Three women reveal never-before shared stories and secrets from their lives in a theatrical dismantling of gender and cultural expectations. Their inner-most desires, frustrations, hopes, fears, and triumphs take centre stage in this deeply personal, collectively-created piece.
Advisory Board Member and Stage Manager to the Regent Collective, Thilini Seevakireedam, interviews the ensemble behind We Are XX: Samay Cajal, Rafia Salam and Anne Vo about their experience in the collective, their creation process and growth as artists. The Regent Collective is facilitated by Community Arts Manger Jijo Quayson and directed by Ali Joy Richardson.
Thilini What inspired you to create this show?
Samay Things came up very naturally, and whatever came out of the themes we spoke about or explored and then we continued to build on them.
Rafia I faced Islamaphobia myself many times in Toronto. I wanted to speak about these topics and drew inspiration from my personal experiences. Most of the writing exercises were “sit down – you had five minutes and whatever came to mind just start writing” And somehow we all connected without any direction or force.
Anne We touch upon a lot of themes and knew that we wanted to share these in our performance: feminism, cultural barriers, current issues that should be discussed, etc. We wanted to incorporate everything together. We were not forced in any way to touch on these topics it was something that we wanted to do all on our own. Something that we created and wanted to say and we had similar interest and we combined together.
Samay And I think that is really cool because it shows the similarities of woman of colour and all of our writing reflects this such as themes on migration, parents thinking in different ways, etc. I wouldn’t be able to create any of my writing without acknowledging that I am a migrant.
Thilini What brought all of you together OR a better question to ask is when you all came together what did you think?
Samay I came in at a point where I was looking for something different creatively, because I work with photography and video and I spend my full day in front of the computer. I just wanted to try something different and wanted to challenge myself. I am super shy and I’m someone who does not put myself at the centre of attention. I also had a lot of insecurities with public speaking and with the work and activism I do requires a lot of public speaking so, I decided to look for something. I saw a posting in one of the emails lists that I was subscribed too (FPYN) that said “collective looking for participants” so I just emailed Jijo and asked if I could join and stated that I don’t live in the Regent Park Community but I used to spend a lot of time in Regent Park before it was gentrified. I went away for a couple of years but once I came back everything was different, I know of the place and I feel connected to it even though I don’t live in it anymore.
Rafia Our (Rafia and Anne’s) story is kind of funny because I wasn’t really looking for anything, I have always been interested in acting but I never found that outlet for it and I was always scared to apply for programs. One day I received an email from the organization I am apart of -Pathways To Education – stating “looking for people interested in theatre – if you are 15-30 you should apply.” I was like ‘Oh My god!’ we should do this and so I sent the link it to our group chat and asked is anyone was interested and Anne was like ‘Yes, me!” I got an answer right away from Jijo after emailing her and I do not regret it at all.
Anne My experience with Paprika was knowing about it a year before I was in the program. I started in Soulpepper and I did a summer program there and I discovered that I really like theatre and this it’s something that I could pursue. While in Soulpepper during my training, Michelle Yagi, she came in and she introduced us to Paprika and what they do, what kind of organization they are and what kind of festival they are planning to do in the upcoming year – this year actually. I wasn’t really sure because at the time I was focused on Soulpepper trying to get through it and trying to have my own fun with theatre. After I was finished my summer program, I still wanted to keep myself in theatre and be more active in the arts but I didn’t know how to do that so I just left it and went to school until Rafia told me that she found a posting about the Paprika Festival and they were looking for participants and realizing that this was the program that Michelle was talking about back then, so I decided to join.
Thilini How would you describe your show in three words?
Thilini What was your rehearsal process like?
Samay It was mostly Jijo giving us a number of exercises to go through and they were timed: five minutes of this, two minutes of this, one minute of this. I definitely noticed the transition. At first I had no idea what to write and as I did it more and more and I expanded my writing more and more.
Anne The creating and writing process throughout Paprika was very challenging and opened me up. I really like writing and I took poetry classes, so having these writing and creating workshops it made me realize how much I am writing and how much I spewed out from my brain onto paper and it was really cool to see and it was cool to see everyone else’s writing, how they spoke and thought through their words. Doing all these exercises made us stronger as a team and allowed us to get to know each other better.
Samay At the beginning I was really confused, I didn’t understand why I was writing, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I set myself a few goals last December and one of them was to write creatively much more and I am happy that this happened because I enjoy my writing and I feel like I could get better the more I do it.
Thilini What is your most memorable rehearsal moment?
Rafia It’s really hard to pick, because each one makes me feel so good but so tired when I get home. I think it was after we made the script and we were into blocking. Personally, ‘2 Foot Rat’ is my favorite piece I wrote! We laughed a lot while blocking the piece which was fun. I also go back to the beginning where we made a poster made up of different magazine images and we got to know each other more from that experience. There was nothing about the play but things that we were passionate about.
Anne My most memorable memory is not really specific but more of memories of the writing process that we did and how we created all these different pieces and I think it’s because I love writing so that stuck out to me the most and hearing everyone else’s thoughts inspired me to write about topics as well.
Samay I think it was the moment we started to share our writing, I felt shy and I haven’t read out loud my writing and usually when I write I never look at it again. Then coming to a place where we all weren’t scared of sharing and then wanting to share – that was more for the writing process and for the rehearsal process I really love the cough in ‘2 Foot Rat’ it’s really funny.
Thilini What has been a challenge working on this show?
Anne I think a challenging part for me apart from writing was improve. Doing anything on the spot was very scary and I am very afraid of messing things up and I’m kind of a perfectionist and I want everything to go smoothly and I want every word that comes out to come out correctly. But practicing the scene through improv was good for me and making the situation whatever I want it to be instead of writing it down and going through it step by step.
Rafia I hate writing because I am more of a person that likes to get up on my feet and do things, so if you were to give me a situation and just throw me in there, I could do that but writing that situation down takes a toll on me.
Samay Lately, the biggest challenge for me has been switching through the different feelings that I have in each piece and the emotions that you feel when getting into different characters. It’s hard for me to internalize that feeling and speak whatever I have to say with honesty because I feel like it’s really easy for me to memorize and say the words but I feel that that’s not genuine and it doesn’t come out that great and it’s hard for me to embody those words.
Thilini Why does Toronto need We Are XX?
Samay Nobody can tell stories like we do. We are the only ones that can tell stories our way. No one has our story, we are all individual people, and come from different places and different histories and so there is not a single person in all of Toronto that can say the same things that we can and I think it’s important for people to say that and hear that. That’s it, it’s just us, there is nobody else. Yes there are people from our communities but they have such different experiences.
Rafia I don’t think there is a representation of us, you wouldn’t see three woman of colour on stage plus I’m the only person that wears a Hijab in Paprika, so it’s really weird for me. Whenever I talk about theatre to my parents or anyone that’s Bengali, there say ‘Are you sure you should be doing this? and ‘Not all Bangali girls should be doing this.’ It’s something different for them to see, they are so used to seeing the uniform of what you can see on stage or TV and I feel like we need to start moving forward because we are still stuck in time where there is difference.
Anne I think Toronto should come and watch We Are XX because, the title derives from us, XX represents the female chromosomes that make us female. Hearing young females of colour on stage is rare. Hearing our personal experiences, knowledge, what we want from the world and what we know. People will get to see our point of view, what we go through and what we see. Toronto should come and watch because this is the future of Toronto and if we want to improve ourselves we should hear it from young woman of this society.
Thilini What would you like the audience to take away from this?
Rafia Look at the world in a different perspective and there is different ways of telling a story and this is one but there are many other ways.
Anne This is what you should know of what is going on in the world, this is important and everyone should hear this and these are our current issues.
Samay Question things. I would like for people to question what they hear and a lot of what we write about is critiques of things and some are not but how can you look at things differently.
Thilini How has the mentorship received through Paprika helped with the process of creating We Are XX?
Rafia I was never confident about my acting but now I am, they helped me a lot and I never knew I had the capability to perform. They encouraged me and made me feel good about everything that I have done throughout this year. They allowed us to mold what was in our minds to something beautiful, even when I could not see it.
Samay Having a lot of encouragement for sure from everyone and validated and makes me feel less scared.
Anne They are literally the best people ever and they helped through so much! Thank you for this opportunity and bringing everyone together.
Catch the performance of We Are XX as apart of the 15th annul Paprika Festival, in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts.
Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum Building, 585 Dundas St E
Thank you for reading our last instalment of the Advisory Board’s Interview Series! We’ll see you at the festival!