Ever wondered about the hidden journey a joke takes before it lands with roaring laughter? Join us, as we, together with our exceptional guest liza paul, peel back the curtain on the world of Canadian comedy – an art form celebrated as a societal equalizer yet struggling against underfunding. We delve into the grit and dedication it takes for a comedian to craft a joke, ensuring it not only elicits a laugh but resonates with audiences far and wide.
Thriving in the world of performing arts is no easy feat, a truth we uncover as we draw intriguing parallels between the theatre and stand-up comedy. Liza enlightens us about the ephemeral nature of these arts, and the fascinating process comedians undertake – rehearsing, refining, and reworking a joke until it achieves its full comedic potential. This process mirrors the artistry in theatre, where resources are meticulously combined to create something truly captivating.
We also discuss Liza’s inspiring journey from Associate Producer at Soulpepper, to the Curator and Manager at Theatre Centre Cafe Bar to an Associate Artistic Director at the Theatre Centre, underscoring the significance of creating inviting spaces and adapting creatively during challenging times like the current pandemic. We also highlight the upcoming Comedy is Art Festival at The Theatre Centre. So, come along on this riveting journey that takes you behind the scenes – into the heart and soul of art, laughter, and authentic human connection.
liza paul is a storyteller, comedian, curator and producer who loves laughter, life, music, family, stories, all things bashment, impromptu dancehall-flavoured a cappella street jams, and pum-related non sequiturs. she has trained at the second city (improv conservatory + 2017 bob curry fellowship program) and is the co-creator of pomme is french for apple (best of fringe 2012, toronto), which has also played in winnipeg, edinburgh, and new york city. She has worked with Soulpepper theatre company, anitafrika! dub theatre, bCurrent theatre, and the watah theatre, and is Associate Artistic Director at The Theatre Centre.
Comedy is Art tickets: https://theatrecentre.org/event/comedy-is-art-2023/
Transcript auto generated.
0:00:04 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theatre scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble. Now I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada. So join me as I talk with mainstream theatre creators you may have heard of and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy. If you value the work that I do on Stageworthy, please consider leaving a donation, either as a one-time thing or on a recurring monthly basis. Stageworthy is created entirely by me and I give it to you free of charge, with no advertising or other sponsored messages. Your continuing support helps me to cover the cost of producing and distributing the show. Just four people donating $5 a month would help me cover the cost of podcast hosting alone. Help me continue to bring you this podcast. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, which you can find in your podcast app or at the website at Stageworthy.ca. Now onto the show.
Liza Paul is a storyteller, comedian, curator and producer. She is also Associate Artistic Director at the theatre Center. She joined me to talk about the theatre Centre’s 2023 Comedy is Art Festival, running from October 24th to 28th at the theatre Center. In this conversation, we talk about how comedy is underfunded in Canada, the courage it takes to risk failure on stage in front of an audience, liza’s theatre Journey and much more. Here’s our conversation. So we’re going to be talking about the 2023 Comedy is Art Festival at the theatre Center. It’s presented by the theatre Center and comedy gets a bit of a short shrift in the theatre world. It is largely underfunded and I don’t think it gets in. I mean, I don’t want to quote Rodney Dangerfield, but it doesn’t get a whole lot of respect and it kind of deserves it because there’s a lot that has come out of the Canadian comedy scene. In your opinion, what makes comedy important?
0:02:41 – liza paul
I think that comedy is important because it’s a great equalizer as far as art forms go. All you need is a voice and an idea and some time to put those things together to craft something. Music lessons can be prohibitively expensive, for example. You have to have an instrument, you need a teacher. theatre also can be expensive. There’s not a lot of equal opportunity when it comes to a lot of the art forms that people are into. I would say that, for better or for worse which I’m sure we’ll get into later comedy is at least accessible to people in a way that other art forms might not be.
0:03:26 – Phil Rickaby
Sure, I mean there’s various. There’s different kinds of comedies. People could do some stand up and they can do amateur nights or things like that, and there’s sketch comedy. There’s lots of sketch comedy in this city. You have it at Bad Dog and other places. In terms of the funding of comedy in Canada, where do you see it as something that we have missed the mark on?
0:03:53 – liza paul
You know, I was just having this conversation and I’m curious about the missing the mark myself. I wonder sometimes if it’s just that comedy is so fun and funny. If people are like this doesn’t need any money, like it’s doing fine, it’s great, people are having a good time, they’re doing what they’re doing. What I think maybe gets most is that it’s so much work. It’s so much work to see if a joke has landed. You know, unlike other professional art forms, like theatre, for example, you don’t get the benefit of okay, I’ve been cast in this show. Now I’m going to be in rehearsal for three or four or five weeks and I’m going to be getting paid for each of those three, four, five weeks. Never mind when we get into the run, I’ll be getting paid for that too.
A comedian, you know you write your joke, you test it out, and you test it out unpaid. You know you take yourself to the open mic, you see if the joke works there, you bring it home, you refine it, you go over the recording you made of yourself and listen to when people were laughing. And I think that a lot of that work is invisible. I think that people aren’t familiar with what it takes to make a joke land, Like how many times you have to put a thing into the world before you’ve crafted it to its finest, most hilarious point, and I feel like you know. Comedy artists are encouraged for the most part to apply for funding as theatre artists, but in those cases these artists are not being judged by a jury of their peers. The people on the theatre panel don’t know who these comedians are, and why should they? It’s a totally different art form and we don’t ask dancers, for example, to apply as writers. So I don’t really know why there’s that. You know there’s a disconnect there and I’m not sure why.
0:05:37 – Phil Rickaby
I mean I think that some of the problem also falls with the fact that we don’t we don’t as far as theatre goes. A lot of times we don’t respect the comedy. We want our theatre to be important, especially when we’re applying for funding. It’s got to be important if we’re going to fund this. And while comedy is important, it doesn’t have that giant air quotes important that we often look for or that people often look for in theatre that is awarded grants and that may be a thing that is also missing. Sometimes we don’t respect the fact that it’s good to just have fun sometimes in that world.
0:06:15 – liza paul
Preach. It’s very true, people don’t give good times enough respect. And I think that I think that often you know, people confuse sad or serious or depressing with important, like those things are not necessarily synonymous. And which is not to say that important things cannot be sad or serious or depressing. I’m saying it’s not that they must be those things. And I think that a lot of you know the most salient messages that people have kind of absorbed they come from comedy. They come from kind of mainstream comedians just making commentary on the way people are living and and and opening people’s eyes to different ways of seeing the world, and that’s really valuable. That’s really valuable. And so I’m not really sure, you know, I don’t know, I don’t, I don’t know why comedy doesn’t get the, the rapid deserve.
0:07:13 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I, I don’t understand either, because you know it’s. It’s all well and good to tell people exactly what you’re telling them, but but comedy comes at it from the side and sort of like gets in and let somebody and tells you what you’re telling, but without having to hit you over the head with it, and come around the corner and and make somebody realize the importance without having to be told. Now this is important. It just sort of it comes in and it’s sort of like infects the brain in a in a in a, in a fun way.
0:07:44 – liza paul
Yeah, it’s a craft, it’s the art of opening somebody up so that you have a soft spot for this message to land, in my opinion. I mean there are lots of things that comedy can do, but I think that’s definitely one or done.
0:07:57 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, you were mentioning about how comedians, when they’re honing their joke or they’re honing their set, they not only you know they don’t get. They often don’t they do it for free, they do it. They do it. They do it in public, comedians who are given their words, even writers, they have a workshop and maybe a small group of people will see that workshop. Comedians fail in public, where in theatre we often fail behind closed doors and then we can say, okay, I can go back and work on that, but a comedian fails with the joke they think might work in front of an audience and has to deal with crickets or whatever comes with it, and that takes a certain amount of bravery that I certainly don’t have.
0:08:47 – liza paul
If it takes a tremendous amount of bravery. You really have to be determined, you really have to be receptive, you know. You have to be ready to put this material out there and see. You know what people, how people respond to it. And that’s a blessing and a curse, Because on the one hand, you might write a joke that you think is hilarious and you say it and it gets no laughs, but then this thing that you had as a throwaway comment is then that’s actually the diamond in the rough, and there’s no way to know that until you’ve put it in front of people. And that’s why I do believe that comedy is one of the bravest art forms there is, because you don’t get to hide. There is no, let me just rehearse this and rehearse this, and rehearse this until I have it perfect and then I’ll do my concert. No, I just keep putting it out there until it is perfect and then continue to share it.
0:09:37 – Phil Rickaby
It’s amazing that when you think about you know people do what people are doing, working towards like an hour for their Netflix special or whatever it is. They’ve done hundreds of hours in little clubs doing this material over and over and over again to do the comedy special and then probably never do those jokes again because they’re out there and it’s like all that work for a one time thing that some people there are a bunch of people are going to see, but then you never revisit that material, which is like just almost tragic sometimes.
0:10:12 – liza paul
Isn’t this the nature of everything people love? I mean, think about the concerts that people are putting on, like Beyonce is never doing Renaissance again Like this, is it? It’s never coming back. The meals that you love. It takes hours and hours. You get the food, you prepare the food and then in depending how quickly eight minutes, 12 minutes, 17 minutes it’s gone, Never to be seen again. I feel like that’s a hallmark of something, of all the stuff that people enjoy.
0:10:40 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely, with trying out a material on stage. One of my favorite podcasts. It’s called Good Ones. It’s a podcast where the host, jesse David Fox, interviews comedians and often like about the like, going like really into the weeds about a particular joke. But near the end of the show he’ll always ask like what’s a joke that you’ve never been able to get to work? But you will go to your grave convinced that this is a funny joke and it’s always fascinating to hear like the joke that a comedian keeps like. I have tried this for 10 years and no audience thinks it’s funny, but I swear it’s hilarious. And again, failing on stage, just determined to make this joke work and seeing it not.
0:11:24 – liza paul
Yeah, I mean, it’s really something like that. There is a very specific quality I think all comedians have, which is just you have to love it. You have to love it, particularly in this circumstance, in this city, in this country, where it’s not a funded art form. So if you’re not doing it for the money, then you have to be doing it for the love, and love makes all of us do wild things.
0:11:49 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely. Have you ever seen the documentary TIG?
0:11:53 – liza paul
No, I didn’t TIG.
0:11:54 – Phil Rickaby
Natero through that, in addition to the whole story she’s telling you see her work through a joke from the first time that you see it and then you see, like many times she revisits that joke until finally it kills. And it’s a fascinating piece of like. Oh okay, so she started with an idea and then she failed a million times before it became funny. And it’s one of those interesting like see how just the slightest word tweak or timing thing is the thing that it took to make it, to make it actually work as a as a bit.
0:12:24 – liza paul
Yeah, because comedy is art, like that’s the truth of it and one of the best things about it. It’s like anything that anyone does with the virtuosity you, you, you do it, and it looks so easy, it looks so off the cuff. It’s like oh, this idea just occurred to me, not? I’ve workshopped this joke for years, actually, in front of hundreds of people, and now, finally, it is perfect, that’s I mean.
0:12:48 – Phil Rickaby
That’s the thing is making it sound and convincing an audience that this is the moment that this is happening organically, like I’m making this up and I know there are plenty of comedians who have what seems like an improvised throwaway moment, which is carefully crafted and put together and it always feels like it’s like something on the cuff, but they’ve planned it and it works every time because it feels like a throwaway. That’s the consummate performance, right there, just to be like, I made this up on the spot. I’ve been doing it for about a thousand times now, but I made it up on the spot.
0:13:25 – liza paul
Yeah, that’s how it has to feel. I mean, my background is in theatre. I started working in the arts with Soul Pepper theatre Company in 2004. So that’s a long time ago, and I remember being so impressed by the scale of the productions and how much artistry went into everything. You know. Here’s the lighting designer, here’s the set designer, the costume designer, here are these artists rehearsing for weeks and weeks. Here’s the director, here’s all this stuff and all these resources that go towards making this thing amazing.
And then I left that organization because I wanted to become more on the performing side of things, and so I was doing a show called Pumice French for Apple, which was a theatrical offering, but it was very comedic in nature, and that was one of the things where I was like, okay, yeah, people can laugh in the theatre. I’m a Jamaican background, and so there was a lot of patois in the show. My scene partner and co-creator of the show, bahia Watson, is of Guyanese descent, and so the two of us were just like throwing all our Caribbean-ness into the mix of the thing and we were like, yes, this works. And then I started working with the theatre center, and while I was working with the theatre center. I was also doing stuff with Second City, so I was taking courses trying to figure out how to maybe unlock a little bit more of that piece of my craft. And while I was doing that, I would go into the clubs and start to do stand up on my own and I was like, why is this so hard? Like why is there so much work and why am I getting paid in drink tickets? And so when I was working at the theatre center, I was curating the cafe bar. I mean, I still am working at the theatre center. My job has changed.
But as curator of the cafe bar space, I started to invite comedians to perform there because I was like, listen, we still can’t pay you, but we can give you this room for free, but you don’t have to earn something to at least break even. Like you’re at zero, not negative, so that’s already a plus for a comedian. And then from there you can invite an audience, you can collect the whole door. We don’t want anything to do with it. And then that is kind of how the festival was born.
We got to do a thing where the artistic director of the theatre center was like Liza, we have a hole in October of 2019 in the main space. Do you want to invite some artists in here? And I was like, yes, I would love to do that. So we programmed the first ever Comedy is Art, and that one was one that had still zero funding, but we did have the resource of the space. So we were able to invite all these people and we’re like listen, you get the room, we’ll give you technical support, you can have time to rehearse, which is a luxury Like that’s definitely a luxury in this pocket of the world and then you can keep all the box office. We want none of it.
And then we started to be able to offer something that was we hope at least that offered somebody something a little bit more supported. I think that Comedy Bar and Bad Dog and Second City they’ve all been doing so much for the comedy scene in this city, and what we’re hoping to do at the theatre center is just give people, for example, maybe listeners of this show who are more accustomed to hearing reviews of theatre or talking about theatre maybe just bridge the gap a little bit so that you can see, like theatre yes, it is a huge undertaking, but comedy is too. They both happen on a stage. They’re both live, they’re both something that brings people together. And comedy is not easier. It’s not easier than theatre, not by a long shot.
0:17:10 – Phil Rickaby
No, because we get rehearsals in theatre. I want to go back to the moment when you started doing stand up. What did you think of stand up when you decided to do it? How did you think it was easy? Did you have things planned out? What did you start and what did you learn after doing it?
0:17:36 – liza paul
Okay, well, I will tell you, the first time I ever did stand up, I was terrified. I was terrified, but much like I felt when I first got into storytelling overall, which I did at the Wata theatre with the B young years ago. I had a storytelling residency there and I remember my first time performing ever, I thought my heart was going to come out of my nose, like I did not understand what was happening inside of my body and I just remembered standing there and telling myself nobody made you do this, you signed up for this, you asked for this, and now this is part of this. And I had a similar feeling when I did stand up for the first time. I had been told on a number of occasions working with to be that my writing style was comedic, like it was as though I was writing stand up comedy, even though that is not what I was writing. So I was like, okay, maybe this is a thing for me to get into. And it was the same feeling of just abject terror. And it was a thing that I’ve never said words in public so quickly ever in my life, like I didn’t give anything room to breathe, I just like, I rehearsed and I rehearsed and I rehearsed and I think you know, having done that and having done other stand up in my life, I didn’t leave room for a single like a laugh.
I didn’t leave room for anything. I was just so scared. Because theatre audiences are quite generous Colony are. The audiences are maybe not always that generous, like it’s a different, they’re different animals. Luckily, the house I played to was a generous house and it was fine and I got introduced as somebody whose first time it was, so that I think they were gentle with me. But I just remember feeling like I needed to be as prepared as I possibly could be. I I shrugged some of my lines. I just it was very terrifying and I was so happy afterwards I was so pleased and I was like, okay, I could do this again and maybe if I do it again, I could just blow down a little bit.
0:19:41 – Phil Rickaby
But I think that a lot of times people don’t realize, because a good comedian feels at ease on stage, like they seem like they’re just pretty relaxed or whatever their persona is, or they feel like they command the stage, and I don’t think people realize how nerve wracking it is to get up in front of an audience and just have things even more than a, than like a one person show. Where you’re, you know you’ve rehearsed it. This is like a bit harder because everybody in that room is like all right, be funny.
Make me laugh.
0:20:18 – liza paul
I know it’s terrifying, it’s really very intimidating, but when you find that groove, when you get in the pocket and when you get the audience on your side, there are a few things, I think, in life more gratifying than that. And also, you know your mission as a person who is trying to do this is to make people laugh, so when it happens, it’s like the best feeling in the world.
0:20:41 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely. I mean that’s why people keep doing it, right that getting the laugh is addictive. So, and you know, if it wasn’t for that, most comedians would probably never do it again, because it’s certainly not doing it for the money.
0:20:56 – liza paul
No, it’s definitely not for the money. That’s why I’m like you know what? If people are working this hard for nothing, then I feel like it’s incumbent upon us to show up, like we have to show up, for these people who are working so hard for nothing, although I’m happy to report that now that we have a funder for Comedy is Art, people are not doing it for nothing anymore. Rather than giving them the box office, we just pay them. We pay them. Well, this is one of the things that I hold very near and dear to my heart, because I’m like, having done both of these things, having occupied both spaces and, from a number of different vantage points, I’ve had the privilege of seeing this. It is worth the money, it is worth paying people to be able to do this, because what are you going to do? Imagine a world where no one’s trying to make you laugh, where nothing’s funny. That sucks.
0:21:44 – Phil Rickaby
What a boring place. That would be Absolutely Now for the first comedy is art in 2019,. How did you curate that? Or did you just like say who wants to come before? How did that come together? How is that different from the 2023 edition of Comedy is Art?
0:22:05 – liza paul
This is a great question. 2019 was basically all the people who had come through the cafe space. As I mentioned, I was curating that space and I just kept my eyes open. I would be working the bar, I would be watching, seeing who’s who and what’s what who. Most importantly to me, as far as the curatorial aspect of this festival goals, was intelligent in their humor.
There are a lot of comedians in the world who prefer to punch down, whose humor is kind of ugly, for lack of a better word. I will be the first to tell you I’m not approved. I don’t believe in censorship, I don’t believe in any of that, but I do believe in intelligent humor. I would like it if the person who is taking my time and also my money for me to sit there and watch them is not making me cringe, is not making me uncomfortable, is not making fun of anybody in the audience.
So I always try to look for people whose humor is coming at something from a different angle and whose intelligence is evident, and so, having had the privilege of being able to invite people into the cafe space, I was like great, I’ve seen you, would you like a main space spot? I’ve seen you, would you like a main space spot. And then there were other artists who I had come across just by going to their shows and seeing them or having met them in the community, and I would offer those people spots too. What I would say is different now is that the pandemic having done what it did and me no longer having that job, necessarily, of inviting comedians into the cafe, the reach is a little bit broader. I’ve been doing this a little bit longer so I can see there are more people. And then there are there are artists who have performed in festivals past as part of someone else’s show that I have invited to do their own show. So it’s kind of it begets itself, for lack of a better way of explaining it.
0:23:59 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely. Now, looking at this year’s festival, which starts on October 24th, is that right Tuesday, October 24th, you got it. One of the things that you know it’s quite a. You’ve got some sketch comedy. You’ve got music, then comedy, you’ve got some duos. What stands out for you about this year’s festival?
0:24:27 – liza paul
Well, I will tell you that curating this festival is like the highlight of my career. I love it. I love having the opportunity to invite all these people who I think are so fun and funny, and invite audiences to come and see all these people. And I think the highlight remains for me that every year is totally different than the year before and that every night is totally different than the night that precedes it or follows it. So the first night of the festival is two solo shows back to back. The first one features Aliyah Kanani, and she is a hilarious stand-up comedian who I met when I was at Second City, and she has just come off this wild fringe tour where she’s getting patrons pick and best of fringe and all this stuff. And I wanted to pair her with Al Val, who’s another hilarious comedian, because they both have such unique perspectives and both such different vibes. But I feel like their energy in one night is going to be such a blast.
And I feel like one of the things that I love about this festival is that it’s kind of comedy of all sorts. I know Al is going to bring her guitar and she’s just going to shred it while she’s riffing on all things that life has to offer. And then there are people like the Tita Collective who do Filipino based sketch comedy, and they are hilarious. And then there’s also music, then comedy, which is improv artists, and then there’s Keisha Brownie doing her minority report, which is she tries to make space for artists of color, particularly black artists, and that’s going to have sketch and stand up. And then also Kevin Shawanda, who does the closing night of the festival. He’s an indigenous artist and he also likes to invite indigenous artists onto the bill not exclusively, but that’s part of it and he has really tried to embed this idea of it being inter-tribal. And what does it mean when people come together for a pow wow, which I’m like? That’s a pretty diverse offering and I feel like there’s something for everybody in a festival that’s curated like that, absolutely.
0:26:27 – Phil Rickaby
There’s a lot to that festival. Now, this is almost not fair to say. What are you most looking forward to because that’s like it would have to be which?
0:26:39 – liza paul
of your children. Do you like best? Which of your children do?
0:26:40 – Phil Rickaby
you like best, which is not a fair question to ask anyone. But as far as like kicking it off, what do you hope to? What are you most looking forward to, not about the performance what are you looking forward to audiences discovering from this festival? What are you looking forward to discovering yourself in this festival?
0:27:02 – liza paul
I think one of the things I’m most excited about and this is like very selfish of me, but we just redid the bar at the theatre center. It is a beautiful pink quartzite countertop with lighting that is to die for, and I’m really excited to be able to invite audiences back to this festival with this brand new bar in the building. So, like shameless theatre center prod, the bar is beautiful. You will be drinking there. It’s going to be great.
But as far as the art goals which I think is really the question that you’re asking what I look forward to is being able to invite both the artists and the audiences to a fully accessible, beautiful venue, and I look forward to the kind of cross pollination that happens when the theatre center’s, you know, standard or traditional audience figures out that this festival is happening and comes to it, as well as the people who are kind of following all these comedians careers and want to participate, and then you know, just like the kind of random people that got dotted all through that, and when all those people come together and have a nice time like I love a room full of happy people this is one of my life’s greatest pleasures is bringing people together to all have fun, and so I think the thing I’m looking forward to most is the gift of a good time, and also because that’s my job, I get to have a good time too.
0:28:25 – Phil Rickaby
That’s perfect. What more?
0:28:26 – liza paul
could you ask for Seriously like it’s a really nice work if you can get it.
0:28:31 – Phil Rickaby
There’s something interesting that happens when an audience, when the traditional theatre audience, comes together with another audience. I am reminded many years ago when the Canadian stage company did the Rocky Horror Show, which brought in their traditional audience with the Rocky Horror Show people who they are not the same group, and it was a fascinating like sitting in that audience. It was fascinating because they had educational posters all over the place so that the subscribers didn’t get upset when people shouted, and it was just like interesting because the energy was so different from anything that I think a lot of people had felt in that room. And so, like the idea of bringing the theatre center’s traditional audience into like with the comedians, people who follow the comedians and just people who are comedy fans, that sounds like a really exciting audience situation as well.
0:29:34 – liza paul
Yeah, it’s super fun. Like, my parents also come to every single show, so there’s like a couple of septuagenarians in the mix. And then there are a bunch of people who are just young and looking for a good time, and the ticket prices are so accessible that it really is something that anyone can come to. And for those older people who have maybe deeper pockets and want to support an art form that doesn’t get it from its government, you can buy the $60 ticket and show up and show out, have a beautiful time, and there are drinks allowed in the theatre.
So if you’re about that life, you can really just turn up for a night and forget all your cares and be entertained Absolutely.
0:30:12 – Phil Rickaby
Now, liza, I want to concentrate a little bit on you for a moment. I want to talk about your background, your theatre experience. One of the things that I often talk about on this show is the origin story for each artist on the like. What made you first go into this? You mentioned doing some work at Soul Pepper for a while, so I think you started in an administrative side and then wanted to go more performing. But what first drew you to the theatre?
0:30:45 – liza paul
Okay, well, origin story when I was a little kid, my parents had a friend who and I’m not clear on this because I was like seven, so I don’t know exactly what her official title would have been, but they had a friend who always hooked us up to go see things at Young People’s theatre. So from a young age I was in there watching Sharon Lewis and Bram the elephant show. Like I was in the mix watching these things, and I always loved going to see shows. But I kind of felt a little bit like not that they’re all the same, but I don’t really know that these are for me. Then in 2004, when I started working at Soul Pepper, I was like, oh, I can see how, when something’s super specific, it starts to feel really universal, and so I really got the advantage of a very kind of like hands-on education about what theatre could be. But then in 2006, I went to go see the B Young performance of Blood Clot and I was like hold on, you can do this in the theatre. Like my girl had dance hall blaring in the space. She came up on stage and talked a whole heap of patois and I was like this, like this, this I love, this, I want to do this.
And so, while I was working at Soul Pepper, dibi actually was one of the first members of the Soul Pepper Academy and I have had the strange fortune of being in celebrity circles for a lot of my life, because my aunt was very, very involved in Tiff. Before it was Tiff, it was the festival of festivals. But just because I was rolling around with my aunt and my mom, I would meet, you know, queen Latifah here or Fialina Leonardo DiCaprio there, and I was like these are really cool things, but they’re not making my heart stop. But when Dibi came into the building when I was working at Soul Pepper, I was like, oh, this is what that feels like to me, starstruck to be like, look, this person is so meaningful to my perception of the way a thing could be. And then she and I got to know each other. We struck up a friendship and as she was continuing the program, she decided that she was also going to start a theatre company of her own.
Now this moment of hers coincided with my own moment of feeling like, ok, I’m doing a lot of writing contracts and supporting artists through their own processes, but I’m starting to feel like maybe I want to do something on that side of things myself. And so Dibi reached out to me and she said you know, I’m starting this company and I’m interested in knowing whether you’d be down to do my PR. And I was like, ok, I said thank you so much for thinking of me, but do you think that maybe we could talk? And she said you know, I’m on the West Coast, my time zones are all different, but if you email me back, we can just keep the conversation going. And I said OK, and then I put my whole life into this email where I was like listen, I rate you as an artist.
I think you’re the most amazing and I’m really. I would do anything you ask of me. I’ve never done PR in my life. I would do it for you as long as I was fine with you. But I feel like what I really want is to tell stories, and I don’t know what that means and I don’t know how I’m going to do it, and I have no idea even what you’re going to make of me saying this and I’ll just end it there.
And I hit send and then I was like what have I done? Like I just sent this thing to my mentor and how is she going to respond? And then I got an email back and I will never forget the first words of this email. It just said oh, you are fantastically wonderful. I can imagine this going many different ways. You can be a resident artist in my company. I have to go do a show. I’ll write you back when it’s done. And true to her word, three hours later I got another email and she’s like yes, you’re a resident artist now at the Wata theatre, and then we’ll start on this. We’re going to do this day, and that is really how that piece of my life kind of started to come into shape. And it was in doing that that I was able to exercise my own dreams of, you know, embedding or not embedding, imbuing my work with West Indianism, you know, like my dad is one of my favorite storytellers and my cousins are also animated, and so that that’s how that started.
0:35:14 – Phil Rickaby
Now you mentioned like doing like some administrative work at Salt Pepper. How did you? You started like you’re doing like you saw some stuff at YPT and you doing so you know, you were sort of like around celebrities for a while and you ended up at Salt Pepper. Was admin something that you had thought that you would go into or did you fall into that?
0:35:33 – liza paul
Well, before I started working there, I was working at TIUT 89.5. And I was the assistant to the station manager there and I would also take these contract gigs at TIFF every September and I would work in the industry center and there I was the assistant to the director of industry. So when I was, I had a good friend, a very good friend, maxine Bailey, who really kind of has always been my second mother. She’s always had a good eye on me. She’s now at the Canadian Film Center doing amazing things as she does.
But she she happened to know that the executive director of Salt Pepper at the time was looking for an assistant and my career that thus far I mean career I was in my 20th and so not much of a career, it was just jobs. But it had consisted entirely of supporting executives, supporting whoever was in charge in terms of whatever it was they needed to do. And so when I went in for that interview, I made it very clear that I had no idea how theatre worked. But Leslie, who was the woman I ended up working for, had never had an assistant.
So we were a really good fit that way, because I could just go in and be like, okay, well, these are the things I’ve been doing Like would you like to know about them? Because she is a fiercely independent woman so was not particularly accustomed to anyone being up in her business by any means. And then you know, I just got to be there and I was there at a moment just before they broke ground at the Young Center in the Distillery District. So I was there at a very seminal moment, like things were just all starting to blow up. So, no, I did not imagine any such thing happening for me, but I’m really happy it did.
0:37:19 – Phil Rickaby
Well, I mean, you’re currently associate assistant director at the theatre centers, so the admin is the leadership roles are still sort of coming your way. You mentioned working at the bar at the theatre center. How did joining the theatre center as an associate artistic director come about? Was that something you had in mind? Did you fall into it again, like how did you choose that or did it choose you?
0:37:47 – liza paul
It chose me 100%, I think. When I got the job working at the cafe bar, it was my friend. Ravi was like oh, they’re hiring right now. They’re looking for a mat leave position for the cafe bar. Why don’t you? You should check it out. And I was like okay. So I looked at the posting and it said very clearly like must have this experience. And I did not have that experience, so I didn’t apply.
And then a week later, ashland who at the time, I think, was the creative producer for the company wrote me and said I know Ravi sent you this posting. Why haven’t you applied? And I said well, I can read, and Ravi is my friend and I don’t want to make him look bad because I know that I am not qualified for this job. So I didn’t apply. And she’s like okay, let’s just say that you were qualified for the job. What would you do? And she’s like just email me and let me know. And so I ended up writing what turned out to be kind of a manifesto. She’d asked me for a paragraph and I was like listen, I’m obsessed with lighting music, bringing people together. I love a good vibe. I think it’s really important to welcome people when you’re producing something. I think it’s really important to remember that people’s journey, as it relates to the event, begins the moment they hear about the thing. So what does the invitation look like? Who told them about it? What does it feel like when you get to the door of the building? What does it feel like once you’re inside, like do you feel cared for? How do you feel when you leave? All of that is so important. And so then I went in and I had an interview there and I was there and I met with Ashlyn and Zoe, who was the cafe manager at the time, and you know we got through all those kind of standard questions and then we got to the one of like what do you think would your greatest challenge will be? And I said probably that I don’t know what I’m doing and everything that comes along with that. And then I got the job.
When I got the job, it was initially posted as Cafe Bar Manager and Curator and I asked for one small tweak, which was could I please need a Cafe Bar Curator and Manager? Because I really could see that that was where I was going to be able to exercise my one of my greatest strengths, I think, which is bringing people together, finding space for people and making nice spaces for people. And you know, as a racialized woman myself, it’s very important to me that we get to have places that are welcoming and beautiful not only welcoming but dingy or beautiful and unwelcoming, like it’s a weird Venn diagram that happens for a lot of people in the city and I wanted it to be both welcoming, beautiful. So I was doing that, curating and writing all the people and then pandemic warps.
So in 2020, when all my colleagues were like oh no, I don’t know if I’m going to still have a job, and I was like King, you’re the producer and you’re the director of communications and I’m sure there’s producing and communicating still to be done here, but you know what? There is not to be done here? Managing a cafe Like that is not happening. We are closed, we are not anywhere near open. But then, because I had been so kind of engaged in the curatorial piece Ashlyn God love Ashlyn, who is the artistic director and my boss she found a way to make a case to keep me on the team but promote me. So all the curatorial work I had been doing, she was like listen, board of directors like this is a perfectly reasonable ship to make. We’ll. We’ll make her the associate artistic director because she has been doing that kind of artistic work and that relationship building in the community. And yeah, I don’t, I really don’t know, like I don’t know, what would have happened with no pandemic. I mean, I had an okay pandemic.
0:41:37 – Phil Rickaby
That is the most that anybody can hope for is an okay pandemic. Um, do you miss the cafe?
0:41:45 – liza paul
I miss it, but I’m still very in it, so I don’t have to miss it I. I don’t have to miss it the way I would if I were just 100% removed from it, because I still. We are just ramping our curation of the cafe space back up, so people have been popping in. We did something called rap sheets which was a trivia night like nineties hip hop and R&B trivia night. There is a bat dog theatre has been working with us with a show that they do called they go low, we go laugh and you know people are finding the space again and the comedians who are in there are like oh it’s beautiful, can we come? So it’s all. It’s coming back and I work with a wonderful woman there, um Shanaat, and she is now the cafe bar manager. She deals with the wording of the milk and doing the schedule, all the stuff I used to do and I focus on artistic stuff for the theatre center overall and the cafe in particular Now that people are finding the cafe again.
0:42:44 – Phil Rickaby
Um, are they? Are they they? Obviously they’re glad to be back. What has changed in the cafe from pre pandemic to now? That they’ve that, they’ve that, they, they get to rediscover.
0:42:59 – liza paul
Well, it’s just so much prettier. I mean I’ll say that I am very pleased with how it’s turned out. Like it, it it’s one of our artists and I don’t know why I said our artists one of the artists who works with us, stuart Leger. He came to the cafe and he was like it’s stunning, it’s so sparkly and it’s so beautiful. He’s like this is like cafe season two, it’s like the network lights season one. They gave you some more money, you gave it a little glow up and here it is Like same vibe, just shinier, and I feel like that is really. This stays true.
I mean, the cafe is a remarkable space because it’s one of the few remaining non transactional spaces in the neighborhood. The building used to be a Carnegie library and so, as you know, like anybody can go into a library and hang out there and read books or do whatever, and Queen West, west. Queen West, being what it is these days, is kind of like you can’t go in anywhere unless you’re ready to spend at least like seven bucks on a latte or $20 on a cocktail, and in the cafe you are welcome to just come in, and I think there are people who have known that and have come back. I think there are people who have never known that and who are discovering that, and I think that you know, if you are in the mood for a drink, you can’t really beat the prices there because we’re trying not to make it so exclusive that people can’t afford to have something if they want it.
0:44:27 – Phil Rickaby
That’s great. That’s great. I have always enjoyed the cafe at the theatre center and I think that a cafe and a theatre is such a great way to introduce people to the theatre, make them comfortable in the room, and then also there’s a show, like you know, they could sort of see people going in. I know in Hamilton the staircase theatre was sort of my first exposure to. Oh, you can have a cafe and a theatre and people sort of hang out at the theatre, which is kind of awesome. I think that is a great door opener, especially for people who maybe don’t always go to the theatre.
0:45:06 – liza paul
Well, we have that cafe card program where if you buy five coffees, you get a sixth one free, and then if you buy seven, eight, nine, 10 more, or six, seven, eight, nine, 10 more, then you get a ticket to the theatre. So it’s one of those things where you know if people really are against entering the space for reasons of viewing something, we don’t force them to take the ticket. But it’s a really good deal. And, yeah, it’s important for us to people like people don’t even know that that is a theatre.
A lot of people are like, oh, this is my favorite cafe and I come here all the time and then a matinee will happen and they’re like why are all these people in here? And we’re like, well, we’re doing a show. And they’re like there are shows happening here. Like, yeah, but I like that about it. Like I like that no one’s forcing it down anybody’s throat. I like that it’s like you know it’s doing its duty as a cafe bar, that people are not aware that it serves any other function, you know, like that I feel like we’re doing our job, if that’s how people feel about it.
0:46:02 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely it’s, it’s. It’s not snobbish.
0:46:09 – liza paul
No, no, definitely not. I don’t. I never want that. I never want to curate a space that feels unwelcoming. I never want to curate a space that feels like it’s only for certain people, like it is for everyone, like that space is for everyone. And Ashlyn and I you know all of us at the theatre center we believe really strongly that we are but stewards of this resource, like we don’t own it. It’s not ours, you know. We are here to take care of it and part of its function in the city of ecology is to be a space for people. It is, it’s free without the people. What are we doing?
0:46:48 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s amazing. Um, liza, I want to thank you for joining me this evening. Uh, it’s been a great conversation. Thanks so much for for your time and and and for this great festival.
0:47:01 – liza paul
I am so excited.
0:47:08 – Phil Rickaby
This has been an episode of Stageworthy. Stageworthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby. That’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating, and if you listen on Apple podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help new people find the show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with Stage Worthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe and remember, if you want to leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram at Stageworthypod, and you can find the website with the complete archive of all episodes at stageworthy.ca. If you want to find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at PhilRickaby and, as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stage Worthy.