CBC Radio personality, movie and TV actress, musician, filmmaker – Sook-Yin Lee has amassed plenty of arrows in her quiver. The one she never expected to add, though, was "theatre artist."
Whenever Toronto festival honchos Michael Rubenfeld of SummerWorks and Laura Nanni of Rhubarb, both big Sook-Yin fans, tried to lure her into creating something for the stage, she would always demur. To put it mildly. "I always had a very visceral reaction, of 'No fucking way!'" says the forthright Lee, who hosts CBC's long-running Definitely Not the Opera. "It seemed like just an obsolete art form."
Yet here she is, not only premiering her first theatre creation at this year's SummerWorks, but also filling the role of its first artist-in-residence. Lee shares the residency with Benjamin Kamino and Adam Litovitz, her collaborators on a 60-minute multimedia piece called How Can I Forget? It joins about 80 other theatre, music and art offerings at the 11-day performance festival, which kicks off on Thursday. So what made Lee change her mind? Partly it was the discovery of non-traditional performers such as Marina Abramovic. And partly that she had an idea begging for some immediate artistic release.
"This work came on the tail of a very arduous film shoot," she explains over lunch in a noisy Vietnamese restaurant off Queen Street West in Toronto. She had just played politician Olivia Chow, wife to the late NDP leader Jack Layton, in the CBC biopic Jack. "As an actor, I tend to embody my roles completely and utterly," she says, "and, in the process of becoming Olivia, I had somehow forgotten who I was. It made me think if you can actually forget yourself, then what is 'self,' what is 'memory?' I needed to make a work to study that."
How Can I Forget? fuses movement, poetry, dialogue, video, original music and – in a nod to DNTO – audio documentary to explore memory and identity. Lee performs the piece with Kamino, a young dancer who has worked with Compagnie Marie Chouinard and Peggy Baker's troupe. His physical resemblance to Lee prompted her to explore the themes of twins and opposites, drawing inspiration from Carl Jung's concept of the "shadow" archetype and the Japanese creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami, brother and sister gods whose incest gave birth to the world.
An early draft played to a standing-room-only crowd this past winter at the Rhubarb Festival. Rubenfeld saw it, found it "brave and personal," and proposed that the creators develop it further for SummerWorks. To help them shape it, he suggested veteran physical-theatre artist Erika Batdorf.
Lee says Batdorf's expertise has been invaluable. "She gets this strange hybrid narrative that we were playing around with. She's helped to clarify and guide the work."
Lee's involvement with SummerWorks reflects the ever-expanding scope of the 22-year-old festival. No longer just a theatre showcase, it now embraces indie music acts and a new strain of participatory performance under the umbrella "Live Art." It has also begun to attract well-known names outside the theatre world, such as singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman, whose 2012 SummerWorks show The God That Comes will play the Tarragon Theatre next spring.
Artistic producer Rubenfeld says the big names are part of his push to bring different kinds of artists into the theatre. "By inviting higher-profile people like Sook-Yin, who don't work in a theatrical genre, it helps to encourage that idea that you can utilize the theatre to do things that you didn't think possible. But it's important that it's the right kind of artist."
SummerWorks is clearly the perfect venue for Lee, whose artistic excursions have tended to be raw and risky. As the star of the 2006 cult film Shortbus, she engaged in real coitus and masturbation on-camera. And her own feature film-directing debut, 2009's Year of the Carnivore, set in her native Vancouver, dealt with a young woman fumbling toward sexual ecstasy. She fits right in at a festival boasting plays with titles such as Eating Pomegranates Naked.
And the SummerWorks fans are her kind of people.
"Part of my resistance to theatre is that I felt it was mostly for an affluent, aging white crowd," Lee says. "But I'm finding these hybrids are attracting a younger and more diverse audience. Challenging the art form revitalizes it, and brings with it an air of excitement. We're not just hitting our marks and saying our lines."
Other must-see shows at this year's SummerWorks:
Schützen: In this provocative international work based on original research, Danish performance artist Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt explores the physical and psychological effects of being armed to kill.
Murderers Confess at Christmastime: After wowing SummerWorks audiences with 2011's Mr. Marmalade and last year's Terminus, indie darlings Outside the March return to premiere a dark new play by Alberta's Jason Chinn.
The Life of Jude: Billed as the largest show in SummerWorks' history, Alex Poch-Goldin's musical tale about a misguided young priest boasts a cast of 21 – ranging from Stratford/Broadway star Bruce Dow to 2013 graduates of the National Theatre School – under the direction of David
Hello for Dummies: This participatory experience, devised by British artists Ant Hampton and Glen Neath, is like a blind date in which strangers engage in scripted conversation without looking at each other's faces.
Maylee Todd's Musical Planetarium: Look up, look way up – Todd's intimate concert combines music from her recent album Escapology with visuals by filmmaker Tess Girard projected on the ceiling of the Great Hall.
The SummerWorks Performance Festival runs through Aug. 18.