2021-2022,  blog

TOKA | A check-in

From idea, to the stage, to the screen!

Toka tells the story of siblings who wrestle with a long-standing land dispute that has resulted in generational death after death, and is threatening to come to a brutal climax. A startling work of physical theatre about modern-day blood feuds in post-Communist Albania, this delicate, evocative and heart-breaking work was scheduled to play at TPM this season.

Well, we are excited to let you know that TOKA by Indrit Kasapi — a Theatre Passe Muraille and lemonTree creations digital co-production — will return in 2022 April. 

We asked TPM’s associate artistic director Indrit Kasapi to share the playwright/choreographer’s journey with TOKA: How he took the idea, to the stage, to the screen.

Indrit is a white man with short, clean-cut hair, beard and moustache. In the photo he is wearing a red plaid shirt in a bright background.

Born in  Albania, Indrit and his family are privileged to make Tkarón:to their home since 2000. He is the Founding and current Artistic Producer for lemonTree creations and Associate Artistic Director for Theatre Passe Muraille. Indrit has been a company member of the award winning dance theatre company CORPUS since 2008. He’s a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, a 2018 Harold Award Recipient and a 2020 Dora Nominated performer. Indrit believes his art must provide necessary discourse to fight against white supremacy, colonialism, heteronormativity  and misogyny. 

The Idea

The mountains in Albania are rough and there are patches of greens peaking through. They are close to the clouds and shadows cast over the hills

Photo of Mountains in Northern Albania. Photo by Indrit Kasapi

Everytime I heard about the Blood feuds (gjakmarrjet) in the North of Albania, I was fascinated by the idea of how one might get out of it.

And as an Albanian, you hear about the blood feuds all of the time. They were always discussed by the media and the people around you. It’s something that we live and breathe everyday because, unfortunately, there have been too many stories of families who are in decade long feuds with no end in sight. 

My response was visceral. I didn’t agree with them. I thought they were vile, ridiculous, ancient rules that continued to kill innocent people. Naturally, if it was me who had to take revenge, I would want to find a way to get out of it.

But how? 

The answer to the question “How?” is the reason why I started writing TOKA (then THE BLOOD CYCLE). 

How does one get out of a generational blood feud? 

To the stage

Indrit Kasapi and William Yong are choreographing in a beautiful bright studio. The photo captures a moment when Indrit strucks his arm upwards as William smiles

Photo of l-r Thomas Olajide, Indrit Kasapi, Arlen Aguayo Stewart, William Yong, Jonathan Seinen. Photo by Dahlia Katz

JANUARY 2017 | The very first draft of the play was very short. The only things that were clear to me were:

– The main character’s name was ERMAL (which means “mountain wind” in Albanian). 

– I knew that he was young (in his 20s). 

– And that he wanted out of the blood feud. 

That’s all.

But I was having a hard time delving into the most important part which was and is the pain, the generational pain. 

Performers Arlen Aguayo-Stewart and Thomas Olajide joined choreographer William Yong, director Jonathan Seinen and I, on a two week long exploration inside the Canadian Stage Rehearsal Hall. 

We would gather, read new scenes, they would ask a million questions — one day, Jonathan asked “How many people have died and who has killed who in this blood feud?” We grabbed a large piece of brown paper and a black marker and conjured the lineage of murders. It turned out this had been going on for 27 years. 

DECEMBER 2017 | Nina Lee Aquino at Factory Theatre sends me an email.

She wants to see if I have some time for a phone chat.

Of course I do.

We talk and she wants me to think about being a part of The Foundry at Factory. What she called “the baby” playwrights unit she ran.

Incredible. 

Nina is tough. She wants new drafts and new scenes everytime we meet. And I have no idea what I’m writing. But I just keep writing because I trust her. At some point we have a masterclass with Guillermo Verdecchia who says a lot of incredible things about plays and playwriting and then asks us to read our work to him (scary af) and then he gives us notes. He cautions me to rethink the elaborate and detailed instructions in the script. I had written so many stage directions. Especially in the movement scenes. It’s as if I was telling the choreographer exactly what to choreograph. Guillermo continues (and I quote because I still have my notes from that session)

“leave it to your collaborators to interpret the script”. 

I understood what he was saying, but I didn’t agree with him! 

The stage directions felt like the only part that I was very sure about. The rest of the dialogue I was really unsure about. If he had said delete all of your dialogue I would have done it in an instance. So I didn’t know what to do. I knew I’d come back to this note at some point. 

I just didn’t know when and what that would mean. 

MAY 2018 | Theatre Passe Muraille invites lemonTree creations to be a company in residence as we continue to develop TOKA (then THE BLOOD CYCLE). 

We have a one week workshop planned inside the Mainspace. Cole Alvis comes on board as director and dramaturge and William Yong continues to be the choreographer. The piece requires performers who are equally skilled with text as they are with modern dance. This proves to be somewhat of a challenge. For this phase we decided we wanted to give the movement more attention so we invited Dylan Evans and Tavia Christina to work with us. 

The work is so enriching. I’m writing a lot. And during this phase I’ve fallen in love with this one person narration I called “The Genesis Story”. The monologue was VERY long and VERY detailed. I am stubborn about it. I don’t want to cut it. It’s very important to me and even though Cole doesn’t know how to block it, she stops pushing me to cut it. 

Cole and I talk at length about generational pain. We talk a lot about Indigenous Peoples, my responsibilities as a settler, my privileges on this land, I start to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report. 

I ask again: How does one get out of generational pain? 

I feel confused. I’m frustrated because I feel like Cole doesn’t understand my text and William is not really reading my stage directions in detail! How controlling of me! Typical. 

JULY 2018 | I take this confusion back home to Albania. 

I needed something to get me out of this bubble. I needed inspiration. I want to visit the Mountains in the North. I had never been. 

I tell myself that I can’t write a play about the Mountains and never have been there so I book a ticket and I go. I celebrate my birthday on July 10th with a 10 hour hike through the mountains and arrive in the small village of THETH up in the very north.

Indrit sits and looks over the mountains, a visceral view of nature

Photo of Indrit by the Mountains in Northern Albania. Photo by Indrit Kasapi

The views are stunning. I take lots of pictures and record noises. I close my eyes and try to file in my brain the smell of the fresh river. I talk to some of the families in the North and they remind me of the legends of the Mountains that we were told as children. They remind me of the Zana, who are Albanian Mountain Fairies who, legend has it, appear to people from time to time. I discovered that sage was one of Albanian’s biggest exports. It grows naturally in the south of the country. I buy a lot of sage. I think a lot about Ermal and Arjola and Besnik. I hear their voices at night when I’m sleeping. 

I come back totally refreshed with several new ideas about the structure of the play. 

Transcription: Quick footsteps and wind are heard through a microphone, which provides a base-like quality.  Birds begin to chirp in the background, first at a distance and then very close. A stream of water is heard momentarily overpowering the footsteps, wind, and birds but dies down quickly. All background noises slowly fade away, and the constant footsteps and wind become the central focus once again. The footsteps pick up speed into almost a light jog.

JUNE 2019 & JANUARY 2020 | After the trip to Albania, I’ve taken the time to really let the work sit.

And I have a lot more clarity. These next two workshops in 2019 and 2020 help solidify what I wanted to say with the text and with the movement. 

And at some point during this I’ve come back to Guillermo’s note: 

“leave it to your collaborators to interpret the script” 

Guillermo was right. The work should speak for itself. If one has to explain it then it (generally) means that it’s not clear enough. But the issue was that choreography cannot just be written out. It has to be danced. It communicates through the shape and rhythm of bodies in time and space. It is not like dramatic dialogue. Eureka. I figured then, that 1. I had to stop performing in the play and  2. I also have to choreograph the piece. 

Cole and I met choreographer William for lunch and we talked. We still wanted William as a collaborator but this time we wanted to put him on stage. This is when William became Ermal’s brother, Besnik. 

Image of Brodie Steveson, William Yong and Riley Sims by Dahlia Katz

With a new strong structure for the play, and the right creative placements for everyone we were ready for our final two one-week workshops at TPM’s Mainspace where we were joined at different times by the brilliant minds and bodies of Jack Rennie, Arlen Aguayo Stewart, Brodie Stevenson, Riley Sims and Virgilia Griffith as well as lighting designers Jennifer Lennon, and Melissa Joakim. I also had the honour to have the minds and hearts of Donna Michelle St. Bernard and Marjorie Chan as my dramaturges. With every workshop we got closer to the story. The characters became clearer every time and the story started to fully materialize. 

One last thing. The title had to change. The play was titled THE BLOOD CYCLE to reference the intergenerational blood feud that was going on. But as the story became clearer so did what I wanted to say with it. And the play was not about the blood cycle anymore for me. It was about land. It was about the earth underneath our feet and this desire to claim it as ours, take possession of it and kill others for it. Land is TOKA in Albanian. Perfect. The English speakers would be able to say it and my play would have Albanian in the title, which is something I always wanted. I wanted the Albanian language in the title. 

We were finally ready for production. I was beyond excited!

To the screen

Empty stage of TOKA. The set is geometric and a complex polygonal shape. There are stairs leading it up to the balcony. It is silent

Set designed by Andjelija Djuric

MARCH 2021 | Covid-19! We all know how much of all of our lives changed, and this included our production of TOKA.

Initially, I hated the idea of the play being filmed. I had spent so many years envisioning the piece within a theatrical setting. I was deeply disappointed that people wouldn’t be able to be inside a dark theatre to experience the story. 

In my conversations with Marjorie, I started to slowly fall in love with how well dance translates on film.

And simultaneously, the Albanian Film Association in Toronto was screening short films by Albanian filmmakers. I started talking to the amazing women who run that festival and their excitement to partner with us and bring the story to an even larger audience really convinced me. This wasn’t a loss. This was an opportunity to do something different that would maintain a lot of its theatricality while also potentially reaching an even larger audience. 

Selfishly, I was humbled by the idea that my family who are in England, USA, and Albania could all finally witness my work. This was so exciting. At TPM we had already started working with Ulla Laidlaw as our digital producer and in fact Ulla had been involved earlier on in TOKA in one of our Accessibility Labs that we ran for the in-ear Albanian translations we wanted to provide. We knew that Ulla would be the one to work with us in this transition. Cole, myself and Ulla started meeting and running through the show scene by scene, beat by beat while she started to do a rough storyboard for the shoot. It was all finally coming together. 

Our team met and discussed all the precautions we will take to make sure that it is as safe a space for everyone as possible. We work on ZOOM for the first week (I teach choreography on ZOOM! This was so challenging). 

But we have an incredible team and they all work so hard. When we come together, we have one more week to put everything together on this gorgeous raked set by Andjelija Djuric. It’s hard work. Between the masks, the raked stage, the proximity of the bodies, the increasing numbers of daily cases in Toronto, it felt like every day in rehearsal was stressful, and yet, I felt so lucky to be working and to be in a room full of such generous artists who were just as invested in making this story come alive as we were. 

APRIL 2021 | Alas, one day away from starting our shoot, our province enters another lockdown.
Screenshot of tweet that reads - We will have to postpone Toka. But for now, our team will take a much needed rest this long weekend & be back Monday to figure out the details. White heavy check mark Ticket holders, our box office will be in touch with you next week!

I cannot lie and say that this wasn’t deeply sad for me. It was. It’s so hard to let go when you’re so close.

Knowing that we still have a shot to finish soon, is what comforts me every night.

I cannot wait until it’s ready to be shared. 

Very, very soon.

candid shot of performer dancing, against an intense red background. Elbow is pointing to the sky.

Photo of Arlen Aguayo Stewart. Photography by Peter Riddihough