Michael R. Caplan, Executive & Artistic Director, “Renaissance Man of the House”
“I feel like a turtle with my own shell at last! – made from all my related experiences in theatre, singing, publishing and production, allowing me to venture out on my own terms and to share some extraordinary work with the world.
I’m utilizing the skills I’ve developed and the connections I’ve made to help others realize their ideas – projects that I’m convinced deserve the widest reach and the highest level of production possible. And I now have a home for my own projects – which have never fit into neat categories or appealed only to established target markets.
In the resonant words of Marin Karmitz, founder of the international MK2 production company and movie chain, ‘I want different audiences to meet, to mix and mingle, and to benefit from one another.’ And as musical artist Björk said, ‘I think my role is to be some sort of a communicator between all sorts of different worlds.’ I want those different ‘worlds’ to cross over, to cross-pollinate, to bring life to the House – and to bring the House to life.” – M.R.C.
Theatre is Michael’s first love – the live performance event in all its dimensions: from plays to contemporary dance to group celebrations. And the notion of “theatre” informs the very concept of House of ShAkE: a welcoming place you can visit to have your world “shaken up” – artfully…
Directing public school friends in classroom shows led to more than four decades of study, performing and creation. Michael starting taking classes in physical theatre, mask and buffon in the European tradition with instructors from École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He first saw contact improvisation being performed at Toronto’s 15 Dance Lab and went on to dance regularly in the Toronto contact jam for many years, taking up contemporary dance more seriously while at taking classes at York University and through Toronto Independent Dance Enterprise. He earned his B.F.A. from Concordia University (1987), studying with teachers like Elizabeth Langley, Michael Montanaro, Marie Chouinard and Toby MacLennan. After some years of distance, he “returned to dance” at age 52, studying improvisation with Dawne Carlton – which led to performing in her work, Ordinary Joy, a series of structured improvisations for four dancers, to live music from the album of that name by The Cluttertones (Quixotic Sounds, Toronto, 2016).
As a creator, Michael’s output has been outside the usual contexts but enjoyed by mixed audiences and always “mixing it up” – for example, while at York University, setting a text/movement piece by American postmodern choreographer David Gordon on eight Grade Six students. He apprenticed director Thom Sokoloski for the Theatre Autumn Leaf production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (Theatre Centre, Toronto, 1980), and created and produced a number of original scenarios during his work in corporate and convention special events. His first foray as a director on his own was 1993’s Murderland, a collaboratively-created “surrealistic murder mystery dinner theatre” for Cabbagetown Theatre Company. He adapted two short “theatre noir” plays for the same company the next year as Shadows of Angels (Winchester St. Theatre), and did the set, sound and graphic design.
With choreographers Bill Coleman and Penny Couchie, Michael ran Heartland Events from 1991-95, sharing administration, workshop facilitation and artistic direction. With support from the Laidlaw Foundation, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council and private donors, Heartland created dance-based multimedia “self-portraits” with such groups as Pedhabun Lodge Aboriginal Addiction Treatment Centre, the Toronto People With Aids Foundation, and twice with the Pic River Ojibway community on the north shore of Lake Superior. Michael worked with Coleman again on Bill’s 2004 site-specific Grasslands: Where Heaven Meets Earth, assistant directing and stage managing the day-long series of presentations and performances, which included over a hundred local participants and major Canadian artists, like Margie Gillis and David Earle.
In 2008, he directed and self-produced a Shakespeare adaptation, The “Tempest” Trailer, presented at The Citadel, Toronto. His current projects are Prospero’s Puppets and Back to “Bakkhai” – the latter a touring solo house-performance that recalls his first solo creation, Stories for J’s B-day (1985), performed for friends in various spaces in his apartment in Montreal, using storytelling, paper puppets, breaking dishes and kitchen polkas.
Michael worked in the related field of corporate and convention special events for over ten years, devising and executing thematic and participatory celebrations for groups of 10 to 2,000. His clients included O’Keefe Breweries, Wrigley Canada, Loto-Québec, Bendix Avelex Aerospace, IBM and the Montreal Board of Trade. He was also Special Events Coordinator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (Kleinburg, Ontario) in 1997, helping develop and coordinate opening parties, the major annual fund-raiser and corporate functions.
He was administrator for Montreal’s Théâtre 9 and for Body of Possibilities (dances presented at Montreal’s Foufounes Électriques nightclub and the “Festival du soleil”), and served on three Boards of Directors: Don Area Co-operative Homes, Cabbagetown Theatre Company, and, currently, the world-renowned Puppetmongers.
A singer of classics from the great North American songbook – country, blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, folk and standards – Michael “rocked his first house” in 2004: the bar of the Val Marie Hotel in Saskatchewan, just north of the Montana border. It was the closing of Grasslands, the event he’d worked on for Bill Coleman. He went on stage for a couple of songs at 10pm, but the audience wouldn’t let him stop until closing …
He’d only been singing with friends since 1990 and only once performed in public, in Walking In Virginia, a dance/music solo created for him by Pam Johnson (Homeworks, Toronto, 1995). But with this auspicious experience in Val Marie – a diverse dream audience of cowboy ranchers and modern dancers! – he went on to bring his unique, soulful style to all kinds of venues – from local Toronto nightspots to the White Rabbit in Freiburg, Germany, from an event honouring the psychologist James Hillman in Pittsburgh to New Dance Horizons’ Aria fashion show in Regina, and including Toronto’s LGBTQ Pride Day for three years running. And in 2009, he worked with Pam Johnson again in Brother, can you spare a dime? at the Winchester Street Theatre – singing an old union song a cappella in a duet with dancer Tanya Crowder.
He performed weekly for nearly two years at the Grasshopper Bar in his home neighbourhood of Cabbagetown, Toronto, where he met and began collaborating with virtuoso Cree steel-drum player Gabriel Chartrand. In 2006, the duo recorded a CD, Steelpan Country, catching the ear of Canadian composer/sound artist Gordon Monahan, who invited them to perform at Electric Eclectics, his experimental music festival in rural Ontario – where they were, needless to say, unlike anything else on the programme.
Michael has performed a number of times with Bill Coleman and his innovative, expressionistic tap dancing, including at Peterborough’s Public Energy and Toronto’s Imperial Pub Backroom. And he organized shows with guest performers including Bill, local blues harmonica legend “Cabbagetown Steve” Grant, and contemporary rising stars The Slocan Ramblers and Whitney Rose in their earlier Toronto careers.
Always drawn to typography and page design, Michael made science fiction fanzines as a teenager and cut-and-paste “art booklets” in university. While working in theatre and dance in the early 80s, he helped create press kits and fundraising pieces, and then wrote and designed marketing materials during his time with two Montreal special events companies.
He started freelancing in 1990, and his first book design was David Earle: A Choreographic Biography, by Michele Green, for Canada’s Dance Collection Danse Press/Presses (DCD). It was described by Ballet-Dance Magazine as a “magnificent new volume” and by Dance International as “elegantly designed”, and it was selected by Susan Walker – who praised its “beautiful production”– as part of the Toronto Star’s “Complete Dance Library” of 2006. He has also done the layout of the DCD Magazine since 2003.
Michael worked on a number of projects – including editing, layout and typesetting – for Spring Journal & Books (New Orleans), imprint of the world’s longest-running journal of Jungian psychology, among them C.G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions, by esteemed Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr., Mary of Magdala, by Portuguese playwright Armando Nascimento Rosa, and Psyche & the City: A Soul’s Guide to the Modern Metropolis, edited by Thomas Singer.
He produced policy and conference documents, manuals and reports for Citizenship & Immigration Canada and the Toronto District School Board, as well as fundraising and promotional materials for small businesses and for artists like Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie and Dancetheatre David Earle. He also wrote and designed all the notices, programmes and covers for his own theatrical and musical productions.