues. A lot of my work, in theory, contributes (in one way or another) to conversations surrounding feminism and technology, queerness and capitalism.
In short, I like to keep “myself” out of my own playwriting work, not due to some crippling autobiographical anxiety (my folk music proves otherwise), but because I honestly feel that I don’t matter. Work precedes and exceeds me. That is my nature as a creative.
That being said, I also come from a place of social privilege. I am a cisgender white woman from a middle class family. I am femme and hetero passing and I have dated many men. My struggles have, for the most part, been visible in (albeit fetishized by) popular culture and media. I do not believe that placing my identity at the forefront of my work has an active, provocative, disrupting purpose.
Objects was, among many other things, an experiment with (and lesson in) confessional discourse. The installation demanded I disclose some of my most personal and intimate experiences, some of which of a romantic or sexual nature, for viewers’ consumption and for the overall affect of what I was trying to achieve. The exhibit is now facing an online reprise on my personal website, where it is doing much the same thing.
It was through a post-performance “Unscripted” discussion that I realized the extent to which autobiography and confession were, in and of themselves, theorizing. Confession was the nature of the work. The work commented on confessional discourse by participating in it. I was in control of my own confessions and I was empowered in that art.
But performance art and live theatre are two entirely different mediums, although shaped by similar forces.
This brings me back toWe All Got Lost.
Did I face condescension and juvenile treatment, in isolated instances, for the experience of being a young (22-year-old) woman leading a company of young women with a show about young women? Absolutely. Was I also welcomed with open arms by some very kind, sweet, and supportive members of the Hamilton theatre community? Also yes.
Before I go any further with this discussion of queerness and capital, I would like to give you some insight into the fabulous process of working and playing with my brilliant cast and creative team.
Eight months ago, during one of my worst insomniacal episodes, I was feeling strange about moving back to my hometown of Hamilton for a liminal six-month stretch (before hopping on a plane to the United Kingdom) and decided, on a total whim, to submit my only unproduced play to the Fringe New Play Contest circuit.
After making a splash with my last two Winnipeg Fringe sell-out hits, The Last 48 and The Stock, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to return to the Fringe. Nevertheless, I submitted.
Shortly after winning the Hamilton Fringe New Play contest, I learned that only one other woman had won it before me. This put me off, but it also lit a ginormous fire under my ass. This, I thought, was an opportunity for regional female (& queer!) voices and stories to flourish. This was a chance to grab my conservative hometown’s Fringe by the ass and make it listen.
I held self tape auditions. I met a bunch of (mostly) internet strangers at Churchill Park on one sunny afternoon in May. We took photos in mismatched Catholic uniforms that would soon be plastered all over the city of Hamilton. That day, as sweaty and strange as it was, was the start of something special.
We barely knew each other. We rehearsed every Monday in empty classrooms at McMaster University. We snuck into theatre spaces. We sourced props from forests and backyards and the back of our closets, brought them into rehearsal, and played with them for hours. We built worlds out of bedroom sheets and broken sticks. (I was experimenting with Viewpoints techniques, as well as “moment work” I learned from NYC-based writer Mina Samuels, to devise the physical landscape and aesthetic of the piece.) We barely had a budget. We were kind of scrappy. But we believed in the work that we were doing.
The rehearsal process was difficult. I could not have picked five more different women for this task. With everything happening in and around Hamilton, and with the intimate and very personal nature of the piece, things were hard at times. When Hopperton was arrested on that fateful day in June, I felt a sickness that I feared would accompany me all through the show’s run. I didn’t know how audiences would react to us. I thought we’d be swept under the rug until View Magazine shocked us with a cover feature.
In this article, I talk about many things. I talk about my influences and overall body of work. I do not talk about my labels. I do not talk about my political beliefs. (All of these things, by the way, I am very vocal about to anyone that knows and loves me. Or to anyone that has me on social media.)
So it starts to bother me when, as the Fringe goes on, I am approached by several local artists, journalists, theatre goers, and more whose first question, more often than not, was: What makes you qualified to tell this story?
To which I wanted to respond (rudely), “you’re asking me what makes me qualified to tell my own story?” But it isn’t, technically, my own story. This play is not autobiographical. It isn’t directly constructed from real-world experience, and the parts that I guess “are” aren’t privy to your nosiness. What are you really asking? Am I a feminist? Am I queer? Am I religious? Was I raised Catholic? Did I witness a murder? (Spoilers.) Are my answers to these questions more important than the work? Why do I need to justify myself to you? Would it make you happy if I screamed Yes-This-Company-Is-Made-Up-Of-Real-Feminist-Real-Queer-Real-Young-Women-And-Also-I’m-An-Artist-Which-Is-Perhaps-The-Most-Dangerous-Identifier-Of-All in your face?
Do you think “Telling Queer Young Women’s Stories” is all just a scam to make a quick buck off of the unsuspecting (and likely homophobic) small town Fringe audience? If that were the truth, that’d be an impressively bad business strategy.
Do you deserve answers to your questions? Is my reluctance to speak about myself, in relation to my work, selfish or internally misogynistic and/or homophobic? Is my reluctance to “out” my cast in every promo interview a product of the same forces? Is it a product of my own anxiety? So what? Do I really owe anyone anything? And does the work not speak for itself? If a woman or a queer person comes forward with a story, why is it our immediate reaction to question whether or not it’s rightfully theirs?
Are men asked all of these questions?
Of course I understand where some of these people are coming from. I’d be pissed if there was a band of hetero artists making waves by appropriating queer identities for capital gain, too. The complex conversation surrounding appropriation is crucial right now. There are many a folk out there who use diversity rosters and other similar measures to “perform” their own “liberalism” without actually practicing active allyship. This is a huge, gross problem. Stories of marginalized persons should be toldby artists who identify as a part of that group. But this statement opens up an infinite number of portals, filled to the brim with more complex questions and queries – the nuance for which I don’t have the time and space for on this blog at this moment.
My point here is this question: Why are women (and especially young women) not always “trusted” to tell their own stories?
How are our post-feminist politics active in the post-#MeToo era? How can we ask “the right” questions while simultaneously respecting the private and intimate nature of these things?
You’re probably wondering how all of this ends. Well…
On the festival’s final night, we won Best of Fringe and Best of Venue (The Westdale). We were chosen as View Magazine’s Reviewer’s Pick. We were the highest attended and highest grossing show in the festival. Our sales and attendance surpassed that of two bigger-budget commercial musicals, two commercial darlings (F**kboys The Musicaland You Want it What Way: A Boy Band Tale – cue the screaming heteros!).
Somehow, against all odds, people showed up. And kept showing up. And kept showing up. Critics started raving about it. Audiences started talking about it, started showing up more than once. People started believing, and I mean really believing, in the work that we did.
What’s more, we were approached by so many young women (and especially young, queer women) whowere so happy to finally see themselves represented onstage. Talking to some of these women was the best reward of all.
I’m still trying to fully comprehend the experience of We All Got Lost and dissect its many, complex affects, but hopefully with this post I have shed some light on some of the issues effecting my hometown’s creative spheres.
I also hope that I have, in some way, opened up a dialogue through which some of these things can be more fully fleshed out.
Food for thought. I might come back to this later. But for now, I’m hopping on a plane.
The first word of Homer’s Iliad. And (quite appropriately, might I add) the first word of my newborn digital epic.
I have been thinking a lot about rage over the past few months. Political rage, environmental rage, Ginsbergian rage against systems and institutions, rage against neoliberalism, productive vs. unproductive rage, rage and fear – and this blog: birthed by rage, conceived out of rage, and now coming to fruition with the same name as an epic that, in many ways, poeticizes rage.
For myself at least, rage is concurrent with helplessness. I can think of no two better terms to describe our current global state of affairs, our divisive sociopolitical climate, the belligerent racism, classicism, and white supremacy – not to mention ongoing effects of slavery and genocide – that plague the western world, and of course the international environmental catastrophes that seem to summon the apocalypse.
We are a culture in crisis. Our shared sense of humanity has been challenged, compromised, and at times completely ignored or forgotten. We falter at the mercy of forces that precede and exceed us. Our individual and communal senses of self have suffered irreparable damage.
It seems petty and somewhat self-indulgent, at a time like this, to start a blog.
The year is 2019. The date is September 19th, and in four days I am getting on a plane and moving to Europe. This, (minus the Brexit catastrophe, of course) does not fill me with rage. As a matter of fact, as one would naturally expect, I am quite thrilled to go.
I’ll kick off this post with a short anecdote.
Six months into my undergraduate degree at Western University, I started my first blog. I don’t remember what it was called, but I do remember that my first ever article was in response to a talk made by Jillian Keileyat Museum London back in 2016. The day was St. Patrick’s Day. My floormates were blacking out at the bar. I was attending a lecture series hosted by a band of public intellectuals. (A good start.)
I was attending Western University to get my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with full intentions of segueing into corporate law. It took me two months of undergraduate study to drop the module and, instead, transfer into the major module of the class that challenged, stimulated, and provoked me most – strangely enough, for me that was English Literature. (This is where I give ample thanks to Dr. David Bentley.)
I have always been a philosophical, intuitive, artistic soul – so this came as a surprise to absolutely no one. If anything, my lawyer ambitions were jarring to friends and family. I had trained in acting, singing, dance, and music for ten years of my life. I worked professionally in these disciplines and spent my high school years fully engaged in artistic endeavours.
Needless to say, I was brought back to right where I belonged.
Now back to the St. Patrick’s Day lecture:
I was struck by two major things Keiley said that day.
One. That independent Canadian theatre flounders quite clumsily in the shadow of globalized big-budget broadway musicals, and that we have collectively lost the ability to be local because we yearn to be global. In the words of Michel Tremblay: to be universal, we must be local. I had a moment of epiphany. I realized that I was living in a country with a theatre and performance economy that suffered from identity crises at every level, that lacked a strong sense of dramatic tradition and precedent.
When confronted with the literary and theatrical works of American and European (primarily British) canons, I experienced thrill and intimacy. To my own nation’s body of work, I felt indifferent.
At that point, I’d performed in plays and musicals at the forefront of public consciousness: Hairspray, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,Spring Awakening. I was raised in a city outside of Toronto that, insofar as I knew, approached the liberal arts “traditionally”, which was to say globally. I never saw anything avant garde or experimental growing up – the closest I got was attending a professional production of John Logan’s Tony-winning Red, which at the time was life altering.
I didn’t know what live theatre and performancereally was, or could be, until my first year of undergraduate study.
I had not seen very many (contemporary, Canadian) plays back then. I had only written two short texts, none of which had received full productions. I had not self-produced. I had not been picked up. I knew I was an artist but I didn’t know what that meant.
Two. That people go to the theatre not necessarily for the experience of culture, but for the illusion of it. Think of the Stratford Festival. Think of the countless productions in stasis, neither products of tradition nor progress (2018’s Julius Ceasar comes to mind). When did live theatre and performance become a passive medium?
So I started a blog to explore some of these thoughts in greater depth. My response was picked up by Joshua Lambier, Program Director of the Public Humanities department at Western, who showed an interest in my work and offered me a Program Coordinator position with the department.
It was the beginning of a long, exhausting, and strange four years.
As I said, the year is now 2019. The date is still September 19th. According to the bio written on my personal website, I am now an award-winning artist working across disciplines in theatre, writing, performance and installation art, music, electronic literatures, and digital media. I’ve been lucky enough to travel across Canada with my ad-hocs, producing a canon of provocative live theatre and performance work that plays intimately with various onstage technologies.
Next month, I will begin my Master of Arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I will be travelling across Europe, seeing a wide variety of plays and live performance experiments, and meeting a diverse pool of international creatives.
As I embark on my Master’s, and then (hopefully) doctoral journey, I wanted to create an online space where I could engage with some of the ideas being thrown around in my communities. I could interview fellow artist-practitioners and post them here, I could review shows and installations, I could bring my academic/intellectual practice into a public realm, I could write about politics and climate catastrophe and all the things provoking that aforementioned rage – only, through public discourse, I could channel that rage in a productive, stimulating manner.
The first word of Homer’s Iliad. The first word of The Camiliad. The first step of a long, exhilarating series of journeys.