As an official media partner of the 12th annual St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival, Montreal Theatre Hub brings the #FringeBuzz in 2021 with an all-new interview series with artists from this year’s edition of the fest! In this Snapshot, we feature NISHA COLEMAN, playwright, performer, and storyteller at the heart of ALRIGHT: SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF LIVING, a digital show presented by Four Face Productions from June 1-20 on the FringeTV platform.
MONTREAL THEATRE HUB: As your latest Fringe creation, what is Alright: Solving the Problem of Living about?
NISHA: Alright: Solving the Problem of Living is about learning to be alright with being alive. The stories involve human connection as a common thread—the ways that we help others in their darkest hours and the ways that others help us. There are stories about getting myself into tricky situations, like the time I got locked in the Madrid train station overnight with a stray cat I was trying to rescue, or the time Carey Elwes (Westley from Princess Bride) hired me to play a gig and mistook me for a being homeless. I delve into some darker material too, stories of growing up with a suicidal father, losing a friend to suicide and saving a stranger from the same fate. I also talk about my own struggle with suicide ideation, because I believe that these topics should be talked about, and I hope that in doing so in a public way, it will give permission to others to do the same without being afraid or ashamed. Alright acknowledges that life is weird and surprising and fun and also excruciating. It’s about finding peace with being alive.
MTH: What can audiences expect from the experience of seeing it?
NISHA: Alright: Solving the Problem of Living was filmed in a tree over three seasons. Audiences can expect to spend some very intimate moments with me and a giant oak tree. The stories are told within a cradle of tree branches, which provides a safe place to speak about certain subjects. They can expect to be moved by the brilliant music composed by Pat McMaster. They can expect to laugh and also perhaps cry. They can expect to be challenged but also reassured. Fundamentally, I see Alright as a hopeful piece.
MTH: What was the idea and inspiration behind the piece?
NISHA: I wanted to do a show that talked about suicide, but I wasn’t sure how to pull that off without it being too heavy. Nor did I want to shy away from the topic of suicide and suicide ideation because when I started talking about my idea for the show, I learned that many, many people have experienced suicide ideation or have been affected by suicide in some way. But there is rarely a container in which to talk this stuff without fear and shame. It’s not a show about wanting to die. It’s about learning to live, which is how I see my trajectory. That opened up space for other stories that are not centred on suicide but on human connection, the ways we save others and they save us. We need each other—this is a lesson I need to learn over and over but have hopefully grasped on a deeper level after working on the material for the show.
MTH: Why did you choose the Fringe as the place to premiere this work?
NISHA: I have always loved the Fringe—attending and performing in shows. It was a natural place to start with this show because it is such a free environment, a place to try things, a place to share and connect with a variety of audiences. I can’t imagine premiering a show anywhere else but the Fringe. It’s such a supportive atmosphere. I learn so much by performing over multiple nights, with different audiences. The Fringe is a great teacher.
MTH: What has it been like trying to create a show during a pandemic?
NISHA: When the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe was cancelled in 2020, I thought I would put the show on hold for a year. There didn’t seem to be a way to replace the in-person experience of performing. But then all these storytelling shows started going online and some asked me to perform and even though I was skeptical, I agreed to do it. I quickly saw that while the experience was very different, it held real potential for a new kind of experience. A very intimate one. And in order to get the most out of this alternative platform, I would have to rework the show. I rewrote some of it and approached Stephen Maclean Rogers to see if he would be up for Zoom rehearsals to try and do some kind of online version. He was instrumental in the transformation. It was a really interesting challenge to work with elements such as proximity to the camera, angles, reimagining stories in a way that would unleash the audience’s imagination and allow them to see the world I was describing. We actually had a lot of fun adapting Alright for the screen and Stephen pushed me to try new things, to play with the material, to explore deeper and not be afraid of not getting things right on the first try. When we were working on the digital version of Alright, no one knew what they were doing. There was no guidebook on how to do it, no rules or best practices. We were all just trying things, which was very freeing.
MTH: What’s kept you driven to keep creating during this past year?
NISHA: I think I am always creating in one form or another, though this past year I have pivoted somewhat. I have delved into art forms I am not as familiar with, such as drawing and painting. Creativity is an energy, and even if it’s not flowing through the usual channels, like my novel or short stories, it finds other channels. I have been trying to minimize judgement towards these news avenues and just stay calm with the uncertainty that comes with exploring new territory.
MTH: How does this show/story speak to our present times?
NISHA: Mental illness and suicide have increased exponentially over the pandemic, which is one of the reasons I did not want to wait for theatres to open to present my show. It felt urgent to write and talk about mental illness and ideation as a way to normalize it. Many people are experiencing mental illness for the first time and have no idea how to handle it or talk about it. I hope that one day talking about mental illness will be as commonplace as talking about a physical ailment. People are not ashamed to admit they have a headache or a sore knee, so why is there so much shame in admitting when we are struggling with our mental health? By minimizing the shame around talking about this stuff, it will make it easier for people to seek help sooner.
Nisha Coleman (Photo Credit: Rob Esguerra)
RAPID FIRE ROUND
What have you missed most about the Fringe?
Seeing friends, the frenzy on the streets, the late-night celebrations, the exploding of creativity and the variety of shows. I used to love hopping from one show to another, back-to-back, and be amazed at how different and uniquely talented each artist was. It was like travelling to different planets.
Favourite Fringe show you’ve ever seen?
Martin Dockery’s Delirium has stayed with me. So has SELF-ish featuring Diana Bang. And Ingrid Hansen’s Interstellar Elder, which I actually saw twice because it blew my mind so much the first time.
#Fringebuzz: which show(s) on the 2021 lineup are you most stoked to check out?
In no particular order: Generations, Chop, Holding Waterways, Ailleurs les doutes d’un migrant, The Celebrity Obsession, Choral Poetry Project.
Nisha Coleman is an award-winning storyteller whose solo show, Self-Exile, won Best English Production at the Montreal Fringe in 2016 and the Bill Bowers award of excellence at the 2018 SaraSolo Festival in Sarasota, FL. Her work has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour, Risk!, CBC and PBS. Coleman is the author of Busker: Stories from the Streets of Paris, a memoir about the years she spent as a street performer in Paris, published in 2016 by Radiant Press.
ALRIGHT: SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF LIVING presented by Four Face Productions runs from June 1-20 on FringeTV. Tickets ($5.50) can be purchased online at www.montrealfringe.ca
Read here all of the interviews in the Fringe Artist Snapshots series: