Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Anywhere

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Anywhere - 2018 Toronto Fringe - Photo by Emily Dix

Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster in Anywhere at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the latest by Dora-nominated playwright Michael Ross Albert (Tough Jews, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome): the 141 Collective’s production of Anywhere. In this timely new thriller, Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), a young business woman away at a conference, returns home to her AirBnB to find her host, Joy (Cass Van Wyck), has been waiting up for her. What starts as a cordial and relatively typical conversation quickly unravels as we learn of their drunken encounter the previous night, one that leaves the two women fighting in a dark and increasingly frightening battle for control.

The show has a stellar cast – Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster epitomizes the uptight, bland businesswoman, one whose life has become so mundane that a bus tour conference and night partying with a stranger, her single-mom AirBnB host Joy, is clearly the most thrilling thing to happen to her in months. As the night wears on drinks are poured and secrets are revealed, leading to the unnerving realization that all the patience and polite conversation is a front, and the audience meets the real Liz, one who is cutting, competitive, and fiercely cynical. As Joy, the single-mother to a terminally ill 8-year-old, Cass Van Wyck elicits both sympathy and disgust, as her lifestyle choices make us question her suitability as a parent, and her motives in revealing herself to her guest make us question her morality. The clever writing combined with the subtle acting choices of both woman leave us wondering who the real victim is in this bizarre game of cat and mouse.

While I was impressed by the acting and writing, the directing by David Lafontaine unfortunately left something to be desired. Staging was too stationary, and often I felt as though the actors had been told to move just for something to do. We lost the full potential of some well-charged moments that were oddly staged upstage, obscured by the large and, I think, unnecessary dining table. Too often the actors, as well as the majority of the set pieces, were playing in the same plane, making it so that the movement was noticeably less dynamic than the words and emotion being presented onstage. I hope this show continues to have a life after Fringe, and that some changes are made to staging to allow it to see its full potential.

Cass Van Wyck Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster in "Anywhere" at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Photo by Emily Dix

**SPOILER ALERT**

Aside from the unimpressive staging, the only issue I found with this play was in the last minute and a half, where the sudden change in in momentum left me confused, rather than shaken, as I think was intended. After a fight between Liz and Joy becomes physical, Liz whacks Joy over the head with a large, heavy chessboard, knocking her to the ground and leaving her seemingly, for a moment, unconscious. This is how I expected the play to end; Joy, now seriously injured if not dead, is left lying in a pool of blood on the floor, while Liz, realizing there is no turning back from the culmination of strange events in what should have been the most mundane of weeks, takes the place she held at the start of the play. I imagined Liz would sit down and wait, knowing that what led them to this place didn’t matter, because regardless of who was right and who had “won” the battle, she had been the one to call “checkmate” and end the war. She had sealed her own fate. Instead, Joy suddenly leaps from the ground, now covered in blood, and stumbles forward confused, shrieking that she can’t see. The lights dim as Liz cradles Joy’s bleeding head her in her hands, telling her not to worry because her son Ethan is “right there”. I’m not sure what we’re meant to take away here – is Joy’s confusion the result of a head injury? Of the night’s drinking? Both? Is Liz’s sudden compassion out of fear? Guilt? Is Joy dying? After an hour of well-scripted, naturally building tension I found these last few moments questioned all of the night’s events, but not in a way that left me intrigued so much as just confused.

**END OF SPOILERS**

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. In a digital age where we can learn intimate details about a person before even meeting them, Anywhere is a necessary examination of the difference between intimacy and knowledge, and with a knock-out cast of rising indie stars Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Cass Van Wyck, this is surely one to add to your “must see” list.

E.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Adult Entertainment

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Sex, violence and morality battle it out onstage in George F. Walker’s Adult Entertainment, produced by Triple ByPass Productions and playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Check out another one of my 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival reviews via Mooney on Theatre.

A Review of the Summerworks Production of “Seams”

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing writer Polly Phokeev’s Seams at Summerworks Toronto. Directed by Mikaela Davies, the play starred Krystina Bojanowski (Ira), Clare Coutler (Old Frosya), Sochi Fried (Radya), Jesse La Vercombe (Anton), Caitlin Robson (Froysa), Elizabeth Stuart-Morris (Shura) and Ewa Wolniczek (Marina). Set in Moscow, 1939, the story revolves around a group of seamstresses (and one seamster) working for a theatre company in the time leading up to the war. While the show does explore the tensions of Communist Russia, and the fears of the approaching war, the play is essentially a personal memory piece, told through the older Frosya (Coulter) who is now living in Canada and spending her days reminiscing about the past. Their website states this nicely, so I’ll just quote that;

“Seams is a response to the inherited guilt and the chaos of identity that comes with being a Russian immigrant to Canada. It asks us to confront the cultural guilt we all inherit, regardless of where we come from, and whether we can find ways to overcome it.”

Caitlin Robson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Caitlin Robson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

I was impressed with several aspects of the production. The first thing of note was the staging and design; as a period piece lover, I am often frustrated by the inaccuracies in sets and costumes of lower-budget productions. Seams however, was beautifully dressed, and with the exception of a couple pairs of rather modern shoes, everything looked beautiful and historically accurate. Bravo to designer Shannon Lea Doyle, her assistant Kelly Anderson, and installation designer Jackie McClelland (whom I have worked with before and am always impressed by).

The lighting design by Steve Vargo was also very effective. Simple, but powerful, it beautifully complemented the design and staging. Director Mikaela Davies accomplished something that I rarely see in this level of theatre; her staging was unique and memorable, but never completed with the work of her actors, and enhanced the piece rather than attempted to be the main focus. A couple moments were a little drawn out (I think of the random and a little cliched frantic wandering around the stage), but for the most part she succeeded in creating authentic moments and beautifully stylized tableau’s, in particular with the slow-motion movements of the young actors while Old Frosya spoke to the audience, and the (**SPOILER ALERT) flood of reporting papers that filled the stage in the final moment of the play. I have not heard of or seen Davies work before, but I will be sure to keep any eye out for her future productions.

Clare Coulter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Clare Coulter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

There were no weak links in this cast. Some of the characters were better written than others, but each actor gave a committed and completely believable performance, with very natural pacing and authentic emotion. I think the script still requires some work, as the distribution of lines and scene time is a little off; some of the stories I wanted to learn more about were glazed over, while in a predictable fashion, the onstage love story was given more stage time than necessary. Still, every actor was given a chance to be featured in the spotlight, and the variety of characters was impressive. As Frosya, Caitlin Robson (who I had the pleasure of working with in Bygone Theatre’s, Rope) embodied the motherly, protective role of a character who I would have expected to be played by someone considerably older than herself. Through the knowing glances and ever-watchful eye of Robson’s character, it is clear there is more to her than she allows others to see, making the end, while still surprising, very believable. Other performances of note include Elizabeth Stuart-Morris as Shura, who’s larger-than-life character adds the majority of fun and laughs to the show, and Sochi Fried as Radya who certainly had the most realistic and tragic portrayal in the cast.

Sochi Fried. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sochi Fried. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Again, the script could use some final tweaks, and I suspect the final product will be as much as 20 minutes shorter, but overall this was a strong production and one I look forward to seeing future incarnations of.

For tickets and more show information, check out the Seams Collective website.

Valentine’s Day Gifts for Theatre Lovers

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Valentine’s day is just around the corner & I suspect many of you are scrambling to pull together something better for your loved one than the cliched flowers & chocolate. While I see lists for things like “Valentine’s Day Gifts for Geeks” or “Sports Lovers”, “Food Lovers”, us theatre folk are sometimes neglected this time of year. But while it may not pop up in the trending section on Buzzfeed, it’s certainly worth a list in my books, because really, what lends itself better to romance than theatre? Here are a few of my personal suggestions for Valentine’s gifts for the theatre lover in your life:

  1. Tickets to a Play:
    Ok, so this one is kind of a no-brainer, but it needs to be on the list because, for non-theatre folk, it may at first seem like too expensive a gift. While you can pay hundreds of dollars to see a big Broadway-type show at Mirvish, for a fraction of the price there are dozens of brilliant small stage productions in the city. Look up Toronto favourites like The Storefront Theatre to get an eclectic mix of shows from groups like Theatre Brouhaha and Red One Theatre. For musicals, The Lower Ossington (LOT), First Act Productions and many University groups often have a good sampling. Why not make it a theatre weekend? For the price of a pair of tickets to something like Book of Mormon you could instead hit up four or five local shows. Yes, it may be riskier than a big budget show, but you may be pleasantly surprised at what you find. And at the very least you will get a chance to support some local artists and see what’s going on in the Toronto theatre scene.
  2. A Collection of Romantic Plays:
    What’s sweeter than a book of plays that says “I love you” in a beautiful, poetic way? Whether you go for some contemporary musicals (maybe throw in the soundtrack as well?) or scour vintage stores & Etsy for a hardcover Shakespeare, this is a gift that can be kept for a lifetime. Wanna get extra sappy? Pull some quotes from the book to put in a card, or leave a note for your special someone on a particularly romantic page.
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  3. A Vintage Theatre Poster:
    If you’re ever looking for a stunning poster to brighten up your walls, your first search should be for vintage theatre posters. From the intricate designs of the 1910s & 20s, to the bold, minimalistic 50s and 60s, there really is a design to match anyone’s style and taste. Check out Ebay or Etsy to get a vintage copy, or just hit up a local framing shop and you can likely nab a cheap print. Give it to them framed, for extra brownie points.
  4. Theatre Inspired T-Shirts:
    I’ll admit, I was surprised at just how many of these I could find. From shirts made up for major Broadway shows, to more obscure prints done by fellow theatre buffs, there’s really quite a range. If you know someone’s favourite show, try searching it first, otherwise, you can’t really go wrong with a classic musical or Shakespearean quote.
  5. Theatre Inspired Socks:
    What, socks aren’t romantic? Ok, maybe not to everyone, but as someone who, a.) always has freezing cold feet & b.) has made a point of wearing colourful or patterned socks her entire life (when you’ve had to wear a uniform for most of your jobs, you look for little ways like that to rebel), a cool pair is something to be cherished. Plus, look at these things! At the very least you’ll get points for creativity.
  6. Theatre Inspired Jewellery:
    From references that only fans will get (quick – what does the “24601” on that necklace mean?) to simpler statements like “theatre geek”, there is a VAST array of jewellery available for the theatre fan in your life. If you’ve got a musical lover for a beau, try a custom charm bracelet that features the Playbills of all the shows they’ve seen. (give up? It’s from Les Mis).
  7. Theatre Decor:
    Does your theatre lover have a home or a room to decorate? Then pillows, blankets, knick knacks and more can be added to your list. Rather than getting a cheap souvenir from a show, why not go all out and get a funky pillow, or even devote an entire bedspread to a favourite show. If you want something a little less intense, try a keepsake box for tickets or playbills.
  8. A Musical Theatre Scorebook:
    If your special someone is musically inclined, then a score book can be especially fun. While it may be easy to download movies & music online, the same can rarely be said for sheet music. I would recommend the Singers Musical Theatre Anthology Collection; they’ve got tons of songs & come with accompaniment cds. Tip: make sure you know their singing range before buying, if you’re getting a book for a vocalist. Unlike the scores for an entire show, they tend to be grouped as being for altos, or sopranos, etc.
  9. Theatre Classes:
    For actors and theatre production workers alike, there are a remarkable lot of classes and courses available in the city and surrounding areas. I’ve taken millinery & prop food courses from Off The Wall in Stratford, and our here places like The Social Capital Theatre offer various types of improv classes. Depending on the time of year you may find some really cool workshops as well, so I’d suggest hitting up google and seeing what catches your eye.10425384_987580231271930_1545698752391215054_n

    10. A Theatre Themed Night:
    If you have a particular show you know your lover likes, why not set up a night that revolves all around it? Start off with food inspired by the show; love Cabaret? eat all German dishes. A fan of Wicked? Sip some green cocktails. You get the idea. Then, nerd out while watching a filmed version (or live if you can!) and singing along; look up the lyrics beforehand if you have to. You can go as far with this as your imagination & pocketbook can take you, and whatever you do, putting in the effort to have a night all about something that your partner loves, whether it’s your sort of thing or not, is going to be one of the sweetest things you can do. After all, it really is the thought that counts.

 

Got any ideas you think are missing from this list? Give me a shout! Let’s help our fellow theatre folk out.

-E.

Opening Weekend – 3 Sold-Out Shows!

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We just wrapped up the opening weekend of Rope, and I must say this was the smoothest opening I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I am actually getting better at this whole “producing” thing or if the theatre gods were smiling that day, but we managed to get through 3 shows in a site-specific venue that was not without its difficulties, braving the sudden snow (you’d think Canadians would be used to it by now, but no, they can’t figure out how to drive in it) all without any accidents, incidents or missed cues. I am happy.

Jamieson Child watches Chelsey MacLean tie a "jolly good parcel". Photo by Danielle Son.

Matt McGrath and Jamieson Child watch Chelsey MacLean tie a “jolly good parcel”. Photo by Danielle Son.

It’s always exciting to see the show finally come together; don’t get me wrong, it’s been in a good place for weeks now, but the energy of the audience always kicks the actors up into high-gear. Even with those who I’d worked with many times before, I was thrilled to see new levels emerge, and actually found myself jumping at falls I’d seen a dozen times, getting teary-eyed at speeches that I know by heart. That’s always an amazing feeling.

Leete Stetson and Jamieson Child. Photo by Danielle Son.

Leete Stetson and Jamieson Child. Photo by Danielle Son.

As a director, I was proud to see the actors all perform at their absolute best. All the little notes and nuances that had occasionally appeared during rehearsals were remembered and performed to perfection. I was thrilled with each and every one of them.

Matt McGrath, Chelsey MacLean and Nicholas Arnold. Photo by Danielle Son.

Matt McGrath, Chelsey MacLean, Nicholas Arnold and Leete Stetson. Photo by Danielle Son.

As a producer, I was ecstatic to have 3 sold-out performances in a weekend, something that has never happened before for a show I’ve produced. Having a packed audience helps the cast and it helps Bygone’s budget as well.

"You suspect what, did you say?" Jamieson Child confronts Leete Stetson. Photo by Danielle Son.

“You suspect what, did you say?” Jamieson Child confronts Leete Stetson. Photo by Danielle Son.

As a designer I was relieved to see none of the costumes fell apart, and that they looked good together onstage. The lighting worked, the sound cues were effective (even if they weren’t what I initially had in mind), and thankfully I had a stage manager (Devon Potter) who was keeping everything running smoothly.

As anyone who works in theatre knows, a general rule is that, if it can go wrong, at some point, it will. And usually that’s what happens during the tech & dress (if you’re lucky, everything falls into place for opening). I’m knocking on SO much wood as I write this, but really, this time, nothing has gone wrong. I’ve said before that I think my greatest strength as a director is with my casting. I don’t claim to be doing anything new or groundbreaking, I choose plays with a clear plot and don’t try to change the audience’s view on anything. I just want to entertain them with a great show performed by talented actors. It’s happened again here. I have a brilliant cast and crew who I couldn’t be more pleased with. Everyone has come through to not only perform their best onstage, but off as well; this is a group I can trust and rely on, and for that I am so grateful.

We’ve still got four performances to go, with a few days in between here for us to all take a breath and finally exhale. I can’t wait for next weekend, I’m sure they’ll all blow me away again.

My beautiful cast. Photo by Danielle Son.

My beautiful cast. Photo by Danielle Son.

My beautiful cast. Photo by Danielle Son.

My beautiful cast. Photo by Danielle Son.

Haven’t gotten your tickets to Rope yet? Get them online now through TO Tix.

Want to see more production stills? Check out our facebook page. Photos by the talented Danielle Son.

Theatre Audition Tips

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I’ve been getting dozens upon dozens of audition applications for Rope this week, and while a lot of the auditioning process is fun, over time there are some poor choices I see actors making again and again, something that leads to frustration for me, and ultimately missed opportunities for them. So here are a few quick audition tips, for those of you applying for Rope or any other show. Hopefully they help.

Headshots
Your headshot is the first glimpse the director or casting director gets of you, so it’s important to have a good one. Colour photos are the norm these days and they should be clear, close-up (shoulders up) and accurately reflect what you look like. That one’s important, so I’ll say it again; your headshot should look like you; a cleaned up version yes, but not a glamourous or fake one. This is not a modelling shot, so don’t send in a photo of you with beautifully styled hair, perfect makeup and fancy clothes if you’re going to show up to the audition in sweats and a ponytail. It won’t help you get the part; if anything, it’ll make it less likely. Your headshot is meant to be a reminder of who you were so if you don’t look anything like it, you’ll end up forgotten.

Artistic Resume
Along with your headshot you will need to submit an artistic resume that outlines your experiences. The most important thing on your resume is your contact info; list your name, email, and a phone number at which you can easily be contacted, right at the top of the resume. You should also list any union affiliations and agent contact info at the top. Generally you will also want to list your height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and ethnicity. Next, list whatever you have the most experience in; if you are right out of school and have a lot of training, but minimal experience, start with the training. If you have done more film than theatre, list those first. List projects in reverse chronological order, and don’t include dates. Follow this format;

  • Theatre: Title of Show, Role, Theatre Company, Director
  • Film & Television: Title of Show/Film, Category of Role (ie. Principle, Supporting), Producer/Network, Director

Generally you don’t include extra work in your main film/television category, or specific commercials; these can be provided on a separate form if requested. An important note about your theatre listings; be sure to list the theatre company you worked with, not just the venue. Sometimes outside companies rent a space from a major theatre, and listing that space as your company is essentially lying on your resume; directors notice, and we don’t like it.

For example, say Bygone Theatre produced a show and we rented out Factory Theatre, the format should look like this;

Rope, Brandon, Bygone Theatre, Emily Dix

NOT like this;

Rope, Brandon, Factory Theatre, Emily Dix

The second example would imply it was produced by Factory Theatre, which is incorrect.

Cover Letter
Unless requested, you don’t need to include a cover letter, but if you do, make sure it’s well written. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors look unprofessional and can get you tossed out before you even have a chance to audition. As well, be sure that your cover letter is specific and tailored to the role; it is easy to tell when something is copied and pasted, and things like referring to a play as a “film” can also see you rejected. Take the time to show you are interested and committed to the project if you want the director to take the time to see you in an audition.

In the Audition
Make sure you arrive on time for your audition; often they are scheduled back-to-back and being even a couple minutes late can throw things off and lose you your spot. Be dressed appropriately; this means wearing something that looks good on you and suits the style of the show. Unless you are auditioning for a character that would do so, don’t show up in sweats. Make sure you are cleaned up and that you look like your headshot.

If you need to warm-up before your audition, do that outside. Th director shouldn’t see you doing this; don’t waste time inside the audition room. When you come in, be cheery and polite; don’t complain about your day or make excuses for being late or ill-prepared (sounds obvious but I’ve seen this a LOT). Be friendly but not too chatty, you’re there to audition, not make friends. Try to avoid asking too many questions. Come in having done your homework and be ready to start immediately.

Choosing a Monologue
If a monologue isn’t provided, choose one that suits the style of the piece you are auditioning for. Think about  whether it is a comedy or a drama, what the period is, and what type of character you are auditioning for. Avoid monologues that have a lot of sexuality or profanity; this rarely comes across as shocking or interesting and is more likely to make the whole room feel uncomfortable (fun story – when casting for Doubt I had several women auditioning to be nuns do monologues that involved excessive amounts of swearing; needless to say, they didn’t receive callbacks) . Try to show some emotional range but don’t feel like you need to choose something that involves screaming or crying; play to your strengths.

Remember, as awful as this may sound, when you are auditioning for something you are putting yourself out there to be judged; put your best foot forward and do what you can to impress your audience. Talent is important but being polite and professional matters just as much. An actor who isn’t right for the role but impresses a director with their preparedness and manners is much more likely to be asked back to audition for another piece than one who is talented but rude and unprepared.

If you find you have trouble at auditions, the best way to improve is to do as many of them as you can. Each time you will be more relaxed and will pick up new tips. To those of you out there auditioning, break a leg!

-E.

Stanton’s Circle, A Theory On Comedy (aka My Review of “We’re Very Proud & We Love You So Much”)

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This afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing His Majesty The Baby‘s New York Fringe performance of We’re Very Proud & We Love You So Much; I can honestly say it is one of the most cleverly written works of comedy I’ve ever seen and certainly the best fringe festival show I’ve ever watched. The show is a sketch comedy, written and performed by Shon Arieh-Lerer, Nathan Campbell, John Griswold, Andrew Kahn and Max Ritvo. Playing backstage is the band Sister Helen, a rock group that “likes to play terrifying music”; they were the perfect accompaniment to the surreal, darkly funny show.

It’s difficult to give a synopsis of this show; while it is a sketch comedy the scenes are better connected than you’d find on something like SNL or the Second City stage. Some broad, over-arching themes of birth and death, truth and the ability to create it and the purpose and power of an audience all are visited throughout the show, but in-keeping with a sketch comedy style they are all addressed through absurd characters and there is, of course, no linear plot.

I was thrilled to see the scene that first caught my eye at the teaser night played out onstage (the palindromic argument that is caught in what seems to be an endless cycle) along with some brilliant scenes like that with the elderly Pepsi Garbage, “America’s Television”!. The show included a secret, hidden pepper; some “questionable meat”; a disturbing “Womb Song” and a sickly looking, curious baby.

The danger with intelligent comedy is that it can sometimes forget its purpose and become so wrapped up in high-concept ideas that it ceases to be funny, entertaining. This was not an issue for these men. Sketches such as “Adam and Susanna” allude to real-world issues like that of gay marriage and what our concept of marriage should be, however at no time does it come out and say anything directly related to the topic. It doesn’t preach or lecture and simply creates a parallel by exploring the idea of a man named Adam who believes that, according to the bible, the only real marriage is that between a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. Anything else is not only wrong, “it’s not marriage”. When the sketch ends with everyone (audience included) speaking gibberish, we are left to question where the true meaning of words comes from and lead to think about the arbitrary nature of terms such as “marriage”. Clever stuff.

I won’t give away any more sketches but I will say that I was especially impressed by the actors’ ability to perform as both men and women, the physicality of the characters and the melding of live theatre, live music, and video presentations. There was always a lot going on but it never felt confusing or forced. The entire show has clearly been worked out from top to bottom, and I found myself having many “ohhh” moments as a previous sketch’s theme would be revisited, tying the whole show together. I especially liked Stanton’s Circle, a comedy theory that was both funny and accurate; you’ll have to check out their show to see what I mean.

If you have not yet seen We’re Very Proud & We Love You So Much then clear your Friday night; only one performance is left. Check them out at Venue #4, Teatro Latea at the Clemente on Friday August 22, 7:30pm.

One more thing to add, once again something that is not usually found in a review but it’s going in here anyway. One of the troupe’s members, Max Ritvo is suffering from a rare form of cancer; Ewing’s Sarcoma. It is frequently found in the bone or soft tissue of children or young adults and unfortunately, there is very little known about how it forms or how to treat it. His Majesty, The Baby has already raised over $10 000 for Ewing’s Sarcoma research, but as it is a rare type it lacks funding, and so they can always use more. If you cannot make it out to see their show, or if you can but understand the pain of dealing with cancer, please check out the Ewing’s Sarcoma Research Foundation and consider making a donation. Even just sharing the link to the site can be helpful. Let’s support our fellow artists and our fellow man; we can all hope for a future without cancer.

-E.