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BWW Interview: Arts Club's NO CHILD . . . with Celia Aloma and Ali Watson

Live Theatre Returns to Vancouver with Nilaja Sun's One-Person Play!

BWW Interview: Arts Club's NO CHILD . . . with Celia Aloma and Ali Watson

This September, Arts Club will be bringing back live theatre to Vancouver with NO CHILD ... by Nilaja Sun. NO CHILD ... is a play done by one actor taking on 16 different characters. This award winning show (including an Obie Award, 2 Outer Critics Circle Awards, and a Lucille Lortel Award) will be playing at the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from September 24th to November 8th. I had the pleasure of talking with the two incredible women who will be playing the main role in the play: Celia Aloma and Ali Watson. Read the full interview below!

1) "NO CHILD . . ." is a play written by actress and playwright Nilaja Sun. It has won countless awards and is considered Sun's most well known play. It is also one of three one-person plays Arts Club will be putting on this season. Can you give a brief summary of what the play is about?

CELIA: NO CHILD follows a teacher (Ms. Sun) who changes the way her students see themselves. The play is narrated through the janitor's voice and he tells the story through his perspective about what goes on within the school. The children put on a play called "Our Country's Good" written by Timberlake Wertenbaker. It is about a group of convicts that put on a play about the recruiting officer (a play within a play). Ms. Sun questions her own morals when she brings in this play about convicts because the kids are treated like convicts (how they feel everyday). She ultimately wonders whether this was a good thing for her to do. Through doing the play, the kids learn through art how to express themselves. Overall, this is a classic tale about a teacher coming in to an urban school (where the kids are misunderstood and difficult) and showing them something new about themselves!

ALI: The play is about a teaching artist named Ms. Sun (based off of the writer) who goes to work in a low-income area in the Bronx where there's at-risk youth. She teaches them how to put on a play and the importance of team/ensemble work. Ultimately, she shows them how to rise above what the world thinks of them because everyone thinks of them as delinquents who aren't going to go anywhere. She teaches them that they can be better than that and be what they want to be. They just have to believe in themselves!

2) I read that you will be playing 16 characters in this one-person play. How does this work and how often do you switch between characters? Is it difficult to encompass each of these characters in the show?

CELIA: Each character comes with their own challenges, but they are also unique! The play is about an hour long and you get these classroom scenes where there are nine characters speaking all at once and that happens in about six different scenes! The rest of the scenes are more interactions between one to two characters. At the moment, we are going through scene by scene and are being very specific about each character. We are doing things like finding out the goal of their scene is and what their body language, position, speech, and standing posture are. Even though it's so difficult to play all of these 16 characters, you kind of find a sweet spot in there where you have a little bit of fun choosing between the characters. It is more challenging, but I have a good time doing it! Once you get past the learning and memorizing of all the parts, you can have a little bit of fun!

ALI: Yes! It's very, very difficult but interesting! I have never done anything like this before, but always have wanted to give it a try. It is difficult because the switches have to be very quick. You have to switch from one fully realized character to another in a matter of seconds and know exactly what they sound like, what their accent is, and what their body language would be! It takes a lot of practice and work both at home and in the rehearsal hall to nail each movement from one character to the next.

3) Is this the first time you have done something like this? Have you had any practice with this during your training in school or classes you've taken?

CELIA: I have never done anything like this before. This is my first time and I'm really excited! In theatre school, we did mask work, but I wasn't a huge fan of it. My first big production after school was called "Numbers Game." Through that show, I had to play many characters, so I learned to slowly be comfortable playing other characters other than myself. Following that, I did "The Kink In My Hair" at Pacific Theatre and I had to play different characters as well. That was when I started to explore different avenues of myself. Then there was Ann Atwater, who was a real person where I researched how she spoke, lived her life, stood, and what her point of view was. That was really fun and that's when I slowly started getting into character acting fully!

ALI: Nothing quite like this! We did do one course called "Set of Five" where we were taught how to put on our own show, but it wasn't a play, it was more of a cabaret setting. We were singing songs that were already written and we wrote our own patter! We were not really playing our own characters per say, but mostly singing as ourselves. Overall, I've only ever done anything kind of like this for fun as an activity. For example, acting out a scene from a movie, which happens a lot more than you think with me!

4) What is your favorite part about this play and what are you most excited to show audiences this September?

CELIA: My favorite part about this play is being able to play different characters and finding different voices (e.g. where they live or how they talk). That has been my favorite part of the process! My favorite part of the play would be when the kids finally express how they feel in their own words! I feel that that is the moment in the play where they unlock their proverbial self by speaking their truth!

I want the audience to see that NO CHILD is a microcosm of a big systemic issue of how children do in fact get left behind. I think the education system is broken and kids are not getting the proper education they need to succeed. We see it over and over again where millions of Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous youth go through the public school system and don't end up becoming educated from it. The important message I want the audience to take away is that the future of this country will be determined by what happens in our schools and how we prepare the next generation. The problem is not just how some teachers are bad, it is just that they are not equipped for the job. For example, in the play, there is a teacher that fears the kids and another teacher that doesn't take the time to get to know the kids at all. There are two other teachers including the main protagonist, Ms. Sun, that completely respect the children and in return, the children start respecting them. So, the education system is not very prepared to deal with underprivileged children and how to teach them how to succeed.

ALI: My favorite thing about this play is the opportunity to play a lot of characters. A lot of rehearsal time for me has just been finding each character! It almost feels like a game of charades mixed with Simon Says. I quite enjoy playing multiple characters. I'm always the one that is always acting scenes from movies and playing multiple characters for fun. It's really awesome to be doing this at work and have it be my job!

My favorite thing for the audience would be that this play is something that they are probably not used to seeing. Audiences are most likely used to seeing ensemble pieces with a bunch of people playing characters. I think with NO CHILD, it will be super interesting to see one person switching between characters so quickly. It is bizarre, but very cool! In terms of my wardrobe, I wear the same thing for the whole show; however, I make minor changes depending on who's speaking. For example, I wear a very neutral outfit that is grey with one pop of colour. The pop of colour is a way I can signify different characters subtlety. With the zip up jacket I wear, I also signify different characters. For example, some characters wear it zipped up, some wear it unzipped, and some don't wear it at all. There's a bit of wardrobe changing, but the overall outfit doesn't change!

5) For this production, Arts Club implemented a "bubble method" to ensure conditions were as safe as possible for everyone involved with the show. What was this like? Did you find that it was more challenging to prepare for this show compared to others?

CELIA: No, not at all! We have two teams where I rehearse in the morning and Ali rehearses in the afternoon; so Ali and I never get to see each other. We wear masks in the common area and each rehearsal hall has its own one-person bathroom. We have a sanitizing station and a sign in sheet where we are asked questions every morning about our symptoms. It makes you feel very safe and the only preparation I had to do was to buy myself some masks and lots of sanitizer!

ALI: So far it hasn't been super challenging because it has not been that different from if you were to do a one-woman show pre-covid. The thing that I do find a little challenging/ very different would be how the director interacts with us. Normally, the director could come up to the stage and show you exactly what they want (e.g. positioning). Now, every time the director wants to show me something in the playing area, he has to put his mask on and I have to step away from him. We can never be close together and we have a lot of protocols to keep everyone safe. Overall, the things that I explained are very strange and very new, but the way rehearsal is conducted is pretty standard for the most part so it hasn't been completely foreign (which is nice). It feels comforting to be back in a rehearsal hall because I didn't think it would be happening any time soon!

6) I'm very excited for theatre to be back in Vancouver and for audiences to have the opportunity to experience shows "in-person" again. Why should people come see your show?

CELIA: I want people to come see NO CHILD to remind them that if we want to see the change around us, we need to be keyboard warriors. We need to write to our local MP. Democracy is not just about voting; it is about holding our political people in check. They are the people that we vote for to speak for us. If we want things to change in the education department, we have to write to our local Minister of Education. They read all of our emails and have to write us back! I had to ask myself, why is the most marginalized group of youth painted as the worst of the worse in the poorest district? NO CHILD might be an extreme version of what goes on in the school systems, but we can all relate to these characters in some way. You can find a Jerome in every school, a Philip who is scared to speak up and shy to read, or a student who loves to gossip who always knows the tea about what's going on. Hopefully when people come to see the play, they will be driven to make sure that our education system is the best that it can be for future generations!

ALI: I think they should come see the show because as I was mentioning before, it is going to be different compared to what people are used to seeing and I have always thought was important to see shows that tell other people's stories. For example, the stories of people from low-income areas don't always turn out the same way as the stories of privileged people. It is good to hear what life is like for people from areas that are so high risk. Shows like this will allow you to put yourself into another person's shoes for a while and see what life is like for them. Sometimes by doing this, you can see that life for them is not so different than what yours is like. The characters in this play are just regular teenagers like everyone else, but with this added stress of society telling them what they are.

NO CHILD . . . will be playing at the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from September 24th to November 8th. Tickets start at $39 and are available at artsclub.com. A digital stream (both live and recorded) option is also available for purchase.


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